Hillary Clinton is not apologizing and not going away. And why should she? She got damn close to being president of the United States, closer than most aspirants for high office ever will. Twice! In What Happened? she offers a combination of autobiography, campaign history, and political analysis. I learned a few things, and you will too. I also got some confirmation and elaboration of what I’ve thought is fundamentally problematic in her politics, from a progressive standpoint. In the interests of disclosure, I should say I was a Bernie Sanders supporter from the start to the bitter end, though I have never had any role in his campaign or affiliated organizations.
Clinton continues her 2016 political campaign, both primary and general election, in her book. She pledges to stay in the game to the point of encouraging selected organizing projects and speaking out against the depredations of the Trump Administration. Given the political zeal on display in the book and in related television appearances, I’d say there are reasons to be skeptical of her abstaining from another try for the White House.
Her commitment to activism has been clear since 1992. It’s reflected in the workings of her family’s prodigious fund-raising and institution-building. I don’t believe such an intelligent person devotes herself to exhausting work building a fortune that neither she, her children, nor their children could ever spend away without some higher purpose.
In the case of the Clintons, the motive is not simply to accumulate wealth. It is political – to win friends and influence people. To perpetually expand their political machine and pursue their own version of the great society.
This machine, especially for its most financially-blessed members, is not, contrary to some naïve popular commentary from both left and right, founded on vulgar transactions. That’s not how the super-rich operate, except perhaps denizens of the New York real estate world. There are relationships, not horse-trades. People evolve to a congruence of world views and, since they are intelligent, know how to help each other – to work together — without any need for secret conspiracies.
This was the flaw in how many interpreted Bernie Sanders’ harping on Clinton’s speeches in front of bankers, and the truth of Clinton’s protestations over unsubstantiated imputations of corruption. The speeches were not a setting for the exchange of favors. They were a bonding exercise. Financial deregulation, for instance, was pursued because it was the right thing to do. Everybody said so!
The principal evidence for her ongoing political preoccupations is embodied in the language of the book itself. This is typified by an excerpt from her undelivered draft victory address, which sounds for all the world like the rest of the book:
This summer, a writer asked me: If I could go back in time and tell anyone in history about this milestone, who would it be? And the answer is easy: my mother Dorothy. . . .
The onslaught of Mom, the flag, and apple pie is unrelenting. Every chapter is introduced with a homily of some sort. Kahlil Gibran makes an appearance. Maya Angelou’s “And still I rise.” The Pope. This is how some people really talk, but it was also her style of campaign rhetoric, and as such it raises questions. The electorate is not a giant chapter of the League of Women Voters. (How much better off we would be if it were.)
For those who are given pause by my distrust of her treacly rhetoric, you might consider the stark difference in voice that is apparent in her interview with Chris Hayes on MSNBC. Here you can see a different Hillary: tough, analytical, and unsentimental. No sugarplums and puppie dogs.
Although the book is frank in many respects, but I saw no remark that would pose a problem in a future political campaign, not least after the nation has been subjected to the Trump Regime.
In the acknowledgments, we learn that Clinton had the assistance of speech writers and researchers in writing the book. The machine is still cranking. The Obamas are up to the same business. We’ll be living with Clintons and Obamas for decades to come. Bernie’s revolution has its work cut out for it.
While the Clintons pass the torch to their daughter and to the Obamas, what are we in for? My misgivings are twofold, one in the realm of political economy and the other in political practice.
Let’s start with the politics, since political constraints tend to shape ambitions for policy. The basic Clinton method is to start with a data-based picture of what is acceptable to public opinion but fail to consider its direction and its raw intensity. The picture is static and desensitized. Clinton has empathy for her supporters, but is repulsed by her deplorable opponents. Hence her fear and aversion to “populism” and why she could be caught flat-footed by Bernie’s revolution and Trump’s demagogy.
In its own way, this arguably excessive pragmatism is a photographic negative of the Bush II Administration’s infamous devotion to creating their own reality, in the process trampling the hapless “reality-based community.” Whatever you think about the Republican rejection of empiricism, it does make for some aggressive risk-taking that seems to have stood them in good stead, at least by their lights.
The instinctive caution typified by both Clinton and Obama also limits the scale of contemplated initiatives. Clinton is skeptical of ideas that make a political splash, though she does recognize how powerful such proposals, practicality aside, are for Sanders and Trump. She still falls back on the responsible crafting of tractable “solutions.”
Clinton’s view is that it is better to know many things and avoid risky commitments to any one big thing. The weakness of this approach can be illustrated by the paramount issue of national employment.
The intellectual problem goes back to Bill Clinton’s administration. The early years of that tenure were marked by what was then called “the jobless recovery.” Democrats’ political weakness in 1994 was compounded by Bill Clinton’s unpopular commitments to deficit reduction and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). After two years of Clintonism, the Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1952.
The economy turned around after 1994, resulting in a period of outstanding employment and income growth. The Clintons’ error was attributing it to their politically-disastrous deficit reduction. A case against their economic triumphalism was offered by no less than two Clinton economists, Alan Blinder and Janet Yellen, in The Fabulous Decade: Macroeconomic Lessons from the 1990s. The more likely suspect for the recovery was the low interest rate policy of the Federal Reserve. Democratic elites take it as an article of faith that critical commentary on the Fed is out of bounds.
These two mistakes remained at the heart of Democrats’ difficulties in stimulating the economy in the Obama years. The first is the notion that lower deficits are good for jobs, the second is that policies of the Federal Reserve are beyond the purview of elected officials.
The Obama Administration prevented a financial meltdown in 2009 but soft-peddled the subsequent weakness of the labor market. Yes there was substantial job growth, but little wage growth. Much wealth had been destroyed in the collapse. Employment, best evaluated by the employment-population ratio (not the official unemployment rate), never returned to pre-recession heights. Yes, the Republican Congress would have blocked any subsequent proposals to raise employment, but Obama failed to present the case with any vigor. In short, working people had many regrets and little reason to expect much in the way of change from Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Two reasons an economist can doubt her commitment to jobs was her lingering aversion to deficit spending and her indifference to Fed policy. On top of that, unwillingness to raise tax revenue, except on the super-rich, is confirmed explicitly in her account, when she describes rejecting an environmental dividend scheme because it would have meant raising taxes on upper income persons.
If you’re squirrelly about deficit spending and taxation, and you have nothing to say about the Fed, you’re not going to convince this economist that you are serious about jobs. For the average voter untutored in economic theory, the likelihood is that her failure to signal any significant change from the Obama Administration took much of the air out of her economic message. On top of that, she suffered by contrast to Sanders-the-socialist and Trump-the-builder (sic), whose full-throated dedications to big infrastructure sounded more credible.
It could not have helped that Clinton’s tepid defense of “free trade” policy, in which both her husband and President Obama were heavily invested, wilted before the thundering denunciations from Sanders and Trump. (The word NAFTA does not appear in the book.)
Clinton gives every indication that her campaign was aware of shortcomings in her economic story. She gives a nod to former Clinton pollster’s Stan Greenberg’s analysis, who charges that she “went silent” on the economy. Clinton cites some riffs from a speech to show that she didn’t. That sort of unserious rebuttal only works on Twitter or on a speaker’s platform.
Even so, the Clintons had every right to expect to win. Her account of the campaign is of one on cruise control until rocked by external events. The interventions of FBI Director James Comey, Russian cyber-warfare, and perverse coverage by the mainstream media are well-described. The reader can have little doubt that these shocks to our political system tilted the result.
The fact remains, however, that Hillary Clinton lost the election because she didn’t get enough votes. Cruise control was inadequate. Without some bad choices before and during 2016, she might have won anyway. She takes full responsibility for the loss, but she is not expansive about what she might have done differently.
She owns up to the “optics” of lucrative speeches to bankers. As I indicated, there was more to this than a bad look. She also suggests that she is not a very good politician. Still, I don’t think that Clinton had to be someone else to win.
She speculates about the appeal of “big and bold” proposals in the manner of Sanders but falls back on the responsibility to craft “solutions.” Solutions are kind of my stock-in-trade as a policy person, but they bore the average person, and not without reason. They are usually small-scale and technical.
The refusal to “go big” is one aspect of Clinton’s political malpractice. To be sure, she is a brilliant attorney and policy wonk in her own right, but wonks are no match for demagogues.
At one point, she says it’s hard to run against a demagogue. All I can say is, if you don’t know how to deal with demagogues, you shouldn’t be in politics. She could win debates but still lose the greater argument. She campaigned alternately in prose and sentimentality, but it was no match for Trump’s barbaric yawp.
The Clintons are staying in politics, and their constricted view of progressive reform, shared by the Obamas, continues to bedevil us. The weakness of her economic message was a feature, not a bug. Going forward, what Bill Clinton bemoaned as his administration’s devotion to balanced budgets and free trade – amounting to “Eisenhower Republicans” – is the cross Democrats will continue to bear.
That’s what’s happening.