Publisher's Note — March 13, 2014, 12:37 pm

The Left Must Derail Hillary Clinton in the Primaries

A straightforward strategy for reversing the rightward trend of both parties

This column originally ran in the Providence Journal on March 13, 2014.

As a presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush in 2016 appears ever more likely, it’s a good moment to ask what alternative exists to lying down and letting such a campaign drown the body politic.

Time is short. The queen of cynics, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, already has pronounced her gorgon’s judgment on the inevitability of Hillary versus Jeb. “The looming prospect of another Clinton–Bush race makes us feel fatigued,” yawns the perpetually bored Dowd, who, on the contrary, relishes a future of easy columns mocking America’s two leading political dynasties.

What about the rest of us? Is it inevitable that we swallow the nomination of the neo-liberal Clinton, whose support of Bush’s Iraq madness (not to mention Obama’s Afghan and Libyan stupidity) and her husband’s recklessly pro-“free trade,” pro-banker, pro-deregulation politics ought to send reasonable liberals fleeing? Is it predestined that principled conservatives accept the anointment of the thoroughly fraudulent Jeb, whose support of his brother’s interventionist folly, along with his own outrageous meddling as governor of Florida to “rescue” brain-dead Terri Schiavo, should give pause to even the greediest oil baron seeking patronage from a Republican administration?

Like Adolph Reed Jr., I’m tempted to opt out of it all on the theory that we conserve energy by reducing “the frenzied self-delusion that rivets attention to the quadrennial, biennial, and now seemingly permanent horse races.” To echo Maureen Dowd, it is, indeed, fatiguing to urge on reluctant horses such as Senators Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) and Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) when the only office they seem to seek these days is vice president or committee chairman.

Nevertheless, a straightforward, nationwide electoral strategy is required if the left wants to reverse the rightward trend of both parties over the past three decades. The Tea Party has had much success moving the Republican Party to the right through primary challenges that should be the envy of frustrated Democrats, even though liberals of the Nation magazine–Rachel Maddow persuasion appear blind to the lessons of Tea Party tactics. One wouldn’t want to weaken Democratic incumbents with insurgencies lest “we” lose “our” Senate majority.

Yet political logic cries out for just such a strategy. Ask a mainstream “progressive” to list the most calamitous events in recent times. At or near the top would be the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, which opened wide the floodgates to plutocratic and corporate influence in election campaigns — in effect, an overthrow of the democratic ideal of one man/woman, one vote.

Citizens United was stage-managed by Chief Justice John Roberts, who leapfrogged to the top of the court without pausing to serve as an associate justice. Well, to a large extent you can blame Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) for Roberts’s ascension. As ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2005, Leahy broke with fellow liberals to support Roberts’s nomination, calling him a “man of integrity.” We might wonder at Leahy’s definition of integrity, but worse was his declaration that “I take [Roberts] at his word that he does not have an ideological agenda.”

We’ll be paying for Roberts’s “integrity” — and Leahy’s foolishness — for a long time. True, the Republican majority on the committee, including the chairman at the time, Arlen Specter, voted unanimously for Roberts’s confirmation. But a determined, unified front led by Leahy could have blocked Roberts from becoming chief justice. Five years later, in the wake of Citizens United, Specter, by now a Democrat, denounced the decision, saying it “affects the legitimacy of elections everywhere,” and suggested that Congress consider a constitutional amendment to override the Supreme Court ruling. Had Leahy put up a fight in 2005, the moderate Specter might well have thought better of his vote for Roberts.

Why did Leahy get off scot-free? Because, as he said at the time, he voted his “conscience”? Why didn’t Vermonters smarter than Leahy run a candidate against him in the 2010 primary? He certainly deserved punishment from liberals.

Leahy is just one example of a Democrat who should have been overthrown, or at least chastened, by electoral retribution. Politicians pay attention to these things, especially in places like Chicago, where President Obama received his political training. When a politician dared to cross the elder Mayor Richard J. Daley, or his son, Mayor Richard M., they were subjected either to a primary or to redistricting to a less hospitable environment. Even if the incumbent survived, he or she got the Daleys’ point: Think twice before you follow “your conscience.”

In fact, Obama launched his national career in 2000 by challenging the unbeatable Rep. Bobby Rush in a primary, reportedly at the behest of Richard M. Daley. The mayor was angry with Rush for running against him in the 1999 mayoral primary, so he sent him a message. No fool, the future president cashed in on liberal disenchantment over Hillary Clinton’s vote to authorize the Iraq invasion. Obama may lack audacity in the White House, but he did have the gumption to run primary campaigns against popular, powerful figures in his own party.

Can’t the left learn this lesson? Despite Citizens United, it still doesn’t cost much to get on the ballot.

Single Page

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  • Lucas Picador

    Clinton is a ruthless, bloodthirsty opportunist. But I’m a little unclear which potential leftist candidates you have in mind. You mention Elizabeth Warren, but surely you’re aware that she is no less enthusiastic than Hillary to sign off on the nuclear annihilation of brown-skinned foreigners to establish her Indian-killer bona fides:

    • cybervigilante

      Bernie Sanders, of course. He’s the best Democrat out there, even though he’s an Independent.

      • Don Strong

        Right on cyberv. Bernie Sanders or nobody (rather, if not Bernie, then a Republican. That will show those centrists!).

  • Paul Lojeski

    The Left has left the building.

    • Don Strong

      The left pinky is alive and well in Harpers’ commentary.

      • Paul Lojeski

        That, of course, is exactly the sad reality.

  • Raven Glory

    Democracy is dead, the police surveillance state is in the ascendant, bankers have robbed the country blind with impunity, the spies are blackmailing everyone so the whole corrupt edifice can continue gleefully robbing, occupying and killing across the world. And you want to talk about primaries.

  • cybervigilante

    Gah! The race between the Deadocrats and Greedpublicans may come down to
    rightwing Hillary and outright-thief Jeb. (I was in FL in 2000 and even know how they rigged the overvote.) Another frikking non-choice
    that will leave the middle class still sinking or sunk by the
    corporations and banks both parties love:

  • Bruce Post

    Thanks for your thoughts on Pat Leahy.

    Living up here and having worked for several members of the Vermont congressional delegation, I get frustrated with outside perceptions that Vermont is sooooo liberal. Our entire Washington delegation — Leahy, Sanders and Welch — have embraced the horribly wasteful F35 fighter/bomber project, with Leahy throwing his weight around to get the Air Force to base a number of these revenue-drainers at the Burlington International Airport and Vermont Air National Guard. They advocate blowing off Vermont mountaintops for large-scale, destructive and marginally-effective industrial wind power plants. They also support the amusement park/real estate sprawl on our mountainsides financed by the EB5 immigration program that green lights green cards for wealthy foreign investors who can pony up $500,000. Many of these developments are becoming economically-gated reserves for the hyper-wealthy.

    Right now, we are basically a one-party state, with our top Dems tilting toward the real estate development and financial classes. Our major utility, a subsidiary of Quebec’s powerful Gaz Metro, has the look of an assisted-living facility for aging Vermont Democrats, several of whom have served either on its board or in senior staff positions. Its CEO chaired the current Democratic Governor’s inaugural committee.

    EPI did an interesting study titled “The Increasingly Unequal States of America: Income Inequality by State, 1917 to 2011.” One fact for Vermont: Between 2009 to 2011, Vermont’s 1% enjoyed an increase in income of 8.5%; the 99% saw a loss of minus 0.2%.

    Therefore, I would never consider Vermont a populist paradise.

  • Don Strong

    You are to be thanked by the Republicans for willing that their presidential candidate, whomever he should be, will have a greater probability of election in 2014.

  • hidflect

    350 Million people in America and the same 2 names keep coming up…

  • emanon

    While generally in agreement with this article, I found MacArthur’s
    example of ‘elector retribution’ to be flawed. In MacArthur’s citing of the
    politics of Chicago, it is not the electorate that meets out the retribution,
    but rather those already in power: the mayors Daley. Moreover, MacArthur’s
    example is of one politician peeing on another – who cares? What was the effect
    of all this, good or bad, on the public? A better example would be of the
    public really voting out a politician for his follies.

  • zaglossus

    Not going to happen. Too many voters in the middle of the political spectrum and too much money behind these two.

  • James

    I fear I’m too young to be more cynical than you, sir. But I only see American politics getting much worse before it gets any better. The rightward lean, and then fall, won’t stop until it’s slapping every apathetic would-be-voter in the face (or wallet). We would need a 2008 on steroids, or at least with a clear villain. Alas, I’d like to think people could see the evil in hyper-conservative politics by looking at private prisons, but empathy is too easily clouded into nothing by omnipresent entertainment.

    I think Those in Power will have Hillary run, as a safe backup to whoever they choose to be the “sexier” candidate in red (also safely in their pockets). Either choice, just like in the last 3 presidential elections, won’t make a difference in the general election.

    Cheers to hoping for the best, nonetheless!



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