Essay — From the November 2014 issue

Stop Hillary!

Vote no to a Clinton dynasty

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“How’s that hopey, changey stuff working out for you?” Sarah Palin asked American voters in a taunting 2010 speech. The answer: Not so well. We avoided a full-blown depression, but the job market remains deeply sick, and it’s become quite mainstream to talk about the U.S. economy having fallen into structural stagnation (though the rich are thriving). Barack Obama has, if anything, seemed more secretive than George W. Bush. He kills alleged terrorists whom his predecessor would merely have tortured. The climate crisis gets worse, and the political capacity even to talk about it, much less do anything about it, is completely absent. These aren’t the complaints Palin would make, of course. But people who voted for Obama in 2008 were imagining a more peaceful, more egalitarian world, and they haven’t gotten it.

Be of good cheer, though. Many savants — and not all of them Democrats — have a solution for 2016. That would be putting Hillary Clinton in the White House.

Hillary Clinton, then a senator, signs a poster during a 2008 presidential-campaign event at Wait Chapel on the Wake Forest University campus, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina © Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton, then a senator, signs a poster during a 2008 presidential-campaign event at Wait Chapel on the Wake Forest University campus, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina © Joe Raedle/Getty Images

What is the case for Hillary (whose quasi-official website identifies her, in bold blue letters, by her first name only, as do millions upon millions of voters)? It boils down to this: She has experience, she’s a woman, and it’s her turn. It’s hard to find any substantive political argument in her favor. She has, in the past, been associated with women’s issues, with children’s issues — but she also encouraged her husband to sign the 1996 bill that put an end to the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (AFDC), which had been in effect since 1935. Indeed, longtime Clinton adviser Dick Morris, who has now morphed into a right-wing pundit, credits Hillary for backing both of Bill’s most important moves to the center: the balanced budget and welfare reform.1 And during her subsequent career as New York’s junior senator and as secretary of state, she has scarcely budged from the centrist sweet spot, and has become increasingly hawkish on foreign policy.

1 Morris’s ties to the Clinton machine go back nearly four decades. That said, his pronouncements on both Bill and Hillary should be taken with a substantial grain of salt. Their mutual-admiration society collapsed in 1996, when media reports about Morris’s frolics with prostitutes caused his expulsion from Bill’s reelection campaign. Since then, the uber-consultant has turned on his old patrons, flaying them in such books as Rewriting History (2004) and Because He Could (2004), and founding, in September 2013, a PAC called Just Say No to Hillary. On the subject of Morris, Hillary has for years kept conspicuously mum. On the subject of Hillary, Morris was typically dismissive when we spoke in July. “She’s a trial lawyer who fights for a position,” he told me. “But she’s not creative and she’s not a broad strategic-policy thinker.” The gun-for-hire accusation was particularly poignant coming from Morris, who has worked for figures as diverse as Jesse Helms and Howard Metzenbaum, Trent Lott and Kenyan presidential contender Raila Odinga — and who, indeed, was advising House Republicans at the same time he was rescuing Bill’s imperiled presidency after the 1994 midterms.

What Hillary will deliver, then, is more of the same. And that shouldn’t surprise us. As wacky as it sometimes appears on the surface, American politics has an amazing stability and continuity about it. Obama, widely viewed as a populist action hero during the 2008 campaign, made no bones about his admiration for Ronald Reagan. The Gipper, he said,

changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt [that] with all the excesses of the Sixties and the Seventies, government had grown and grown, but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating.

Now, the “excesses of the Sixties and the Seventies” included things like feminism, gay liberation, the antiwar movement, a militant civil rights movement — all good things, in my view, but I know that many people disagree. In any case, coming into office with something like a mandate, Obama never tried to make a sharp political break with the past, as Reagan did from the moment of his first inaugural address. Reagan dismissed the postwar Keynesian consensus — the idea that government had a responsibility to soften the sharpest edges of capitalism by fighting recession and providing some sort of basic safety net. Appropriating some of the language of the left about revolution and the promise of the future, he unleashed what he liked to call the magic of the marketplace: cutting taxes for the rich, eliminating regulations, and whittling away at social spending.

What Reagan created, with his embrace of the nutty Laffer curve and his smiling war on organized labor, was a strange, unequally distributed boom that lasted through the early 1990s. After the caretaker George H. W. Bush administration evaporated, Bill Clinton took over and, with a few minor adjustments, kept the party going for another decade. Profits skyrocketed, as did the financial markets.

But there was a contradiction under it all: a system dependent on high levels of mass consumption for both economic dynamism and political legitimacy has a problem when mass purchasing power is squeezed. For a few decades, consumers borrowed to make up for what their paychecks were lacking. But that model broke down once and for all with the crisis of 2008. Today we desperately need a new political economy — one that features a more equal distribution of income, investment in our rotting social and physical infrastructure, and a more humane ethic. We also need a judicious foreign policy, and a commander-in-chief who will resist the instant gratification of air strikes and rhetorical bluster.

Is Hillary Clinton the answer to these prayers? It’s hard to think so, despite the widespread liberal fantasy of her as a progressive paragon, who will follow through exactly as Barack Obama did not. In fact, a close look at her life and career is perhaps the best antidote to all these great expectations.

The historical record, such as it is, may also be the only antidote, since most progressives are unwilling to discuss Hillary in anything but the most general, flattering terms. Pundits who have written about her in the past dismissed my queries in rude and patronizing ways. Strangely, though, I was contacted out of nowhere by a representative of something called American Bridge, who wanted to make my acquaintance. At first I thought it was a new think tank — but I soon found out it was a pro-Hillary lobbying group formed by the G.O.P. apostate David Brock. I can’t prove it, of course, but it sure felt like the Hillary machine was subtly attempting to spin this piece. Brock himself declined to speak with me, as did a diplomat who had worked for Hillary at the State Department. Apparently you have to take a loyalty oath to get an interview.

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is the editor and publisher of the Left Business Observer and the author most recently of After the New Economy (The New Press).

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