Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Boy You've Been a Naughty Girl

It's not often that I disagree with Publius (formerly of Legal Fiction, now of Obsidian Wings fame). But it happens on occasion. This instance of discord centers around a topic for which I occupy an increasingly narrow sliver of real estate in the left-leaning blogosphere: Hillary Clinton. There is an overarching hostility toward Clinton's candidacy in the left-blogosphere, as indicated by her paltry showing in this MyDD straw poll, that I do not seem to share.

The primary criticisms of Hillary seem to focus on two primary aspects: First, she is prone to cleave to a centrist line and, similarly, is overly hawkish on foreign policy (Iraq war being a big part of this); Second, she is unduly cynical and calculating in her political posturing with the primary goal being electoral victory.

For some, these two narratives intertwine, with the "centrism" described in the first critique being a product of her political aspirations as described in the second.

The second criticism has been unfairly attributed to Clinton quite consistently throughout her political career - at least when compared to other politicians. It's not that Clinton doesn't possess these strategic imperatives, it's thatt he groupthink has settled in such that Hillary has come to represent the conniving electoral gamesmanship of politicians in general. Let me divulge a secret though: ALL politicians have political aspirations, and the vast majority are looking to the next election, or next "promotion" available. Does anyone doubt that perennial candidate John McCain has wanted to be President for a very long time? That he has taken cynical, calculated steps to facilitate these goals. Yet, his career is not marked with the same level of suspicion as Hillary's. How about George "clearing some brush on my ranch" Bush? Come on people.

But I'll go further: since political power comes through winning elections, I actually admire Hillary's desire and ability to play the electoral game. Good on her. Whereas the cold, calculating maneuvering of other politicians is greeted with praise and admiration at the skill and mastery at how they can game the system, with Hillary, for some reason, it's viewed as unseemly and improper. It would be myopic to discount the influence of sexism on this rather obvious double standard.

Would that other long time, calculating political aspirants like Al Gore and John Kerry have had a whiff of her political instincts. What might have been. Sigh. But back to my friend Publius who looks at a future Clinton Presidency through the lens of her position on Iraq:

I’ve tried hard to come up with a Slate-like contrarian post about why my Clinton Blahs have nothing to do with Iraq. But I can’t – it’s Iraq. It’s not merely though that she supported the war, it’s that the specific way she supported it speaks volumes (bad volumes) about what a future Clinton administration would look like.

First things first – I could care less about whether Clinton “apologizes” for supporting the war. I actually hope she doesn’t at this point. But I won’t be supporting her in the primary regardless of what she does.

I also don’t really care about her 2002 vote. A lot of smart people supported the war in good conscience. No, what bothers me is not her initial support, but her ongoing support in the face of obvious and ongoing failures. [...]

...[W]ith respect to Clinton, the post-war bothers me more than the pre-war. She could and should have spoken out earlier against what she clearly recognized were disastrous policies. But she didn’t. She stayed silent and let others do that, while she floated above the fray with an eye to keeping her centrist hawkish street cred intact for 2008. While others risked political capital to criticize, she waited until criticism no longer carried political risks.

Personal bitterness aside, there’s actually a more substantive concern. After all, I think it’s important to de-personalize presidential elections. Personality matters only to the extent it materially affects the shape of the candidate’s future administration and executive branch. People may feel personally betrayed by Clinton, but that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t assemble an outstanding and effective executive branch. [...]

And here’s the heart of it – the Iraq issue matters because it shows, at heart, what most motivates Clinton is the fear of being perceived as too liberal....For example, in light of 1994, I suspect Clinton is the least likely of all the Democratic candidates to put up a real fight for serious health care reform if elected. I can also easily see her getting bullied into military action. And so on.
Here is the response I left for Publius at Obsidian Wings, cleaned up, augmented and reconfigured for this space:

Hillary - for a few bad reasons - was already battling a pretty heavy presumption of extreme "liberalness" in the most pejorative sense of the word (as crafted by the Right throughout the 80's).

Being a woman didn't help - let alone a "lesbian, black panther defending, 60's radical, feminazi, Wiccan, etc." [the spin, not the reality]

She more than most needed to, and still needs to, disabuse the electorate of that notion. Getting attacked from the left-flank doesn't hurt her, it helps her if she can get out of the primaries intact. I think that explains her reluctance to vote against the resolution, or jump out too quickly on the anti-war wagon.

Would it have helped end the Iraq war effort if she had? Uh, no - and I don't really think that her support at the time would have done a tremendous amount for the people that have been fighting the anti-war fight since before the invasion (which I myself was doing). Bush was going to invade either way, and Hillary (like Kerry and so many others) made a decision to go along with the resolution as worded.

And it has worked for her to some extent. She is seen as more moderate, hawkish and responsible by more of the American electorate as a result (not necessarily the blogosphere, but the rest of the voting public). In the post-9/11 world with national security and conflict likely to take center state again in 2008, that's a nice reputation to be toting around.

That may all sound like cold, political calculation, but I'd say that is how the game is played. Bill and Hill just know how to play it better than most. It's not inspiring, or morally satisfying, but, well, ain't that America.

They might have played it too clever by half this time, though, and it could end up biting her in the ass if she's left dangling too far out toward the middle, but we'll see.

Now how will this translate into governance style and a future penchant for risk taking? That depends on the mood of the electorate, but I don't think she'll have to do as much posturing as the President than as a first-time presidential candidate.

What she has had to do is define - or re-brand - her personal narrative for the election. After that, she will have a freer hand to govern and I don't think she'll be any more inclined to do something stupid for political reasons than any other candidate.

Any future Democratic President will be tempted and cajoled by the same forces, but I actually think she has a certain toughness that could break the other way. There certainly won't be the inexperience factor to worry about, and she has a strong political base with which to act from.

Make no mistake: Hillary's failure to oppose a carefully worded resolution, with the vote timed on the election calendar, that was framed as only providing Bush with the ability to use the threat of force to compel Saddam's cooperation with inspectors - in a highly charged post-9/11 environment of demonization - is not the same as a future President Hillary Clinton choosing to launch a war of choice on her own. I'd rather that all of my candidates cleave to the "right" side of all such votes, but if a little gamesmanship can ensure that a more sensible administration takes the White House, I'm not going to stand in the way.

The last time well-informed and well-intentioned Democratic voters let the hawkish-centrism (and electoral cynicism) of a candidate lull them into either apathy, or outright withdrawal and diversion of electoral support, was the year 2000. The candidate was Al "Coke v. Pepsi" Gore.

The result?

Nuff said.

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