Many years ago, Hillary Clinton said in a valediction to her graduating class at Wellesley College, “There are some things we feel, feelings that our prevailing, acquisitive and competitive corporate life, including tragically the universities, is not the way of life for us. We’re searching for more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating modes of living.” On Sunday she announced her second campaign for the presidency, in a launch week that will be marked, one of her aides told The Daily Beast, by raising “an insane amount of money” — more cash in a matter of days than some Republican candidates will raise in the entire cycle.
How she and times have changed since 1969.
One of the major political issues of our time is inequality, which is shorthand for the fact that almost all the benefits of economic growth over the last few decades have gone to the already rich, with a ragged assortment of crumbs for everyone else. Hillary — that single name seems to be how she’s branding herself now — is poised to address that issue, in a “less confrontational manner than [Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth] Warren,” as Alex Seitz-Wald put it for MSNBC. You might wonder how the lopsided distribution of income in the U.S. might be addressed without some discord. But it’s hard to imagine how you could square a confrontational approach with the attempt to raise insane sums of money — not merely in a week but for a campaign that could cost a billion dollars or more.
And what about the candidate who comes with a billion-dollar price tag? The case for Hillary is remarkably thin, which is probably why many Democrats get so annoyed when you question it. The three points in her favor are that she’s a woman, she’s experienced and it’s her turn. Let’s consider these points.
First, her gender. Yes, Clinton is undeniably a woman, and it is undeniably embarrassing that the United States has been led by nothing but men, many of them remarkably undistinguished. But her being a woman tells us nothing about her politics. It feels achingly obvious to point out that Margaret Thatcher was a woman, and few Clinton enthusiasts would consider themselves supporters of the Iron Lady. Hillaryites who press the gender issue argue that her presidency would have a salutary effect on the status of women and girls. Similar things were said about Barack Obama and race relations, but that hasn’t really worked out very well. In the absence of actual policies, the mere prominence of a symbolic figure will change little.
Second, experience. What does her experience consist of? Early in her husband’s presidency, she ran his campaign to create something resembling universal health coverage in the U.S. — though, like “Obamacare,” it would have retained a large role for private insurance companies. It was a total disaster. She ran it under a shroud of secrecy and consulted with almost no one outside her inner circle. The giant egos that populate Congress were annoyed by her high-handed matter, and the plan died without even so much as a vote. The secrecy and high-handedness are recurrent features of her political life. She hates the press and recoils from public scrutiny. To students of Clinton’s political life, the current email scandal is just the latest iteration of a pattern of many decades. (She reportedly used a private email address during her tenure as Secretary of State, raising issues of security and preservation of official documents.)
After the health care debacle, Clinton retreated from grand schemes in favor of small-bore, symbolic actions. As she wrote in her first memoir, “Living History,” “I began to focus on discrete domestic projects that were more achievable than massive undertakings such as health care reform. On my agenda now were children’s health issues, breast cancer prevention and protecting funding for public television, legal services and the arts.” All very high-minded, but of very limited impact.
You could say the same about her accomplishments in subsequent positions, as a junior senator from New York and secretary of state. She did little in the Senate except sponsor bills to rename post offices in small upstate towns — and vote for the invasion of Iraq. The war vote is very revealing: She is deeply hawkish. It seems unlikely that she would have negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran that her successor, John Kerry, did. As secretary of state, she traveled a lot, racking up almost a million air miles, but it would be very difficult to name a single accomplishment of her tenure. She did, however, stage a lot of photo-ops with women and girls, whose status was no doubt elevated by her magical presence.
And third, it’s her turn. She ran a bad campaign in 2008 and, despite all her advantages of name recognition, lost to a charismatic but obscure newcomer. But apparently that now anoints her as the rightful successor to the man who beat her. This argument strikes me as evidence that American political culture has become thoroughly, perhaps fatally, sclerotic. A country that looks more and more like a frank plutocracy, with a deeply alienated and atomized population and rotting social and physical infrastructure, needs something fresher than another Clinton. (That her opponent could be yet another Bush is even more depressing.)
What could we expect from a Hillary presidency? My guess is that it would be Wall Street–friendly, militarized and secretive — though seasoned with mostly empty rhetoric about uplift, community and inclusion. It would do little to address polarization and rot. In fact it would be a perfect embodiment of polarization and rot. There will be strenuous efforts over the next year and a half to argue otherwise, but they will convince no one but loyalists.