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The Men Who Made Me Love Hillary

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I have the reputation of being something of a Hillary-hater. It's understandable: the PAC I founded, Democratic Courage, ran the first anti-Hillary ad of the primaries. But for all my very public opposition to Hillary's presidential candidacy, the vice presidential picks being floated by Obama are making Hillary - or a Hillary-like candidate - look increasingly attractive for the number two slot. Because for all of Hillary's faults, she has a toughness and a willingness to play offense sorely needed in a campaign in which the man at the top of the ticket has so far responded to attacks on his character, his patriotism, and his policies primarily by whining about the attacks themselves.

That's not a mistake Hillary often makes. While Hillary has in the past displayed a troubling, self-defeating willingness to cave to Republican pressure on her policy positions, she hardly ever does that when it comes to defending her character and love of country. She and her advisors have James Carville and Paul Begala's most basic lesson of political summer school wired into their DNA: "It's hard for your opponent to say bad things about you when your fist is in his mouth."

That's Politics 101 for the former Bush advisors now running the McCain campaign, but it's something Obama has forgotten, at least temporarily. As a result, it's Obama who has been coughing up fingernails for the past few months - as well as losing support in the polls and control of the national agenda.

Unfortunately, the coterie of cautious centrists being touted by the Obama campaign as short-listers for the vice presidential nod are hardly up to the task of taking on the Republican attack machine. Instead, many of them have spent their entire careers stuck in the same fetal crouch from which Obama has recently conducted his campaign: afraid to stand up and fight for a progressive agenda or themselves, responding to Republican attacks on their policies by abandoning their principles, and wary of ever going on the attack.

Start with the likely-veep-du-jour, Indiana senator Evan Bayh. As chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council from 2001 to 2005, Bayh pushed the DLC's signature idea: that Democrats could win only by parroting Republican ideas and avoiding any stands for progressive values, or, more broadly, avoiding fights with Republicans. As I discuss in my book, Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party, this idea was spectacularly and obviously wrong: not only do voters share progressive values on most issues, it's absurd to advocate that they follow the polls even when public opinion shifts. Only about six percent of voters' decisions are made on the basis of issues; in contrast, voters do make up their minds to a far greater extent by evaluating candidates' "integrity" and "strong leadership," qualities that are hard to project if candidates slavishly follow the polls, abandon their principles, and avoid tough fights. The DLC, Bayh-supported strategy led Democrats to abandon their core values for political expediency, but has also frequently made them look weak and ridiculous as Republicans mock them for those repeated craven surrenders.

But Bayh only presided over the Democratic Leadership Council; Sam Nunn founded it. For Nunn, the Council was the vehicle through which he pursued his lifelong ambition: to move the Democratic Party firmly rightward. Here's how George Stephanopolous described Nunn in his memoir All Too Human:

Nunn had headed Clinton's Georgia campaign, but with friends like him we didn't need enemies. As a matter of policy, he supported the military ban on homosexuals, but he was also peeved by Clinton's failure to name him secretary of state and happy to throw some pebbles in the path of his former House counterpart, Les Aspin. All through our first week, Nunn held our first bill - the Family and Medical Leave Act - hostage until he got his way on gays in the military. The gay community was convinced Nunn was a homophobe, a view the president and I decided we agreed with after an interminable negotiating session in the cabinet room with Nunn and his fellow Democrats on the Armed Services Committee.

This was not Nunn's only effort to sabotage Clinton's presidency for being, in his right wing eyes, too liberal. He also joined five other senators in opposing Clinton's first budget, the marquee element of the president's economic recovery strategy. Then, in 1995 he joined just two other Democrats in supporting Newt Gingrich's Contract with America budget. He was a faithless senator and would be a faithless vice president.

Virginia governor Tim Kaine is, in many ways, the product of Sam Nunn and the DLC's successes. Although the DLC's political theories were largely concocted as a ploy to convince Democrats to move rightward regardless of what that did to Democrats' electoral fortunes, they were successful in persuading large numbers of Democrats to adopt them because of a very savvy marketing plan: instead of selling their corporate-friendly centrist ideas on the merits, the DLC pushed them in the one way guaranteed to get the attention of politicians and partisans of any ideological stripe by arguing that centrist policies would help Democrats get elected. It was a smart move. On this field of debate, they had no opposition. There was no progressive equivalent to the DLC - a group making a systematic case that progressive policies are not only a good idea for the country, but the only agenda Democrats could ride to victory (ironically, though Hillary nominally holds a senior position in the DLC, she's never been totally of the DLC, frequently arguing against their policies while she was in the White House and Senate). However bogus the DLC arguments were, they were able to gain currency because no one was effectively making a counterargument in political rather than policy terms. In the battle for a politician's heart, political expediency (or the perception of it) usually trumps morals.

And in the battle for Tim Kaine's heart, false perceptions of expediency certainly won out. Despite running for governor in 2005 as a principled candidate driven by his deep Catholic faith, Kaine has become something of a poll-and-cash zombie, easily intimidated by whichever special interest is screaming the loudest or throwing the most cash around Richmond.

It's why, despite touting his faith as the reason for his opposition to the death penalty (a position I disagree with), he's denied clemency to prisoners and authorized executions to go ahead. It's why he greased the wheels for Dominion Power's ultra-polluting new coal fired power plant in southwest Virginia and lined up with right wing groups to support Virginia's reactionary "right to work" labor laws, which put major legal burdens in the way of workers organizing unions.

Kaine's fear of confrontation is so great that when he had the opportunity to articulate a compelling case for his party and their policies at the national level, he failed utterly, which you would think might be a disqualifier (or at least a serious impediment) to even being considered for the vice presidential slot. His 2006 official Democratic response to Bush's State of the Union was widely panned for its vagueness, for his nervous tentativeness, and his unwillingness to offer much in the way of criticism of Bush and the Republicans.

He hasn't provided much evidence that he would respond to Republican napalm by doing anything other than echoing Republican talking points or articulating the vaguest apple pie bromides, certainly not going on the offense. And like Bayh and Nunn, Kaine's pick would seriously divide the party - leaving environmentalists and union members furious at Obama for choosing someone who's so frequently fought their progressive agenda, rather than fighting alongside them. Indeed, these Democrats have spent so much time poking key Democratic constituencies in the eye that it's not hard to envision one of them provoking delegates to try and elect someone else, resulting in a nasty floor fight that would make Democrats look divided (though might be worth it if it led to a better vice presidential candidate).

In contrast, choosing Hillary would, almost by definition, unite the Democratic Party. Almost half of Democrats voted for her in the primaries. Adding that support to Obama's support - rather than leaving Hillaryites seething, resentful and marginalized could bring a lot of donors, activists, and voters who've so far been sitting on the sideline.
Of course, Obama may decide for personal or political reasons that he just doesn't want to work with Hillary, which is his prerogative.

But he's got to choose someone with a splash of Hillary's toughness (and maybe more): Rhode Island senator Jack Reed, General Wesley Clark, Delaware senator Joe Biden, Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius, and even Montana governor Brian Schweitzer have all shown courage in standing up for themselves, their policies, and the Democratic Party (as has Obama's "most effective surrogate," John Kerry). Democrats will be basically enthusiastic about any of those choices, avoiding the risk of completely undermining Obama's efforts to paint himself as a "uniter."

There is no more important test of a presidential candidate than his choice for vice president. With Obama flailing under McCain's constant attacks, he desperately needs a vice president with backbone, principles, and a little bit of flair. It may be Hillary, it may be Reed, but, please God, just don't let it be from the DLC.