THE BLOG

Discussing Voters' Concerns With Hillary Clinton's Former Senior Advisor

09/26/2016 05:14 pm ET

Co-authored by Jaka Jaksic

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Tomicah Tillemann with Hillary Clinton at 2013 Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice award ceremony

This is an election year like no other. Republican candidate Donald Trump is clearly unprepared and unfit to be president. He has the highest unfavorable rating of any major party candidate in recent history, for very obvious reasons. In any other year this would be a landslide victory for the Democratic candidate, yet in this year Trump's unfavorability seems to be almost matched by that of Hillary Clinton, so the election outcome is still uncertain.

It's understandable why conservative voters dislike her, since their policy positions are quite different. However, why many progressive and moderate voters also dislike her is a lot less clear. Based on conversations we've had, different people seem to have different concerns, some of them valid and reasonable, others not so much. While we've all seen or heard something from her that we didn't like during the decades she's been in the public eye, we strongly suspect that her perception among progressive voters is much more negative than it needs to be.

We collected some of the most common concerns among progressive voters and spoke with Dr. Tomicah Tillemann, who served as a senior advisor and speechwriter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and later Secretary of State John Kerry. As someone who has worked closely with her for years, he is privy to more than the stoic figure that we witness on televisions; he knows the real her, how she thinks and how she works.

Tomicah, how would you reassure people who believe that Hillary is not trustworthy?
As someone who spent a lot of time helping her shape the messages that she shared with audiences around the world, I can tell you that she is intensely focused on ensuring the accuracy and truthfulness of her remarks. If there was even the slightest question that something in a speech was not factual, she'd leave it out. She didn't want anything in a speech that was not totally correct. It's important to think about the multi-million dollar industry that's been created to push out the narrative that Hillary Clinton is not to be trusted. That argument just doesn't stand up to scrutiny once you start looking at the facts. If you evaluate her statements on any reputable fact-checking website, you'll see that she does well or better than most politicians out there, especially when compared to her opponent.

What about the concern that she has received too much money from big donors and lobbyists?

The real issue there has very little to do with Hillary Clinton and a lot to do with our political system. We have a system right now in which there is simply no way for somebody to be elected President or frankly elected to any higher office, without spending a lot of time and energy fundraising. I don't like that system. Hillary Clinton doesn't like that system either. The fact that she knows it very well and knows how to use it, I think puts her in a good position to help fix it. And she says she is determined to make that happen. I'm eager to ensure she makes progress on that crucial priority, and a lot of other people are too.

Don't you think that since she has taken the money, it puts her in a compromised situation that would prevent her from fixing the system?
She is running for office on the premise that the system isn't working well. She is running on the premise that we have a problem with the way we finance campaigns, and it needs to be changed and changed dramatically. So I actually think she is in a pretty good position to push for reforms, because she is telling everyone that, "if you are supporting me, then this is the agenda that I'm going to work to advance." My hope and my expectation is that she is going to work very hard to fix what many people would acknowledge is a very broken system.

Is there any way to make sure that she actually follows through on that promise?

There is! The best way to make sure it happens is to elect a congress that cares about this issue as well. Ultimately a lot of it depends on whether congress is inclined to pursue campaign finance reform. While we need all three branches of Government involved, and it especially depends on the legislative and executive branch. You elect people that will work with her on this in Congress and I think she will do a great job of getting us a system that we can live with and be a lot more proud of than what we have today.

She has adopted many of Bernie's proposals, like $15 minimum wage, tuition-free college, regulation of Wall Street etc. What is the likelihood that she won't abandon them after getting elected?
I expect she would love to see these goals realized. As she said in one of the debates during the primary, she is a progressive, but she is a progressive who likes to get things done. So I expect her key priority is going to be making progress that brings us closer to those goals. And, again, I expect the extent of that progress is likely to depend on what kind of congress she has to work with.

The income inequality is only likely to widen due to increasing automation and globalization. What is her plan to help the lower middle class find decent paying jobs? Also, what does she think about universal basic income?
I think she is very mindful of the underlying challenge. Between automation, machine learning, the spread of autonomous vehicles, and with the advent of blockchain-based applications in a host of different industries, we are looking at the potential for a seismic shift in the economy. We need to envision a new future of work and we probably need to start thinking about a new social contract that takes these technologies into account. As a society, we need a lot of thinking before we know the right ways to manage these trends. These changes are going to happen in waves and at different rates. So as a policy maker you generally want to have access to as much data as possible before you start putting forward solutions.

Can you think of any specific ideas that she might pursue?
She has put out a number of very good papers that go into some details on these issues. Her technology policy is very good and I would recommend that.
As an example, she has talked about making significant investments in sectors that aren't going to be automated anytime soon. She wants to put a lot of resources in sustainable infrastructure. Those are jobs that aren't going to be outsourced to technology for decades to come. I think those are good ways to ensure that the country keeps moving forward and that people are employed.

Would she be willing to regulate companies like Uber and Airbnb, or what Robert Reich calls "share-the-scraps economy"?
The key challenge we face right now is that it's not equitable - a disproportionate amount of value is captured by intermediaries. I think she is very mindful of that challenge, I don't know if she has put out a specific solution. There are technologies just around the corner that have the potential to dramatically reduce the amount of value captured by intermediaries, and create much more equitable structures for sharing the wealth that is generated through the sharing economy. My hope is that through a combination of new solutions and good policies we can come up with a better way of dealing with these challenges.
Regulation is going to be very tricky, because for many folks these are welcome, necessary sources of income and we certainly don't want to strangle that lifeline. We don't want to limit the ability of people to utilize these new technologies to bring more prosperity to their households. At the same time, we want to do what we can as a society to try to ensure that more people have access to the very significant benefits that are currently accruing to a pretty small group of people who sit on top of these systems. That's what we need to work on.

Efforts to regulate Uber and Airbnb have failed so far. Given that Uber is a major donor for DNC, how do we know that a Clinton administration will work against them to make the benefits more equitable?
It's a long term challenge. I think Democrats, all things being equal, are much more likely to pursue solutions that would empower people at the lower end of the economic ladder. So if I have to put money on which party is going to try to push for solutions on this, my money is going to be on the Democrats and Hillary Clinton.

Many people think of Hillary as a "war hawk" and are worried that she will engage in additional and unnecessary wars. What would you say to them?
The only times I have ever seen Hillary Clinton at all interested in military action is when it was the last option available to prevent a worse outcome. Obviously, I'm sympathetic to those who are averse to military conflict in general. None of us like military interventions and the potential for innocent casualties. But at the same time, it's important to recognize that in some instances military action is the only thing that can prevent a totally abhorrent outcome, whether it's genocide, ethnic cleansing, or terrorist attacks. In the real world, unfortunately, from time to time we will have people who are determined to engage in violent acts and take the lives of innocent people. And when those circumstances occur, military action may be the best in the series of very unfortunate options. It's certainly not something that she takes lightly or sees as a desirable course of action when confronting a bad situation.
You can contrast that with the recent footage of Donald Trump saying that he loves war and is particularly interested in nuclear power for its destructive capability. So again, it's tough to overstate the distinction between the two candidates on this issue.

[Trump is also on record supporting both the invasion of Iraq and military intervention in Libya.]

Military intervention in Libya is widely regarded as a bad move. How does she feel about that decision now, and would she now handle a similar situation differently?
It's important not to engage in revisionist history in Libya. If there had not been a military intervention, you would have had genocide. You would have had mass killing on the order which we haven't seen in a very, very long time. The idea that somehow if we had just stayed out of Libya we would have had a better outcome really flies in the face of reality. There are a lot of people on both sides of the aisle that haven't taken a close look at the facts.
The other thing you can say is, and I'm very much speaking for myself here, we haven't intervened in Syria and it's very difficult to argue that we have a good outcome in Syria. Ultimately these are deeply fractured societies, they have profound underlying challenges that are not easily addressed by any outside actor. Intervention in Libya was designed to prevent the genocide, it was successful in preventing a genocide. Without a far more substantial commitment of forces, for which there was not much political support, it would be very difficult to put such a fractured society on a footing where there was not going be some degree of turmoil in the aftermath.

There have been over 500 drone strikes during Obama's presidency. A veteran we spoke to believes that unless we have some skin in the game (i.e. boots on the ground), this will continue and more innocent civilians will be harmed. Is there truth to that, and do you think Hillary is open to restricting drone usage?
There are a couple of different issues. By most accounts that I have seen US military actions under this Administration have been more successful in eliminating civilian casualties and collateral damage than any military engagements in the history of the world. The alternative to using drones is committing ground troops or other air attacks, which aren't very good options. The second point I would make is that nobody wants to use drones; nobody wants to have these strikes at all. These are tools that are used in virtually every case as a last resort, because we don't see a better alternative, and because the individuals that are being targeted are likely to take innocent lives if they are not stopped. So these are not decisions that are made lightly, and again there are very few people in Washington who feel like these are good outcomes. I expect almost every responsible player in the foreign policy community looks forward to a day when we have better solutions that can help address some of these challenges and the underlying issue of radicalization. Hopefully, there will be better alternatives available to individuals that are drawn toward terrorism.

When comparing the two major party candidates, some people say they don't want to vote for the lesser of two evils and intend to vote for a third party candidate. What would you say to them?
I reject out of hand, perhaps not surprisingly, the premise that she is a lesser of two evils. Every American knows she's not perfect, but she is likely the most qualified candidate to run for president in the history of the office. She is respected around the world. She has an extraordinary record of accomplishment in domestic policy and foreign policy. There is no equivalence between Secretary Clinton and, frankly, every other candidate in the race.

Every time she is in power, people, including Republicans, really like her and like working with her. We shouldn't just succumb to the prevailing media narrative, pushed by a very powerful industry that has been built up with the sole goal of making her look bad, that she is somehow a deficient candidate. I -- like most people -- don't agree with every decision she's ever made. However, I deeply admire her record of doing good in the world and believe she will make a great president.

How has the 2016 campaign (most notably the surprising level of support for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump) changed her views and vision of governing?
I think there is something important that we have witnessed in this election in terms of support for Trump and Sanders. What we are seeing is that there are a lot of people who feel that this current system is not working for them; that the status quo is not delivering the results they hoped for. Whoever wins this election is going to have to look hard at how we need to change our system to address those concerns, and what we can do as a society to help the people who feel marginalized have a bigger stake in the collective enterprise that is America. If I know Hillary Clinton, my expectation is that from day one she is going to get to work trying to figure out how we can improve the lives and futures of the individuals who vote against her in the election.

In your view, what is the thing that best demonstrates Hillary's goodness and quality of character?
I can give you many, many examples on this, from going into war zones, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, to help rape victims at considerable personal risk, to a host of instances in which we were dealing with very powerful interests and very powerful individuals, and her primary concern would be a democracy activist or a civil society leader who was facing challenges in the country that we were visiting.
But I'll share an example that is a little more personal. In February 2008, at the height of her presidential campaign, my grandfather passed away. She knew my grandfather, she knew the family, but she was at the time the busiest woman in the world - she had a lot going on. One of the very first phone calls that we received was from Hillary Clinton, expressing condolences and saying how sorry she was, and asking what she could do to help. I remember that the call dropped and she called right back, again to find out what she could do to for the family. That's the type of human being that she is. She really cares about people, she's a great boss, and she's a lot of fun to hang out with. Some people have wrongly gotten the impression that she's not personable, cold, or disinterested in the people around her. That couldn't be farther from the truth.

What's the best thing people can do to help her win?

Get as many of your friends as possible, register voters, knock on doors. And, if you can take a little time off, trek over to Nevada, Arizona or another state where the stakes are high and volunteer for the campaign. There's a lot of that needs to happen in the next few weeks to make sure that this election ends the right way. It's going to take a lot of time, a lot of work, and a lot of resources. This isn't just about ensuring she gets elected; this is about safeguarding our democracy for future generations. I won't be able to look my daughter or my sons in the eye the day after the election if Donald Trump is running the world in which they're going to grow up. The stakes could not be higher. Failure is not an option.

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