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John Tirman

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Why Not Hillary

Posted: 11/18/2013 2:30 pm

The Hillary Clinton bandwagon is running at full steam. The news/social media have all but elected her president three years hence, while the putative candidate has scarcely lifted a finger to the wind, let alone the ignition.

Just as Democrats continue to howl about voter suppression and other democracy-snuffing tricks of the Republican governors and legislatures -- a battle worth fighting -- they anoint the former first lady, U.S. senator, and secretary of state to be the 45th president. With all the usual cautions about three years being a very long time in politics, there are other reasons to question this inevitability -- or, more to the point, the advisability -- of electing Hillary Clinton as president.

Allow me a little escape hatch before I launch: I think Hillary would make a good president, possibly a very good one. She has all the tools, and the final chapter of the Clinton saga could prove to be the most ennobling.

But I have my doubts, and they revolve around what I take to be a lack of vision in the Clintons (they are, in policy terms, very similar), a void that voters may notice rather early in the election season. It's what defeated her in 2008, this sense that she was a very conventional politician and Obama was the visionary. It wasn't just his exceptional political skills that winter and spring that brought that version of the Clinton colossus to its knees. It was the niggling suspicion that Hillary did not bring new ideas to the table. This staleness could appear again. In fact, it's likely to appear again.

In any of her political roles -- to be sure, a unique combination -- she has rarely shown policy innovation of the kind the nation needs now. Her main task as first lady was a health reform bill that was by most accounts poorly conceived, unnecessarily complex, and dead-on-arrival. It set back reform by nearly 20 years. As a senator, she was lauded for being a team player but her record was unremarkable (to be fair, a new senator often in the minority won't accomplish much). In her most fateful vote, she authorized in 2002 what became the disastrous Iraq War.

As secretary of state, she has again been praised for being a peripatetic, soothing American diplomat, repairing some of the fractured relationships left behind by the neocons of the Bush era. That is no small thing. But, again, there was little in the way of big steps. Obama, riveted on the economy, left much of the foreign portfolio to Hillary, and what that adds up to is not memorable. On the biggest issues -- Palestinian-Israeli standoff, war in Afghanistan, Arab Spring, climate change, global poverty -- there are no Clinton fingerprints.

I was struck last year by Bill McKibben's incisive piece about Clinton and the Keystone XL pipeline project, which would bring exceptionally dirty tar sands oil into the U.S., a very bad idea, and one that Hillary is likely to support as a result of "classic D.C. insiderism." Friends of the Earth calls Keystone "an environmental crime in progress." If there is one issue that stands out as the neglected, potentially catastrophic blunder of the Obama administration, it will be its paltry action on climate change. And while the blame rests at Obama's feet, his secretary of state was also AWOL for four crucial years.

This will not play well to the demographic that was so important to Obama's two White House victories, and it raises the broader question of how well Hillary will resonate with young voters (and older ones who are increasingly frightened by the mounting evidence of climate disaster). In fact, it's hard to pinpoint the constituencies that will get excited about another Clinton in the White House, apart from women, who feel it's their due.

There are a few other warning flares. When Terry McAuliffe won the governor's chair in Virginia earlier this month, it was a thin margin over a certifiable right-wing extremist, and he ran more than eight points behind the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. McAuliffe is widely identified as a Clinton insider, which he is, and a player of the old politics of massive fundraising success from corporate donors seeking favors. One couldn't help but read that result as a mild rebuff to the Clintons and their brand of politics.

This matters particularly when regarding a key issue that looms in the 2016 contest: growing inequality and the stubbornly sluggish economy. Much of this is laid at Wall Street's feet -- the financial system is rigged for Wall Street over Main Street, and people who are struggling are increasingly angry. Bill de Blasio's populist win in New York City's mayoral race is a signal. Yes, it's New York, but those voters reflect the Democratic base in much of the nation.

Why does this affect Hillary Clinton's chances? In a very persuasive take on this, Noam Scheiber argues in The New Republic that inequality is to the 2016 election what Iraq was to the 2008 election, and Hillary comes out on the wrong side again. Who comes out better? Elizabeth Warren, now the liberal firebrand progressives have yearned for, and, of course, a woman.

As Sheelah Kolhatkar puts it in Bloomberg Businessweek: Hillary's "opinions about financial reform remain something of a mystery. Much of Clinton's economic intellectual capital and her fundraising skills are rooted in the banking industry." Not only does this run against the grain of Democratic activists, but it is the polar opposite of Warren's reputation.

Foreign policy won't rescue her, either. Rightly or wrongly, Hillary will face some continuing erosion as a result of the Benghazi incident, which is overblown but still will take a toll on her reputation, especially her dismissive line at a House hearing about the deaths of several Americans, "What difference at this point does it make?" You will be seeing that line in many 30-second ads. She urged that the U.S. bomb Syria to oust President Assad when this is a highly unpopular and dubious idea; everyone agrees that the time to take firm action against Assad was early on, and that's when she was secretary of state. Her general handling of the Arab uprisings has been uneven -- though it would tax the most skilled diplomat to do better -- but I could not see a Clinton "vision" in any of it, including one of her signature issues, women's rights and empowerment. She has scarcely done anything notable in the rewriting of constitutions in Arab countries to insist on protections for women. There was never a sign that she wanted to fulfill a UN obligation to bring women into peace processes -- including in many places where it really matters, like Afghanistan.

Not all of these issues will be prominent in the 2016 race. But they underscore a principal weakness in Hillary Clinton's portfolio. It is not thick with achievements. People will wonder, perhaps, why there's so little to show for so many years of public service. Blend that with the toxicity of Wall Street, and you have a recipe for defeat.

 

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