Hillary's Left Flank

04/23/2015 11:56 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

We are choosing among politicians, not saviors.

Hillary Rodham Clinton's experience as a lawyer, First Lady, U.S. senator and Secretary of State gives her a dream résumé. With it, however, come conspiracy theories from left and right, plus a catalogue of complaints: She lacks her husband's charm. She cannot give a stirring speech. She is not as liberal as Bernie Sanders. She doesn't drive her own car. She ignored the tip jar at Chipotle. Her hairstyle and wardrobe are national concerns.

Hillary's career since her first White House residency suggests that her accumulated smears and scars are little more than background chatter. As the 2016 campaign heats up and old stories are reignited, her performance at the Benghazi hearings in 2013 shows that she is more than capable of holding her own. But can she overcome resistance on her left flank?

Like President Obama, Hillary is lucky in her opponents. Rand Paul slams the Clinton Foundation for taking money from countries that oppress women, while he voted against the Paycheck Fairness Act and the Violence Against Woman Act and wants to criminalize abortion. Marco Rubio called Hillary "a leader from yesterday," despite his own archaic positions on Cuba, gays and global warming. Mike Huckabee threatens "fire from heaven" and says "God's blessing" will make him president to stop America's "secular theocracy," which is lucky for him because the voters won't. Chris Christie and Scott Walker trail Clinton in their home states.

Log Cabin Republicans responded to Hillary's campaign launch by questioning her LGBT record. Seriously? Unlike Mitt Romney, whom they endorsed in 2012, Hillary has a pro-gay record on which she continues to build. As Secretary of State, she launched a global LGBT rights initiative. Last week, she moved from a states' rights stance on marriage to endorse marriage equality nationwide. If we want politicians to move in our direction, we have to give them credit when they do.

Many progressives are so wedded to being outsiders that they won't support any candidate who can actually get elected. Their support for Ralph Nader in 2000 resulted in President George W. Bush, two wars and an exploding budget deficit. They proudly embrace what I call Progressive Exceptionalism, in which condemning the imperfections of allies absolves you of responsibility for helping elect right wing fanatics who attack voting rights, women's rights, immigrants, science and consumer protections. Hillary is a corporatist, they say. Let the Democrats lose; we'll rebuild. This is as glib as Sen. Tom Cotton saying we can defeat Iran in "several days."

I am more impressed by those who urge a vigorous primary challenge, but pledge support for the Democrat in the general election. Those who deny any difference between the major parties should ask themselves: Would Al Gore have started the Iraq war? Would the author of Earth in the Balance have denied climate change? Would he have nominated Sam Alito to the Supreme Court?

What pragmatic liberals like me are calling for is not surrender on the part of progressives, but political maturity. Hillary is far better than any GOP candidate. If she is the Democratic nominee, those who don't want to see a century of reforms decimated should give her their vote.

That is not the end of it. Just as we need to press her now to address our concerns, we will need to keep it up after she takes office. Iran is a good example. The more she panders to AIPAC, the more we need to press her with the J Street alternative. If we don't want another expensive and bloody war, we cannot leave her to her hawkish impulses. We must convey to her that she will alienate liberals who decry more war if she panders to conservatives who won't vote for her anyway.

Let us get over the fantasy of political candidates as saviors. LGBT advances are due mainly to our own efforts, which we should continue. As for Hillary, she should keep in mind that voters have more choices besides voting for the Democrat or the Republican: they can stay home or vote for a third-party candidate. Her fine résumé only earns her consideration; she must still close the deal.

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Blade and Bay Windows.