Archive for December 11th, 2010

I Concede: Hillary Would Have Been Better

December 11th, 2010 No comments

It usually doesn’t pain me to admit when I’m wrong. Intellectual honesty is something I always strive for, and it demands that I concede things from time to time. But when I find that I was on the wrong side of a fence for a long period of time, making multiple arguments to support a position that I later discover was based on false beliefs, it can be especially difficult to own up to it.

But after this past week’s debacle over Obama’s cave-in to Republicans on extending the tax-cuts for the wealthy, I now have no choice but to admit what I’ve refused to acknowledge for the last two years: I backed the wrong horse in the 2008 primary. Hillary Clinton was not perfect, but I think she would have given us slightly more change, as she was ten times the fighter Obama will ever be.


Don’t get me wrong—I still think Obama deserved the nomination. The Obama campaign was a grassroots movement inspired by a message of hope; energized young people and re-energized old people coming together and fighting to achieve things long-considered impossible to achieve. However empty the candidate’s rhetoric ultimately turned out to be, it can’t be denied that those words reached people, inspired them, got them to believe that we could get the country back on the right track.

Conversely, the Clinton campaign was the epitome of the Washington establishment machine. It was run by Mark Penn, one of the biggest hacks in the business. Today Penn is the CEO of Burston-Marsteller, a PR firm that represents such fine upstanding clients as Philip-Morris and Blackwater. He just wrote a piece for the Huffington Post telling Democrats to stop engaging in “class-warfare” and get behind the Obama tax-cut deal. In it, he actually urges Obama to spend the next two years focusing on: “issues like the pursuit of deadbeat dads, protecting kids from internet stalking, personal privacy, and zero tolerance of drugs in schools.” Translation: don’t rock the boat. Don’t try to change anything. Just protect your image at all costs. That was the strategy behind the Clinton campaign and we had every reason to believe that this small-minded attitude towards governing would have carried over into her presidency.

So I don’t regret supporting Obama in 2008. I’m glad that the more high-minded, progressive candidate who promised to do big things beat the more small-minded, conservative candidate who promised little more than competence due to experience. Had she won the nomination the message from the voters would have been: “let’s just play it safe and not try to accomplish too much.” Instead we sent the right message: “let’s give real change a try”.

But it turned out that the candidate who inspired that message didn’t actually embrace it himself. Perhaps he did try at the very beginning (though the appointments of Geithner and Summers to top economic positions before he even took office would suggest otherwise) but it wasn’t long before he started behaving exactly as you’d expect him to if Mark Penn were advising him.

How different would a Hillary Clinton presidency have been? In terms of substance, I doubt there would be much difference at all. The health care legislation that Obama finally managed to pass was almost exactly what Hillary Clinton had been proposing on the campaign trail: a system based on an insurance exchange and mandates requiring coverage. The only thing that truly separated Obama’s plan from Clinton’s already corporate-friendly plan was the public option, but Obama tossed that out the window near the very beginning, along with his opposition to mandates.

So we would have got the same basic plan, but I’ll bet we would have got it much sooner. Hillary Clinton does not shy away from conflict—she proved that quite effectively by staying in the race long after the cause appeared hopeless—and she would not have sat idly by and enabled Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats to obstruct and delay the way Obama did. Obama barely raised a finger in protest to the underhanded tactics of the opposition, which stretched the fight out far longer than it needed to and had the extremely unfortunate side effect of giving the Tea Party the fuel it needed to fully entrench itself in American politics.

Would there be a Tea Party at all if Hillary were president? I suspect it would exist in some form, but I doubt it would be as strong as it is now. Though to be fair, a lot of the energy on the far right is a direct consequence of the color of the president’s skin and has nothing to do with his governing style. Hillary would have been accused of being a radical socialist terrorist-sympathizer too (Fox News would attach those labels to any Democratic president regardless of reality) but there probably wouldn’t be questions regarding her citizenship or religion.

A Hillary Clinton presidency would have looked about the same from the right as an Obama presidency, but things would look a lot different from the left. Simply by virtue of the magnitude of what Obama promised, he was bound to let his supporters down to some degree. That doesn’t mean I think no candidate should ever make lofty promises (provided they intend to at least try to follow through) but it’s obvious that expectations of Clinton would not have been as high. We knew she was relatively conservative from the very beginning, so the progressive base wouldn’t have felt so betrayed and demoralized from all of the compromises and concessions she would have made to Wall Street, Big Energy, and so on.

But would Hillary Clinton have agreed to extend the Bush tax-cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans in exchange for virtually nothing without putting up the slightest hint of a fight? I deeply, seriously doubt that. Even those who make a living spewing out Washington conventional wisdom (with the exception of the hackiest hacks like Mark Penn and Mark Halperin) are aghast at the political ineptitude of Obama’s tax-cut deal. Here was a chance to fight the Republicans on an issue with overwhelming public support on your side—make the Republicans deprive struggling citizens of their unemployment checks during the winter in order to make the rich richer—and Obama just ignored it. He agreed to continue the economically disastrous tax-cuts and add $700 billion to the deficit just so he could continue to play nice with John Boehner.

Yes, his stated reason was that he didn’t want to see any “hostages” get hurt. You have to let the Republicans have their way if they threaten to financially harm the American people, right? Well then what’s to stop them from threatening to financially harm the American people over and over and over again?

I am clearly not a fan of Hillary Clinton, but I definitely think that she would have understood that and she would have fought them on this issue. Even if it was just a purely cynical political calculation to boost her popularity and hurt the other party, she would have made that move and the side-effect would have been a slight improvement of the country’s fiscal policy. Because Barack Obama is so horrendously averse to conflict, because he will do whatever it takes to avoid a fight at all costs and take the path of least resistance at every possible juncture, he bends over backwards to the Republicans whenever they so much as raise their voices, and directs all of his frustrations back at his own progressive supporters…more and more of whom are now becoming former supporters.

If I could go back in time and change the result of the 2008 primary, I still wouldn’t. I think the message of the Obama campaign transcends Obama the person and it was important to show the world that it was a message the American people supported wholeheartedly. But for all practical purposes, Hillary Clinton would have made a better president.

To Barack Obama I would say this (and I’m sure he reads what every single disenchanted liberal blogger has to say about him): we have remained true to the message of your campaign. You have not. You expect us to be loyal to you personally, but that increasingly requires disloyalty to the ideals you campaigned on. We supported you because you represented the Hope that things could Change, but you no longer represent those things and you should therefore not be surprised that we no longer support you.

If we’d wanted nothing but watered-down corporate-friendly legislation we would have given the nomination to Hillary Clinton. We picked you because you led us to believe you could do more, and instead you wound up doing less.

I’d rather see a real progressive run a primary challenge against you in 2012, but if Hillary Clinton shocked the world by deciding to run against you again, this time I would vote for her.