As many of you know, I haven't been following political coverage for the past week or so. While this presents some problems for me as a blogger, it does have a few advantages, and one of them is: having missed all the coverage of Hillary's Tears, I do not need to wonder whether I am being unduly affected by it. (I did see the video of The Tears themselves, and failed to see what all the fuss was about.)
My main concern about Hillary Clinton has always concerned foreign policy. On the domestic side, I think that the proposals of the three main Democratic candidates are pretty close to one another, close enough that their differences will be swamped by whatever changes have to be made to them in order to get them adopted. On foreign policy, however, I think that she and Obama are quite different, for reasons I hope to explain later. Moreover, as Matt Yglesias and Tom Schaller (see also Ari Berman) have pointed out, her advisors tended to support the war in Iraq, while Obama's tended to oppose it, and this worries me a great deal.
Most of all, though, there is her vote on the Iraq war. Whether she voted as she did because she thought it was right or because she thought that George W. Bush was trustworthy enough that Congress could authorize him to go to war confident in the knowledge that he would not abuse that power, that vote, the most important she cast as a Senator, was disastrously wrong. Moreover, she didn't just vote for the Iraq War Resolution; she voted against the Levin Amendment, which would have required Bush to go back to the UN for authorization to use military force. And she cast this vote without having bothered to read the relevant National Intelligence Estimate. Which is to say: she took the decision whether or not to go to war -- to invade another country, and to put both Iraqi citizens and members of our military in harm's way -- without bothering to do her homework first.
Given a choice between Clinton and any intelligent, well-informed, basically sane candidate who inhabits some recognizable corner of the reality-based community, and who did not support the decision to go to war, Clinton's vote for the Iraq War resolution, especially in light of her vote against the Levin Amendment and her failure to inform herself adequately, is a dealbreaker for me.
All this started out as a preface to my main point, which concerns the political effects that nominating Clinton would have. Briefly: while my main reasons for opposing Clinton involve policy (see above), I also think that to nominate her would be to throw away a political opportunity that comes along once in a generation. I'll put my arguments for that point below the fold.
I think, not particularly originally, that many voters have become disenchanted with the Republican Party. For this reason, if I had to bet now on the outcome of the election, I would bet on the Democrat. What I'm not at all clear on is how the Democrat will win. And how we win matters immensely. On the one hand, I think this election could genuinely change people's views about the two parties in ways that could reshape the political landscape. On the other, it could not. And a lot depends on how the Democrats play their hand.
When people talk about what would happen if Hillary Clinton were nominated, some of us, myself included, note that a sizable number of voters dislike Hillary Clinton, and will continue to dislike her whatever she does. We could argue about whether this is fair or unfair, but it seems to be a fact, and as such, it should be taken into account, at least if we're serious about winning.
The usual response to this line of argument is: well, the Republicans will demonize anyone the Democrats nominate, so even if more people dislike her now, those same people will end up disliking any Democratic nominee by the time the Republican Party gets through with him or her. To which my side normally responds: yes, but why make it easy for them? Why hand them a candidate who comes pre-demonized? Why not make them work for it?
I think this response is basically right. But it has a corollary that is, I think, more important. Namely:
As I said, I think that many voters are disenchanted with the Republican Party. They are, I think, poised to see through it. One of the things that I, as a citizen, would be happiest to have them see through is the sheer level of maliciousness that Republicans normally deploy in campaigns like this. I suspect that a number of people who might have been prepared to explain all this away when they were convinced that the Republicans stood for morality, strong national security policy, fiscal discipline, and so forth might be a lot less willing to do so now.
Perhaps I am wrong about the Republican Party. Perhaps the people who gave us the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the accusations that the Clintons had killed Vince Foster, the sneaky phone calls questioning John McCain's sanity and insinuating that he had fathered a black child out of wedlock, and so on and so forth, have had a complete change of heart, and will henceforth be models of decorum and propriety. As a citizen, I would be delighted if this were true. Personally, though, I'm not counting on it.
For that reason I think that Democrats should prepare a sort of Aikido strategy: turning our opponents' attacks against them. We should try to set things up in such a way that if the Republicans go after our candidate in an underhanded, dishonest, and despicable way, that fact will be as clear to ordinary voters as it could possibly be. (If they don't, no problem: Aikido strategies, unlike, say, preemptive violence, do not involve anticipating someone else's attack by launching an attack of one's own. This is one reason why I'm not attempting to defend my view of Republican tactics: I'm not proposing that we do anything morally problematic based on that view; just that we set things up so that if they launch some sort of despicable attack, we can turn it to our advantage. If they don't, as I said, I would be delighted.)
This would not have been so important in, say, 1996: in that year, people were not particularly ready to see Republican scorched-earth tactics for what they were. (Nor, in fairness, did Bob Dole use them.) This year, however, I think they are. If we capitalize on that fact, we have the chance to change people's perceptions of the two parties in a serious and lasting way. If we do not, then this will be one more election, which the Democrats will probably win, but it will not be a game-changer.
In this context, I think that nominating Hillary Clinton would be a disastrous mistake. Of all the people whom we are at all likely to nominate, she is the one whom people would be most inclined to believe the worst of. Some of those people -- the ones who thought the Clintons had Vince Foster killed and hung crack pipes on their Christmas trees -- are presumably unreachable by Democrats. But others -- the ones who don't pay close attention to these things, and came away from the 1990s with a vague sense that the Clintons were just plain sleazy -- are people we can reach.
If we nominate Hillary Clinton, then I assume that the Republicans will go after her, and that they will not restrict themselves to attacking her policies and her record. When they do, then all those people who are already inclined to think the worst of Hillary Clinton will, for that reason, be prepared to find those attacks believable. Stories about her sleaziness, her underhandedness, her cold and calculating nature, etc., will be a lot less likely to strike them as implausible, overreaching, mean-spirited, malicious, or vile. And that means that the chances that people will see standard Republican attacks for what they are are dramatically reduced.
By contrast, if we nominate someone whom people like that are not antecedently disposed to think the worst of, that will have two good effects. First, those attacks will be less likely to be believed, since the Republican establishment will not have spent the better part of two decades preparing the ground for them. Second, in order to get people to the same point of loathing, they will have to attack harder.
Both of these things -- the fact that any given attack will be less likely to be believed by ordinary, reachable people, and the fact that the Republicans will therefore have to attack harder to produce the same effects -- make it much, much more likely that people will see those attacks for what they are. They therefore make it much more likely that this election will genuinely change the political landscape.
This analysis turns on the idea that in this election, ordinary voters -- people who do not follow political campaigns in detail -- are more than usually open to seeing through Republican attacks. If you don't believe that this is true -- if you think, for instance, that those attacks will be effective not just on some people, but on the same numbers of people, regardless of who the Democrats nominate -- then you should reject it. But if you think this might be the moment when people actually see the Republicans' attacks for what they are, then I think it matters to set things up in such a way that this is as likely as possible. And that means not nominating Hillary Clinton.
This matters not just for Democrats, but for our country. When people can get away with sliming candidates, with making attacks that are not just false, but despicable, our democracy suffers. As citizens, we have, I think, an obligation to do our best to check out the factual basis of any attacks for ourselves, and not to reward those who make them. But we should also hope that our politics changes in such a way that attacks that are really beyond the pale just stop working: that they turn off more people than they convince.
There's another reason why I think that nominating Hillary Clinton would make this election less likely to transform the political landscape, namely: she provokes bad reactions not only in Republicans but in Democrats.
Many Democrats, myself included, believe that the Clintons were subjected to an unprecedented campaign of vilification during the 1990s. We are angry about this. Since I share this anger, it should go without saying that I find it completely comprehensible. But I don't think that it would be a good idea for us to nominate a candidate who brings it out in us, especially not in an election that truly has the potential to reshape the political landscape.
Most obviously, when Hillary Clinton is attacked, it makes a lot of us angry all over again. And it seems to me that a lot of Democrats don't just get angry in whatever way the current attack warrants. We have a lot of leftover anger from the 1990s, and it tends to spill out. I don't think this is particularly useful if we want to win.
Worse, I think that some Democrats are inclined to respond to attacks that remind them of the 1990s by reflexively assuming that those attacks are wrong, This risks blinding us to serious problems. Here's an example:
Back in the 1990s, I believed, as I said, that the Clintons were subjected to a campaign of vilification that made me very angry. However, I did not think it followed from this that not a single one of the various accusations made against them was true. Even stopped clocks are right twice a day, and I didn't see any particular reason why the utter odiousness of the people who went after the Clintons meant that they could not be right on rare occasions as well.
Leaving Monica Lewinsky to one side, the accusation from that period that seemed most troubling to me was the cattle futures controversy, in which Hillary Clinton started trading cattle futures, a type of investment with which she had no experience, and turned an initial $1,000 investment into nearly $100,000 within ten months. I fully expect that if Clinton is nominated, the Republicans will bring this and other accusations from the 1990s up again. Imagine, for the moment, that they do, and that there is some evidence -- suggestive, but not definite -- that a Democratic policy wonk I once spoke to about this was right to say: oh, well, that was obviously just a bribe. Maybe a legal bribe, but a bribe nonetheless*. (If you don't like this example, just imagine another one.)
How do you think Democrats would respond? I think that a number of us would be likely to narrow our eyes, dig in our heels, and assume that this was just one more false accusation, and prepare for battle. A significant number of us would be mad enough about the 1990s that we would not try to figure out whether this particular accusation had any truth to it, and if so, what we should do about it. I don't think this would be nearly as likely to happen if suggestive, but not definitive, evidence of wrongdoing by some other candidate came to light.
Or, more briefly: our anger would make us stupid. And stupid is not a good way to be if you want to win an election.
I take it it goes without saying that all of this is unfair. While I think that a number of criticisms of the Clintons, and perhaps a few attacks as well, might have been warranted, I don't think it was the least bit fair that they were subjected to either the amount or the kind of vilification that they received. And everything I've said above is true precisely because Hillary Clinton was vilified. It's because of that fact that many people are inclined to believe the worst of her reflexively. And it's also because of that fact that Democrats are inclined to react to attacks on her defensively and angrily.
But fairness isn't the point when it comes to nominating a candidate for the Presidency. No one is entitled to be the Democratic nominee, and all sorts of people have lost their chance to be nominated unfairly. It's unfair that Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson had to go up against one of the strongest Democratic fields in living memory. It's unfair that Paul Tsongas looked like a dweeb. It's unfair that Richard Nixon's five o'clock shadow played any role at all in the 1960 election, hard as I find it to regret its effects. I could go on and on, and that's without getting into all the people who didn't even bother to run, or for that matter to enter politics, for unfair reasons.
If we want to, we could take this opportunity to redress the injustices done to Hillary Clinton. Personally, I'd rather win, and win in a way that makes it harder for those kinds of injustices to be perpetrated on anyone in the future.
* Footnote: The policy wonk in question knows a lot about Washington, has worked there, and has followed politics quite closely for a long time. At the time we spoke, s/he had not made up his or her mind about whom to support; in particular, s/he had not decided against Clinton. I do not believe that s/he remembered the cattle futures scandal until I brought it up, so the fact that s/he was still undecided does not reflect a willingness to countenance what s/he took to be (possibly legal) bribery.