Thursday, February 21, 2008

In praise of Hillary

So I was watching Jon Stewart on Larry King last night, and he said something that I found kind of bizarre: he basically proposed that Bill Clinton had subconsciously sabotaged his wife's campaign because they have such an obviously dysfunctional relationship. I found this bizarre, but then he said something that got my attention. Probably not an exact quote, but he mimicked Bill, saying "How dare you humiliate my wife -- that's my job!"

Now, I've criticized her campaign because, er, I think it's been worse than Obama's. But I don't want to be either a) the guy who only starts saying nice things about the other candidate after they've won, or b) the guy who only says nice things after they've lost. So let's set a few things straight.

First of all, Hillary Clinton has earned this shot at the White House. That's not the same as me saying she "deserves" the nomination, but if she wins enough delegates to win at the convention, I'll be rooting for her all the way. I laughed at her claim that being first lady counted as job experience for the Oval Office, but there's one thing that I think needs to be very clear: people who think she wouldn't be where she is without her husband have it, I think, exactly wrong. Even before he was elected President, Hillary Clinton had to endure some pretty humiliating things in order to ensure that Bill made it to the White House. A woman who wasn't committed to her husband's success could have torpodoed his campaign at any time. Nobody on Earth has been as lucky to have Hillary Clinton around as Bill has been. And anyone who thinks that Hillary Clinton endured the humiliation of Gennifer Flowers -- remember her? -- because she was planning her Presidential bid with a 16-year time horizon needs to get their heads checked. In short, Bill owes at least as much to Hillary as she owes to him.

But plenty of women have been humiliated, though few as publicly, and they don't get a shot at the White House. So it's worth pointing out that, while she hasn't run the best campaign, nor do I think she's the best candidate, she's still run a pretty good campaign, and she is still in fact a superb candidate. (Her biggest weakness, bizarrely, is her campaign.) None of this would have been predictable from her two previous elections. In 2000, she was a shoe-in after Giuliani dropped out, and in 2006 nobody even bothered to learn the name of her GOP candidate. So the fact that she's done as well as she has is a welcome development. Her campaign is correct when they point out that, outspent and out-staffed, she's still doing very well considering. (I think that Obama's fundraising, both the volume and the type of small donations, speak volumes about both candidates, but that's an issue for another day.) And I think that Sen. Clinton would make an excellent 2nd President Clinton.

It's stylish, at the moment, to bash Clinton's campaign, and I've bashed along with everyone else. But I think it's worth pointing out just how good the Democrats have it this year: Hillary Clinton took as many votes -- losing -- as all the GOP candidates combined yesterday night in Wisconsin. And this was only the latest in a string of states where that is true. If Obama had decided that 2008 wasn't his year, Hillary wouldn't just have won by now, but I think people would be talking about Sen. Clinton in much the same way they're talking about the Obama juggernaut now. Or to shift the emphasis slightly, John McCain won against two non-entities who he should have crushed by now, while Clinton is pulling 45% against one of the best/luckiest campaigns of the decade. If this comes down to getting out the vote, I think Clinton can still win in November.

McCain has this weird aura of electoral strength around him that I've never understood. Yesterday the New York Times has dug up some old stuff about the S&L scandal, plus some sex thing, and given what the Dems will inevitably have to go through that's fine. But I truly don't understand people who think he's going to be tough to beat. This is a guy who couldn't get Republicans to vote for him in 2000, and has barely gotten Republicans to vote for him in 2008. And I'm supposed to believe America is going to flock to his banner? With an even half-competent Democratic opponent, I just don't think it's gonna happen.

But a competent campaign is what it's going to come down to, and this is where Sen. Clinton's weakness has been. And here the fawning ends, because (without dismissing the obvious sexism the Clinton campaign has had to face) Clinton's worst wounds have been self-inflicted. Mark Penn is a moron, and he's the one person who's head hasn't rolled but most deserves to. But even without the self-inflicted wounds, the point remains that Obama has run, I think objectively, a much better campaign. Better organized, better planned, and now better-funded. It all adds up, no surprise, to winning more votes. Which is how you win, right?


Anonymous said...

Her biggest weakness, bizarrely, is her campaign

I disagree. I think her campaign has been a display of some of her biggest weaknesses, but it's not entirely why she's losing right now.

I think her biggest weakness is her inability to see that GWB has fundamentally altered US foreign policy in a way that means "we can't go back again". She's viewing US foreign policy through the lens of her experience with the White House and she still thinks the old rules are in play. Hence her continued support for her own vote on the AUMF in Iraq (yes, she says she was lied to by the administration - but the underlying principle that the US is allowed in pre-emptively invade another country if we think it might be a threat to someone, somewhere that the US has an interest in has not been repudiated). As well as her continuing to do stupid things - like her vote and subsequent justification for Kyl-Lieberman.

If she had reversed course on the war and become a full-throated critic Obama wouldn't have had a foothold. The thing about Obama that caused many people to give him a second look - the thing I would argue gave him enough cache to be able to mount a run in the first place - is that he was right about Iraq from the start. If that difference hadn't existed between them Obama would have been a non-starter. There wouldn't have been enough difference between he and Clinton for anyone to bother - fancy speechifying or no.


john said...

I'm gonna weasel out and say, "it depends". If she'd reversed course in 2007, I don't think it would have helped her much -- Obama would be able to say she was being opportunistic.

Meanwhile, if she'd reversed course in 2004 or 5, and then won re-election as a war critic in NY state, that could have undercut Obama severely. But I think you're right -- there's no reason to believe she would have done that: she supported (supports?) the war, and can't really run as a critic...

Anonymous said...

Meanwhile, if she'd reversed course in 2004 or 5, and then won re-election as a war critic in NY state, that could have undercut Obama severely. But I think you're right -- there's no reason to believe she would have done that: she supported (supports?) the war, and can't really run as a critic...

I know it may be naive, but I actually take Clinton at her word. I think she believes in liberal interventionism, in American Exceptionalism, and that the office of the President should have a strong level of independence from Congress in the area of foreign policy. When you read her speeches, her responses from questions about her war stance, and look at her voting record, they all point to someone with these beliefs.

And its not like those are particularly radical beliefs in America either - not among our elites nor among our general populace. I wish those were more radical beliefs, but they're pretty darn mainstream. When she says she was tricked by the Bush administration I have no doubt that that's true - they tricked her into thinking that there was a threat to our allies in the region and that they would be able to responsibly deal with the situation if granted the authority to do so. (The fact that Clinton was unable to tell that the Bush Administration was singularly incompetent and therefore unable to do the latter is another example of her "poor judgment" in character, comparable to trusting Mark Penn but much, much more stupid and with far worse consequences).

This is why I actually think that the whole "calculating bitch" meme about Clinton is so off the mark. If she were really such a brilliant and calculating politician, she could have easily seen which way the wind was blowing in '04 and switched her stance then. History had shown that Bush was incompetent and that he wasn't going to get any better. Being a vocal critic of the administration's war politicking wasn't going to hurt her in New York either. But she stuck with it, and I think it's because she actually believes in it, if not the folks who are prosecuting it.