“Polarizing” Means “Well-Known”

We might as well get this over with before HRC’s announcement of candidacy, and fortunately, Mark Leibovich of the New York Times Magazine has provided a departure point for analysis of the inevitable talk about Clinton being a “polarizing figure,” which we will hear about 10,000 times on Sunday and Monday.

To say that Hillary Rodham Clinton is a polarizing figure — as people do all the time — is to suggest that politics was like a big campfire singalong until this pantsuited fomenter showed up and turned us all against one another. Not true. No one person is to blame, or thousand people, or president, or talking head. The country has been divided for a long time and for a variety of reasons: the flood of money into the political system; the perverse proliferation and specialization of negative ads; partisan news channels; and the proverbial “coarsening of our culture.”

You could also add “because we disagree over a lot of important things, and the two political parties have come to represent the two sides in the most important disagreements.” But hey, maybe that’s just me thinking that way.

In any event, Leibovich is right: every well-known politician comes to be seen as “polarizing,” because our politics are polarized. And HRC has been well-known–not to mention thoroughly imagined–for a long, long time. I sometimes wonder how many of the journalists who routinely write about HRC as “polarizing” remember or are even aware that in her husband’s first term as president she was generally thought of as leading the left wing of the administration (that probably ended when she broke with former mentor and employer Marian Wright Edelman, who publicly attacked Bill for signing the 1996 welfare reform bill)–a sort of Red Queen to Bill’s King Bubba. Now she’s perceived (among progressive Democrats, at least) as dangerously “centrist”–yet, somehow, exceptionally “polarizing.”

Initially, reporters said Clinton was “polarizing” because she was a transitional figure in the culture wars as they existed a quarter-century ago. She was a working woman and full political partner with (gasp) feminist tendencies. Among would-be first ladies in the early 1990s, these were exotic qualities. Today Hillary Clinton is a cautious and exceedingly diplomatic politician, perhaps to her detriment. (She is often criticized for being “calculating” and “robotic.”) If anything, her willingness to be deliberate, speak carefully and appeal to the political center was a big part of what sank her with liberal Democrats who opted for Barack Obama in 2008. If Clinton really were polarizing, wouldn’t the left be more excited about her? Wouldn’t people be roused from their “Clinton fatigue”?

That’s all true, though I think Leibovich himself overrates the ideological implications of the 2008 contest; Obama was backed by a lot of “centrists” himself–e.g., Sam Nunn, Tim Kaine, Ben Nelson–and a lot of people backed him on “electability” grounds, too. But in any event, as president the more Obama moved “to the center” the more he became a “polarizing” figure himself, at which point he finally learned to live with–and benefit from–it.

If I were, God forbid, advising Ted Cruz, you know what I’d tell him to say to Republicans worried about “electability?” People vote for the party, not the candidate, for president these days, so your decision is really about what kind of president you’ll get if we win. I won’t squander the presidency if it’s given to me, like the father and brother of another candidate did; you’ll get the full dinner pail of conservatism.

And that’s true on the Democratic side, too: if Martin O’Malley or Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or–Lord help us–Linc Chafee were to run and become viable, their “unfavorables” would rise to HRC’s level pretty fast. So the Donkey Party should accept that it’s going to have to save itself in 2016.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.