Even before Hillary Clinton formally announced her intention to seek the office of the presidency, left-of-center pundits had been worried about the appearance of primogenitor. While the Republicans are generally comfortable with the coronation of heirs to the party’s nomination, the Democrats are not. There’s something monarchical about political ascension, the pundits say, something authoritarian and dynastic: it’s anathema to the principles of egalitarianism and meritocracy.
After Jeb Bush announced the launch of his exploratory committee, Glenn Greenwald, the civil-libertarian journalist, said a matchup between the wife and son/brother of former presidents would “vividly underscore how the American political class functions: by dynasty, plutocracy, fundamental alignment of interests masquerading as deep ideological divisions, and political power translating into vast private wealth and back again. The educative value would be undeniable.”
David Corn didn’t go as far as Greenwald. But he found Clinton’s apparent inevitability equally distasteful. Corn advanced the name of former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley as a foil. O’Malley, he said, “would make a good sparring partner. He’s a smart guy with sass, but he’s not a slasher, who could inflict long-lasting political damage.” Critically important, he said, is that Clinton shouldn’t assume victory. Only with a primary fight, Clinton would “earn—not inherit—the nomination,” Corn wrote. “She’d be a fighter, not a dynastic queen. The press and the public would have something to ponder beyond just Clinton herself.”
I admire Corn and Greenwald immensely, and agree with them mostly. But I’d argue their assessments, as well as those of others in the left-liberal commentariat, are not arguments. Instead, they are statements reflecting a discomfort with power, a discomfort widely shared among Democrats. Meanwhile, Republicans have no such qualms whatsoever.
Despite her flaws, Clinton and her campaign represent a singular moment in the history of the Democratic Party. Namely, there probably has not been this much party unity since 1964 when President Lyndon Baines Johnson, campaigning in the memory of an assassinated president, beat conservative Barry Goldwater in a landslide. But that unity failed to last. Four years later, in the shadow of Vietnam and in the backlash against the Civil Rights Act, LBJ’s Democratic Party would crack up forever.
In the wake of that crack-up, the Republicans routinely won by deploying an array of wedge issues to divide and conquer—from Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” in 1968, to George H.W. Bush’s “Willie Horton” attack in 1988, to his son’s “gays, guns, and God” in 2004. But by 2008, something essential had shifted. Barack Obama forged a coalition among minorities, young voters, and white liberals and John McCain refused to go negative on his opponent’s race, fearing backlash. In 2012, the Obama coalition held despite Mitt Romney’s clumsy attempts at race baiting.
Holding that coalition together is vital to maintaining the gains, large and small, made in eight years of unprecedented, massive, and total resistance on the part of the Republicans. And I’m not only talking about the Affordable Care Act, which is transforming life for millions, nor the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, which is finally taking effect.
Since 2013, when Obama realized he’d get nothing in terms of legislation from the Republicans, the president used his executive authority to make several small-bore advances in climate change, immigration, foreign policy, gay rights, and the minimum wage (among federal contractors). All it takes to turn that around is the next Republican president.
In 2000, Ralph Nader won a few million votes by claiming there was no difference between the major parties. While his message was undeniable, his campaign was indisputably destructive. Nader’s take of the popular vote was enough for George W. Bush to beat Al Gore by a hair. In addition to a disastrous war, giveaways to the wealthy, and incompetent governance, we have Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito, who, along with the high Court’s Republican majority, believe money has no corrupting effect on politics and that closely held businesses may discriminate on the basis of religious liberty.
Nader isn’t responsible for the Bush era. My point is that the stakes are high—too high to worry about a candidate’s foibles and fret over a “dynastic queen.” That matters less than Clinton’s being a Democrat who will, at the very least, hold the line against attempts to redistribute more wealth upward, to dismantle the welfare state, to privatized the public sphere, and wage more war abroad. Hopefully, if Clinton wins in 2016, she will build on the progressive record started by her predecessor.
Left-liberals are right in saying Clinton must clarify her positions on immigration, Wall Street, unemployment, foreign policy, and a host of other issues. She has been and will continue to be like her husband: maddeningly circumspect and hard to pin down. But that, in addition to all the other complaints thus far, doesn’t amount to an argument against her winning the nomination. Those complaints reflect liberals’ unease with power and the use of that power to protect hard-won progressive gains.
It’s time to get over that.
After all, voting is a political strategy that hopes to achieve political ends, not a quadrennial occasion to assess a candidate’s ideological worth.
[Cross-posted at The National Memo]