Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Sins of the Husband

One of the premises of truth and reconciliation commissions is you do not get reconciliation without first confronting truth. The words are in that order for a reason. And for that reason, real party unity cannot be achieved without unpacking some post-primary dirty laundry before the suitcases start to stink.

Well, I still have a few more suitcases on the baggage claim carousel to post. This is another one.

In my last post, I explored a few intriguing ambiguities. I looked at some claims of sexism that had valid arguments on both sides. One question I did not get to was "Is it sexist to link Hillary Clinton to her husband administration's profoundly un-progressive policies in the 1990s?" And there are indeed many misdeeds: DOMA, DADT, NAFTA, Welfare Reform, The Crime Bill, etc. As a friend of mine pointed out, it is pretty misogynistic to paint her as some kind of power-mad Lady Macbeth figure, pulling strings behind the scenes. And yet it also seems pretty sexist to deny her agency entirely. This First Lady was not just auditing a class and listening-in: She was an actively-involved political partner. She was the most formidable FLOTUS since Eleanor Roosevelt - if not ever. Strong arguments could be made either way, particularly given the great ambiguity of her status which kept fluctuating. 

On the one hand, the Clintons were clearly a political "power couple." On the 1992 campaign trail, Bill Clinton often promised that electing them would get us "two for the price of one." When Hillary Clinton presented the administration's health care plan to Congress, Rush Limbaugh squealed "WE DID NOT ELECT HER!" But we kind of did. Much of the right's hatred of her was based on the fact that she was not a conventional first lady. Moreover, when she was running for Senator of New York, she touted her time as FLOTUS as experience. Indeed, she reused it on her resume when running against Barack Obama in 2008. But now that it is a partial liability it is totally off-limits and sexist to mention? I don't think so.

On the other hand, it would be dishonest to ignore the fact that she still held no formal power as First Lady. Additionally, I quite understand that when you are a member of a team you have to go along with decisions that you might disagree with. Maybe Hillary Clinton voiced her misgivings internally but did not prevail in the end and then had to help present a united front and, well, sell the turd. Perhaps her "super predator" Crime Bill speech was the equivalent of Colin Powell's WMD speech to the UN. Who knows? And anyway, some may say, didn't Newt Gingrich force them to do all that bad stuff? For folks who believe that last bit, tagging Hillary Clinton with those decisions no doubt seems especially unfair.

However, there are a few of rejoinders to this defense.

First, Newt Gingrich didn't force them to do anything. The Clintons went to Washington in 1992 as "New Democrats" - a faction that sought to turn the party into G.O.P Lite. You may object to my blunt word choice, but that fact is not in dispute. As I wrote before, Bill Clinton basically gave the House to the GOP in 1994 by betraying labor unions on NAFTA. This move was incompetent as well as unconscionable. In elections, unions are to Democrats what Evangelicals are to Republicans: They are the foot soldiers who phone folks and ring doorbells, i.e. they do the shit work. Off year elections are dangerous enough for Democrats and you do not play chicken with party morale on top of that - especially not when the other party is not playing at all. But from day one, establishment pundits encouraged Bill Clinton to stand up to his base and he did not disappoint. In short, he had a Democratic Congress for two years until he totally torpedoed it by governing as a Republican. Nothing forced him to do that except his own centrist precepts.

Note, I referred to them collectively as "the Clintons" because this was not just one specific decision but their whole political ideology. It became their brand, which is why New Democrats are often called "Clinton Democrats." We can quibble over whether or not Hillary Clinton agreed with this or that particular policy, but we can safely assume that she was on board for at least half of them. Otherwise, why stay together? At the time, his career was their collective endeavor and she surely must have approved of its general direction. Mind you, I am in part looking at this through the lens of my own personal values: I do not date Republicans and I certainly would not stay married to anyone who was becoming one.* But this isn't just a matter of principle. It is a matter of energy. How could anyone pour themselves into a lifetime enterprise that they did not believe in? I have phone-banked for candidates that I felt lukewarm about and it was utter drudgery. I cannot imagine making that my entire life. It would be unsustainable. People do not do that if they have other options. Therefore, she must have approved at the time. Perhaps she now has her regrets, but it is not a feminist defense to paint her as a helpless captive on her husband's ship.

Second, most progressives would probably ignore her lengthy sojourn as First Lady if Hillary Clinton's subsequent careers as New York's Senator and Obama's Secretary of State were more liberal. Apologists are quick to point out that her voting record is "only slightly less liberal" than Bernie Sanders', but that is a deceptive yardstick. For openers, voting record comparisons only look at votes on bills that make it out of the committee process and onto the floor. By that point, they are compromised and homogenized. Your options are limited. It's a small menu with bland entrees and if not much looks good everyone is going to get the same dish. Moreover, the votes are not weighted by importance. A vote for war counts as much as a highway bill or naming a federal courthouse. If we were only going by her husband's record, that would indeed be grossly sexist and unfair, but if there is continuity in her solo career it becomes germane. And in the Senate, Hillary Clinton remained, well, a "Clinton Democrat" in the worst sense of the term. Indeed, as that Bill Moyers interview with Elizabeth Warren that I keep posting suggests, Hillary Clinton got more corporate. That continued as Secretary of State when she pressured Haiti not to raise their minuscule minimum wage. Snopes awkwardly defended Clinton by pointing out she was just continuing previous Bush policy. Yeah, that's the problem. And her hawkishness as Secretary of State suggests that her war votes were not isolated mistakes. In a prior post, I suggested her progressive clothes would fit better if she hired some progressive staffers to catch conservative-sounding gaffes in her prepared statements. Yet recently, she appeared before the National Education Association and praised charter schools(!) That's really not an applause line at the national teacher's union. Indeed, she got booed for it. And charter schools are precisely the kind of failed, right-wing, privatize-everything snake oil that centrist Democrats love to sign onto.

Finally, Hillary Clinton had campaigned on Nineties nostalgia in 2008 and she is doing so again in 2016. Therefore, it is pretty strange for her surrogates to insist that discussing it is sexist. Many of President Barack Obama's accomplishments consist of cleaning up previous administrations' disasters - George W. Bush's to be sure, but also Bill Clinton's. I am not saying that Hillary Clinton will bring back DOMA and DADT, but centrist Democrats are not exactly the most steadfast defenders of liberal interests. How do you revel in Nineties nostalgia and not remember this?

The Clinton camp's recurrent cake-and-eat-it-too position is a bit rich. Echoing her husband's previous "two for the price of one" promise, Hillary Clinton says Bill will play a major role in her administration. There are interesting parallels. Just like the first time, a spousal cabinet appointment was considered but quickly nixed. As a result, there is great ambiguity about what the spouse's official position would be. But the important point here is the temporal echo: She is explicitly invoking his presidency to actualize her's. So how can anyone say it is sexist to associate her future administration with his past one when she is doing it herself? Bill Clinton's administration was not Camelot and the tarnish comes with the luster.

To bring this point into focus, let's remove some variables. Specifically, let's take the Clintons themselves out of the equation. Imagine that we are talking about a male candidate campaigning on Nineties nostalgia. There is no prior spousal connection to the White House or any role ambiguity whatsoever. He's just a centrist Clinton Democrat whose last name isn't Clinton. And, unlike Obama, he's totally overt about it.

You don't think progressives would howl, cry foul, and try to stop him?


* A friend of mine bizarrely called this stipulation sexist, by which I suppose he maybe meant controlling. However, I think all autonomous people have a right to set deal-breakers when looking for compatible partners. I am not Democratic strategist James Carville and I must admit that I do not fully understand his marriage with Republican strategist Mary Matalin. I can understand wanting a strong, equal partner and I am familiar with the cliché that opposites attract, but it still puzzles me as a practical matter. I strongly suspect that their having separate careers allows them to work for mutually-antagonistic organizations. But the Clintons' careers are not compartmentalized that way. They have a shared enterprise and therefore should agree on the important things most of the time. ... I have had a lot of odd discussions this year.

No comments:

Post a Comment