I saw an interesting little device online the other day, which mocks academic speak. I layed around a bit with it and decided that it probably couldn’t quite write my entire dissertation for me. But I did come away with a greater understanding of how Bill Clinton speaks: stringing together feel-good keywords and thoughts with little regard for their ideological coherence. These days, Clinton has decided that behaving like a technocrat—someone who thinks that all of society’s problems can be managed without recourse to “politics”...a very political statement in and of itself—is the best way of promoting the Clinton political brand.
This kind of manoeuvring has always characterised the Clintons: they try to walk a fine line, pleasing the greatest number of people, offending the fewest, and offering nothing of substance to anyone. It’s now Bill Clinton has become the Grand Old Man of American politics: gibbering in homilies and indecipherable technocratic-speak, pretending that politics can be an ideology-free zone.
The Clintons and their hangers-on recently killed a film about Hillary Clinton (which was to be made by Charles Ferguson, the director of the Inside Job for CNN) because they feared that it would be too critical, by pulling strings in the Democratic Party and foreclosing the director’s access to those with connections to the Clintons. In a piece attacking the Clinton Cabal for their obstructionism, Ferguson recounts an episode in which Bill Clinton attempted to re-write his economic legacy, mangling the facts and distorting what actually occurred. “He paused”, Ferguson recalled, “and then became even more soulful, thoughtful, passionate, and articulate. And then he proceeded to tell me the most amazing lies I’ve heard in quite a while”.
If the Clintons have an “essence”, this is it. Bill Clinton has always been more interested in a good—and ideally self-serving—story than in anything as dull, and potentially-debilitating and dangerous as the truth. This explains his efforts to constantly massage the latter beyond recognition in the service of his career. A political record, after all, can be a capricious thing...decisions taken for short-term gain often don’t look so smart given a little bit of hindsight or moral fibre.
Hillary Clinton, in running for the presidency, will suffer from the same problem. In 2008, Samantha Power, current Ambassador to the United Nations, described Clinton as a “monster”, noting that “she is stooping to anything...You just look at her and think ‘Ergh’...the amount of deceit she has put forward is really unattractive”. Power since recanted her views and worked with Clinton in the Obama administration, but I think she was right.
As First Lady, Clinton famously opposed a destructive and punitive bankruptcy bill (at the personal urging of Elizabeth Warren) before voting for it when New York’s financial services industry put on the pressure. She’s been For and Against NAFTA, depending on the audience. She took the same approach to George W Bush’s debilitating No Child Left Behind Act, voting for the law and then recanting to gain the support of progressives. And the gas tax.
Most famous, of course, are her neoconservative foreign policy credentials. She provided the rubber stamp for the illegal war of aggression the U.S. waged in Iraq as Senator, and followed the tide of public opinion rather than her own ragged conscience into very belated and half-hearted opposition of the war, giving the impression of a truculent kid crossing her fingers behind her back. As Secretary of State, Clinton was the most aggressive voice in the administration for the escalation of the terrible war in Afghanistan and its expansion to Pakistan. She also embraced the idea of a global war of terror, stretching from Pakistan to Yemen, from Somalia to Algeria. She has advocated an imperialist foreign policy which has killed thousands of Americans, hundreds of thousands of world citizens, and has left our country indebted and insecure.
As Secretary of State, Clinton stayed true to her earlier rejection of international law. Stephen Zunes describes how Clinton supported regressive dictators in the face of democratic risings in the Middle East, praised regimes hostile to women’s rights (her prize cause), and backed Israeli colonialism and the corresponding tinderbox effect of that colonialism in the Middle East. Tellingly when it comes to her character, she ducked the big problems. Her tenure as our chief diplomat was very obviously not about seriously addressing the world’s most difficult problems, which could entangle her in unpopular or difficult decisions. It was about giving her an endless series of photo ops as she spoke on a range of “soft” topics.
Hillary’s rehabilitation with progressives is already underway in her post-State Department life. She has said we need a “sensible adult conversation” about openness and intelligence gathering. She blathered, “On the intelligence issue, we are democracies, thank goodness”. But to me this is just another flip-flop of convenience as opposed to conviction (a word which does not enter the Clinton lexicon). As Secretary of State in one of the most controlling and aggressively militant administrations in history, Clinton evinced no concern for the role of this intrusive spying in our international affairs. Her lack of knowledge about the NSA’s unmonitored programs, or her complacency about them—even when national security officials blatantly lied to Congress and the public—show her willingness to bring the tools of state intimidation and ultimately of terror to the home front, making her uniquely unsuited to be President.
And then there are her efforts to dodge a democratic contest. Richard Kim wrote about the nauseating entitlement which characterises Hillary Clinton’s efforts to drive other Democrats out of the race, and to get other leading party figures to turn the election into a coronation. “If her campaign gets hold of the Obama small-donor list”, Kim wrote, “it’s game over. And once in office, how can she not reward the loyalists who helped her out? The prospect of a Clinton restoration, frankly, fills me with dread”. Alec MacGillis describes how the Clinton Global Initiative “operates like an economy in which celebrity is the main currency”. Its “do-gooder” image aside, CGI is a repudiation of the democratic process, reflecting the ex-President’s belief (shared, for all we know, by his wife) that the global system should operate like a philanthropic club headed by the world’s plutocrats.
The Clintons appear determined to strip away every last social democratic principle from the Democratic Party and from American progressives. Bill’s two pyrrhic victories left social democracy in our country as nothing more than a withered husk, blown about by the dark storm rising on the fundamentalist right as Bill and his political hatchet men chased poll numbers around the electoral map. Ultimately, the party and the movement paid the price for standing by a president who was impeached as a liar even as he was discredited as a voice for social democracy.
But as opportunists usually do in our indulgent society, Clinton walked away to senior statesmanship, where he joins a pantheon of crooks and warmongers who rival the most monstrous of the Greek gods for sheer self-indulgence and destructive tendencies.
Amongst progressives, the Clintons were first embraced with enthusiasm. Then with gritted teeth, and the assumption that this time they’d get it right. Then they were momentarily rejected, their cheap, naked opportunism, shameless right-wingery, cringing deference to the corporate and military forces of American powerbrokers exposed for what they were. But now, incredibly, progressives are crawling to the family firm, somehow having persuaded themselves that There Is No Alternative.
Hillary and Bill operate under the assumption that what’s good for the Clintons is good for the country. But because the country might not recognise that, they operate from within a nasty cabal that suppresses competition to artificially-inflate their popularity. Their cabal smears opponents, and after the 2008 primary, you can be sure that the Clintons will be nastier and more preemptive than ever before, with more money and raw, undemocratic political power at their disposal. They will run a calculating, controlled campaign that will coast on celebrity and rely on calling favours while cutting off access, trying to obliterate their regressive record. If indeed the Democratic nomination goes substantively uncontested, Clinton will be free to tack as far to the right as she desires, and given that her ambitions know no bounds, we can expect our country to regress considerably.
In 2016 our country risks being caught between the Megalomania of the Clinton and the ruthless, sociopathic fundamentalism of the Republican Party. My own view is that our best hope lies with a serious, committed progressive like Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has been doing serious work while Clinton rakes in cash for anodyne speeches.
The New York Times described how Warren “is challenging the centrist economic approach that has been the de facto Democratic policy since President Bill Clinton and his fellow moderates took control o the party two decades ago”. The story also noted that “Warren said twice that she had no interest in running for president, a point her aides amplify privately”.
But I submit to Senator Warren and to progressives, social democrats, and anyone who thinks that our rightward shift over the past 45 years has harmed our country, that it can’t always be about the personal desires of politicians. Just as Hillary Clinton might learn that her consuming ambition to be President isn’t enough to overcome a regressive and opportunistic legacy, Elizabeth Warren might find that her personal disinterest in the presidency might prove no match for the fact that we need someone like her to remind us whose voices and economic interests should really matter in this country.