Thursday, February 07, 2008

Why I Hope Hillary Is Not The Democratic Candidate for President

At the grave risk of alienating readers who are keen supporters of Hillary Clinton's campaign for the Presidency, I would like to explain my opposition to her bid.

As harsh as this may sound to her supporters, I believe her campaign--and thus her governing style--combine the very worst of her husband Bill's Presidency with the worst of George W. Bush's Presidency.

To wit: Hillary combines Bill Clinton's poll-driven emptiness with Bush's attack politics.

I am not a fan of either Bill Clinton's or George Bush's presidencies. Clinton accomplished very little, given the Democrats' initial control of Congress, and his most enduring accomplishment-- ending welfare as we know it--was a Republican platform plank which he glommed onto once his polls indicated the public supported it.

He did oversee a reduction in the relative size of the Federal Government and the Federal deficit--accomplishments the Republicans only paid lip-service to but never actually pursued--and he did stand up at several key foreign policy junctures: the stabilization of Haiti and the NATO bombing of Serbia (four years too late for all those slaughtered while he dithered, but nonetheless he finally agreed to use force).

His efforts at a comprehensive peace between Israel and Palestine were clearly sincere and well-intentioned. He was unlucky to draw Arafat as a negotiating partner, but lucky in drawing a booming economy which carried him through eight years of prosperity.

His inability to keep his trousers zipped up was the least of his failures as a leader. For he pioneered the "poll-driven presidency," in which a desire for approval is the leader's single propelling goal. Clinton succeeded in being a popular president, but he was the classic "empty suit": what exactly did he believe in that can be traced directly to policy? It is fair to say he believed deeply in trying to broker peace in the Mideast; but this was an easy thing to support because virtually every American favors peace in the Mideast.

What did he push which was deeply unpopular but vitally important? Medicare reform? Yes, his administration trimmed a bit of fat here and there, putting off the day of reckoning a few years; but what deeply divisive issue did Clinton oversee but welfare reform, which was essentially pushed on him by the Republican Revolution of 1994, when the Democrats' pandering and squabbling was rejected by voters?

As for George Bush, he has excelled at empowering hatchet men like Cheney and Karl Rove to do his "attack-politics" dirty work. His administration's contempt for the media (free press) is legendary, as is their obsessive control of "message."

I don't read material hatched in the "vast right-wing conspiracy," preferring mainstream political journals like The New Republic. It seems Hillary Clinton's campaign has learned all too well from the Bushies: like the Bush Administration, Hillary's campaign is run by a small circle of fanatical loyalists, and lower-rung staffers are terrified of being caught "off-message." Both the Bushies and Hillaryites treat the press to robotic "on message" events which are tightly managed and controlled.

How is this different from any political campaign? Of course the "message" is controlled in every campaign, but you need some sense of history to see just how far we have come from a healthy relationship between the press and the candidates.

There were few tougher, more paranoid politicos than Richard Nixon, but even Nixon could sit down with Hunter S. Thompson (gonzo journalist) and discuss college and pro football at length. This simply doesn't happen in either the Bush or Hillary camps, where sycophants and control freaks essentially rule the roost.

I keep trying to ascertain what core beliefs are powering Hillary's quest for the Presidency, but her positions are constantly "nuanced" into favorless pablum by her "poll-driven politics" machine, depending on her audience of the moment.

Good Ole Bill has been recruited as attack-dog, something which raised a few eyebrows even among Democratic stalwarts. Bill took time out of his busy schedule making millions as a huckster oops, I mean speaker, to remind Hispanic voters that their interests might not align with an African-American candidate's. Thanks, Bill, we as a nation desperately needed you to spout some Karl-Rove-like innuendo.

Bill wasn't the first president who eagerly sought popularity to salve his deep insecurities; Lyndon Johnson famously wanted to be popular, too. But he pushed through civil rights legislation which was extremely unpopular with southern politicians and their constituents, and he did so ruthlessly and at great political risk.

Bush and Hillary aren't the first politicians to surround themselves with a Praetorian Guard of fanatic loyalists; like Hillary, who feels abused by a "vast right-wing conspiracy," Richard Nixon felt abused by a "vast left-wing conspiracy" which he sought to identify with "Enemies Lists" and the like.

It seems crossing Hillary in Bill's White House was a good way to lose your kneecaps, or access to the President. By some insider accounts, V.P. Al Gore somehow fell out of favor with Hillary towards the end and as a result he was quickly marginalized.

Is Hillary as brilliant a strategic thinker as Nixon? You can be closed and controlling, of course, and yet bring nothing in the way of grand strategy to the table. The Watergate Crisis has overshadowed Nixon's other accomplishments, which become even more impressive when you consider he was opposed by an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress and faced with spiraling inflation and an unpopular war.

Here is Hillary's long piece in Foreign Affairs on her global views:

Security and Opportunity for the Twenty-first Century. The other candidates' pieces are roughly equivalent: more or less "restore America's standing in the world" plus other easily-supported positions. After all, who doesn't want to see America's standing in the world improve?

Nixon made horrendous mistakes, of course--not accepting a negotiated end to the Vietnam War in 1969, and imposing wage and price controls--but he also managed some innovative domestic policies such as block grants, and set the wheels in motion ("triangulating" the Soviet Union and China) to limit nuclear weapons for the first time (SALT I Treaty) and engage the Soviet Union and China in ways which led to the collapse of the USSR and the emergence of China.

To his credit, Bush doesn't seem to care much if he is popular or not. He is apparently drawing lower poll numbers than Richard Nixon just before he resigned.

What has Bush accomplished with his hatchet men and attack-politics? He has overseen the rot of the American economy, the ballooning of unsustainable deficits (he never used his veto to cut spending), the severe erosion of civil liberties via the excesses of The Patriot Act, etc., and the miring of the U.S. Military in the quagmire of Iraq.

Does George Bush have a Grand Strategy in Iraq a la Nixon's triangulation? It is difficult to tell, but judging by the incompetence of the occupation and the ineffective diplomacy his administration has pursued in the area, an objective observer finds precious little persuasve evidence of a brilliant Grand Strategy. The story has changed again and again as the need for support waxes and wanes; first, it was trumped-up "evidence" of WMD (weapons of mass destruction), then it was democracy, and now it is oil--oops, I mean, regional stability.

In fairness, I should note that Bush's diplomacy in Asia has been far more successful: Winning Asia: Washington's Untold Success Story by Victor D. Cha.

I fear Hillary has learned all the wrong lessons from her husband and from George Bush. From her husband she has clearly learned the value of "nuancing" every position to death, and using polls to massage her beliefs and policy stances to generate the desired results, i.e. "popularity."

From George Bush she has learned the value of suppressing media access, surrounding herself with fanatically protective sycophants and deploying hatchet-men to do her political dirty-work.

Like Nixon, she views any skepticism or probing of her campaign or positions as orchestrated attacks by a vast conspiracy, rather than evidence that some people don't like her, just as millions didn't like Nixon and thought him a dangerous phony. To counter this "right-wing conspiracy," she maintains rigid control over her entire staff, and woe to the staffer who speaks out of turn or "off-message."

Unlike Nixon, she does not have the redeeming quality of being a grand strategist; her platform is long on muddled, easy populism (universal healthcare) and short on vision--what President Bush I dismissed as "the vision thing." Like George W. Bush, she is an expert in partisan domestic politics, and in raking opponents over the coals via proxies.

From everything I have read--and precious little leaks out of her campaign that isn't pure "on-message" pablum--I conclude she has learned all the wrong lessons, and is the ideal candidate for "more of the same"-- more poll-driven "nuance" and more attack-politics, the very tools of governing most of us find most appalling and tiresome after sixteen long years of the Clinton-Bush administrations.

Could I be wrong, and Hillary is poised to become a great president? Of course I could be wrong; but little in her Senate career (which can be summarized as "keep your head down, go along to get along"), writings or very public history suggests that is likely.

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