When people talk about Bill Clinton, I’m reminded of a common joke I’ve heard in Democratic circles: “He was the best damn Republican president we ever had.”
I can’t help but feel the same suspicion as Hillary Clinton’s all-but-certain 2016 presidential run looms ever closer, and that giving in to the myth of Hillary’s ‘inevitability’ will resign Democrats into voting in another ostensibly liberal candidate who turns out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Hillary isn’t her husband, but she’s already sending strong signals that she intends to continue the Clintonian legacy of triangulation and centrism that marked his presidency. In speeches this week, Clinton went out of her way to praise Dubya for his support of New York City reconstruction efforts (was he supposed to say no?) and brought up the ultimate meaningless Beltway maxim that “We’ve lost the essential role of relationship-building and consensus-building.”
Actually think about this statement. The current woes plaguing America have little to do with the fact that Democrats and Republicans are too mean to one another to build working relationships, or that they just can’t agree on anything. They do, however, have almost everything to do with a right-wing movement in this country that has collectively lost its marbles over the fact that America’s demographics are changing. They have everything to do with a Republican Party that has sold out completely to big money and their corporatist Democratic enablers. It has to do with a shrinking middle class, stagnant wages and a Congress much more interested in pushing pointlessly destructive austerity policies than investing in the United States’ future.
Clinton thinks that if we could just shake off our collective disdain for another, shake hands and meet in the middle, then our problems would be solved. Never mind that the centrist “middle” is now solidly right-of-center thanks to the GOP’s shift to the far right over the past few decades, or that the only compromises the modern incarnation of the Republican Party are interested in making are those that attack Democratic sacred cows like social security, Medicare and Medicaid, or even food stamps. Whereas a truly progressive candidate for POTUS would be genuinely interested in charting a new path for the country, Clinton is more interested in reassuring us she will mend the fractures between Democrats and Republicans than ensuring liberal Democrats actually win.
Centrism isn’t a virtue. In fact, when Republicans are farther to the right than ever before, a president that feels comfortable making broad concessions to GOP policy priorities could be downright dangerous. As Truthout’s Joseph Mulkerin recently pointed out, Clinton happens to be one of the most hawkish Democrats on foreign policy in D.C. today, has deep-running financial and political connections to major Wall Street firms, backs fracking and won’t talk about the Keystone XL pipeline, and offers little criticism of the post-9/11 security state. She has repeatedly taken politically convenient, reactionary social stances like promoting federal laws designed to crush violent video games (essentially a more aggressive version of the Comics Code). Republicans, of course, won’t ever accept Clinton as a legitimate president, just as they were scornful of the elected authority of President Obama or her husband. But they will happily chisel away at the “moderate” edges of her White House, carving out the parts that Third Way Democrats don’t find politically convenient.
The damage that can be done by this kind of ill-advised partisan maneuvering is immense. Remember when Bill Clinton sold out on welfare?
Noam Scheiber has been among those who called out “a group of Democratic elites associated with the Clinton era who, though they may have moved somewhat leftward in response to the recession — happily supporting economic stimulus and generous unemployment benefits — still fundamentally believe the economy functions best with a large, powerful, highly complex financial sector.” These folks have been stalwart defenders of the status quo and proved crucial limiting financial reforms like the Dodd-Frank legislation, and they are on Team Hillary.
The supposed inevitability of a Clinton presidency, by the way, is much more of a self-serving myth promoted aggressively by her supporters than it ever was a reality (as demonstrated most aptly by Obama’s stunning rise to the top in 2008). The Observer’s Lincoln Mitchell warns the Clinton camp of the risks of “a dynamic progressive candidate can put a campaign together … superior fundraising and connections cannot make up for being out of sync with the base.”
But it might already be too late. Unfortunately, with credible contender Elizabeth Warren almost certainly out of the race before it’s begun, a lovable Vice President Joe Biden who is considerably more conservative than most of the other contenders, a 73-year-old socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders from Vermont who is probably unelectable, and a slew of immensely unlikable characters like sleazeball New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo bringing up the rear, progressives don’t have many good options for 2016 that are at least as liberal as Obama. Hillary continues to poll well, though that probably has as much to do with the lack of any serious opposition than love of Clinton herself.
I’m so not ready for Hillary, but I am also immensely skeptical that anyone else can capture the energy and spirit of the left in time to stop her from sitting behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office in 2017. But I do have a little hope: After all, it happened in 2008.