For Fear of Finding Something Worse
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, DC, on May 14, 2014
‘Why is Hillary Clinton so unpopular?’ David Brooks, a columnist at the New York Times, asked in May. Rather than looking at her political record, he examined her psyche: ‘Can you tell me what Hillary Clinton does for fun?’ If Hillary lacks appeal, he suggested, it is because of her temperament: She is completely absorbed in her career. Her unpopularity ‘is akin to the unpopularity of a workaholic,’ and her ‘formal, career-oriented persona puts her in direct contrast with the mores of the social media age, which is intimate, personal, revealing, trusting and vulnerable.’ This goodwill is surprising in a columnist who is usually close to the Republican Party. But rejection of Donald Trump is such that strange alliances are being formed.
According to Brooks, Hillary seems like a new arrival on the political scene, though she has been first lady, a US senator and secretary of state. Have people forgotten her support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, her three speeches to bankers at Goldman Sachs (for each of which she was paid $225,000), her backing of free trade agreements, and her support for the overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi? What of her conflict of interest with the Clinton Foundation — a family-owned philanthropic multinational — when she was part of the Obama administration? According to the New York Times, Foundation directors managed, after lobbying secretary of state Clinton, to have money earmarked for a US federal programme to combat AIDS in Rwanda transferred to a training programme set up by the Foundation.
Then there are Hillary’s links to Wall Street, which finances both her campaign and the Foundation. Even Trump has donated to the Foundation: more than $100,000 in 2009. Trump was friendly with Bill and Hillary for many years, and invited them to his third wedding, in 2005. They sat in the front row, and their broad smiles suggested they were enjoying the evening. That’s what Hillary does for fun.
Voting for Hillary in November in fact means voting for a couple, each the other’s closest adviser. Hillary has already shown her hand. If she wins, Bill will be ‘in charge of revitalizing the economy, because, you know, he knows how to do it.’
According to the image she promotes, Hillary has been a keen defender of children’s interests for more than 30 years; when Bill was governor of Arkansas, she allied herself with charitable organisations such as the Children’s Defense Fund, with a view to establishing a reputation as a caring person. But most of her time in the South was devoted to the Rose Law Firm, where she worked from 1977 to 1992, specialising in patent law and intellectual property. Rose, which embodies the collusion between politics and business in Arkansas, had among its clients Walmart, known for its hatred of trade unions and love of low-cost goods made in countries where the labour force can be exploited.
Hillary’s track record as a lawyer gained her a place on Walmart’s board, where she served from 1986 to 1992, receiving a salary of $18,000 a year ($31,000 today, allowing for inflation). She has always avoided mentioning in public anything that might upset Walmart, especially its policy of wage compression. (It’s hard to raise children on $19,427 a year, today’s average pay for a Walmart sales associate.) After travelling through the Deep South in 2013-4, Paul Theroux wrote that he had ‘found towns in South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas that looked like towns in Zimbabwe, just as overlooked and beleaguered’. He mocked the Clinton Foundation for running a ‘Partnership to Save Africa’s Elephants’ — a flagship programme — while ignoring poor black families in Arkansas.
From the start of his first term as president, Bill was keen to improve the financing of Democratic election campaigns, which had depended too much on major industrial trade unions, and set about shifting his party to the right. He promoted the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), as popular with multinationals as it was unpopular with Democrat voters. Hillary never opposed the agreement. In September 1992 she attended a crucial meeting in Arlington, Virginia, when Bill decided to support the agreement, which had been negotiated by President George H W Bush. She then helped define the strategy for getting recalcitrant Democratic Representatives on board. According to Tom Nides, a former member of the Clinton team, ‘this was member by member — figuring out what was in their district, figuring out who we could influence, how we could work it’. In November 1993 NAFTA was ratified with the help of Newt Gingrich, then Republican number two in the House of Representatives. In March 1996, she said: ‘I think NAFTA is proving its worth.’
Emboldened by his free-trade success, Bill began to go back on some principles of the US welfare state, created in the 1930s with Roosevelt’s New Deal. With the help of Gingrich, who had become speaker of the House of Representatives after the Democrats’ defeat in the 1994 midterm elections, he imposed a ‘reform’ of the US welfare system, depriving more than 11 million poor families of aid. In protest, Peter Edelman — husband of the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund — resigned as assistant secretary for planning. He wrote: ‘[The new law] does not promote work effectively, and it will hurt millions of poor children by the time it is fully implemented.’ Hillary was silent about the fact that children (notably black and Latino) were being penalised by Bill’s policies.
Bill later deregulated Wall Street with the help of his Republican ‘rivals’: In November 1999 he signed the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which since 1933 had separated commercial and investment banking, to discourage banks from speculating with small depositors’ money. Republican John McCain, and others, are now proposing a new Glass-Steagall Act. Not Hillary: her economic adviser Alan Blinder said last year: ‘You’re not going to see Glass-Steagall.’
Hillary’s political career really started in 2000, when she stood in the election for US senator for New York, parachuted into a state where she had never resided by her husband and his powerful allies in the Democratic Party. Once elected, she got on well with the Bush administration. In a speech to the Senate in October 2002, she confirmed her support for the invasion of Iraq, repeating the White House’s lies about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. She defended a ‘preventive’ war, drawing a parallel with the bombing of Yugoslavia, which Bill had decided in 1999, to ‘stop the dislocation and ethnic cleansing of more than a million Kosovar Albanians … And perhaps my decision is influenced by my eight years of experience on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, in the White House, watching my husband deal with serious challenges to our nation’. Not the words of a feminist, but unsurprising from a candidate whose Twitter profile begins ‘wife, mom, grandma’.
Hillary’s 2002 speech was remarkable for its banality of language, but it would be unfair to suggest that she wrote it herself. She frequently uses ghostwriters, who are rarely credited; Professor Barbara Feinman Todd complained that she was not mentioned in It Takes a Village(1996), Hillary’s bestseller about ‘lessons children teach us’. It is not even certain Hillary wrote her own memoirs: to tell the story of her time as secretary of state, she used a ‘book team’, whom she barely mentions.
The record of Hillary’s four years in charge of US foreign policy does not inspire confidence. In 2011, when the Libyan rebellion was growing, she was cautious: ‘I’m one of those who believes that absent international authorisation, the United States acting alone, would be stepping into a situation whose consequences are unforeseeable.’ Then she changed her mind: ‘I got an earful about military intervention from Sarkozy. He is a dynamic figure, always full of ebullient energy, who loves being at the center of the action … Sarkozy was also influenced by the French public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy … They were both genuinely moved by the plight of the Libyan people, suffering at the hands of a brutal dictator.’ Seduced by the Frenchmen, and to avoid a ‘humanitarian disaster’, she joined the interventionist camp and, with President Obama, led the US into a new war without seeking congressional approval, though the constitution requires it. Fortunately, it all ended well: ‘Over the next 72 hours, Libya’s air defences were successfully destroyed and the people of Benghazi were saved from imminent devastation.’ The rest of the book is in the same vein.
Hillary knows that her rightwing image is the final obstacle to winning over the supporters of Bernie Sanders. Drawn to the left by her ‘socialist’ rival’s success in the primaries, she has recently put forward progressive measures: taxing banks that have too much debt, increasing the minimum wage to $12 an hour, regulating university tuition fees according to family income. Her U-turn on free trade has been spectacular. In November 2012 she praised the Trans-Pacific Partnership: ‘This TPP sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade.’ But the criticism by Trump and Sanders of free trade seem to be convincing voters, and in October 2015 Hillary said: ‘As of today, I am not in favor of what I have learned about it. I don’t believe it’s going to meet the high bar I have set.’ On 7 July her allies blocked an effort by the Sanders campaign to have the Democratic Party officially oppose a congressional vote on TTP.
Hillary seems more predictable than Trump, who has increased his verbal attacks on ‘radical Islamists’ and ‘immigrants’. Her calm and sense of proportion have even won over some Republicans. Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett Packard, who was finance co-chair of presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s exploratory committee, has openly declared her support, as has neoconservative Robert Kagan, a former Romney adviser. The Bush family have said they will abstain in the election.
Hillary also has the unfailing support of the media establishment, which presents her as the last line of defence against barbarism. David Remnick, editor of theNew Yorker, asked: ‘Has a presidential election ever suggested more vividly divergent candidates than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump? … Clinton will have to campaign with unwavering poise against the most dangerous and unpredictable variety of opponent — a demagogue who is willing to trespass every boundary of decency to win power.’
This recalls the confrontation between President Jacques Chirac and Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002, when the French left was obliged to support a rightwing candidate to protect the country from the ‘fascist danger’. But Chirac was more progressive than Hillary, especially on foreign policy. The US presidential campaign is more like a contest between Angela Merkel and Silvio Berlusconi, in which the US left has decided to support Merkel.