Hillary Clinton is a conventional Democrat. That’s not a dig. No, these days it’s a controversial statement. Once again, just as it did eight years ago, the cacophony coming from many on the left is that Clinton is wooden, inauthentic, untrustworthy, and uncommitted to Democratic goals. While it’s unsurprising that a national party leader for the last twenty-five years, with all the burdens and baggage that comes with such responsibility and longevity, would have challenges with very liberal voters, the vitriol and scorn with which many on the left continue to depict the most powerful woman in America is utterly inexplicable. Oh sure, they’ve got plenty of reasons. There’s the Iraq war; her support from Goldman Sachs and Super PACs; her many gaffes and those awful laughs; and that unseemly way she strives for the presidency at all costs. But of course, a version of these very critiques could be said about any of the major Democrats to seek the nomination over the last half-century. Yet, all too many on the left seem to take it as an article of faith that Clinton is particularly dishonest, conniving, awkward, and unreliable, without ever challenging or articulating the specific basis for these assumptions.
This distressing trend began to boil over in late October when the media-created Biden boom failed to result in a challenge from the Vice-President. The proposed Biden candidacy was always an absurdity. Oh, unquestionably Biden is a magnetic personality with a particularly endearing charm and real political talent. That some would want him to be president is not only unsurprising, it was to be expected. But nomination fights are, well, political. Clinton ideally positioned herself inside the Democratic Party and with Democratic activists to be the inheritor of the Obama legacy. Why would Democrats choose the candidate who won 0.9% of the vote in the 2008 Iowa Caucuses over the one who took 48% of the popular vote throughout all fifty states that same year? Her popularity during her tenure as Secretary of State was immense. As a strong runner-up in 2008, who set aside personal disappointment for service to country, and who has served as inspiration to millions of women both as a candidate and as a cabinet official, the rationale for her comeback was compelling. Indeed, party leaders, even those who supported Obama over Clinton the last time around, began endorsing Clinton’s potential 2016 candidacy as early as 2013. Moreover, it’s not as if Biden was measurably different ideologically from Clinton. They both voted for the Iraq war, both supported the Obama agenda and legacy, and were both involved in the most consequential decisions of the current President’s tenure. If anything, Biden’s record on financial regulation was to Clinton’s right. Finally, even though Clinton can often be a robotic campaigner, Biden’s undisciplined, gaffe-prone style has always been considered his greatest liability. There was never a reason for Biden to run, except that some people just can’t abide the thought of a Hillary Clinton presidency.
In an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher on October 9th, less than two weeks before Biden’s announcement, Andrew Sullivan denounced Clinton as an “unbelievably useless, terrible candidate,” a “talentless hack” and “a mediocrity.” Even for Sullivan, a commentator known for being wrong as much as his strident manner of doing so, it was an embarrassing and disquieting display. It cannot be said strongly enough that these opinions are not just wrong, they are unreasonable. Whatever you think about Ms. Clinton, she is unquestionably talented, smart, and capable. And while Sullivan is not exactly a liberal, he has recently sided with Democrats at the national level—endorsing John Kerry in 2004 and Obama in 2008—and made these comments in lamenting the Democrats’ weak slate to challenge Trump and the Republicans.
Such sentiments are increasingly reflected in left-leaning media and among liberal activists. And it’s more than acceptable to question whether the hand-wringing and tongue-clucking would be quite so deafening if it were Bill and not Hillary now out on the stump. Rebecca Traister, writing about gender in the 2008 presidential election in her excellent book Big Girls Don’t Cry, saw much the same thing in the Clinton-Obama contest eight years ago:
A pattern was emerging in the liberal, privileged, predominantly white climes in which I worked and lived: young men were starry-eyed about Obama and puffed with outsized antipathy toward Clinton. Swearing up and down that it wasn’t because of her sex, they’d reel off dozens of reasons for not wanting to vote for her. But I was made uncomfortable by the persistent note of aggression that marked their reactions to Clinton, and puzzled by the increasingly cult-like devotion to Obama, a man whose policy positions were not so different, after all, from those of his opponent.
It was hard to be involved or interested in the 2008 Democratic primary and not notice this phenomenon. Indeed, Clinton and Obama ran on essentially identical platforms, with only two meaningful differences in their policies. The main difference, of course, was foreign policy—Obama touted his early opposition to the Iraq War and his willingness to negotiate with Iran without precondition. The second, however, concerned Clinton and Obama’s differing healthcare plans on whether to include a mandate requiring all Americans to buy insurance. Here, Obama was the more “centrist” candidate. Indeed, his arguments against the mandate included in Clinton and Senator John Edwards’s plans often regurgitated conservative talking points used to attack reform. As soon as entered the Oval Office, though, Obama adopted the Clinton-Edwards individual mandate as a critical component of his healthcare law and was forced to face, and reject, many of his own previous arguments. On balance, it was hardly clear that Obama was the significantly more liberal candidate at the time.
Now the same pattern identified by Traister is emerging in the burgeoning Clinton-Sanders brawl in 2016. Many of Sanders’s most vocal supporters skew male, white, and affluent and have repeatedly shown disdain for Clinton and the feminist case for her candidacy. Sanders, to his credit, has been remarkably sensitive to the unequal treatment Clinton has received and has rejected some of the most puerile sexist attacks leveled against Clinton thus far. But when vocal Sanders supporters frequently write sarcastic pieces with lines like “[m]iddle America likes one thing, and that is to be constantly and relentlessly accused of sexism against incredibly rich women who have held positions of power most of us could never dream of[,]” there is more going on at the grassroots level than simple policy distinctions.
Many unaffiliated liberals have used similar language. As it so often is with women candidates, the real problem is allegedly Clinton’s personality. In an open letter to Clinton, the liberal columnist Paul Waldman wrote, “[i]f you’re going to win, you have to get over your propensity for self-pity.” He continued,
If you can’t, you won’t see your own mistakes when you make them. For instance, Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman report in Politico, which states that “[b]oth Clintons still attribute [her 2008] defeat to fawning coverage of her rival.” Oh, please—get over it. Did Barack Obama get good press coverage during the 2008 primaries? Yes, he did. Is that why he beat you? No, it isn’t. He beat you because he was a better candidate than you were, and ran a campaign that was vastly superior to yours in every way…. You’ve come a long way to get here, and this time there is no hotshot young senator ready to take you out in the primaries. But for all the distance you have traveled, there are still things you need to prove. You need to prove that you can accept responsibility when it’s necessary. You need to prove that you can learn from your mistakes and correct your shortcomings. Perhaps most of all, you need to prove that you’re worthy of what you’re asking of your supporters: their time, their money, their enthusiasm, but most importantly, their trust.
Waldman is a good, progressive writer, but the patronizing tone oozing from this paragraph is palpable and discomfiting. Why is it that Clinton needs to “accept responsibility” for an email server that became a public relations disaster, but not a threat to national security of a violation of law? Yeah lady, you may be an accomplished lawyer, former First Lady, two-term Senator, and Secretary of State, but you haven’t proved yourself yet. Clinton has many flaws, but it is simply unfathomable that liberals would speak in this same manner to the equally gaffe-prone, male nominees of Democratic past.
Indeed, this is at the heart of the hollowness of liberal critiques of Ms. Clinton. Take any charge leveled against the current Democratic front-runner and apply it to Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry, or, yes, Bill Clinton and the shoe fits equally well. Ambitious candidates who position themselves at the center of their party to win elections are going to frequently come across as too wooden, too comfortable with special interests, too willing to take convenient votes at the expense of principle. So, too, will there always be candidates with leftist appeal opposing those traditional party-backed candidates. The Bill Bradley, Howard Dean, Bernie Sanders archetype will always have a following in Democratic primaries. But the virulence of the opposition to Ms. Clinton, the disgust with which many view her second try at the presidency, is simply untethered from reality and wholly apart from her ideological twins from years past.
With that in mind, a quick survey of the oft-cited objections to Clinton is instructive. Specificity is, after all, the enemy of empty rhetoric:
First, according to CNN, liberals just don’t trust Hillary Clinton is actually liberal. As Traister chronicled, “[i]n the Spring of 2008 a conveniently nongendered campaign narrative was getting cemented: Obama was the progressive candidate, Clinton practically a Republican.” But why? Her 1968 Wellesley commencement speech was a set of liberal marching orders. In 1992, she had the gumption to tell America as a would-be First Lady that she was an independent woman, not one who “stayed home and baked cookies.” As a Senator, she was considerably to the left of the center of her own party. Indeed, by one measure of legislative roll call votes, Clinton was a more liberal Senator than Minority Leader Harry Reid, Biden, and some guy named Obama. Her current presidential agenda is chock-full of mainstream liberal priorities: expanded access to early childhood education, paid family leave, increased solar and renewable energy to combat climate change, gun control, increased taxes on high-income earners, a raise in the minimum wage, and immigration and criminal justice reform. Many discount these facts based on an intuition that Clinton doesn’t really mean what she says, that she’ll say anything to win. This argument ignores the evidence that presidential candidates actually govern according to how they campaign. More importantly, it ignores the fact that male Democratic presidential candidates similarly tweak positions and station themselves strategically. Indeed, Sanders has taken conservative positions on gun control given his representation of a rural state. Al Gore is a now considered a liberal lion despite his history as a relatively conservative Democrat at the beginning of his career. Regardless of her ideological shifts over time, Clinton has always been a liberal.
Second, Clinton’s vote for the Resolution Authorizing the Use of Military Force Against Iraq in 2002 is perhaps the fact most often cited by her liberal critics. It’s also the most overused and often insincere reason for Democratic primary voters to reject her. Many have suggested that she is basically a Republican on foreign policy. If so, where is the fiery outrage for overthrowing each and every leader of the Democratic party other than Obama for the same transgression? Among the twenty-nine Senate Democrats who voted for the war in Iraq were our current Vice President (Biden), the 2004 Democratic Nominee and current Secretary of State (Kerry), the 2004 Vice Presidential nominee (Edwards), the current Democratic Senate leader (Reid), and the future Senate leader (Charles Schumer). In fact, when Reid announced his retirement following the next election, Democrats quickly chose the No. 3 Senate Democrat Schumer to leapfrog Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, a man who voted against the war. Where was all the liberal handwringing about how the Democratic Party was choosing leaders who were “basically Republicans” then? It was just as silent as when Obama chose two Republicans as Secretaries of Defense—including Chuck Hagel, who as a Republican Senator in 2002 also voted for the war. Clinton has since admitted that she was wrong on Iraq, the same position as all of the men listed above.
Third, in the 2016 update to the Iraq War objection, many contend that Clinton is too cozy with Wall Street. Yes, Sanders has based his campaign for the presidency on taking on Wall Street and is noticeably to the left of Clinton, and indeed the entire Democratic party, on increasing taxes, implementing redistributive programs, and regulating financial institutions. For those whose primary concern is expanding financial reform and reinstituting Glass-Steagall, this is a meaningful difference. But the hysterical hyperbole about Clinton’s coziness with Wall Street is out of proportion. Her platform includes increased penalties and enforcement on individuals who violate financial laws, imposition of a “risk fee” on bets made by big banks, enactment of stronger regulations of “shadow banking” practices, and creation of a tax on high-frequency trading. It is an agenda that drew praise from Elizabeth Warren and commendation from financial experts and economists for regulating shadow banking rather than myopically focusing on reinstituting Glass-Steagall. As a Senator from New York, Clinton did at times shield Wall Street. But if this is disqualifying, then again, where is the outrage over the ascension of Wall Street ally Schumer to the Senate Democrats’ top spot? Her decision to accept hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees from investment banks undoubtedly showed poor judgment. Yet, if this was so outrageous, where were the objections to Obama’s prodigious fundraising from the financial sector in 2008—when Goldman Sachs was the second largest contributor to his campaign—and 2012?
Finally, Clinton is much maligned for being a robotic and unlikeable candidate. Sullivan ranted that she had no “ability, talent, [or] leadership.” Her seemingly shifty personality is at the core of Waldman’s critiques as well. He blamed Clinton for the controversy over her email server not on the substance but the lack of panache with which she deflected such accusations. As Michelle Hackman has explained, however, psychological experiments demonstrate that “people are much more forgiving of male politicians who openly seek power, but they feel outraged at women who display a similar desire.” And again, the obsessive coverage of her laugh, clothing, and personality are not proportionate to the coverage that the sometimes awkward Democrats of the past have received.
So, no, Clinton is not all that different from her Democratic peers except in the way she is perceived. To be clear (since this point frequently eludes Clinton’s critics), this observation does not mean that supporting Sanders over Clinton is a sexist act. Nor does it mean that those who irrationally exaggerate Clinton’s faults are “sexists” as many seem to interpret that term—as a personal trait so immutable it might as well appear on drivers’ licenses next to eye color. What it does mean, however, is that views of Clinton’s candidacy can originate in sexist biases that should be challenged. Indeed, perhaps the most distressing aspect of the differential treatment Clinton faces on the campaign trail is that to identify this dynamic to many Sanders supporters is to send them into a paroxysm of rage rather an earnest attempt to reconsider their assumptions with this new framing. All of us should take George Yancey’s eloquent advice to “refuse to remain a prisoner of the lies that we men like to tell ourselves — that we are beyond the messiness of sexism and male patriarchy.” As columnist Charles Blow wrote in discussing sexist attitudes: “Empathy is not particularly elusive. It only requires an earnest quest to understand and act on that understanding.”
Despite the considerable change in the way we think and talk about race and gender in the age of Obama, this political season is demonstrating just how far we have yet to go. Fight it as many seemingly must, but Hillary Clinton is not a uniquely challenged presidential candidate. She is, instead, fairly typical of those to win the Democratic nomination—talented but flawed, intelligent yet often blind. Her naked ambition, unremarked upon when worn by others (as when men like Hubert Humphrey desperately clutched at the presidency every four years), is simply a conventional qualification. Conventional, that is, except that the savaging of her standard-issue foibles fails to deter her from brushing the criticism aside and running anew. And that, when you think about it, is actually quite unique.