The case for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is mostly a matter of rebutting the case against her. Once that’s done, you’re simply left with the most qualified candidate, and someone who is, by all reality-based measures, progressive. Just as important, she’s someone who is capable of achieving results. (I’ll conclude with the case against her rival Bernie Sanders, and there’s a very, very strong case to make against him.) We’ll start with this specific example, which I think is illustrative of the sorts of attacks we see made on Clinton. It begins with this video of an interview with Elizabeth Warren that’s been making its rounds on the internet:
It’s worth watching, but I’ll summarize. Warren tells a story about the bankruptcy bill initially supported by the Clinton administration in the 1990s. Warren wrote an op-ed opposing the bill on the grounds that it offered deadbeat dads a mechanism for cheating their ex-wives out of child support, along with a few other issues. After the op-ed was published, Hillary phoned Warren requesting a meeting. They met in private, and Warren proceeded to educate her on this issue. She said that Hillary was a “quick study” and really “got it.” Hillary returned to Washington, and by all accounts, single-handedly turned around the administration’s support of this legislation. When the bill reached Clinton’s desk, he vetoed it.
So far, this is a glowing account of Hillary — everything you would want in a leader. She’s engaged, she cares deeply about protecting people, she listens, she’s smart, she takes action, and gets results. It’s hard to imagine a Republican doing anything like this — actually reading a newspaper, caring what other smart people have to say, listening to those people honestly and seriously, and then taking action out of compassion and empathy for those in need of help.
The second part of the interview is where it gets quite damning. According to Warren, First Lady Clinton became Senator Clinton of New York, and then things changed. The same bankruptcy bill came through Congress, and this time Hillary voted for it. When Warren is asked what changed, she replies (paraphrasing), “Hillary started receiving all this money from Wall Street, and they became her constituency.” Well, that would be a very dramatic transformation, indeed.
Now if you loathe Hillary Clinton, and are mostly interested in validating that worldview, then you can stop reading. You have what you need. You can go and post that video to Facebook and talk about how corrupt and horrible she is. But if you’d like to gain a broader understanding of things, continue on.
So what happened? Did Hillary vote for this bill because she became beholden to special interests on Wall Street? What excuse does she have? Here’s her explanation in her own words:
I rise today in support of final passage of S. 420, the Bankruptcy Reform Act. Many of my colleagues may remember that I was a strong critic of the bill that passed out of the 106th Congress.
While we have yet to achieve the kind of bankruptcy reform I believe is possible, I have worked with a number of people to make improvements that bring us closer to our goals, particularly when it comes to child support. Women can now be assured that they can continue to collect child support payments after the child’s father has declared bankruptcy. The legislation makes child support the first priority during bankruptcy proceedings.
This year, we have made more progress. The Senate agreed to include a revised version of Senator Schumer’s amendment to ensure that any debts resulting from any act of violence, intimidation, or threat would be nondischargeable.
Earlier today, this body agreed to include a cap on the homestead exemption to ensure that wealthy debtors could not shield their wealth by purchasing a mansion in a state with no cap on homestead exemption.
In addition, I was concerned about competing nondischargeable debt so I worked hard with Senator Boxer to ensure that more credit card debt can be erased so that women who use their credit cards for food, clothing and medical expenses in the 90 days before bankruptcy do not have to litigate each and every one of these expenses for the first $750.
Let me be very clear — I will not vote for final passage of this bill if it comes back from conference if these kind of reforms are missing. I am voting for this legislation because it is a work in progress, and it is making progress towards reform.
Now, I deeply respect and admire Warren — but it seems she left out some important details from her account. Clinton, in fact, worked with other members of Congress to include amendments that addressed Warren’s concerns. And the bill passed 83–15. So why didn’t Warren mention this in the interview? Perhaps it’s because she felt, as she writes in her book, The Two-Income Trap, that the amendments did not go far enough. But the story Warren tells in this interview is incomplete.
The bill next went to the Republican-controlled Congress. They stripped out those amendments and sent the bill back to the Senate. The Democrats filibustered the bill, and Clinton voted to uphold the filibuster. Another version of the bill later passed that Hillary opposed. So that woman Warren describes in the first part of her interview — the woman who “really gets it” ? It turns out that woman never changed after all. And currently Warren speaks very highly of Hillary.
My experience has been that whenever you closely examine the attacks on Hillary, whether they come from the left or the right, they break apart under scrutiny. That is, if you’re so inclined to scrutinize. Few people are. Many, however, are steadfastly unwilling to view her through anything other than the most severe and cynical lens. If one bit of evidence against her breaks down under examination, then another must be found. If that one fails to pan out, there’s always some other way to interpret her record that satisfies the harsh narrative we’ve chosen for her.
To pick apart every single one of these attacks would require a full-length manuscript. They’ve been coming at her for decades. And yet, Hillary’s still standing — and however you feel about her, you have to appreciate that resilience.
But I will take just a moment, as briefly as I can, to address the issue of Wall Street donations, since that is getting the most attention these days. It’s important to understand that the vast majority of this money comes from bank employees’ personal donations. Most happen to live in New York, where the financial industry is located. The amount of money coming from the institutions themselves is limited. For example, between 1999 and present day, Clinton received a total of $824,402 from Citigroup, which makes that her top contributor. But $816,402 of that came from individuals who work for Citigroup. One of those individuals probably includes my friend Julie, a Unitarian feminist who also just happens to work for that company. (I don’t know if she actually contributed to Hillary, but she is a supporter.) Only $8,000 was actually contributed by Citigroup itself (and that’s over a seventeen year period — far less than what they could have contributed).
These numbers are on par with what we see donated to the other senator of New York, Chuck Schumer. Now, Schumer is a very moderate Democrat, but he’s the only other senator in New York from which we can draw a comparison. It’s not really fair to compare her to Bernie Sanders, who represents a state where the entire population is equal to that of Memphis, Tennessee. He can boast that he doesn’t take money from big banks, but that’s kind of like me boasting that I refuse to go on dates with Hollywood celebrities.
Sanders isn’t totally out of the game, though. For years he’s been asking Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase, and other financial institutions to donate to the Democratic party — money that has benefited him directly.
Hillary Clinton, along with many, many, many other Democrats, has for a long time advocated for campaign finance reform. The McCain/Feingold reform bill that eventually passed in 2002 was not an easy effort . It failed the first time, and that was with a Democratic president (Bill Clinton) who supported the legislation. The bill that was eventually signed into law by president George W. Bush was progress, but fell short of what was needed. If you think that a president Sanders would succeed where so many others have failed simply because he’s just so awesome, you’re as delusional as he is. What he wants is no different than what everyone else has wanted for decades. The only difference is that he has no realistic plan on how to achieve it.
We’ll talk more about Bernie soon.
It’s certainly true that Hillary has a lot of very rich and powerful friends who donate money to her — in much the same way it was with Ted Kennedy. It’s true she received a lot of money from banks for speaking fees (and Goldman Sachs, if you’re reading this, I’m available). And I also believe that Hillary (like Sanders) craves power. But for people like her, the thrill of power doesn’t come from helping out Wall Street executives — that’s rather boring. She has more to prove.
No one can see inside Hillary’s soul. We can only make guesses. And here’s my guess about Hillary: I believe she has a big ego. But I don’t see Hillary’s ego as any more of a problem than Martin Scorsese’s ego, or Bob Dylan’s ego. Or my ego, for that matter. I see it as an asset. George Orwell wrote an essay, “Why I Write,” in which he lists ego as his first motivation — here’s how he defines it:
Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.
By contrast, I don’t think George W. Bush had much of an ego at all. He didn’t seem to care in the slightest what people thought of him, or how he’d be remembered. That’s very clear from his record.
Hillary is not that sort of animal. She wants to be remembered, I think, and she knows no one is going to make a statue of her for helping rich people get richer. This is someone who is entering — let’s not say the “twilight” of her life — perhaps the “late evening”? And my theory (our opinions on people are nothing but theories) is that she has something to prove. She’s not trying to prove that it’s possible to make things worse for the middle class. My guess is that she wants to prove that all you people who accuse her of being greedy and craven are full of it. My guess is that she wants to prove something to all those classmates she stood before at Wellesley in 1969.
Let’s revisit that moment. Senator Edward Brooke had just addressed the graduating class, lecturing them on the futility of political protest. He told them:
“The most celebrated applications of such a doctrine, as at Chicago last year, are Pyrrhic victories at best. Survey after survey makes clear that a frequent result of coercive protests is the isolation of the protesters and increasing public demand for the prompt and vigorous application of official force against them. Potential allies are more often alienated than enlisted by such activities, and their empathy for the professed goals of the protesters is destroyed by their outrage at the procedures employed.”
Hillary then took the podium with a prepared speech, but first responded to his remark:
“Part of the problem with empathy with professed goals is that empathy doesn’t do us anything. We’ve had lots of empathy; we’ve had lots of sympathy, but we feel that for too long our leaders have used politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible.”
Which is an interesting place to transition to Bernie Sanders. But before we get there, I just want to reflect for a moment on how kickass that is — that the smooth and stately Senator Brooke stands up and wags his finger at Wellesley’s graduating class, telling them to get back in their boxes and know their places, and then Clinton takes the podium and politely and eloquently shuts him down.
On to Sanders.
The first question to ask about Sanders — and this may seem like a strange thing one would need to ask about a candidate, but with him it’s necessary — is whether or not one should take his platform seriously. Even among his supporters, there is debate over whether or not these are real proposals, or if they’re more like a list of principles. But the latter interpretation is just that — an interpretation. Bernie Sanders tells us his platform is feasible, and that he fully intends to make his proposals a reality. So let’s proceed from there.
The proposal that’s getting the most attention is his single-payer health plan, so let’s start there, as it is very, very, very ambitious. He intends to pay for it all through a series of tax increases. Sounds great. Tax the rich, free health care for everyone. Except that his math is off by anywhere from one trillion to three trillion dollars. The Sanders campaign disputes this, but their numbers are wildly optimistic. Perhaps even more importantly, Sanders doesn’t tell us what kind of single-payer plan he’s planning to model the US plan after — the Canadian system, UK system, French system, or German system, all of which function differently. He doesn’t tell us if doctors’ salaries will be mandated by the government and by how much. He doesn’t tell us what will and won’t be covered, and who will be deciding that. In fact, Sanders health-care plan isn’t a plan at all, as Ezra Klein writes:
Sanders promises his health care system will cover pretty much everything while costing the average American almost nothing, and he relies mainly on vague “administrative” savings and massive taxes on the rich to make up the difference. It’s everything critics fear a single-payer plan would be, and it lacks the kind of engagement with the problems of single-payer health systems necessary to win over skeptics.
And it’s winning over the skeptics that really needs to be addressed here. It’s as if, after watching the political mess that transpired over a proposed “public option” under Obamacare, Sanders thought to himself, “We should try and pass something that’s a hundred thousand times larger.” It’s quite reasonable to wonder just how on earth he plans to make this happen.
The key element of Sanders’ campaign is to “have millions of Americans finally stand up” and overthrow the Republican Congress, replacing them with politicians who will vote for socialist legislation. Whenever Sanders is confronted with the difficulties of getting anything in his platform passed, this is always his response.
Note the use of the verb “have.” We’ll just have that happen. Like, “We’ll have the maid pick up an extra quart of milk.”
We don’t need to ask just how many millions of voters would be required to make this dream a reality. We don’t need to consider what Congressional districts to target. We don’t need to consult political scientists to gain a better understanding of why people vote and why people don’t vote. We don’t need to build new, or improve upon existing political infrastructures to facilitate this dramatic electoral transformation. We certainly don’t need to consult with the people in the Democratic party who have, for decades, been studying the makeup of the voting population across the nation, developing tools and strategies to reach people more effectively. Nope. None of that is necessary. All that’s necessary is for Sanders to become president. Once that happens it will be like Field of Dreams. Ghosts will wander from cornfields, ready to vote for single payer.
We’ll just have it happen.
This is the most depressing, and perhaps dangerous, thing about Bernie Sanders. He is not a problem solver. Problem-solving requires an honest, accurate understanding of reality and the challenges you face. And Sanders shows no interest whatsoever in acknowledging the complicated nature of our country. With him, all our problems, and the solutions to those problems, can be fully expressed on a bumpersticker.
A couple of years ago, a psychologist named Gabriele Oettingen published a piece in the New York Times, in which she argued against the merits of “positive thinking.” Essentially, she defines positive thinking as “imagining you’re going to succeed.” I take some issue with the rhetoric here, because I wouldn’t define that as positive thinking at all. But whatever you call it, her studies concluded that people who engage in this sort of outlook are more likely to fail.
That’s not surprising. Because true “positive thinking,” in my view, is not imagining that everything will work out, but rather, is having the faith in your resolve to overcome the obstacles. But to do that, you must understand the obstacles. Sanders clearly does not. He is the ultimate positive thinker as Oettingen defines it — one who just pictures success happening in his head, at which point that image overtakes reality.
Now, a lot of Bernie supporters tell me they understand that his agenda will never pass . They just like him better because he’s more progressive, and they want the most progressive person in the White House. I would say to those people that if Bernie also realizes his agenda is impossible, he’s egregiously misrepresenting himself for the purpose of earning votes, and that should trouble you. If he isn’t aware of this, well then he’s delusional, and that should be equally troubling.
I’m a strong believer in democratic socialism, but speaking of Orwell (who also, by the way, identified as a democratic socialist), this campaign is starting to look more like the kind of socialism we see in 1984. It doesn’t matter that what Sanders is telling us isn’t true. We should vote for him because he’s so truthful. It doesn’t matter that his math is off by at least a trillion dollars. His plans will still work, because 2+2=5. It doesn’t matter whether or not there really are millions and millions of voters out there ready to turn America into Sweden. They exist in our minds, therefore they’re real. And Hillary Clinton — she is the enemy who must be hated.
As well-intentioned as Sanders may be, his presidency could cause near-fatal damage to the progressive cause. Should he bumble his way through Washington with nothing but rhetoric, fantasies, unworkable plans, and impossible promises, he could make a pathetic joke of everything we’re fighting for. The idea of democratic socialism will be solidified in the American consciousness as unworkable and foolish.
But if it’s possible for you to view Hillary Clinton through anything but the most cynical lens, consider that her platform is actually not that different from Sanders’ on the merits. She too wants universal health care — only she’s more flexible about how we attain it. She too wants to overturn Citizen’s United — and has a long and consistent record fighting for campaign finance reform. She too wants to raise the minimum wage — but to $12/hour, because she understands that the cost of living in Arkansas is not the same as in California, and that the $12 number is in keeping with what a lot of Democratic economists recommend. She too has an extensive plan for fighting climate change. She too wants to tackle student debt. And unlike Sanders, she has quite more than just a passing interest in foreign policy.
Comparing these candidates, we see two very progressive politicians — but one has a wealth of experience and a firm grasp on reality. The other doesn’t. It’s not a hard choice. The question then becomes a matter of how serious you are about actually advancing the progressive cause. From a purely political perspective, Hillary’s greatest flaw may be that she’s more interested in making the government work than she is in making liberals applaud.