Commentary Magazine


The High Cost of Hillary

In his Los Angeles Times column Saturday the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait wrote:

Something strange happened the other day. All these different people—friends, co-workers, relatives, people on a liberal e-mail list I read—kept saying the same thing: They’ve suddenly developed a disdain for Bill and Hillary Clinton. Maybe this is just a coincidence, but I think we’ve reached an irrevocable turning point in liberal opinion of the Clintons. The sentiment seems to be concentrated among Barack Obama supporters. Going into the campaign, most of us liked Hillary Clinton just fine, but the fact that tens of millions of Americans are seized with irrational loathing for her suggested that she might not be a good Democratic nominee. But now that loathing seems a lot less irrational. 

After taking some obligatory digs at conservatives, Chait adds: 

But the conservatives might have had a point about the Clintons‘ character. Bill’s affair with Monica Lewinsky jeopardized the whole progressive project for momentary pleasure. The Clintons gleefully triangulated the Democrats in Congress to boost his approval rating. They do seem to have a feeling of entitlement to power. 

So conservatives “might” have had a point about the Clintons’ character? The Clintons “seem” to have a feeling of entitlement to power? I should say so. What conservatives saw in the Clintons wasn’t based on any remarkable and hard-to-discern insights. After all, the Clintons’ character problems were not being hidden from public view; they were, in fact, out there for all to see, often flashing in bright neon lights. Yet people like Chait were, for political and ideological reasons, blinded to the ruthlessness and corruption of the Clinton Machine. Now that the Clintons are using their tactics on an inspiring liberal figure like Barack Obama, the scales are suddenly falling from their eyes. We are now seeing the zeal of the recent converts in action. 

Better late than never, I suppose. 

One former Clinton supporter whom I do not know e-mailed me about a recent piece I’d written on the Clintons and said this: 

allow me to apologize on behalf of all other liberals concerning the Clintons, though I doubt I’ll be the only one. They really are the soulless, cynical spinmeisters that many on the Right made them out to be… Speaking only for myself, I never actually thought there were purely political motives for conservatives to detest the Clintons that much. The visceral hatred directed at them always seemed sincere enough to me, just hard to understand because apparently so excessive. But now that I’m on the opposite side of them in a campaign for the first time (as an Obama supporter), I know what it feels like to wake up each morning and face ever new depths of shamelessness from the Macbeth Family. Now I may actually catch myself going back to Impeachment Trial evidence for the sake of Schadenfreude. I’m starting to regret not having enjoyed it at the time. 

This note is typical of others I have received, and the list of liberals turning against Bill and Hillary Clinton is noteworthy. A partial list includes Senators Kennedy, Kerry, and Leahy; former Clinton Administration cabinet member Robert Reich; former Clinton lawyer Greg Craig (whom Bill Clinton asked to lead the defense team the White House assembled for his impeachment battle); liberal radio talk show host Ed Schultz; liberal columnists E.J. Dionne, Eugene Robinson, Frank Rich, William Greider, Bob Herbert, Joe Klein, and now Chait; Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, who described Bill Clinton as America’s “first black president”; and others. 

Does any of this matter? It might in several respects. The first is if Hillary and especially Bill Clinton crossed a line leading up to the South Carolina primary, which turned an expected Obama victory into a blowout; and if so, whether that translates to other states. It’s possible that we have reached a national, and not just state-wide, anti-Clinton tipping point for many liberals and Democrats. If that’s the case—and I’m not sure it is–then there will be an immediate price to the Clinton attacks against Obama. 

Second, even if Hillary Clinton does win the nomination, the bitterness of the contest may have done irreparable harm to relations with African-Americans. Many blacks will not forget what the Clintons have done against Obama—and they might not forgive them, either. That won’t be true of all African-Americans—but it may be true of enough to make a difference. 

Third, we will see if we’re at the stage in American politics when people eschew the brass-knuckle tactics utilized and perfected by the Clintons in the 1990’s. Senator Obama is staking his candidacy on the proposition that the country, including Democrats, are tired and fed up with scorched-earth political tactics—and are willing to exact a price at those who employ them. 

A final observation on what is unfolding in the crack-up between the Clintons and many leading liberals: one of the reasons the moral image of the Democratic Party was helped over the decades was its stand on civil rights and its commitment to the cause of equal justice. The anti-segregation stand of leading Democrats during the 1960’s was, for many people, an unconflicted moral good (though it’s worth noting that many Southern Democrats supported segregation at the time). The Clintons, in distorting the record and playing the race card against the first African-American with a real chance at becoming president, are becoming the embodiment of what many Democrats thought they stood against. That, I think, explains part of the animus we are seeing against them—and why more will follow. 

Hillary Clinton may yet win the nomination. But if she does it will have come at a huge cost.

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