Commentary Magazine

The Clinton Machine Is Alive

“VOTE DIFFERENT” began with a classic dystopian image: a long gray line of hopeless peons, trudging irrevocably toward their ordered destination, filing one by one to hear the booming voice from the giant projected face on the wall telling them why conformity is good. Even more than two decades after its initial run, during the 1984 Super Bowl, these images from the legendary ad introducing Apple’s Macintosh computer were instantly recognizable—except this time, something was different. The giant face was not Big Brother’s but Hillary Rodham Clinton’s, taken from her online announcement of her formation of a presidential exploratory committee, mouthing political pabulum about how impressed she was with the American character, how much she was looking forward to helping and learning from us all. Then came a glimpse of Hope—a blonde runner, sledgehammer in hand, bright orange shorts clipped with a superimposed iPod, and on the front of her white tank-top a blue-and-red O, cerulean rainbow over amber waves. Hillary’s eyes follow the lines of the teleprompter—“I want people who want to be part of a team, the America team”—and as the command “BE PART OF THE TEAM” hangs over the crowd, the Obama iPod runner turns and twists like a shot-putter, then releases the sledgehammer into the air. The screen explodes in brilliant white as the crowd is released from thought control, free at last to think for themselves. “On Jan. 14, the Democratic primary will begin,” the text scroll reads, “And you’ll see why 2008 won’t be like 1984.”

“Vote Different” was the first political mash-up of the first presidential campaign following the inception of YouTube. More than any officially sanctioned ad, it encapsulated the rebellious passions of the young, progressive tech-savvy opposition to the all-but-certain nominee. The video was made by Phillip de Villis, a staffer for Blue State Digital, a firm created by the team that had made Howard Dean the trailblazer of Internet fundraising in 2004. Blue State Digital had a new client in 2008: a young progressive senator from Illinois. According to the Gallup poll at the time of the video’s release, Hillary Clinton had a healthy double-digit lead over Barack Obama (Al Gore was third with 18 percent support). Over the next year, Blue State Digital would raise more than a half-billion dollars for the insurgent Obama campaign and build a support community of more than 13 million volunteers nationwide as he seized the nomination the Clintons had assumed was theirs for the asking. This was the landmark moment for that section of the American left that had dubbed itself “the progressives.”

Six years later, the picture for progressivism is very different. Once again, the nomination is Hillary Clinton’s for the asking—but this time, it seems as if the only resistance progressives will offer is mild indeed.

In 2008, the progressive movement delivered a shocking upset to the established Democratic order, rejecting Clintonian Third Way politics and the Democratic Leadership Council to go with Hope and Change. Today, the same movement has largely thrown in the towel, surrendering their ideological principles in favor of winning at all costs. Even the name of Hillary’s Super PAC, “Ready for Hillary,” suggests the tired acquiescence of those who once doubted her superiority as a leader. While more descriptive, it would’ve been a pain to write “How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Hillary Clinton” on all those donation checks. Progressives are ready to be part of the Clinton team.

To some degree, this is a consequence of the lessons learned by the Democratic Party base after six years of Barack Obama’s failure to match up with the optimistic assumptions he cultivated on the way to the presidency. From the perspective of the left, the inspiring anti-war, anti-corporatist, anti-conformist Obama of 2008 is long gone, replaced by a Nobel Peace Prize–winner who seems content to rest on his peacenik laurels as the world spins out of control, fundraising from Wall Street as he bows to its wishes, ordering drone strikes and violating civil liberties without a moment’s pause.

But this is about more than just disappointment in Barack Obama’s failure to be, in Jonah Goldberg’s phrasing, the Adonis who turns winter into spring. Rather, it signals an acceptance of the Clinton machine’s worldview as having been right all along about the way to get things done in Washington. It is about the path to electoral victory and the shifting nature of a Democratic Party that’s moving toward a new reality where Obama’s aspirational progressivism takes a back seat to Clintonian priorities.

What is most remarkable is how little the Hillary Clinton of 2016 will have to repudiate the views of the Hillary Clinton deemed unacceptable in 2008. In her prior run for the nomination, Clinton was seen as an elitist creature, insulated from the middle-class concerns of the base and out of touch on national security and foreign policy. Seven years removed from Hillary as Big Brother, Obama’s donors are lining up dutifully to support her, even though she has not explicitly rejected the economic and foreign-policy views that had made her a candidate to reject.

But there is one arena in which Hillary has had to publicly shift her views to align with those of progressives: social issues. On this subject, her husband’s relatively moderate policies put her in the unenviable position of having once defended religious freedom, a concept that attracted overwhelming bipartisan support less than two decades ago but that is now very much on the outs, a Blue Dog ancien regime now viewed as antithetical to the progressives’ secularist aims.

The media coverage of Hillary reflects this fact. Those who have been fawning over Clinton’s perpetual announcement-teasing book tour have dutifully ignored the obvious questions about Iraq, Benghazi, and the failed Russian reset. But they have found time to press her on social issues, the subject of the only interview to turn tense—an unexpected clash with National Public Radio’s Terry Gross, who challenged her on the question of gay marriage.

Ten times in seven minutes, Gross asked why Hillary was not ahead of the curve in supporting the redefinition of the institution. While running for the Senate in 2000, Clinton had made the foolish error, in progressive eyes, of claiming she would have supported the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA, which passed with veto-proof majorities and was signed into law in 1996 by her husband) and describing marriage as an institution that “has always been between a man and a woman.” For Gross, this is a very big problem, and Clinton’s defense—that the marriage redefinition, relatively speaking, was a rather sudden transformation of an institution that had been largely unchanged for millennia—wasn’t flying. “I think I’m an American, I think that we have all evolved, and it’s been one of the fastest, most sweeping transformations that I’m aware of,” Clinton said. “I understand, but a lot of people believed in it already back in the Nineties,” Gross responded. “They supported gay marriage.”

This may have been true within Gross’s circle at the time, but it certainly was not the case among the broader American populace. Whatever the case, it is telling that this is a rare issue—one where the personal views of the president of the United States are largely irrelevant—on which Hillary must grovel for forgiveness for her past sins. In the litany of Bill Clinton’s signature policies from the 1990s that she must now pretend to have always opposed, the Defense of Marriage Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell top the list—but welfare reform, the capital-gains tax cut, the balanced budget, and the North American Free Trade Agreement are water under the bridge.

The Hillary Clinton of the 2016 cycle might frame herself in different ways, but she is still the same Hillary. She is still the Hillary who spent six years on the Walmart board of directors; the Hillary at her most comfortable rubbing elbows in Aspen, the Hamptons, and Davos; the Hillary whose family foundation depends on the donations of big banks and held its annual donor briefing in the auditorium of Goldman Sachs, which reportedly paid her $400,000 for two speeches last year. According to an analysis by Bloomberg, in the 16 months since leaving the State Department, Hillary earned $12 million, mostly from speaking at high-dollar corporate events. “Few political families are closer to Wall Street than the Clintons,” the New York Times recently noted, and while the energy of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party may be full of populist rhetoric, Obama’s economy has shared the priorities of Hillary’s friends. All the talk of inequality and bringing the 1 percent to heel has amounted to just talk. The past few years have been better for Wall Street than anybody, and when it comes to the battles over regulation, taxation, and trade policy, the progressive base seems ready to concede defeat.

Obama himself is no exception to this—in his diminished aims and frustrated policy, there is a grudging acceptance of the Clintonian view of the world. Obama’s rise was in large part due to tracking public opinion that rejected the George W. Bush approach to foreign policy and civil liberties, and to decrying the surge in Iraq and predicting its failure. But as commander in chief, Obama retained policies and policymakers from Bush, advocated his own surge, and adopted an approach to foreign policy that reflected the Clintonian approach over the more idealistic views of Samantha Power or Susan Rice. As a candidate, Obama eloquently critiqued Hillary’s health-care reform, based on tax credits and an individual mandate, as unacceptable; as president, he made it his signature domestic policy. And for his willingness to ditch progressive priorities, Obama received his reward: When his poll numbers were sinking and he was in desperate need of an assist in 2012, Bill Clinton was right there to give that speech at the Democratic National Convention.

History may ultimately consider Obama’s 2008 nomination as a representation not of progressivism’s resurgent appeal, but as its death rattle—a speed bump along the way to the Democratic Party’s becoming a fully corporatist, Clinton-owned entity. In practice, the party now resembles a protection racket with an army of volunteers, with friends who never suffer and enemies who never relax. And who are those enemies? Not big business or Wall Street, which has paid their way to new alliances; not America’s insurers, whose products Democrats have made it illegal not to buy; not privacy-challenging government, which Obama has expanded to unprecedented degrees. No, the only enemies who really matter to today’s Democratic Party are those wayward intolerant social-policy traditionalists with their un-American views of religious liberty.

Hillary was deemed unacceptable in 2008 for being wrong on the top progressive priorities: the war and civil liberties. Now those priorities have shifted, and a candidate who voted for the Iraq War and the Patriot Act can denounce Edward Snowden as a lawbreaker without compunction. For today’s left, social progressivism is the glue that binds the whole project. It’s no accident that this is the one policy aspect on which Hillary has been forced into compliance: For her party, it is the only ideological position that really matters—everything else is window dressing. Hillary’s top five all-time donors are a perfect reflection of this: Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase & Co., the law firm DLA Piper, and—in the lone nod to ideology—EMILY’s List. There are few better representations of the factions that inform the Democratic Party’s policy priorities in the Clintonian age: Wall Street, big law, and puritanical social leftists, for whom the only non-negotiables are abortion, gay marriage, and free birth control.

Will any progressive champion rise to challenge the dominant Clinton machine? The chances seem scant. For the tech-savvy progressive left, no hammer-throwing, icon-branded savior seems to be emerging this time around. Where polls showed Clinton had a fairly consistent lead of 10 to 15 points over Obama in 2006, this time around the absence of a significant challenge has given her a far more intimidating 50-plus point lead. In 2008, Hillary’s aura of inevitability was never so sure: She faced a far more competitive figure in Obama, who had delivered a stirring speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, assembled an innovative political team, and almost immediately inspired a massive cult of personality. The Clinton machine has much less to fear today from Vice President Joe Biden, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, and former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold—not all of whom will even run, and most of whom would not be recognized on the street.

The progressives know their hopes are dim. Witness the sinking mood at Netroots Nation, the annual conference founded by the anti-war left, which hosted a Democratic debate in 2007 including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The latter defended accepting donations from lobbyists to a chorus of boos (“A lot of those lobbyists, whether you like it or not, represent real Americans,” Clinton said. “They represent nurses. They represent, you know, social workers. They represent—yes—they represent corporations”). In 2014, the much-diminished gathering featured a strident speech from the populist left’s last great white hope, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. “The game is rigged,” Warren said, to cheers from the audience. “And the rich and the powerful have lobbyists, lawyers, and plenty of friends in Congress. Everybody else, not so much!” A fan-created video with an acoustic jingle urged Warren, who has insisted she has no interest in a 2016 run for the presidency, to “Run Liz Run.” “People think that the system is rigged because it is/We need a leader who won’t stand for all the corporate bullies, political cronies,” the singer warbled.

On the same day as the speech and video, Warren’s office released a statement saying she would not join in populist criticism of the Export-Import Bank, a favored cronyist entity of Wall Street, which then-Senator Obama had denounced as “little more than a fund for corporate welfare” in 2008. “Senator Warren believes that the Export-Import Bank helps create American jobs and spur economic growth.” Elizabeth Warren may talk a good game, but she knows to whom her party now belongs.

For adherents of the shrinking progressive movement, all that remains is to stand amazed at how little they got out of their one-time hero’s administration, and how thoroughly the Clintons have co-opted their party by catering to social-issue biases. Pop singer Ben Folds’s line about the aging boomers applies: “Once you wanted revolution,/Now you’re the institution./How’s it feel to be the man?/It’s no fun to be the man.”

About the Author

Ben Domenech is publisher of the Federalist.

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