Hillary Clinton Still Doesn’t Get It

by Benjamin Studebaker

A few excerpts have leaked from Hillary Clinton’s forthcoming book, What Happened. They contain a series of attacks on Bernie Sanders and his supporters. You can find lots of people criticizing Clinton for re-litigating the primaries, but today I want to draw attention to just how bad Clinton’s arguments are.

Let’s start with Clinton’s abs-and-ponies metaphor:

There are two key things that stick out to me here. Let’s take them one at a time.

1. Congress wasn’t going to support Clinton’s proposals either.

The vast majority of President Obama’s legislative accomplishments came in the first two years of his presidency, when the Democrats possessed a super-majority. After the 2010 midterms, the Republicans devoted themselves to obstructing Obama’s agenda, blocking the administration even when Obama tried to offer more moderate, conciliatory policy. The only way Obama was able to pass major legislation after 2010 was by making damaging compromises with Republicans. The Republicans would hold the debt ceiling hostage, and then Obama would offer to implement Republican policies–like sequestration, or payroll tax increases–to get them to raise it. Because of those compromises, instead of passing a second stimulus package in the second half of his first term, Obama passed an austerity package larger than British Prime Minister David Cameron’s:

This hampered the recovery, and of course Republicans were happy to pin the blame for sluggish growth on the incumbent administration. Obama had other tools available to him to circumvent the debt ceiling games–he could have invoked the 14th amendment (which prohibits the government from calling the validity of the public debt into question)  or minted a platinum coin. At the time, I criticized Obama for normalizing and rewarding hostage tactics.

Clinton’s policies were no more likely to pass than Obama’s. She didn’t seem to understand that the Republicans–with the help of a pliant president–had managed to deeply undermine the effectiveness of federal institutions. The Republicans would not allow any policies of merit to pass through Congress, and no Democrat would be able to effective govern the country without removing these Republicans from Congress or otherwise reforming our institutions.

2. We all knew that Congress would not pass Sanders’ proposals–that wasn’t the point of them.

In a system in which the executive knows that the legislature will block everything, the executive’s policy proposals are no longer about political feasibility. It doesn’t matter that Congress won’t support single payer, because Congress won’t support obvious tweaks to Obamacare. The function of policy proposals in this institutional environment changes. When Sanders says everyone should have a right to health care, he is not saying “if I am elected president, everyone will have a right to health care.” He’s not promising to do things. I said this at the time! Instead, he’s signalling two things:

  1. He will try to lead the country in a direction that may, someday, make a right to health care possible. This means he will try to remove institutional impediments to his policy agenda, perhaps by changing the campaign finance system, or by weakening the power and influence of the financial sector. This would involve the use of executive tools rather than legislative tools–appointments to the judiciary and the Federal Reserve’s board of governors, heavy enforcement of neglected regulations like the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, and so on.
  2. He’s willing to think big, and he won’t make bad deals. That means that the next time the Republicans try to hold the debt ceiling hostage, maybe a President Sanders invokes the 14th Amendment or mints the platinum coin instead of making big concessions that hurt ordinary people.

Now, we can’t know if Sanders was really going to do everything in his power to fix our institutions and avoid bad deals. But this is what the big, bold policy proposals signaled to his supporters. When Clinton says Sanders’ proposals wouldn’t pass, she is missing the point. Sanders convinced his supporters that he would do everything he could and wouldn’t sell them out, that he was trustworthy. Clinton was never able to compete with him on this because of her long history of making unnecessary concessions to the right on issues like welfare reform, Iraq, and gay marriage. Her emphasis on working with Congress and her opposition to breaking up large financial institutions demonstrated a lack of understanding of the situation–she believed it was perfectly adequate to continue dealing with Congress and with powerful financial interests in the same way Obama did.

Let’s look at the next excerpt:

Here Clinton tries to have it both ways–on the one hand, Clinton and Sanders agree on so much, but on the other hand, he’s trying to “disrupt the Democratic Party”.  The difference between the two is clear. Clinton believes the political system still works well enough for her to advance a compelling agenda by working with Republicans in Congress. Sanders believes that excessive economic and political inequality is threatening to turn our society into an oligarchy and that bold executive measures are necessary to prevent this. Clinton was campaigning to work within a system which Sanders thinks is broken. If you think the system is broken and the Democratic Party is largely oblivious to this, disrupting the Democratic Party would be a logical next step. The top 10% in the United States now control more wealth and income than the top 10% in Russia, a country dominated by oligarchs:

She makes another big fumble in this excerpt–her claim that because she did not “change her vote” in response to a financial contribution that she’s clean. Here she misunderstands how corruption works in America. In most cases, there’s no quid pro quo (that would be bribery). Instead, it works more like court politics–wealthy interest groups pay for access. If someone donates a lot of money to your campaign, perhaps you take a call from them when one of their pet issues comes up, or perhaps you meet with lobbyists from their industry, or hire former lobbyists to regulate the industries they used to work for. In short, our politicians spend more time talking to people with money and their agents and listening to their concerns. This is why studies now find that government policy is much more likely to reflect the views of high-income Americans. The issue is not that Clinton consciously changes her mind when she receives a check, it’s that she spends all her time talking to rich people and listening to their ideas. Their perspectives are baked into her worldview.

Let’s do one more excerpt:

Here Clinton demonstrates precisely why she couldn’t be taken seriously by the left as a committed proponent of something like a right to healthcare. She resorts to what is essentially a right wing blood libel–drawing attention to the fact that taxes increase to hide the fact that for everyone except the very richest, the financial value of the benefits of the proposals are larger than the tax increases. Clinton supporters constantly emphasized how much the Sanders proposals would cost to distract people from the question that’s really important for them–whether they and those they care about would likely be net beneficiaries. In most cases that answer was “yes”. This played out in the papers–the Wall Street Journal ran a story claiming single payer would cost $18 trillion, and the economist on whose research it was based felt the need to publicly come forward and denounce the story.

What’s most remarkable about all this is that in a book called What Happened, Hillary Clinton doesn’t really seem to have reflected very much on what happened. These excerpts sound like the same things she and her supporters were saying during the campaign, repackaged and regurgitated. The truth is that she and her campaign were complacent–they took it for granted that the Democratic Party was doing a pretty good job, that the system was working pretty effectively. That’s not how most Americans felt. Most of them felt that Obama hadn’t really managed to deliver on the hope and change. Some of them blamed him and some of them blamed the Republicans and some of them saw larger problems in the system, but all of these people had something in common–they weren’t satisfied. She fatally misjudged the political moment, running as a “this is the best we can do” candidate at a time when so many Americans wanted a problem solver. It’s disappointing that nearly a year after the election, all her reflections amount to is a cash grab tell-all book full of recycled piss and vinegar.