Come 2016, the fundamental question facing American progressives will be this: in the era of the Tea Party, are you really prepared to have your presidential candidate be Obama’s “more conservative” runner-up from 2008?
Never before in the history of anything, they say, has an American politician faced an easier glide into a major party’s presidential nomination than the one that awaits Hillary Clinton two years from now. When speaking of her inevitable candidacy, media people have to catch themselves saying “when” and soften it into an “if,” but everyone knows this is just a perfunctory nicety; the former secretary of state already has a Super PAC (co-chaired by George Soros, no less), she’s already fundraising, she’s already giving policy speeches — all that’s missing is the bus with the giant picture of her face on the side.
To be sure, this sort of political predestination is not unprecedented. The American party system tends to favour second chances, after all, and numerous presidential (or vice presidential) nominees of the last 40 years — from Nixon to Biden — got their start as yesterday’s losers. As the victim of the narrowest primary defeat in recent history, Hillary’s certainly earned a retry of her own, and her claim to the party crown on the basis of tradition alone seems to have intimidated the press and much of the Democratic establishment into quiet acceptance.
But will the party base prove similarly acquiescent? A bit of skepticism may be warranted.
Beyond the fact that she is obviously highly intelligent, hard-working, and a fierce and loyal partisan, I’ve never quite understood what, precisely, Hillary Clinton can offer Democrats in the year 2016. As an inspiring or revolutionary political figure, her iconic status remains firmly tied to the 1990s; an era in which a career-woman First Lady with a hyphenated last name who participated actively in politics (even serving a couple weeks in Congress while her husband was still in the Oval Office) was edgy and establishment-rattling. Subverting a role as historically anti-feminist as that of the First Lady of the United States — even the title sounds dainty and patronizing — will forever rank as one of the great female-power achievements of the era. But just that.
Hillary went on to serve as New York’s first female senator, true, but even at the time of her election, the idea of being represented by a female in Congress was hardly novel. Hillary was a female secretary of state, yes, but America already had two female secretaries of state prior. It would be historic if she became the Democratic Party’s first female presidential nominee, sure, but any American 25 or older has already seen two female VP candidates in their lifetime. The sight of a woman on a primary debate stage is no longer novel.
Hillary’s well of symbolic importance, in short, has run dry. That leaves only her record, which ain’t that great either.
In contrast to the current president, whose ideological pedigree was solidly left, the Clintons have always been loud and proud in their centrism. Bill was among the most ostentatious backers of the 90s-era “New Democrat” movement, a man whose “third way” politics were supposed to mark a decisive break with his party’s excessively liberal (and election-losing past). Under Bill, all sorts of left-wing pet causes were heaved to the rubbish bin. NAFTA was signed, “the era of big government” was over, welfare as we knew it was ending. Instead of the state, it was a ever-freer free market that would be the rising tide to lift all ships. Wall Street darlings like Larry Summers and Robert Rubin were instructed to lead the charge for banking deregulation at home and neo-liberalism abroad.
To be sure, it’s unfair to saddle Hillary with all the blame — if that’s the word you want to use — for everything that occurred during her husband’s presidency, but as Henrick Herzberg wryly reminded in the New Yorker, the first presidential spouse to have an office in the West Wing “was a full participant in every important political and policy deliberation and in every crisis, foreign and (in both senses) domestic.” In any case, Hil still seems happy enough to serve as a leading ambassador of the big money wing of her party, unabashedly backing corporate hacks like Virginia’s Terry McAuliffe for public office and giving $20,000-a-pop pep rally speeches to the Goldman Sachs inner circle.
Taken together, it’s hard to escape the notion that the presidential viability of 70-year-old Hillary as America’s leading liberal in the year 2016 is an idea that’s a little, well, past its prime.
The 2008 financial crisis has radicalized the American left, just as it has the right. Perennial unemployment and underemployment, are the defining political realities of an entire generation of young progressives, and much of their angst is directed squarely at the Wall Street 1% who prospered so well during the Clinton years. If deregulation was the signature Democratic achievement of those days, the party’s most iconic post-recession accomplishment has been precisely the opposite — 3,000 pages of Dodd-Frank. If Obamacare hasn’t exactly brought the “era of big government” back from the dead, it’s certainly showing some signs of life.
One shouldn’t be surprised, then, that influential voices within the American left — most recently Noam Scheiber in the pages of The New Republic — have begun to champion the idea of getting the robustly progressive Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren to challenge Hillary for the Democratic crown in 2016, and basically pull another Obama-style revolt from the left against the party’s centrist establishment.
To be sure, the ferociously anti-Wall Street, anti-big bank Warren would be aptly cast in the role of Obama redeaux. Like him, she could easily rally against Hillary’s hypocrisy on the left’s signature issue of the day — then Iraq, now the power of the plutocracy — and position herself as the clear darling of the sort of ideological hardcores who the pundits tell us always dominate primary voting. Like him, she has an obvious base of youth support to tap into born from her online omnipresence (I can’t count the number of YouTube videos I’ve seen shared that profess to show Warren “demolishing” someone), and a freshness untainted by too much time in Washington. Like him, she’s a minority candidate running against another, making the “historic” case for voting Hillary suddenly non-existent.
Like him, she has the potential to make something that once seemed so certain, suddenly less so.