Clinton's VP Pick Is The First Major Test Of Her Presidency, And She Will Fail It

I used to assume, along with everyone else in the media, that Clinton and Trump having roughly similar "unfavorable" and "untrustworthy" ratings, and being neck-and-neck in the national polls, meant that this would be a toss-up general election. Then it became clear that Trump's inability to pivot away from the Republican primary and toward a nationwide contest was the result of an irresolvable personality defect, not poor political chops or a cut-rate electoral strategy.

The result -- Trump down six to 12 points to Clinton nationally; a 94 percent unfavorable rating among African-Americans, 89 percent unfavorable rating among Latinos, and 77 percent unfavorable rating among women -- is neither survivable for Trump nor, given that its source is pathological rather than political, anything that's going to change between now and November. So let's face it: barring an indictment over her years-long attempt to avoid valid FOIA requests using a clandestine, rule-violative basement server, Hillary Clinton will be our next President. In fact, there's every reason to think that Hillary herself thinks that, and will be among the first major-party nominees to campaign throughout the entire general election season as though she's already won. She shouldn't even be begrudged this victory lap, as she's also the first major-party nominee in over a century to face an opponent whose polling internals are so apocalyptic as to be conclusively terminal.

So this month's major test for Clinton -- choosing a running mate -- is, in effect, her first test as President of the United States. It will tell us, once again, what her values are, what her core political beliefs (if any) are, how strong her judgment is, who she owes her allegiance to, and whether Americans have any reason to trust her during the four or eight years she's running our country.

And all indications are that Clinton will fail -- and spectacularly -- this first and absolutely vital test of her judgment, character, and political philosophy.

CNN reports that Clinton's basis for determining a running mate is two-fold: first, can her prospective VP pick run the country if necessary; second, whether Clinton herself enjoys an easy camaraderie with whoever gets the nod. The first of these two standards is obvious enough -- as no presidential nominee fails to consider this standard in selecting a VP -- but the fact that the second isn't joined by any others is, in a word, shocking. According to CNN, "Clinton has privately signaled she is less concerned about choosing someone who fills a specific liberal or progressive void..." In other words, apart from fitness to serve as President, Clinton's own comfort with her running mate edges out entirely any consideration of what Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents want, let alone the need to verify that she is, as she claimed to be during the Democratic primary -- many, many times -- a progressive at heart.

The stakes are particularly high for Clinton right now, for a number of reasons not routinely discussed in the media. First, she may have defeated Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, but 45 percent of the pledged delegates went to her opponent, and a brief look inside the numbers of each of the latest primaries underscores the dangers Clinton invites if she fails to name a progressive to her ticket.

First, there's New Mexico, far and away the state in America with the highest Latino population. How did Hillary Clinton do, the day after the Associated Press declared the Democratic primary over, and while facing an opponent her supporters regularly claimed had only the support of white males? She won by three percent. In South Dakota, a primary -- and if we know one thing, it's that Bernie Sanders only performs well in caucuses -- Clinton won by 2 percent. Again, this was a full day after Sanders supporters ceased having any reason to go to the polls because of the AP's premature (and deeply unnecessary) calling of the primary via a pre-California telephone poll of superdelegates.

Sanders, as we know, beat Clinton handily in Montana and North Dakota.

And then there's California, where Clinton led Sanders by 15.6 percent among the 2.6 million largely mail-in votes -- and early mail-in votes, at that -- that were tabulated on Election Day. Yet now she's up on Sanders by only 2.4 percent among the 2 million votes counted since then (which votes include the bulk of the "live" voting on Election Day and mail-in ballots cast in the final 48 hours before the primary). Given that California is tossing out altogether a million provisional ballots -- about 10 percent of all votes cast in California on June 7th -- which ballots, experts agree, were largely unsuccessful attempts to vote for Sanders, it's no stretch to say that in California, as in many other states, Clinton over-performed among very early voters and dramatically under-performed among later and "live" (Election Day) voters. That's how it's possible for Clinton to have won Arizona by 17.7 percent overall, but lost by 3.5 percent to Sanders in "live" (Election Day) voting. While some of this can be chalked up to Clinton's unpopularity among younger voters, who tend to vote live or mail in their ballots right before Election Day, some of it has to do with Clinton's historically high name recognition and her months of favorable media coverage eclipsing Sanders' live campaigning in the days leading up to each primary vote.

If you doubt that Clinton has received overwhelmingly positive media coverage, remember that she is currently the first-ever major-party presidential nominee to be under criminal investigation by the FBI, a fact that's hardly been reported on and indeed is treated as some kind of loony conspiracy theory rather than the full-time, daily work product of a dozen FBI agents. Consider that CNN gave more airtime to Paul Begala -- the head of a Clinton super-PAC -- as a political "pundit" than it gave to almost any other commentator it employs, and never had an official Sanders surrogate on any of its panels during the primary season (while putting non-surrogate Sanders supporter Jonathan Tasini on fewer than 5 percent of its panels). Consider that the media never held Clinton to her promise to release her Wall Street speeches -- even after every remaining presidential candidate had done so, as neither Trump nor Sanders had any such secret speeches to disclose. Nor did Bernie Sanders go after Clinton on either her FOIA-evading basement server, conflicts of interest at the Clinton Foundation, dodgy judgment over how to handle Libya, or anything whatsoever from her past twenty years in the public eye. Clinton faced virtually no super-PAC ads the entire primary season, as her opponent had entirely eschewed them. Sanders called her no names. In short, Sanders was a teddy bear compared to Trump, or really any politician of either party, as far as negative campaigning is concerned. And the lack of media scrutiny for even something as historic as the criminal investigation of a major-party presidential nominee by the FBI suggests that Hillary does not yet know, at least not in this election cycle, what negative news coverage looks like. Paul Krugman's recent attempt, in The New York Times, to count news stories about Clinton dropping in the polls as "negative" coverage, presumably as proof that Clinton did in fact receive much negative news coverage, misunderstands that negative coverage is hard news reporting or editorials or attack ads on the parts of your record you're deservedly not proud of -- not the ups and downs of objective polling.

My point in looking at how Clinton performed in the second half of the primary season -- a period of time in which she secured something like 53 percent of her party's pledged delegates and won only 11 of the final 25 state primaries and caucuses -- is to emphasize that Clinton has no vast and reliable political base except a very large number of people nationally who think Donald Trump is a sociopath. That might be a recipe for winning in November, but it's not the sort of calculus that adds up to four or eight years of successful governance. More than half the country dislikes and distrusts Hillary Clinton, according to every poll taken by anyone in 2016, and much of this is because few believe she has any political or ethical first principles to speak of. So she then goes and tells the press that the values of her prospective running mate are unimportant next to how much she enjoys their company? This is the decision tree we'd expect from a mafia don, not a politician hoping to convince a nation she has core beliefs. Indeed, this sort of decision-making process bespeaks not just bad judgment but, more pragmatically, a political tin ear -- as more than any other decision Clinton will make between now and next February, her selection of running mate could signal that she does in fact have a vision for America. Otherwise, what she's promising us is the same ostensibly benign neoliberal, New Democratic/Democratic Leadership Council stewardship that destroyed the American middle class and many poor urban communities and helped bring trust in Congress to 12 percent nationwide.

Sanders' campaign showed the nation -- and would have shown Clinton, if anything could penetrate her almost cult-like inner circle -- that America will follow a leader with real vision even when not every element of that vision seems immediately attainable or even in line with an individual voter's priorities. Seen from the long view of history -- that is, keeping in mind that she began this primary season with a 60-point polling lead, a 400-superdelegate lead, and the largest name-recognition advantage any Democratic politician has had since FDR -- Clinton's single-digit pledged-delegate victory against a 74 year-old, rumpled, guileless, super-PAC-less, independent Jewish socialist from a cow state in the 2016 Democratic primary was a rebuke of her and her political ethos, not a celebration of it. Only the horse-race obsessed data-crunchers in the mainstream media -- for which there is no context, no past or precedent, and certainly no acknowledgment of an even slightly uneven playing field -- fail to see this. Indeed, even if one looks exclusively at the hard-data trends, one can see that two weeks more of campaigning and Clinton would've lost Massachusetts, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Nevada, Connecticut, Kentucky, and, yes, possibly California -- where the final margin looks like it'll be closer to 5 points than the 16 the media reported on election night.

Clinton's arrogance has always been one of her worst traits -- a belief that basic transparency regulations don't and shouldn't apply to her, for instance -- and misreading the 2016 primary as a mandate rather than a 10-lap pre-gun lead that led to a 1/2-lap victory is indicative of the scope of that arrogance. But nearly as bad is Clinton's continued willingness to leave the impression that she is bought and sold by, and thus beholden to, monied interests -- such as the Wall Street bankers she gave secret speeches to for $225,000 a pop -- and not American voters.

So it's within this context that Wall Street has now made clear that, as VP picks go, Tim Kaine is acceptable to them, and that if Hillary wants to keep getting their money she will not pick Elizabeth Warren. Never in recent memory has such a large and public gauntlet been thrown: if Clinton picks Kaine, she's acceding to the wishes (and indeed threats) of the very Wall Street fat-cats she spoke glowingly to behind closed doors for years without ever intending to let average citizens find out what she said. Picking Kaine suggests that Clinton makes policy decisions based on threats from Big Banking and other special interests, and would continue doing so in the Oval Office. If, however, she picks Elizabeth Warren, she acknowledges that 45 percent of the Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who voted this spring weren't with her, as well as almost nobody under 30 and a minority of self-described progressives. It would communicate clearly to both Wall Street and the American electorate that the Democratic Party still at least has fantasies of being the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

If you're looking for a proxy to let you know what kind of world leader Hillary Clinton will be, this is it.

Cory Booker, another VP short-lister, is considered a neoliberal friendly to Wall Street; the other politicians under consideration, with the exception of Sherrod Brown -- arguably the only other figure whose selection would project the embrace of progressive values -- fail to meet Clinton's first standard, as all are far too inexperienced in state-level or nationally elected political positions to credibly claim readiness to sit in the Situation Room. Popular opinion among the progressive wing of the party is that Tim Kaine stands for and believes in nothing, and is closely tied to the same corrupt Clinton socialite/fund-raising infrastructure that led to Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe being under criminal investigation.

The time for progressives to stand up and say that political values and policy positions do matter in the selection of a Vice President is now. Given that Clinton is almost certain to win in November -- assuming no indictment is forthcoming -- and that the Republican Party is likely to be in shambles for several years in the aftermath of Donald Trump, the running mate Clinton selects today will almost certainly be the front-runner for the Democratic nomination come 2024. And we've already seen how powerful being a front-runner for the Democratic nomination finally is; arguably, what happened in 2015 with cable news coverage and superdelegate endorsements is what made what Clinton did in 2016 possible -- nothing that she did this year. Most agree, in fact, that Clinton ran a terrible campaign in 2016; it's no surprise then that, as MSNBC long ago reported, Clinton never gains in popularity when she's actually forced onto the campaign trail.

So if front-runner status in 2024 means a good deal, would progressives rather that front-runner be Elizabeth Warren or an even less charismatic neoliberal corporatist than Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine? While of course progressives should spend the Convention in Philadelphia trying to move the Party platform (which movement Clinton will ignore in all particulars once elected), and more importantly trying to amend the Democrats' electoral infrastructure (which reforms Clinton could not ignore), and, even more importantly than that, trying to score victories for progressive causes at the local and state levels (which victories Clinton couldn't undo), the running-mate issue is active now and must be attended to now.

Progressives may hope, in the pique of their post-primary emotion, that Clinton will pick Kaine and yet again prove correct everything they've been saying about her. But that brief satisfaction -- a week of I-told-you-so's around water coolers nationwide -- is no more than those of us who opposed Clinton this spring being proven right about someone whose political and ethical defects were already clear long ago.

Certainly, it pales in comparison to actually winning the battle for the post-Clinton Democratic Party. And that battle starts -- but does not end -- with forcing Clinton to pick a true progressive as her Vice President.

Seth Abramson is the Series Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan University) and the author, most recently, of DATA (BlazeVOX, 2016). You can follow him on Twitter here or at the New Blue Movement.

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