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Hillary Clinton's DLC Problem

Right now, Presidential candidates are tailoring their messages for elite donors, and the rich don't really care about inequality or Iraq. They care first and foremost about preserving the status quo.
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"We know this policy is going forward," said Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York. "We know the troops are moving. We know that we're not likely to stop this escalation. But we are going to do everything we can to send a message to our government and the Iraqi government that they had better change, because the enemy we are confronting is adaptable."

That's what Hillary Clinton is saying on Iraq. And it's pathetic. Welcome to the Kerry campaign, redux, 2008 style.

Contrast this mushy untrustworthy glop to what we heard with Jim Webb's SOTU response, and what a clear-eyed Democratic message looks like. Webb's speech centered on two themes - inequality and Iraq. It shouldn't surprise anyone that the speech worked, since Webb and a whole host of Democrats just won a big election based on that message. If we had a nominee who carried this winning theme forward, 2008 would probably be the reverse Reagan for us, the consolidating roll-up of the electoral map after the 2006 Congressional realignment that parallels the 1980 electoral follow-up to 1978, which delivered us prop 13 in California (among other reactionary electoral victories). A progressive populist message would work in bringing us huge national majorities and a mandate for massive change. Still, if this is so obvious, why are we only hearing populism, or even a pale attempt at populism, from John Edwards (and Tom Vilsack)?

On the face of it, this doesn't make sense. It's a winning message, so why not use it? Well, it's a winning message, alright, but only for the public. And right now, Presidential candidates are tailoring their messages for elite donors, and the rich don't really care about inequality or Iraq. They care first and foremost about preserving the status quo, because in the status quo they are, well, rich. That's a problem, because if your message is targeted towards the top 1% of the country, you're leaving 99% of the country out of the conversation.

By far the worst example of this disturbing trend among 08ers is Hillary Clinton, who is rolling over donors and trying to prevent a primary from even happening by scooping up mindshare among elites before anyone else can organize. When you hear that you aren't credible unless you can raise several hundred million dollars, realize that this is an idea planted by these elites to entrench their power, and not something that is falsifiable. It bears saying that it's quite probable that don't need $100M to run for President - Kerry didn't lose the General because of a financial disadvantage, and he didn't win in Iowa because of a financial advantage. The 'only credible with $100M' idea is another and more sophisticated version of the electable or inevitable meme that hurt us so badly in 2004. It's something that Hillary Clinton wants us to believe is true. Whether it is true is a different story.

In fact, everything that Hillary Clinton is doing is designed to make us think that she cannot be stopped, to pull the plug on money for others so she can get through the nomination without having to be clear on Iraq or populist in orientation. She is desperately fighting against having to do what Jim Webb did so well - spell out plainly the irresponsibility of political and economic elites. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's a strategy. Or maybe, and this is what I believe, she sympathizes with the elite class more than the public, believing that the public are sheep who can be easily manipulated. She herself hasn't lived in anything close to the real world since 1991. She still makes major policy addresses to the DLC on a fairly regular basis.

Hillary Clinton's inevitability campaign is impressive. Her people aren't just hard-selling donors, they put on a full court press on the announcement, even going so far as to pretend she is competitive in the 'netroots primary'. It's a rather remarkable claim, considering that she got only 4 points in the most recent Dailykos straw poll, which is the home base for Democratic activists. Misleading reporters on netroots support is meant to distract two non-netroots audiences. One is the large dollar donor base, who will read for instance that Hillary Clinton does internet cool stuff in the Wall Street Journal without knowing that we really don't like her. And two is the early influential audience, the local politicians who know it's bad to be on the wrong side of a vindictive nominee. The echo chamber of pro-Clinton media, muscle, and money is very strong right now. But Jim Webb just showed us how hollow all that organization really is.

Ironically, though she is popular among some base voters and most progressive elites, few activists, bloggers, or local politicians actually want Hillary as the nominee. Local politicians are desperately afraid she will hurt downticket candidates all over the country. Progressives know she hasn't dealt with Iraq, and will cripple the Democratic Party badly as Iraq gets worse in 2007 and 2008. And political junkies know that she has done very little that is substantive in the Senate except grant Bush the power to go to war and pander on flag-burning and video games. Politically, Hillary has passed out enough favors and kept every group atomized and fearful enough to make her seem both unpalatable and inevitable. That is why her camp is claiming that they are in the netroots primary, when they are simply not.

I believe her tending to an elite audience and ignoring the concerns of various activists explains the loathing of Hillary Clinton within a certain piece of the progressive base. I've noted before how one slice of primary voters is pretty similar to the netroots. This loathing isn't based on the right-wing slime machine, though often progressives unwittingly slip into discussions about things like 'electability'. It's a loathing that is more 'gut', more about conflicting identities. Chris has noted this with his excellent series of about a year ago on class stratification between the activist class and the elites. Hillary Clinton is an establishment elitist, and we are opposed to this institutional baggage.

Demographics aside, one way to theorize about our ideology is that we have seen and rejected the triangulating model of politics. It's not that Clinton wasn't a good President in the 1990s, it's that he failed to enact anything that outlasted him. He got nothing done on, say, global warming, and failed to establish a firm post-Cold War framework that Bush didn't detonate in five minutes. More relevantly, the Clintonistas performed horribly in the 2000s, acting as lobbyists and warhawks, and just generally working against progressives until they realized they couldn't overtly beat us in the PR game.

So it's not surprising that the Hillary Clinton campaign is working to convince the DLC that she'll do the 1990s over again, only this time with an extra helpings of the strategies that failed.

Former President Clinton has signaled privately that his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), will include aggressive healthcare proposals in her campaign for the White House, despite the debacle of what critics labeled "Hillary Care" 14 years ago.

In remarks to Democratic operatives last month, the ex-president caused a buzz by strongly defending the substance of his wife's 1990s plan, claiming it was a moderate, private-sector approach grossly mischaracterized by its critics.

The former president's statements, delivered during a Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) conference at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Mass., have been interpreted as signaling that candidate Clinton could revive aspects of her 1993-94 approach that was vilified by Republicans and health-industry groups.

The Clinton's still believe that health care lost because the plan was mischaracterized by opponents, and that it is the DLC who needs to know that she will stake her reputation once again on a confusing split-the-baby-in-half plan, using the same insider political tactics that didn't work in 1993. If you haven't, I recommend you read this article from the Atlantic on Hillary Clinton, which shows why she failed.

Assessing the historical record of how major reform had been stymied in the past, Bill Clinton doubted that even his own Cabinet could fend off such pressure. And so the president and his counselors devised an end run around Washington's normal way of doing business. They chose their good friend Ira Magaziner, a business consultant without Washington ties, to manage the task force with Hillary. The Clintons and Magaziner shared a certain hubris, as well as an often articulated disdain for (in what was then the president's favored phrase of opprobrium) "the traditional Washington views" on health care.

So the Clinton White House made the audacious decision to write the whole thing itself, in a task force shrouded in secrecy, consciously shutting out Congress and the health-care community. They would simply outsmart the Washington establishment.

A secret policy rolled out through the Presidency is basically the opposite of our approach in the netroots. It's the opposite of open source, the opposite of open debate, and it doesn't work strategically in the current toxic political environment. Hillary Clinton's assumption that lobbyists won't fight a real universal health care plan is a joke. They have and they will do so again, and if you don't believe me, you can read the web site of the National Association of Manufacturers or the US Chamber of Commerce.

In my first post on Hillary Clinton this week, I asked anti-Clinton people if there were ways that Hillary Clinton could get your support. A few argued that if she apologized for her war vote they would consider her, but surprisingly, a number of people said, flat-out, no. I'm beginning to understand why. There is almost no common ground between progressive activists and elitists like Hillary Clinton. Either you are in the elite stream of discourse, the place where health care can be debated without anyone in the room fearing the risks of being uninsured but where the fear of your client losing his business model is real, or you are with the plebes who are worried about their personal health care. You are either angry about being lied to about Iraq, or you are one of the unapologetic liars. We're on one side. The elites are on the other. We can't handle someone who enabled the war and now won't be straight with us on Iraq after four years of watching our America slowly die. It just isn't possible anymore for us to be in the same conversation because there is nothing to discuss.

I won't be that surprised if Clinton wins the nomination, but what she needs to fear is if the various entities that loathe what Hillary Clinton stands for start talking to each other. Right now, there's a reticence to criticize Senator Clinton because of the legacy of the right, and because we don't like to go after Democrats. I doubt that reticence will continue as the candidates attack each other. Hillary Clinton is a tragic figure, a brilliant woman, and she's the frontrunner. But it's very clear that her campaign will be a $500 million attempt to cover for the fact that she has just not been honest or trusthworthy on the most important issue of our time, Iraq. What Jim Webb showed after the State of the Union is that $500M can buy you many things, but it cannot buy you integrity and strength. It can't buy you voter trust. And as the campaign heats up, the Republican nominee is going to run from the Iraq war. We better make sure that we're not stuck with somebody like Hillary Clinton, who is supporting it.

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