The Trouble With Hillary

Illustration by David Wong.

Each time John McCain stoops to commit some purely, nakedly political act, like campaigning for George W. Bush’s reelection or giving his okay to the teaching of “intelligent design” in public schools, I cringe. There are so few national politicians wired to speak candidly, from the heart and the hip, that I have a soft spot for almost all of them—Bob Kerrey, sure, but also Bob Dole and Bill Weld, even nuts like Jesse Ventura. So when McCain behaves like a normal politician, it’s a disturbing departure from my Frank Capra script for him.

The same kind of gesture from Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, simply confirms what one thinks already, since the script for her (more Cukor, less Capra) is all about cool calculation and calibration in service to the main chance. She is, after all, the feminist who at age 35, seven years married, started calling herself Hillary Rodham Clinton in order to give her husband a better chance at winning back the governorship in old-fashioned Arkansas. So when she announced the other day that she was signing on as a co-sponsor of a new anti-flag-desecration bill—Look at me! I’m jerking right!—it seemed in character. It was one more fragment of evidence, unattractive but inevitable, that she is not really running for reelection to the Senate from New York.

Duh. But I still found it disheartening. Not because I imagine the Flag Protection Act poses any serious jeopardy to free speech. Rather, as an exemplary gesture by the presumptive 2008 nominee, it was a vivid small example of the routine, ritual dishonesty that infuses our political discourse so thoroughly.

All bills about this faux issue are, of course, a waste of time, the statutory expressions of an apoplectic comic-book politics that fantasizes America-haters fighting patriots in the public square, with Old Glory aflame. Hillary’s law is especially pathetic, like one of those “funny” nineteenth-century statutes, but updated with weenie-ish 21st-century hate-speech pieties. Desecrating a flag, the bill declares, “causes more than pain and distress to the overwhelming majority of the American people and may amount to … a direct threat to the … emotional well-being of individuals at whom the threat is targeted.” And the statute has been crafted so narrowly, in an attempt to meet constitutional muster, that it will criminalize only the destruction of government-owned flags, or of flags on federal property—so you’ll still be free to desecrate your own flag unless your “primary purpose and intent [is] to incite … violence.” In other words, the Flag Protection Act of 2005 will make destroying government property and inciting riots, well, you know, even more illegal than they already are.

But Hillary, being a Clinton, has a too-clever-by-half escape hatch ready when the civil libertarians object: She can say she’s still against amending the Constitution to outlaw flag-burning. Someone should ask her exactly how those positions jibe. Hers is a distinction without a difference.

It’s not like with gay marriage, where she can at least have it both ways logically. It is coherent to oppose gays’ marrying (as Hillary does) yet also to oppose (as Hillary does) a constitutional amendment to outlaw it—she could make a states’-rights case that Massachusetts should remain free to codify personal morality in ways she disapproves of. She doesn’t make that argument, though, since she doesn’t really disapprove of gay marriage but only feels obliged to oppose it because most Americans do—because, as her husband wrote of his own moral sail-trimming when he was young, she wants to maintain her political viability within the system.

Lacking her husband’s uncanny knack for finessing left and right, however—the famous triangulation strategy—she plays the game awkwardly, like a very earnest Vulcan who has closely studied Earth politics. When Governor Clinton returned to Arkansas just before the 1992 New Hampshire primary to preside over the execution of a black brain-damaged cop killer, it was an act of evil political genius; a few months later, when he gave a speech to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition criticizing the rapper Sister Souljah’s apologia for murderous black L.A. rioters, it was not even evil. In any case, his I’m-no-bleeding-heart signals worked to fix him in voters’ minds as moderate, comfortably quasi-conservative—that is, happy to let the state kill but unwilling to excuse black thugs who do.

All Americans are powerfully attuned to issues of race, consciously or not. But Hillary’s silly flag-protection move looks lose-lose to me. Members of her base feel dismayed, yet anyone for whom flag desecration is a real issue isn’t going to vote for Hillary Clinton anyhow. And to people in the great, vast middle, gambits like these make her look (even more) craven, not instinctively moderate and mainstream. Yet she actually is moderate and mainstream. Ironically, maybe even a little tragically, her strenuous attempts to demonstrate it may diminish her chances of becoming president.

Last spring, she held a press conference with her two most appalling Christian-right colleagues, Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback, to campaign for $90 million in federal funding of research to prove that the Internet and other electronic media are satanic, and last summer she called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the secret sex scenes embedded in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. If she sincerely believes children’s trashy pop culture is an issue of major federal-government concern, her priorities are goofy, and if not, she looks like a shameless panderer to cultural conservatives on matters of minor consequence.

Such gratuitous moves to the right tend to make all voters doubt her more nuanced and (probably) sincere positions on genuinely important issues. People think she’s being weaselly even if she isn’t. Like when she told a pro-choice crowd that abortion is “a sad, even tragic choice.” That was a worthwhile Sister Souljah moment, smart and effective. Her view of Iraq has been consistent and, to me, convincing—the administration was reckless and incompetent in managing the occupation, but immediate withdrawal or a rigid timetable would also be reckless, and the U.S. must now pay a still-higher price to try to prevent a Zarqawiite victory and Talibanic rogue state. But again, people mistrust her sincerity.

Gratuitous moves to the right make all voters doubt her (probably) sincere positions on important issues.

It’s the “authenticity” problem. Bill Clinton is probably every bit as calculating as his wife, but he could mitigate it with his robust charm and half-fake, half-real sincerity. Only the people who made a partisan point of hating him didn’t like Clinton at least a little bit. The same was true of Ronald Reagan. And there you have it: a happy-go-lucky Hollywood divorcé, then a junk-food-loving horndog, and now a frat-boyish former drunk and ne’er-do-well, all three of them mischievous repentant sinners and all of them (yes) sort of hot—American voters have been habitually choosing a certain kind of distinctly American person as president, and Hillary Clinton is not that kind of person.

In other words, her fundamental problem is that she’s too unlike her husband. In the last eleven presidential elections, every winning Democrat has had a southern accent—and, not coincidentally, a Democrat has beaten a Republican among male voters only when the nominee was a Southerner. For the last quarter-century, majorities of suburbanites and small-town residents have voted Republican in every election except ones in which Bill Clinton was running, and both times, he cut the usual 10 and 20 and 30 percent GOP margins among whites and rural voters to just 1 and 2 percent.

This next time around, even the un-Americans here in our blue, blue city—we who voted for stiffs like Michael Dukakis— will not be immune to the charms of a candidate whose humanity and humor and impulse for honesty are plain. We disagree with John McCain on abortion, gay rights, school prayer, and gun control. But his personality and character are why clear-eyed members of the liberal elite (off the top of my head: Barry Diller, Tom Brokaw, Jon Stewart) are so fond of him. They may agree with Hillary Clinton on pretty much everything, but … they don’t dig her.

How unenthusiastic is her natural local base? One plugged-in Democrat I know, a marketing guy who used to work in Washington politics, tried to convince me that Christopher Dodd—Christopher Dodd!—would be more electable than Hillary. On the other hand, I know of just two people in my address book who are true Hillary devotees, and both of them happen to be smart, conscientious, successful professional women who were born in 1947 and graduated from elite northeastern women’s colleges in 1969 … Hillary’s bio exactly.

Maybe her presidential candidacy will produce a bit of a gender gap even here, in the ostensibly gender-neutral ranks of Democratic cosmopolites. We are accustomed to imagining that the gap exists only out in the suburbs and the provinces, between the Marge and Homer Simpsons and the Peggy and Hank Hills. (We also think of it running only in one direction—yet until Goldwater frightened them in 1964, women voted more Republican than men, and they didn’t turn sharply left until Ronald Reagan frightened them again in 1980.)Whether or not Hillary is elected president, the outcome will be attributed mainly—and correctly—to her gender. There is unconscious sexism in the system, in our heads. The acceptable stylistic template for national female politicians is much more constricted than that for men—Ann Richards is about the only senator or governor in the scampish Reagan-Clinton-Bush mold. Instead, women must be stiff-necked, essentially First Lady–like—Liddy Dole or Condoleezza Rice, Dianne Feinstein or Hillary Clinton. Which in turn makes them less attractive presidential candidates. If she loses, sexism will be part of the reason. And if she wins, it will be because an unprecedented supermajority of women vote for her.

Of course, this may all become moot. Maybe John Edwards or Evan Bayh will catch fire in the primaries, or maybe a MoveOn.organized party will bring the Iraq-Vietnam analogy full circle by nominating an antiwar candidate like Al Gore or Howard Dean, the way we dinked Edmund Muskie in favor of George McGovern in 1972.

Hillary’s position on the war is politically risky. It isn’t simple and unambiguous, like Bush’s and the antiwar left’s. In the end, it may be proved wrong. It differs from the administration’s not in its basic outline but in the particulars of its execution going forward. And she is already being slagged viciously for it. “Hillary Clinton can kiss my butt,” Tim Robbins said on Air America the other day, and Jimmy Breslin wrote that “she sneaks and slithers past you with her opinion on a war that kills every day” and “should send her daughter to fight in Iraq.” The left demands that Hillary show “backbone,” by which they mean recanting what they’re sure is a purely political position and calling for a total U.S. withdrawal ASAP. In fact, she is arguably showing backbone, given that about half her party want to bring the troops home right away. The middle ground sometimes isn’t the easy, wishy-washy option but the intellectually and morally most demanding one.

For now, heckling by the Robbinses and Breslins and Grandmothers Against the War is, in a political sense, useful to her, solidifying her reputation for national-security tough-mindedness. Yet by 2008, whether or not the counterinsurgency and embryonic democracy in Iraq have gathered momentum, she won’t be able to run as a clear peace-and-war alternative to McCain, Rudolph Giuliani, or any other plausible Republican, because their records will all be about the same. While she becomes electable in theory—no wimpy waffler she!—she will be electable only against a Bill Frist or a Jeb Bush or a Rick Santorum.

Still, the Democratic nomination is hers to lose, just as the general election will be the Republicans’ to lose, which they might manage by failing to nominate McCain or Giuliani. If the race is John McCain versus Hillary Clinton—by far the most likely possibility—and the electorate craves competence and integrity and common sense after eight rotten years of Bush, both candidates will look like equally reasonable choices. But alas, like every modern Democratic nominee except her husband, Hillary Clinton comes across as wooden, priggish, cold, too much superego, and too little id. I bet she and McCain will engage in an unusually civilized campaign. And whoever the nominees are, I bet the more likable, lusty, obviously human candidate will win.


The Trouble With Hillary