Daniel Davies has a review of Doug Henwood’s new book. I haven’t read the book yet, so I can’t comment on his evaluation. Daniel’s review is mostly a platform to reiterate some arguments about American party politics, as well as some attempt to preemptively dismiss any potential criticism of Henwood’s book, and I will address those points.
In general, Doug has received dog’s abuse for going after Hillary, a lot of it coming from people who know perfectly well what a badly flawed candidate she is, not least because they said so themselves when she was running against Barack Obama. Why is this?
It’s not a hard question to answer. Hillary is the front runner and the (in my view incredibly obviously) presumptive nominee for the Democrats…But whatever Hillary’s failings, she’s very unlikely to be as bad as whatever the Republican Party come up with. So it is, in a lot of genuine senses, very important to a lot of people that she wins. And because they want her to win, they’re not really keen on hearing a whole lot about her flaws and the things which make her such an exceptionally unlikely candidate for centre-Left Americans to feel enthusiastic about voting for.
It’s self-flattering to think that the only reason anyone found Henwood’s Harper’s essay problematic is that Hillary Clinton will almost certainly be the Democratic nominee. Self-flattering, but false. Sure, there may be some people who think that nobody should criticize the Democratic candidate. But most criticism of the piece (certainly including my own) was focused on the fact that many of its arguments were terrible. To pick some random examples:
Is Hillary Clinton the answer to these prayers? It’s hard to think so, despite the widespread liberal fantasy of her as a progressive paragon, who will follow through exactly as Barack Obama did not.
Hillary was plainly a carpetbagger. One way she fought that perception was by engaging in a “listening tour” early in her candidacy, crisscrossing the state that she barely knew, learning its physical and social geography, and trying to convince voters that she cared. But listening wasn’t the point — flattering voters was. As Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker, “Here was a woman who could be doing anything, and what she wanted to do was to expand broadband access in Cattaraugus County.”
I used to be a Democrat, but when I found out that Hillary Clinton spoke to voters throughout the state when campaigning for that state’s Senate seat, I was outraged by the expansion of Medicaid.
And that was precisely the sort of issue that Hillary focused on after winning the election. In Condi vs. Hillary (2005), a strange book that Dick Morris wrote with his wife, Eileen McGann, there’s a list of her senatorial accomplishments.6 Drawing on Library of Congress records, the authors report that Hillary passed a total of twenty bills during her first five years in the Senate. Fifteen of them were purely symbolic: supporting Better Hearing and Speech Month, honoring Alexander Hamilton on the bicentennial of his death, congratulating the Le Moyne College men’s lacrosse team on a big win. Others encouraged the use of electric cars or high-efficiency lightbulbs.
Let’s leave aside a dreadful Dick Morris book being cited as a credible source. We first of all have the revealingly odd idea that individual Senators “pass” bills. But even sillier is the contention that Hillary Clinton was a lousy Senator because she did not “pass” a lot of tranformative progressive legislation during a period in which 1)she was mostly a freshman and, much more importantly 2)Republicans controlled the House of Representatives for six years, and at least 49 seats in the Senate and the White House for all 8 years. The Green Lantern theory of the presidency applied to freshman senators in the minority party is…not very compelling, and is also pretty dispositive evidence of a poorly reasoned hatchet job.
I certainly feel that someone should feel free to point out the actual, major flaws of Hillary Clinton — starting with her support for the Iraq War and the odious 1995 welfare “reform” bill — as often and forcefully as they like. But spare me the assertions that the only reason someone could object to the kind of tendentious nonsense that liberally saturated Henwood’s article is because they believe that the presumptive Democratic candidate for president should be beyond criticism.
Speaking of which, to return to the review:
We have had this discussion on Crooked Timber a number of times (basically whenever me or Henry says something mean about the Democrats in a broadly-defined election year).
Well, no. People didn’t object to people “saying mean things about Democrats.” They object when people approvingly cite articles that urge people not to vote for Democrats or suggest that there’s no particular difference between what could be expected of an Obama or Romney presidency. Also, disagreeing with specific criticisms of Democrats does not imply that all criticisms of Democrats are illegitimate.
To jump ahead a bit:
And notoriously, of course, support which has been dragged out in this manner for a Presidential election is a mile wide and an inch deep, and turns out in much weaker numbers, if at all, for all the odd-year Congressional elections which tend to ensure that the Democratic Presidents elected can’t get their campaign commitments executed.
I would like to think that the failures of Democrats in mid-term elections stem from the fact that their policies are not left-wing enough. The rather obvious problem with this is that the Reconstruction Republicans, New Deal Democrats, and Great Society Democrats all endured a massive bloodbath in their sixth-year midterm congressional elections. (You know who didn’t? Bill Clinton.) The fact that Obama did much worse than Clinton in this regard although he’s somewhat more progressive in orientation and massively more progressive in accomplishment just further exposes the pundit’s fallacy.
The main selling point of the Democratic Party establishment always seems to be “lesser of two evils”, reinforced by a strong dose of “nice not entirely barbaric, yet, reproductive freedom you’ve got here, shame if anything happened to it”.
The ability of the Democrats to effectively use abortion rights as a hostage to ensure co-operation from the left of their party is one of those tactics that works too well – it’s rational, so it always gets the desired result, but because of that they become too reliant on it and it weakens them elsewhere.
The idea that abortion is the only issue on which Democrats are substantively different from Republicans is, at his late date of intense polarization, rather jaw-dropping. Hell, even with respect to the Supreme Court the substantive differences are massive. After a decade in which a Republican dominated Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act, denied Medicaid to millions of people while coming one vote short of striking down the ACA altogether,frequently voted against the interests of consumers and employees, severely limited affirmative action, etc. etc. etc., it’s just embarrassing to suggest that abortion is the only issue at stake. And, of course, the divisions among Supreme Court justices don’t just come from nothing; they reflect the values of the presidents that appoint them. Obama and a Democratic Congress passed a historic expansion of Medicaid and increased regulation of the industry and consumer subsidies; the Republican position is that Medicaid should be curtailed or ended and that subsidies were too generous and the industry too regulated in 2008. Federal Democratic public officials generally support reproductive freedom and LBGT rights; Republican ones opposed them. Democratic public officials passed increased regulations of the financial industry and new consumer protections Republicans fiercely oppose. The Obama administration has greatly expanded environmental regulations; Republicans believe that climate change is a hoax and that environmental regulations were far too onerous in 2008. The kind of people who serve in the civil rights division of the Department of Justice are massively different under the Obama administration than under the Bush administration. This is far from an exhaustive list.
The idea that reproductive freedom is the only issue that divides Democrats and Republicans is something nobody paying any attention could possibly believe. Hillary Clinton is far from my ideal candidate. But the case for her in the general election isn’t that she’s better than the Republicans on reproductive rights. It’s that she’s massively better than Trump/Rubio/Cruz on countless core issues and worse on literally none (even foreign policy, her worst point.) By all means, criticize her. But if you try to deny this rather important point, people are going to strongly disagree with you, and not because they worship Hillary Clinton.