In December 2007, just as the 2008 presidential primaries were beginning to heat up, and with Hillary Clinton 26 points ahead in national polling of Democrats, I wrote an article for AlterNet arguing that she was beatable, that she had vulnerabilities the other candidates did not have, that she had historically high “unfavorables,” that she polled poorly against Republicans and that Democrats should rethink the “inevitability” of her candidacy. Apparently, they did and we know how that turned out.
Once again, Clinton is riding high in polling of Democrats; once again, her supporters are claiming she is “inevitable;” and once again, she has vulnerabilities other candidates lack, including extremely high “unfavorables,” as well as additional liabilities in 2016 she didn’t have in 2008 — some of her own making, some not.
1. Worrisome Polling
Hillary Clinton has maintained consistently high “unfavorable” ratings since at least 2007 (ranging from 40 to 52 percent). In December 2007, they were running 45 percent and are still hovering in the 45 percent range today. In 2007, I wrote that her unfavorable” ratings “currently are running 45 percent — far higher than any other Democratic or Republican presidential hopeful and higher than any presidential candidate at this stage in polling history. Hillary may be the most well-known, recognizable candidate, but that is proving to be as much of a burden as a benefit.” That still seems to be true.
Before Chris Christie melted down in the Bridge-Gate scandal, Quinnipiac, a well-respected poll, had him running ahead of Hillary Clinton 43-42 percent. That doesn’t, in my opinion, mean Christie is a strong candidate — people hardly know who he is — but it suggests Clinton is a weak, or at least vulnerable, candidate. She is someone who has been on the national scene prominently for 20-plus years, people know her, yet a relatively unknown Republican runs even with her? Not a sign of strength.
In a Quinnipiac poll in Colorado, a state with two Democratic senators and a Democratic governor, Rand Paul was out-polling Clinton 45-40 percent and she was running 42-42 percent against the scandal-ridden Christie. Colorado is a blue state Democrats need to win in 2016 and having a well-known Democrat running behind a virtual unknown Republican is not good news.
And, in a recent [October] Presidential match-up poll by the Des Moines Register, Hillary trailed Mitt Romney in Iowa by one point [44-43] and ran only one point ahead of Paul Ryan and three points ahead of Rand Paul.
This should be a serious concern for Democrats because in Presidential years, Iowa has become a fairly reliable Democratic state. In fact, Romney lost Iowa by 6 points to Obama in 2012 and Obama won Iowa by 10 points in 2008. To be trailing in Iowa by even a point to a Republican candidate who lost the state by six points just two years ago and, to date, has shown no interest in even running for President, is one more ominous indication that Hillary is not as strong a candidate as her supporters want you to think. But this is not the only reason to think that Hillary’s relationship to voters is not robust. In the just-concluded 2014 mid-term election, of the Senate candidates Hillary personally appeared and spoke on behalf of, 8 won and 14 lost [one race remains undecided]. By contrast, Elizabeth Warren personally stumped for 11 Democratic Senate candidates: 6 won and 5 lost. Elizabeth Warren pulled voters in her direction; Hillary did not.
2. New Liabilities
By every metric, voters are in a surly mood and they are not going to be happy campers in 2016, either. Why should they be? The economy is still in the toilet, not enough jobs are being created even to keep up with population growth, personal debt and student debt are rising, college graduates can’t find jobs, retirement benefits are shrinking, infrastructure is deteriorating, banksters never were held accountable for melting down the economy, inequality is exploding — and neither party is addressing the depth of the problems America faces.
As a result, just like in the 2014 mid-terms, voters in 2016 will be seeking change and there is no way Clinton can run as a “change” candidate — indeed, having been in power in Washington for 20-plus years as First Lady, U.S. Senator and Secretary of State, she is the poster child for the Washington political establishment, an establishment that will not be popular in 2016. This problem is not really her fault, but it creates serious headwinds for her candidacy and makes her susceptible to any Republican candidate who does not appear to be crazy, who can say a few reasonable things and who looks fresh, new and different. The status quo is not popular today and it is not going to be any more popular in 2016. If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic presidential candidate, even though she will try to harken back to the nostalgia of the 1990s, she will not be able to escape being the candidate representing old ideas and an unpopular status quo.
3. Democratic Party Base
On nearly every important issue, except women’s issues, Clinton stands to the right of her Democratic base. Overwhelmingly, Democrats believe that Wall Street played a substantial role in gaming the system for their benefit while melting down the economy, but Clinton continues to give speeches to Goldman Sachs at $200,000 a pop, assuring them that, “We all got into this mess together and we’re all going to have to work together to get out of it.” In her world — a world full of friends and donors from Wall Street — the financial industry does not bear any special culpability in the financial meltdown of 2007-’08. The mood of the Democratic base is populist and angry, but Clinton is preaching lack of accountability.
According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll done by Hart Research, only four percent of American voters have a great deal of confidence in the financial industry, while 43 percent have “very little or none at all.” With Wall Street at a historic low in popularity and respect, with her close ties to Goldman Sachs, Bob Rubin and the financial industry, Clinton will be perceived as Wall Street’s candidate.
Clinton has not explained why she supported the repeal of Glass-Steagall legislation, which deregulated banks during the Clinton administration and contributed significantly to Wall Street speculation, the meltdown of big banks and the trillion-dollar federal bailout. She has not explained her support for NAFTA, which has eroded the manufacturing base of America and cost American workers a million-plus well-paid jobs; nor her support as Secretary of State for the Trans Pacific Partnership, which has been described as “NAFTA on steroids.” On all these core financial issues, Clinton is well to the right of the Democratic base, so how is she going to fire up the base the way Obama’s promises of “Hope and Change” fired it up in 2008?
The 2014 mid-term election confirmed voter antipathy to Wall Street: According to a Hart Research poll of 2014 voters, the most important issue in the election was the economy and 80% of voters agreed with the statement that “politicians from both the Democratic and Republican parties do too much to support Wall Street financial interests and not enough to help average Americans;” only 13% disagreed. It is not plausible that voters in 2016 are going to feel much differently or want to support a candidate so closely associated with the financial industry as Hillary has been.
Clinton is no more in-tune with her Democratic base on foreign policy issues than on domestic issues. She is not simply a hawk at a time when the Democratic base (and the country) is sick of expensive and counter-productive foreign adventures, she is a superhawk, consistently trying to outflank Republicans on foreign policy issues. We all know she voted in favor of invading Iraq in 2003, despite the fact that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and despite the fact that evidence of WMDs was sketchy at best. She has never recanted that vote, shown any remorse about not examining classified reports about Iraq, reports that were made available to her before the vote nor expressed any qualms about the fact that the U.S. blew $3 trillion down a rat-hole in Iraq and Afghanistan with nothing to show for it. Then, five years later, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan collapsing, she strongly urged new President Obama to escalate the commitment of troops in Afghanistan, advice that proved disastrous. It is no surprise that General David Petraeus has endorsed Clinton for President. He knows a military hawk when he sees one.
More recently, she supported invading Libya and bombing Syria. And, at a time when Obama was trying to moderate Putin’s behavior in the Ukraine and get our European allies to support economic sanctions against Russia, Clinton threw gasoline on the fire by comparing Putin to Hitler, a comparison which is ridiculous on many counts, but which played very badly with our allies.
Ironically, Rand Paul represents the concerns of the Democratic base far better than Clinton about foreign interventions and the excesses of the National Security State and if he were the Republican presidential candidate, would undermine her support among Democrats in an unprecedented way.
Clinton’s biggest asset, in my opinion, is that she is a woman, and America is long past the time when a woman should be elected President. But Democrats already win the women’s vote and lose the vote of men, so what is the net advantage? She also has the highest name-recognition of any candidate, which is why she is polling so highly in Democratic polls, but name-recognition evaporates in any high-profile campaign and is an ephemeral asset.
Indeed, that is the essence of her problem: She has a small and active hardcore base of feminist supporters and donors; a large core of conservatives who hate the Clintons; and among others, her support is a mile wide and two inches deep — which is why a relative unknown ran her down and beat her in 2008.
5. Bill’s Legacy
Hillary Clinton’s campaign will harken back to the glory years of the Clinton administration, but is a campaign based on nostalgia really going to work, particularly with disengaged young voters the Democrats need to win? Certainly, Bill Clinton deserves credit for some things. He increased taxes on the rich, wages grew in his second term and jobs were created in his eight years as President (helped in no small part by the tech revolution and the financial bubble he helped create and which ended in disaster 10 years later). Bill also expanded the earned income tax credit, which helped working people. But there are a lot of things his administration did which don’t look very good in hindsight.
With help from Newt Gingrich, he enacted a Draconian welfare reform program; he overrode the opposition of labor to enact NAFTA, again with mostly Republican support; and, he repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, which deregulated Wall Street. He deregulated the telecom industry, and that deregulation now has put net neutrality in jeopardy, while enriching the big telecom companies. As he described himself to Bob Woodward, “I hope you’re all aware we’re all Eisenhower Republicans. We stand for lower deficits and free trade and the bond market. Isn’t that great?” Conservative Alan Greenspan, whom Bill twice appointed to chair the Federal Reserve Board, said, “Bill Clinton was the best Republican president we’ve had in awhile.”
So here we are, 20 years later, with wages of average workers in decline, CEO pay and Wall Street bonuses accelerating at obscene rates, pensions disappearing, the loss of millions of jobs to developing countries thanks to NAFTA and exploding wealth inequality. Yes, we can blame Bush/Cheney for their contributions to these trends, but the major policy changes that started the ball rolling steeply downhill for workers and the middle class began in the Clinton Administration.
There is no question Hillary Clinton is smart, hard-working and competent. She does her homework, shows up for work every day and works long hours. Yet she has been on the world stage for more than 20 years, so it is fair to ask what are her accomplishments over those 20 years. She led a healthcare task force in Bill Clinton’s first term, but that effort failed, largely because she was not collaborative and failed to involve Congress, despite the fact Democrats controlled it. She repeatedly claims credit for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, passed during Bill Clinton’s second term, and while her role has been disputed even by the bill’s sponsors, she played an important role in supporting it within the White House and later publicly.
In 2008, however, she tried to bootstrap many accomplishments of her husband by exaggerating her role as First Lady and got roundly mocked for her exaggerations. She had a term as U.S. Senator, and was re-elected, but can anyone identify anything of consequence that she accomplished during that period other than facilitating Republican idiocy by supporting Bush’s war in Iraq? Then she spent four years as Secretary of State, which certainly improved her public profile, but can anyone identify any substantial accomplishments she had as Secretary of State?
Clinton came to the role of Secretary of State with a huge asset — her strong relationship with AIPAC and the Israeli government. She, like President Obama, supports a two-state solution, opposes Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory and seeks peace with the Palestinians. There was hope when she was appointed that she would leverage her strong relationship with AIPAC and move Israel away from aggressive settlement activity and toward the peace process. That did not happen. Clinton is cautious, by nature, and I have little doubt she feared angering her wealthy Jewish donors by pushing them hard on peace negotiations. So she didn’t act and whatever leverage she had was wasted; it was not until John Kerry replaced her as Secretary of State that peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine resumed. Likewise with Iran, as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was a consistent advocate of tough sanctions and serious peace negotiations did not begin until John Kerry replaced her.
7. Foreign Policy Credentials
The Arab Spring exploded on her watch, but Clinton and U.S. foreign policy drifted. There were no long-term strategies and with her stewardship, America supported whoever looked like a winner. When it was Mubarak, she supported Mubarak. When he was going down, she supported elections. Then when they had elections and the military tossed out the winners, she supported the military. Of course, she is not the only person responsible for the policy drift, but where did she leave a positive imprint on the direction of American foreign policy?
In my opinion, she has been wrong about almost every major foreign policy question in recent American history. She probably lost the Democratic presidential primaries and the presidential nomination due to her ill-advised vote to start a war in Iraq, a vote which ultimately gave Obama’s candidacy substantial impetus, and it is reasonable to assume she will face some amount of accountability with voters for her consistently hawkish and unpopular views on foreign interventions.
In the past few months, Hillary has double-downed on her hawkish positions in the Middle East by her continued unconditional support for Israel, despite its murderous assault on Gaza which killed 2,000 mostly defenseless people, her criticisms of President Obama for not arming Syrian rebels fast enough and her hawkish stance about making a peace deal with Iran.
In an August interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, published in The Atlantic, and elsewhere, Hillary said, “The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad — there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle — the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” This is mostly fantasy. The U.S. invested trillions of dollars in Iraq, including hundreds of billions trying to train an Iraqi Army, and utterly failed in the effort. What could possibly make Clinton think the U.S., with far fewer resources available for Syria, had the capacity to train a competent rebel army, let alone even determine who the “good rebels” were? Is she unaware of how bad—and counter-productive—America’s track record has been arming and training fighters in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere? And, if she really believed Syrian rebels needed to be armed, why didn’t she protest publicly at the time? The fact that she remained silent as Secretary of State shows lack of conviction and no courage.
In the interview, Hillary also took a very hard line on Obama’s negotiations with Iran’s nuclear expectations: “I’ve always been in the camp that held that they [Iran] did not have a right to enrichment,” Clinton said. “Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right. I am well aware that I am not at the negotiating table anymore, but I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran. The preference would be no enrichment. The potential fallback position would be such little enrichment that they could not break out.” When asked if the demands of Israel, and of America’s Arab allies, that Iran not be allowed any uranium-enrichment capability whatsoever were militant or unrealistic, she said, “I think it’s important that they stake out that position.”
Claiming Iran has “no right to enrichment,” is a half-truth. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty does not expressly grant a right to uranium enrichment to any nation, but it also doesn’t prohibit enrichment, so long as enrichment is not done secretly. Hillary, of course, knows this, but by choosing to emphasize only parts of the Treaty and ignore the rest, she is misleading and inflaming the discussion. In the case of Iran, misinformation feeds right-wing opposition and potentially could jeopardize a peace agreement with a country with an educated population and democratic traditions [destroyed by the CIA coup in 1953] which could be a stabilizing force and America’s ally in the Middle East.
Ironically, as Secretary of State, Clinton explicitly recognized that Iran could enrich uranium under the terms of a negotiated comprehensive deal, which, of course, is exactly what Obama is seeking to do, but now, as a potential Presidential candidate, Hillary appears to want to forget her own history and criticize Obama from the right. Does that sound like opportunism to anyone other than me?
Concerns about these types of hawkish positions by Clinton are not academic or inconsequential. Becoming enmeshed unnecessarily in long-term sectarian conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq killed hundreds of thousands of people, including 5,000 Americans, and cost U.S. taxpayers $3+ trillion, and counting, as 500,000 war-damaged American vets get healthcare, most for the rest of their lives. Worse, U.S. military intervention inflamed a situation America never had control over, or ever could have control over, promoted recruitment of thousands of militants by terrorist organizations, and made America, despite this huge investment, less safe.
It has been a total clusterfuck, to be sure, but apparently Hillary Clinton is willing to repeat the policy mistakes which caused it. Voters should be, and I think will be, concerned.
Is There a Democratic Alternative?
Bernie Sanders has declared his intent to run, but Sanders is technically a socialist; more importantly, his candidacy is unlikely to present a formidable challenge to Clinton.
The name on people’s lips is Elizabeth Warren, who is the harshest critic of Wall Street excesses and who speaks to the populist zeitgeist. Would she run, despite having said she is not interested?
I think we should take her protestations of disinterest seriously. Running for President is a brutal task: Two years of living in motels; two years of banquets and bad food; two years of glad-handing people; two years of dialing for donor dollars; two years of facing attacks from Republicans. No rational person would do it. Unless they wanted to change the world.
I believe there are five scenarios that would make it possible, perhaps even likely, for Elizabeth Warren to run in 2016:
- Elizabeth Warren ran for the U.S. Senate because she wanted to change the world, most immediately to break the stranglehold on American politics and the economy that Wall Street currently holds. If she sees Hillary Clinton continuing to suck up to the financial industry and offering the failed economics and deregulation beliefs of Bob Rubin, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, Warren might rethink what she can accomplish in the U.S. Senate. She is a person of great principle; she has fought for her principles, often against brutal odds. In the end, principles could prove more compelling than the easier and more comfortable path of stepping back.
- I have been told by friends of hers that Warren likes her job as senator and thinks she can make important contributions in that role. But now that the Democrats have lost control of the Senate, she might want to rethink that, because as a member of the minority in a rigidly controlled Republican Senate, it is unlikely she could accomplish anything other than increase her level of frustration.
- Warren might rethink the clock. She is 65 now and would be 67 on Election Day 2016, so 2016 could be the only chance she has to run for President.
- Clinton could choose not to run. In December 2012, she suffered dehydration and fatigue, fainted, fell and hit her head, suffering a concussion. She was re-hospitalized two weeks later and her condition was described as a clot between her brain and skull. She previously had suffered a large blood clot in her leg. These medical issues could cause her to rethink undertaking the rigors of a presidential campaign, which are brutal.
- Warren raised a record $42.5 million to run for the Senate and Democratic donors would come out in droves to fund her presidential campaign. A challenge to Clinton and Democratic Party orthodoxy by Warren would be like catnip to the media. So the minute Warren declared to run for President, she would have $100 million worth of free advertising from the media telling her story and playing up the differences between her and Clinton. Even if Warren lost, she would have pushed Clinton away from Wall Street and toward more progressive Democratic Party positions and ignited a new generation of Democrats opposed to neoliberalism and dedicated to making America a more fair and equal society.
Barbara Bush recently commented that America should have more choices for President than two family dynasties. This may be the first time I have ever agreed so strongly with Barbara Bush.