Wednesday, April 22, 2015
The Selling of Hillary, 2016
BY JAY COST
In The Selling of the President, Joe McGinniss details how Richard Nixon’s handlers micromanaged every aspect of his public persona in 1968, to craft an image for a fickle public that had rejected the longtime politician eight years before.
It is an easy bet that Hillary Clinton’s top strategists have dog-eared copies of this book close at hand. Clinton has been running for president nonstop since 2000, but earlier this month she announced her candidacy—on Twitter, no less. She tweeted, “I’m running for president. Everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion.” Nixon’s people would be impressed.
To be sure, every candidate nowadays is intensively stage-managed, but there does seem something special about Clinton’s handling this second time around. Nothing is being left to chance. One can imagine the debate over her Twitter announcement: Should it be “average Americans”? No, no! People don’t like to be told they’re average. How about “regular Americans”? No. That suggests that some Americans are irregular. Hmm . . . better go with “everyday Americans”!
Clinton’s Twitter announcement suggests she plans to rerun the 2000 campaign of Al Gore: the hard-bitten class-warrior fighting for average—sorry, everyday—Americans against the malefactors of great wealth. Under the Clinton banner, this premise is absurd and obscene in equal parts, but it may prove successful.
It is absurd because Clinton has little in common with everyday Americans. She is fabulously wealthy, but not because she built a better mousetrap, saved a foundering company, or pitched a no-hitter in the World Series. And not even because she is a politician; lots of politicians attain wealth, but few do so by charging exorbitant speaking fees or commanding eight-figure book deals. Clinton is wealthy because she is famous, something only a handful of Americans can possibly understand, which is what really separates her from her fellow citizens.
She has been hermetically sealed in the bubble of celebrity for a quarter-century. People are starstruck by celebrities, and they don’t talk to them as they do each other. For all this time, moreover, she has been surrounded, layer upon layer, by handlers, strategists, policy wonks, pollsters, financiers—the list goes on. Her interactions with everyday Americans are mediated by armies of paid assistants.
Really, the only claim Clinton can make to understanding the travails of everyday Americans is her party’s platform. Endorsement of that document is a kind of sacrament that bestows the power of empathy upon every Democratic pol. This is perhaps the most absurd premise of the Clinton candidacy. By this logic, Democrats could in theory nominate a robot who merely spouted DNC talking points and it would be more empathetic than a living Republican.
Her candidacy is obscene because Clinton represents the apotheosis of the Democratic party’s post-Great Society hypocrisy. It used to be that the Republicans were the party of big business and Democrats the party of organized labor. The GOP charged that the Democrats were a bunch of socialists, and the Democrats responded that the GOP was a pack of plutocrats. But about 40 years ago, things started to change; labor began to decline, and new campaign finance laws allowed business to subsidize politics more thoroughly. In the 1980s, the Democrats responded by courting business energetically—yet they never ditched their claim that the GOP alone is elitist.
No two Democrats have been better at this sleight-of-hand than Bill and Hillary Clinton. Bill Clinton’s 1996 campaign smashed all fundraising records; it also skirted the limits of campaign finance law, not to mention ethical propriety. One would think that the Clintons could not top that, but the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation seems to be operating on a more daring plane altogether. The details remain sketchy, but the foundation appears to be in part a slush fund collecting money from those looking to buy a piece of the Clinton restoration. And its donors are not the everyday Americans from whom Hillary Clinton is ordering Chipotle burritos. They are the heaviest of heavy hitters in finance, industry, and commerce, and they include foreign governments (the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, etc.) that have contributed millions of dollars.
In 2016, the Clintons tell us that they expect to raise $2.5 billion from interested elite factions across society. That figure, while astonishing, is not unbelievable. And they may need every penny, for their task is to convince the country that the Republicans are the ones in hock to those same moneyed interests; also that Hillary Clinton—despite having been a stratospheric celebrity for longer than many voters have been alive—is the true champion of everyday America.
Absurd and obscene, but it may work. After all, it has worked many times before. Barack Obama outraised John McCain among the biggest Wall Street firms by a substantial figure, but voters believed McCain was the tool of the “fat cats.” Obama then signed into law the Dodd-Frank bill, whose first draft originated at a top Wall Street law firm, Davis, Polk & Wardwell, and which cemented the status of the top banks as “too big to fail.” And yet Obama—not Mitt Romney—was seen as the one who cared about everyday Americans. It would be hard to find a more aloof and out-of-touch nominee than John Kerry in 2004, yet he fell just two points short of toppling George W. Bush. Al Gore could not even make an authentic choice about what shirt to wear, and he actually beat Bush in the popular vote with his people-versus-the-powerful shtick.
The Democratic formula is fairly straightforward: Take a dollop of identity politics, sprinkle liberally with class warfare, and shake aggressively with Wall Street money. The public seems to enjoy it, so why should they refuse when Hillary Clinton is the one serving it up?
The problem is actually the Republican party. The GOP ostensibly stands for smaller, more efficient government—but it allows the Democrats to define just what sort of government we are talking about. The debate always seems to be about Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps and unemployment insurance, Pell grants and Head Start. In other words, by the very terms of the conversation, big government works for the benefit of the downtrodden. Even as they defend big government, the Democrats identify themselves as the champions of the downtrodden and the GOP as their hardhearted assailants.
But what about corporate tax payouts? Or farm subsidies for the largest agribusinesses? Or regulations that effectively subsidize big companies by crowding out competitors? These issues would put Democrats in a quandary, for they would force Democratic candidates to defend the big-government programs that favor not the poor or the middle class, but the social and economic elites who have purchased seats at their party’s table.
Two hundred years ago, the Jeffersonians won everyday Americans by running on a platform of small government. Why? Because they convinced the country that big government inevitably favors the most powerful interests in society. Ronald Reagan won smashing political victories on the same premise. Yet the Republican party of the 21st century, which claims to be for smaller government, cannot seem to connect those dots.
Until it does, the Democrats can have it both ways. If the struggle over the size of government continues to revolve around subsidies for the poor and low-income working people, Hillary Clinton will be able to raise money from elites to blast Republicans as elitist. But if instead the campaign centers on how government favors those who are already well off, then Clinton will be in a bind. Her commitment to ever-expansive government will force her to defend indefensible programs, and Republicans can assail her for having been effectively bought off by those who benefit from big government.
Thus, the resolution of the 2016 election might come down to this question: What kind of party does the GOP wish to be? Will it return to the populism of Reagan and Jefferson? If so, Clinton’s hypocritical strategy may be exposed as absurd and obscene. But if the Republican party continues to make the same, flawed case it has made in recent cycles, there is no reason to doubt that Clinton will become the next president.