יום שבת, 18 ביוני 2016

Hillary Clinton, After the Clintonites

By Benjamin Wallace-Wells
If Hillary Clinton wins this election, the ideas that moved through the Administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama will have dominated American politics for almost three decades.

The past ten days have emphasized the long arc of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. On June 9th, President Obama’s endorsement bound her candidacy to his Presidency, and bound the three major figures of recent Democratic Party history (one Obama, two Clintons) together, too. “I don’t think there’s ever been someone so qualified to ever hold this office,” Obama said. Then, on Tuesday, the President gave a blistering speech against Donald Trump at the Treasury Department, and Clinton, speaking at the same time, in Pittsburgh, echoed him, nearly word for word. Obama promised himself as an eager surrogate, and Clinton’s staffers quickly made use of the White House photo archives: two leaders together, confronting crises.

This isn’t usually how it goes—in past few election cycles, the outgoing President has been shunned by his Party’s candidate. On the eve of the 2000 election, Bill Clinton lamented that Al Gore never called; George W. Bush appeared at exactly one campaign event with John McCain in 2008. During the 2008 election, Obama and the Clintons seemed to represent two distinct Democratic camps, but over the past eight years the distance between them has collapsed—in staff, in policy, and in the relationship between the President and the successor he wants. If Clinton wins the election, the ideas that moved through the Administrations of Bill Clinton and Obama will have dominated American politics for almost three decades.

Lately, as the likelihood has grown that Hillary Clinton will be the next President, I have found myself rewatching D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’s “The War Room,” the great old documentary of the operatives who ran Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. That movie’s topic is the mechanics of the modern Presidential race, but its themes are generational: the ascendance of the “first President from the rock-and-roll generation,” as the film’s trailer described Clinton, and the entrance of a competitive, optimistic, talented class of young professionals into the greasy and ancient world of politics. James Carville, on a great insult jag, says that George H. W. Bush gives off the “stench of yesterday. He is so yesterday, if I think of yesterday, if I think of an old calendar, I think of George Bush’s face on it.” Sometimes Pennebaker and Hegedus play the campaign’s yuppie aggression for comedy, but they also understand the depths of the transformation it undertook. “It used to be there was a hierarchy,” Carville says, choking up, on Election Night, and then tells his staff that they have overthrown it.

That same night, the documentary’s other star, a very young George Stephanopoulos, takes a call from an operative who is threatening to release evidence that Bill Clinton is the father of an illegitimate African-American child. Stephanopoulos evenly threatens the operative. “I guarantee you, if you do this, you’ll never work in Democratic politics again,” he says. The suggestion is that politics is dirty work, and in fresh-faced Stephanopoulos’s cold eyes there is the hint of the political cynicism that the Clinton Administration brought. But something more straightforward was happening in that exchange, too: Stephanopoulos was asserting control over the Party—his control, and that of his cohorts.

Certain Clintonites—Larry Summers, Gene Sperling, Jack Lew—staffed not just Bill Clinton’s Administration but also Obama’s. (One consequence of Obama’s commitment to the Team of Rivals idea was to flatten the differences between his campaign and the Party’s establishment.) The great generational ambition of the Clintons, a program for universal health care that worked through the insurance markets, became this President’s signal achievement. The more diffuse projects that have occupied the Obama Administration—targeted, rather than wholesale, interventions by the welfare and regulatory state, a marriage of moralism with American military power—would have been familiar in 1992 as well. At Bill Clinton’s first inaugural, the Democratic Party was defined on its right flank by Robert Rubin and on its left by Robert Reich, and though the center of gravity has shifted left since then, the Party still mostly obeys those ideological poles. The Clintonites are still with us, a generation later. So are the tensions they carried, and the ideas.

Part of the uncertainty around Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, at the outset, was over whether it would look forward, to the promise of a first woman President, or backward, to the two previous Democratic Administrations, but the presence of Donald Trump has helped resolve that. Elizabeth Warren, offering her endorsement on “The Rachel Maddow Show,” praised Clinton’s “toughness” and her endurance; Obama has emphasized her qualifications. The basic arguments for Clinton have been defensive. Against the madness of Trump, against Republican efforts to reverse the gains of the Obama Administration, she offers the assurance of another four years of liberal federal judges and civil servants—that the country built by the rock-and-roll generation won’t quickly be eroded.

The lone moment in “The War Room” when Carville is shown growing angry—the tensest instance in its whole gleeful arc of the Clinton campaign—comes on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, just after Gennifer Flowers held a press conference to announce that she had an affair with Bill Clinton. Carville speaks to the New Hampshire campaign staff, in an overcrowded office with drop ceilings, to remind them that they are at war with the cynicism of the conservative establishment: “Roger Ailes, Georgette Mosbacher, and the whole sleazy little cabal of them,” the attendants of privilege and wealth. (Mosbacher, Carville points out, said “she can’t wait till this election’s over so she can get her Maserati and her jewels back.”) The Clintonite victory over this crew was measured not just in partisan terms but in the meritocrats who ascended to power: the quants in charge of policy, the three consecutive Presidential elections without a white man at the top of the ballot.

Hillary Clinton was the first Clintonite, and she is now also the last. Just about everyone else has aged out of the hard work of partisan politics and policy scrutiny, and into the easier sinecures of public life. Clinton is surrounded by younger men and women, products of the meritocracy, rather than partisans of it, and they’ve ascended at a moment when meritocracy does not have a great reputation. The most powerful rationale offered for Clinton’s Presidential candidacy will be satisfied by the fact of her election: the long legacy of the baby boom, in which cultural change was encoded in politics, will be secure. The interesting question is what comes next.

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