The Big Lookback: Hillary Clinton
From "The Village Voice," October 11, 2016: "Putting In Work for HRC"
Feeling it in the pit of my stomach myself though I certainly was, the shocked outrage that greeted the June 23 Supreme Court ruling officially ending half a century of federal abortion protection was not without its cognitive dissonance. After all, we knew without the slightest doubt that this was coming. The main thing I’d been wondering was whether John Roberts would succeed in excising some of the nuttier details of Alito’s leaked opinion, especially his eight citations of 17th-century English jurist Matthew Hale, a fervent misogynist who declared marital rape a contradiction in terms, condemned women to death for the witchcraft he told jurors was real, and taught his grandchildren that female humans were “chargeable unprofitable people” who “knew the ready way to consume an estate, and to ruin a family quickly.” But the draft Alito opinion that leaked May 22 went unchanged, despite some nitpicking in the concurrences, most substantively Roberts’s insistence that upholding the constitutionality of Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban did not require the overturning of Roe v. Wade no matter what the majority said. So let’s just hope that in addition to manifesting both the outrage and the solidarity feminists of every gender have felt more or less nonstop since May 22, our best hope for the street demos that erupted post June 23 is that they presaged the full-scale resistance to come.
The question then becomes how best this resistance might manifest itself. And this in turn made me think it was about time to make a Big Lookback of a Village Voice piece in the October 11, 2016 edition, my first for the paper in the decade-plus after the Hounds of Phoenix who bought it in 2005 fired me: “Putting In Work For HRC.” Writing it took me a week, and let me note that I’m now certain I was grievously wrong to omit Andrew Johnson, who crippled Reconstruction and like Trump should have been impeached, from my brief rundown of terrible presidents. But I’m proud of every word, including my abiding suspicion that a provocative Voice cover endorsing Ralph Nader over Al Gore could conceivably have made the difference in the 2000 presidential election, which Gore lost to George W. Bush by just 537 Florida votes. And I would add that in the 2016 election, which in early October when I published my piece seemed very likely to go to Clinton over Trump, Trump’s margin in the decisive swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania were lower than the votes that went to Green candidate Jill Stein in those states, meaning that mathematically, anyway—though the Pennsylvania numbers are very tight and it would be absurd to pretend that every Green would have settled for the Dem—Hillary might have won if Stein had butted out. Which I hope with less than complete confidence that even the socialism-or-diers at The Jacobin agree would have been better than Trump. To quote myself from the piece below: “And do I even have to mention the Supreme Court?”
Which brings us to the thornier question of to what extent the full-scale resistance adduced above can or should be an electoral resistance, as I think it had better be. Briefly, for those who don’t follow this stuff, the Democrats’ chance of holding the House of Representatives they now control has improved slightly but remains questionable, especially given Biden’s poll numbers. But in the Senate things aren’t so bad. Dems Warnock in Georgia, Kelly in Arizona, Cortez-Mastro in Nevada, and Hassan in New Hampshire are all endangered but far from dead meat, and whoever runs against world-class dumbass Ron Johnson in Wisconsin will have a shot, plus there are potential pickups in states where Repugs are retiring: rough-hewn John Fetterman over carpetbagging Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, union man Tim Ryan over faux hillbilly J.D. Vance in Ohio. And at a somewhat lower level of likelihood we have three-star admiral Michael Franken versus 89-year-old Chuck Grassley in Iowa, ex-cop Val Demings versus born-again hypocrite Marco Rubio in Florida, ex-Marine Lucas Kunce versus accused abuser Eric Greitens in Missouri, state Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley versus Trumper Ted Budd in North Carolina. As a point of information, I know for a fact that many of the above-named Democratic hopefuls accept donations.
“It’s become beyond clear that we can’t expect even the most modest change at the federal level without a massive, widespread, and disruptive social/political rupture,” saith Brown University fellow and Jacobin podcaster Daniel Denvir, and for sure disruptive ruptures are generally the best kind. But what I find myself wishing for most devoutly these days is the merely electoral one Talking Points Memo’s pragmatic Josh Marshall has been promoting since Alito showed his cards. Supposedly 80 percent of Americans are pro-abortion, only when you examine the numbers not all of the 80 are equally pro so say 60 plus at the ballot box might be a good place to start. Marshall believes, credibly by me, that how many of that pro-abortion 60-odd actually vote Democrat on that issue alone depends on just how pro-abortion Dems commit themselves to being. Will Dem candidates, for instance, promise they’ll not only vote to legalize abortion at the federal level, but to suspend if not end the filibuster to make sure such legislation passes the Senate? As is his practice (and as he did with great effect when W. was trying to privatize social security back in 2005), Marshall has unofficially deputized his readers to find out where their senators stand regarding this hypothetical, thus inspiring, for instance, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire or maybe just her phone answerers to perform quite the tap dance.
All over America this November there may or may not be modest changes at the federal level that, Daniel Denvir notwithstanding, may do this riven nation a measure of good and may, admittedly, do it no damn good at all. When I wrote my Hillary-qua-electoral-activism piece in 2016, I figured the stakes were higher than many of my readers had fully accepted and hoped to recruit a few of them. About that I was right—with due fear and loathing in re the fossil fuel industry that financed Joe Manchin’s yacht and the pharma profiteers who bought themselves Kyrsten Sinema, Trump has wreaked more damage on this nation and this planet than even those of us who loathed him from before the beginning were capable of imagining. I don’t walk as well as I did back then, which is bound to make both door-knocking and demonstrating more painful than it used to be, and as an official 80-year-old I’m not as sharp with my phone or my laptop as I probably need to be either. But I’m not ready to give up yet, and neither I hope are you. You don’t need to be brave. But you do need to be stubborn, and of some species of good cheer. Good luck to all of us.
Let me start by saying something crucial that may surprise you. I LIKE Hillary Clinton. At her Manhattan headquarters there’s a wall where her worker bees leave multicolored love notes. Written in my native lead pencil, my contribution is quieter: “I love HRC because she’s so awkward, because she’s so well-meaning, and because she works harder than Obama himself.” But you don't have to share my fuzzy feelings to accept my thesis: Anyone who identifies “progressive” and doesn’t vote for Hillary will have succumbed to a cynicism that masquerades as hope for a better tomorrow. I see two main reasons for this: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. But I promise to get to Bernie Sanders too.
Trump first. Trump isn’t merely a highly unattractive candidate. He’s the worst major-party candidate in history—by miles. I don’t mean just morally: a pathologically narcissistic liar and admitted sexual abuser unable to control his sick contempt for women and people of color. I mean he’s manifestly incompetent—psychologically and intellectually well short of James Buchanan fostering secession or Warren Harding and his Teapot Dome or George W. Bush transferring billions to the .01 percent while stoking permanent jihad. And even in the wake of last week’s sexual and financial revelations, the evidence suggests he can still win. A month is a long time in a presidential campaign. Trump’s surprising ability to pull himself together and pretend he’s a functioning political actor in the second debate should frighten us all.
I know, you can’t stand him either. For you, Hillary is the hard part. So as someone who voted Clinton in the primary, let me begin by saying I don’t know a single Hillary supporter who thought she’d be a great candidate, on the issues or on the stump. Moreover, while I was glad Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden declined the failed bloodbaths their prospective challenges would have turned into, I was also glad when Sanders took her on, and though I like him less now than when he was a distant gadfly, I agree that he improved her game, plenty on the issues and somewhat on the stump.
Hillary lacks daring as well as grace, and from Libya to Honduras, her instinct in foreign policy has always been to fetishize “democracy” in an obtusely formalistic way. But she has a long personal history of doing good for people, an unmatched grasp of policy, thousands of exploitable relationships, and a platform where Sanders taught her plenty about the expanding limits of what’s progressive and what’s politic. Never underestimate the Repugs. But about women and children she could be a historically great president. Far from Wall Street’s pawn, she’s generated a smart, doable regulatory agenda. And do I even have to mention the Supreme Court?
As for her legendary dishonesty, please note: PolitiFact has calculated that she’s more truthful than any pol except Obama himself—just ahead of Jeb Bush and Bernie Sanders, comically enough. So I hope readers who don’t “trust” Hillary, just like millions of other Americans whose vote she deserves, reflect again on why, and admit two possibilities they think they’re too good for.
1) What she long ago dubbed “a vast right-wing conspiracy,” which is now far vaster, has slimed her without surcease since 1993, when she oversaw the universal healthcare initiative Congress quashed. No voter can be altogether unaffected by such a drumbeat—especially when it has its putatively liberal-“objective” counterpart in a New York Times that with its historical ties to the patrician-liberal South has always smelled in Bill Clinton a scheming bubba out to con decent folk.
2) Hillary is no bubbette. She’s a Wellesley girl from Illinois. But she married a bubba, and thus is tainted. It’s frightening but true that sexism represents even more of a threat to her candidacy than racism did to the African-American one we know so well. Sexism is woven so deeply into our biographies that progressives have trouble copping to it, and not just in its Hill-equals-Bill form. I mean that creepy feeling that HRC is simultaneously a schoolmarm and a wicked deceiver, combining a bossy voice with lyin’ eyes—plus the mom who made you eat your broccoli where Bernie is the grandpa who bought you ice cream.
So right, Bernie. On the issues he was Hillary’s superior, on implementation anything but. Admirably untouched by big money, he was undeterred by a single attack ad or exposé of his wild socialist youth because he was the opponent the right wanted. So he was dizzied by the unsullied adulation he inspired just like every other new star in history. Of course he reveled in his newfound fame after sixty years of failing to lead humanity into righteousness. But when his wife, Jane, reported indignantly that he’d called the Daily News’s sane follow-up questions on breaking up the banks “an inquisition,” I lost what little faith I had that he was ready to govern.
Yet not only did he beef up the platform more than seemed possible, he now agrees with me on Hillary and is doing something about it on campuses nationwide. Pullquote: “I know about as much about third-party politics as anybody in Congress. And I want anybody who’s thinking about voting against Hillary Clinton, and casting a protest vote because she is not all they would like her to be, to understand what the consequences for the country and the world will be.”
Sanders isn’t worried his legions will vote Trump. He’s worried they'll support Brexit-cheering, vaccination-neutral MD Jill Stein, the Green nominee, or internationally clueless deficit wacko Gary Johnson, the Libertarian, rather than giving up their dreams by voting for how much worse things won’t get. I worry too. So let me back it up a little.
In 2000, I voted for Ralph Nader because I hated Joe Lieberman. As few younger readers will recall, consumer crusader Nader was the Green candidate, while Lieberman was Al Gore’s veep pick, a pompous family-values right-Zionist who would support his asshole buddy John McCain against Obama in 2008. It’s a lesson in realpolitik that instead of cold-shouldering this warmongering prig, the newly elected president courted Lieberman, who ended up providing essential support in the struggles for Obamacare and against “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In 2000, however, I was too good to cut the popinjay any slack. I never bought the “Gush-and-Bore” fatuity that the two candidates were indistinguishable, but a Gore who lost New York would lose everywhere—if my state of residence had been remotely in play I would have voted Democrat. Since it wasn’t, I voted third-party—not for the first time, but definitely for the last.
Also in 2000, Nader had a more influential supporter very close at hand. Under the headline “A Green Light for Nader,” my then-employer, the Village Voice, endorsed his candidacy and plastered his face on the cover—in part to move issues, but also because many Voicers considered the Clinton-Gore record “dubious” and dreamed the Greens would gain federal funding by snagging 5 percent of the vote. I wasn’t involved in this decision, but I approved of it. Only then I found myself disquieted by the logic of an unbylined dissent published in the same pre-Election Day issue, which reminded us that Nader had dismissed gay and abortion rights as “gonadal politics” before it delivered a takeaway to remember: “As wise as the candidate is about life in a conglomerate state, he can’t tell the difference between a party compromised by the culture and a party that embraces it.”
So then Bush won by dint of his 537-vote margin over Gore in Florida, where Nader received 97,488 votes. Without wasting column inches on the many specious arguments that now surround this tragedy, I’ll note three facts, two of which concern only my feelings. 1) Although I liked Nader's class politics, I disliked the man, a puritanical prune I thought would make a lousy president. My vote was strictly ideological except insofar as I disliked Lieberman even more. 2) Since it was quite conceivable that the Voice endorsement (and cover!) was good for 538 or more Nader votes in Florida, I felt guilty about my complicity and still do. 3) In 2004 I shoehorned into the April 27 Voice Harry G. Levine’s Googlable “Ralph Nader, Suicide Bomber,” which provided all the proof I’ll ever need that it was Nader’s conscious, egomaniacal goal to “punish” the Democrats by torpedoing Gore’s run, most shamefully by campaigning heavily in Florida after promising not to.
Whatever political twist you want to put on it, the brute arithmetic seems to me incontrovertible. If Nader doesn’t target Florida, Gore gains at least the half-percent of Greens he needs to win. Instead, Bush wins, and as is only slightly less incontrovertible, embarks upon our nation’s most disastrous presidency: Iraq, Great Recession, Cheney and Rumsfeld, Roberts and Alito. I felt implicated even before 9-11—the first and most damaging of the Bush tax cuts that would eventually total $1.3 trillion became law in June. But the clincher was the mendacious, cruel, and horrendously conceived and executed Iraq invasion, which turned the Middle East into the hellhole of bin Laden’s dreams just as the hundreds of thousands of us who marched against it thought it would. Dubya had to be beaten in 2004—and I had to help.
Thus it came to pass that in 2004 I became one of the many corny Americans who volunteer for the Democratic Party. In presidential years, New Yorkers like me focus on swing states, by telephone and if we can door-to-door; in off-years I’ve phonebanked close congressional races all over the Northeast. My biggest commitment was one of my earliest, when a Devo devotee my wife and I knew wound up managing John Kerry’s Akron office—we spent a week there and got a friend, a nephew, and our daughter to join us. In 2008, I spent two long weekends canvassing Northern Virginia, and in 2012 bussed down to Philly and Bethlehem with my union.
I’m a confident person, but I don’t find this work easy. Sure, the commonest task is simply to make sure preselected sympathizers, most of them registered Democrats, are on our side, and then that they vote. But false hits are numerous because our lists are always dated—revising them is a key goal. Anyway, nobody likes getting unsolicited phone calls, or having a stranger knock on the door and ask questions—no wonder every form has a “Refused” box, and that a few refusers are actively hostile. On the phone or the street, the high percentage of no-answers and not-homes can get depressing. And it takes me a while to hit my groove when I do make contact—check for down-ballot support, ask enthusiasts to sign a pledge card, be sure people know their polling place.
But if this grunt work is tedious, it can also be exhilarating. Most exchanges are pro forma, but every fourth or fifth contact will require a conversation in which I impart something, learn something, or both. In Akron I remember the military man who requested email documentation debunking the anti-Kerry Swift Boat slander, the black family whose second-story abode could only be reached by ladder, the left-wing barber whose refrigerator magnet now affixes an Obama pic to my front door. In Alexandria I was moved to tell an uncommitted young white woman, “No matter what you decide, Obama’s smarter” and hear her reply, “I know.” In Bethlehem my wife touched a hard-up woman with a sick kid by describing our own child’s healthcare saga. In Allentown a few weeks ago, I watched the phenomenally together daughter of a phenomenally friendly Spanish-speaking mom register them both a month after they’d moved down from Long Island. And whenever I sensed an opening, I told people that Hillary had been under partisan attack for decades and that almost all of it was lies.
On the last long blocks of my Allentown route, a succession of not-homes on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon was bookended by a sweet, serious registered black nineteen-year-old male and a stoner-looking unregistered white eighteen-year-old male who both reported that they weren’t voting. I think the black kid heard me when I pointed out that he was so young he felt as if the scandal-free calm of an administration the opposition never stopped vilifying was normal when in fact there’d never been a president as no-drama as Obama and never would be again. And the white kid had the grace to let me spiel after muttering that his one vote couldn’t possibly change anything. I told him that by the brute arithmetic he was right—practically speaking, a single vote is never decisive. Then I told him what I’ve believed since long before 2000: that voting is devotional, an act of faith in a highly imperfect system that is nonetheless the best form of government anyone has put into practice, and that I hoped someday he'd accept that. Stupidly, I lacked the presence of mind to leave a registration form.
This is electoral democracy’s most embarrassing secret, and it explains a lot. One reason young citizens are so unimpressed with the franchise after spending years nurturing individual uniquenesses they’re still working on is that it’s a vivid reminder of how infinitesimal each of us is—less than one 300-millionth of the citizenry. Bernie Sanders conjured a collectivity that could assuage such insignificance, and although his fans should ask themselves why Trump’s very different collectivity is so much bigger, you can see how converts who believe they spearheaded a political revolution could be disheartened by talk of “incremental” change, a word you’ll note has faded from HRC’s rhetoric.
So not only do I join Bernie in urging his fans to vote for Hillary, I urge them to understand that third parties have been distractions in this country since the Whigs cleared the way for Lincoln. I pray they pursue what we damn well hope is a political revolution not just by protesting when HRC does something untoward, as she will—a misbegotten Syrian military incursion seems all too possible—but by undertaking work slower and grimmer than stuffing a caucus: infusing a Democratic Party desperately in need of strengthened infrastructure and young blood.
If you’re with me, on the other hand, just visit hillaryclinton.com/events, or drop in at 52 Broadway with your cellphone and find something to do. The harder you work, the less strictly devotional your participation is likely to be. And though things have been looking up ever since the first debate, it’s not like we can breathe easy. The latest WikiLeaks attack, a debate stumble, a health scare, a terrorist event, Deutsche Bank going south, polling errors, turnout shortfalls with hurricane-damaged Florida leading the way, an Election Day certain to be an appalling mess, the sheer unpredictability of the process in this most anomalous of election years—any combination of these could make things way too close. Anyway, we don’t just want to win—we want to win so big across the board that Clinton will feel obliged to activate her platform and that Trump’s racist, xenophobic chauvinism will seem a perilous tack even to the saner Republicans who are right now scheming to deliver the U.S. to Big Capital in 2020. These are the historical realities all Americans now face. Own them or else.