Sunday, November 8, 2015

Hillary Clinton, the polarizer

I don't remember much about Bill Clinton's presidency, and I remember nothing of the 1994 healthcare bill that brought Hillary Clinton some of her first national coverage. I do, however, remember that as Bill's troubles mounted (prior to Monica Lewinsky), Hillary seemed to be ensnared by them. If Bill Clinton had a shady dealing, it seemed like Hillary was not far away. She wasn't just as far from Nancy Reagan's ornamental utility as I could imagine, she was possibly as steely as Barbara Bush, and a lot less motherly-looking. (Barbara only looked motherly. Almost from the beginning, I got the impression that she was the one who meted out discipline in the house.)

I still think Hillary is steely, and I would never consciously cross her. But I don't hate her. I don't love her, either as a politician or a person (what little I know of her, anyway). In not having a strong opinion about her, I'm distinctly in the minority. She seems to inspire strong feelings in most people.

Why?

I wish I knew. We might then be able to treat the ailment that is Hillary Derangement Syndrome. We might also be spared spectacles like Gloria Steinem fem-splaining why women don't like Hillary. Michelle Goldberg neatly spelled out why Steinem's thinking is so misguided, but I wish neither piece had had cause to be written.

Hillary isn't warm and fuzzy, and nothing short of a personality-changing electrical shock will make her so. That seems to irk some people. Yet if she were motherly and lovable, a lot of us would be wondering if she had the backbone to be President. There's a middle ground, of course, but by expecting her to navigate her public life in that narrow zone we're setting the bar unreasonably high, higher than we've ever set it for a male candidate. If the boorishly content-free Donald Trump, the reality-challenged Ben Carson, and the childishly anarchic Ted Cruz are fit candidates for President, you can't seriously argue that Hillary isn't, too.

Perhaps the truest and most damaging knock on Hillary is that she'll say anything to get elected. Is she a lot "slicker" (to borrow an unflattering adjective for her husband's style) than we typically like our pols? Maybe. Yet if the objectively boneheaded (Trump) and outright hallucinatory (Carson) beliefs floated by the Republican frontrunners have accomplished anything, it's to rehabilitate more mainstream politicians. Honestly, if I had to choose (because you were holding a gun to my head) between Ben Carson and the crudely manipulative Chris Christie, I'd pick Christie without a moment's hesitation. Christie may be corrupt, but at least he lives on the same plane of reality I do.

Besides, I no longer buy the "flip-flop" as an irredeemable political sin. It's one thing to call somebody out for saying "X" one week and "not-X" the next. It's another to hold that changing your mind after years or decades betrays a lack of conviction.

Yes, some politicians change opinions as often as they change their underwear. However, to hew to a belief simply for consistency's sake is to foreclose any interest in becoming wiser. If your understanding of the world hasn't changed since you were twenty, you probably haven't seen enough of the world. Or if you have seen a lot of the world, you probably haven't let yourself understand what you've seen. Republican candidates are hopelessly boxed in by the need to show ideological purity and consistency. There is no room for new information leading to new conclusions. (This is why funding for scientific research cannot be left to the tender mercies of the GOP.)

Is Hillary so plastic, so malleable, that she has no beliefs that aren't for sale? Probably no more so than anybody who has ever held the Oval Office. Do I wish she had a stronger record of hewing to principle, like Bernie Sanders? Absolutely. Do I think her tendency to bend with the political wind, so like her husband, makes her unfit to be President? Absolutely not. Point to a President who hasn't compromised his principles and you will find a lousy President. Even the sainted Reagan and Lincoln compromised. It's the price of leading a democracy: you have to reckon with those who didn't vote for you. (To be clear, I think Reagan was anything but a saint; I'm just channeling those who have elevated his Presidency far above what it actually was.)

I wish there were another woman running for President so we could see how the electorate responded to a woman lacking the extensive political baggage Hillary has. It would be interesting to see how the nation treated the likes of Olympia Snowe as a candidate, for instance. Carly Fiorina isn't a good control (in the scientific-experiment sense) for Hillary because she's a political lightweight saddled by a crummy record in private industry.

I suspect there's just something about Hillary that's inextricably tied up with Bill and the immense antagonism he fomented among conservative pundits. In other words, Hillary-hatred isn't undisguised misogyny so much as it's long-simmering frustration that Bubba got a second term and wasn't hounded from office in disgrace.

Hillary's not my dream candidate, but with the Republicans so radicalized at the national level it's beyond the pale to consider voting for any of them. Even the relatively level-headed John Kasich, were he somehow to be granted the miracle of capturing the nomination, would be captive to the far-right zealots who hold the balance of power in the party. And the truth is, Hillary's about the best we can hope for until we take back our politics from Big Money and the far right ceases to hold so many in its paranoid, resentful, delusional sway.

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