Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

23 October 2016

Hillary’s Hidden Virtues

[While on subject of Hillary, you should read this piece for a much needed lift of humor in this dismal campaign season.]

Learning, growth and caution
Team playing
Conclusion: voting early for Hillary


There is a paradox about Hillary Clinton. While on the stump, she has trouble revealing the empathy for ordinary people that she seems to feel. Whereas Michelle exposes her beautiful soul with apparent ease, Hillary hides herself in anecdotes, statistics and five-point plans. And, yes, Hillary does play her cards too close to her chest—the main reason for e-mail-gate.

Yet how rare is opacity among pols? Does Mitch McConnell have no private and public faces? Just ask him what he thinks about Donald and watch him squirm.

No matter how common it may be, Hillary’s opacity has tarnished her luster as a candidate. But she also has some qualities that will make her a good president, and that only now are becoming plain. Let’s take a look at three of them.

1. Professionalism.

After listening to a boy-man hurl out junior-high-school insults and cockamamie schemes for over a year, it’s hard to think of politics as a profession. But it is.

The profession has two parts. The first is “politics” itself—getting the people in power, and ultimately the voters, to coalesce around a plan of action. The second is policy: the plan.

Both parts must work. The politics must work to give the leaders leeway and power to accomplish things according to a plan. Then the plan must work to effect desired progress or change without unintended consequences.

As Hillary herself has recognized, she doesn’t excel at the first part, politics. She’s not as good as her husband, and she’s not as good as the President. The second part is where she shines.

Remember all those multi-point plans on Hillary’s website? Remember how her naming them without describing them fell flat in debate? Those plans are not much good in politics, but they are the essence of policy.

Whether a doctor, lawyer or computer programmer, every professional knows that a good plan requires something in writing. In today’s complex world, no one can keep all the angles, interests and possible consequences in his head, let alone convey them to others off the cuff.

Anyway, a good plan gets modified and improved in discussion, debate and implementation. In many cases, it continues to be modified during implementation. As a result of all the discussion and change, it can come out quite different from where it began. All this requires something in writing for advisers to discuss.

A good plan must also have detail. “Building a wall” sounds fine on the campaign trail. But we already have sections of wall on our Mexican border hundreds of miles long. What’s different about Donald’s wall? How long will his be? How high? How do we keep the drug dealers from building mile-long tunnels under it, complete with electric lighting and narrow-gauge railroad tracks? How do we keep people from climbing, flying or catapulting over it? How much will it cost, and how effective will it be?

Donald’s wish for a wall is just that, a wish. A teenage boy might think such a “solution” clever. But the hundreds of miles of wall we have already extend way out into the Pacific, between San Diego and Tijuana. And still the immigrants come. If a wall is to leave the realm of politics and move on to policy, the plan for it had better have some detail.

Donald never gave us detail. And when he tried to on other matters, he gave us ideas that have failed catastrophically and even provoked wars, like 35% tariffs on goods from China and Mexico. In contrast, Hillary has a whole drawerful of detailed plans for everything. Her plans are written, thought through, and ready for further discussion, modification and implementation. That’s professionalism.

Another aspect of professionalism is not getting distracted. Hillary has made mistakes, to be sure. Iraq and e-mail-gate were big ones. She’s tried to apologize for both, but the apologies didn’t impress anyone.

Politics may be a blame game. At least our Yankee politics appears to have degenerated to that point. But policy never is, for blame never moves the ball forward. It only makes people defensive and angry and thwarts consensus. (For a good example of this, just look at the Middle Eastern blame game that, back in April, killed any attempt by OPEC to raise oil prices at Doha.)

Maybe that’s one reason why Hillary’s apologies come off flat. She’s not interested in apologies so much as making things right. She wants to undo the mistakes and is busy thinking about how.

You could see this aspect of Hillary’s professionalism in the final debate. There she was, cool as a cucumber, fending off insults, charges, and verbal assaults. She wasn’t hot under the collar; Donald was. Often she responded with just a word or two—as much as his insults deserved—while he sputtered on.

That, too, is an aspect of professionalism. Negotiating requires “separating the people from the problem” and focusing on substance, not personalities. Hillary has that ability, which was on fine display in the debates. Nobody wants a discussion of policy options to degrade into personal name-calling.

Finally, let’s look a bit at language. We’ve had a president (Dubya) who could speak English only haltingly, in serial bumper stickers. His “Bushisms,” like “Is our children learning?” made him a laughingstock before the world.

Hillary can, and routinely does, speak in complete sentences and paragraphs entirely off the cuff. Won’t it be nice to have a Yankee chief executive who can sound like Tony Blair? If nothing else, it will help restore our national pride and reduce our collective shame in watching the daily news. Precise, crisp, fluent language is part of professionalism, too.

2. Learning, growth and caution.

Let’s face it. Hillary is not as fast a learner as Barack Obama. But who is? He’s one of the quickest studies ever to sit in the White House. Hillary can and does learn on the job, even during a grueling campaign.

Perhaps the best evidence of Hillary’s learning is her pivoting on policy related to Syria and Russia. It’s an open secret that she, as Secretary of State, advocated a more robust and aggressive foreign policy than the President was willing to approve. That proclivity toward strength appears to follow from her initial support of Dubya’s invasion of Iraq, which she now admits was a mistake.

Hillary’s flat apologies on the campaign trail make some people think she wasn’t sincere and hasn’t learned. But that’s just not so. As Secretary of State, a big part of her job was to try to clean up the messes throughout the Middle East that Dubya’s impulsive and imprudent invasion of Iraq had caused. And she has spent an inordinate amount of time, in hearings and preparing for them, explaining the similar messes that followed Qaddafi’s overthrow in Libya.

In debate, Donald threw these messes at her feet. That was probably the most effective and substantive part of his otherwise generally abysmal debate performance.

Hillary compounded the problem by failing to point out that the root cause was Dubya’s spastic and Oedipal military misadventure in Iraq. She hadn’t caused that, nor did she have any power to do so. (In March 2003, when Dubya invaded Iraq, Hillary was four years away from even being a candidate for president.) All she did was support it as a matter of politics, imprudently.

Hillary still has a strong instinct not to be pushed around. She doesn’t like bullies, whether Donald or Vladimir. But she appears to have learned caution from her experience at State. So when asked how she would face Putin’s adventures in Ukraine and Syria, she fell back on diplomacy. She did not, as she might have done earlier, rattle sabers.

There are two possible courses of action against Russia’s and Iran’s backing Assad in devastating and emptying his own country by deliberately attacking civilians. One, which I have laid out, is taking Colin Powell’s advice that “You break it, you own it.” Russia and Iran bear joint guilt (with us) for a chain of events that broke Syria and created IS. Let them clean up at least the part of the mess they have made.

The second approach is to arm selected rebels with Stingers that can shoot down Assad’s aircraft, and perhaps some of Russia’s, too. (In theory, engineers can design modern Stingers to prevent them from shooting down out-of-theater civilian aircraft, and so avoid their diversion to terrorism.) But Hillary has learned the hard way that jingoism can be massively counterproductive. Her near-loss to Bernie taught her that, after fighting two over-decade-long needless wars, we Yanks are in no mood for jingoism. So she kept her peace on this second approach, as a matter of politics and perhaps policy, too.

One of the biggest risks in international affairs today is that leaders around the world have little or no personal experience of war. Dubya and Cheney didn’t. Putin and Xi don’t. Abe doesn’t. Our President also doesn’t, but at least he has the imagination to conceive the horror.

Lacking this personal experience, today’s leaders just might slide into something that could spin out of control. While Hillary has never seen combat personally, she is one of the few world leaders who, in wide travel and clean-up work, has seen what war can do. She has seen how disastrous can be the unintended consequences of something that appeared to start out small. She has also, in campaign after campaign, borne the blame for a war that she didn’t start but only supported from the sidelines.

This heavy experience seems to have given Hillary much of the same caution and prudence that our President comes by naturally. If so, those qualities will serve her well as president.

3. Team Playing.

Even if Hillary was not always so, she is now a consummate team player. She supports teamwork in least three ways.

First, her entire foreign policy relies on teams. She framed her contrast with Donald’s foreign policy by promising to respect and work with allies and alliances around the world, whether or not they pay full freight for their defense. Among the alliances and allies she mentioned were NATO, the EU, Israel, Japan and South Korea.

Second, Hillary learned the value of teamwork from Barack Obama, who appointed her Secretary of State after winning one of the most hard-fought primary campaigns in Democratic Party History. Without that experience, Hillary’s run for president would be immeasurably weaker. So she has continued the tradition of teamwork by attracting Bernie to her campaign with significant changes in policy and the most progressive platform in Democratic Party history.

Finally, Hillary’s recent actions have shown extraordinary teamwork even in the last days of a scorched-earth campaign. She has diverted $100 million of her own campaign war chest to support Democratic “down ballot” candidates and take the Senate and the House.

This last point is a matter of considerable pride and promise for Dems. The humorist Will Rogers once quipped, “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” Most of the time, his quip rang true: the GOP, not the Dems, was the party of unity, teamwork and lockstep discipline.

No more. Today the GOP is splintered and in disarray. In contrast, the Dems—Hillary, Barack, Bill, Bernie, Elizabeth, and others—are all working together toward one goal. They are striving for a Democratic presidency, held by the first-ever female, with enough support in Congress to insure a progressive Supreme Court and a progressive agenda for at least two years.

Hillary’s team playing has yet one other benefit. If we Yanks or she strays toward a jingoistic foreign policy, our allies will restrain us. When Dubya invaded Iraq, our European allies tried to restrain him, but to no avail. Dubya was a unilateralist and the “decider,” and he said so. As a team player, Hillary will consult with allies and think twice, maybe three times, before getting involved in foreign military adventures against their advice.

In today’s multipolar world, that approach is not just appropriate. It’s absolutely necessary to repair our big deficits, to wind down our two existing unnecessary wars, and to put our own house in order.

Conclusion: voting early for Hillary.

According to my state’s online voting records, I’ve voted early twice before. But I’ve never seen anything like the crowds at the early polls yesterday. The gravel parking lot at the Santa Fe Fairgrounds was full, and there were lines to get a ballot. I had to wait only five minutes, but previously I had walked right up to the registration desks.

Two tentative conclusions arise from this tiny, nonscientific nugget of experience. First, turnout in this election is going to break all records. Second, a whole lot of people have already seen and heard enough.

Most of the folks at my early polling place had the look of decision and determination of people who’ve made up their minds. According to PBS last night, at least five million people nationwide—maybe 5% of the expected total—have already voted. They aren’t waiting for any October surprise.

Today, a day later, I found something else surprising: my own feelings. I don’t feel just the relief of being able to ignore, henceforth, the puerile insults and megalomanic musings of an overgrown boy-man who has absolutely no business in politics or public service. I don’t just feel the satisfaction of having picked the lesser of two evils and having avoided (if others vote like me) an historic catastrophe of national leadership. Instead of the massive buyer’s remorse I expect Donald’s voters to feel, I actually feel good about voting for Hillary the day after.

She is, at best, only a mediocre campaigner. But as the campaign winds down toward a probable Hillary presidency, her real skills and talents will serve her and us well.

Hillary is a policy animal, not a political one. She got into politics to make changes and do good. That’s what she most wants, and that’s what she’s best at.

Never yet in her long career, except perhaps as Senator from New York, has she had a clear shot at doing so. Never in the last seven years has the GOP’s scorched-earth opposition given President Obama a clear shot at governing. But now, due to the dogged teamwork of Obama, Bernie, Hillary and their crews—and due to the GOP’s disarray and Donald’s self-evident unfitness—we have a chance for a three-branch sweep by progressive forces. If that happens, and if a woman who has thirsted to make policy all her life sits in the White House, we will soon see progress the like of which few alive today have ever seen. What awaits us could rival the New Deal.