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

01 October 2007

Hillary Clinton: Follower or Leader?

Al Qaeda
Health Care
Unity and Division

Hillary Clinton could win the Democratic nomination and lose the general election. If she did, she would waste the Democrats’ best chance in a generation to become the majority party again. Frank Rich, the New York Times columnist, just wrote a piece on that point.

Rich’s piece was insightful, but it was all about politics. It said little about the substance of issues likely to face us in the next eight years.

On every issue that has mattered during her political career, Hillary Clinton has been a follower, not a leader. When she has tried to lead, her judgment has been terrible. Let’s take the key issues one by one.

Iraq. The single most important vote that Hillary Clinton took in the Senate was to go to war in Iraq. She didn’t even read the crucial intelligence report before her vote. Why? She knew how she had to vote on politics, not substance. If she didn’t vote in favor, George W. Bush would “Swift Boat” her, and she wouldn’t be the leading Democratic candidate for president today. Her vote was not only selfish, but in extremely poor judgment.

As Iraq fell into chaos, Clinton took over four years to make up her mind to oppose the war. She temporized and triangulated while Iraq burst into flames. If she was prescient about events on the ground—the sectarian strife and the difficulty of the project—I’m not aware of it. She kept quiet until the opposition of Jack Murtha and her husband showed her the way.

In contrast, Obama spoke against war in Iraq as soon as its likelihood became public. Here’s what he said on October 26, 2002:
    “I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”
Isn’t that exactly what has happened? Obama spoke these words five years ago, and over five months before we invaded. Every syllable is right. If he had been president, the whole thing would be a bad dream.

Who had the better judgment on Iraq?

Al Qaeda. While coasting to the Democratic nomination, Clinton ignored Al Qaeda’s resurgence in its protected stronghold in Pakistan. When a National Intelligence Estimate pointed to Al Qaeda’s resurgence, she kept mum. Then, when Obama raised the issue with his own comprehensive plan to go after Al Qaeda, Clinton accused him of inexperience. Serious presidential candidates, she implied, don’t talk about such things in public and frighten the children.

As I’ve outlined in a separate post, since the Vietnam War Al Qaeda has done us more direct harm than the Soviet Union (and later Russia), “Red” China, North Korea, Iran, and Castro’s Cuba combined. It is our single worst enemy. And Clinton wants to keep it a subject for wonks and Washington insiders.

During the Cold War, we lived for decades under the threat of nuclear annihilation. How to deal with that threat was a matter of constant and vigorous public debate. Should we seek disarmament? Should we build up our own forces, already capable of destroying the biosphere many times over? Should we seek dialogue or confrontation?

Nobody said then that we shouldn’t talk about these things in public, since they were matters of life and death. Now Clinton wants to sweep this generation’s similar threat under the rug of Washington secrecy. Obama wants to make it an urgent matter of public debate. Who has the better judgment?

Health Care. Clinton now styles herself the “health care” candidate. Over thirteen years ago, she had her chance. At the peak of her husband’s enormous popularity, she came up with her own health care proposal. And she blew it, big time.

In retrospect, her errors of judgment are crystal clear. She ignored the millions of small businesses whom her proposal would have hurt. In proposing an employer mandate for health care, she threatened small business with added costs and no means to pay them. She also ignored all the people who liked their current health-care plans and didn’t want to lose them. In other words, she ignored two enormous and powerful political constituencies. She failed Politics 101.

Not only that. She did it at a time when her husband, having founded a “third way” movement of Democratic politics, was walloping the Republicans. How did he do it? By paying attention to small business and taking one of their core constituencies away. Hillary’s neglect of small business in her health care plan ignored the very lessons her husband was teaching.

Now Hillary is more cautious. She waited until all the other serious candidates had announced their health-care plans and cherry-picked their best features. This is leadership? It’s more like student plagiarism.

Unity and Division. Both Clinton and Obama promise less divisive regimes that George W. Bush. It would be hard not to. But who is the leader in restoring our unity?

Clinton unites by triangulation. She creates few waves because she carefully scrutinizes the polls and tests the political winds before ever opening her mouth. So she seems like a calming influence.

But triangulation is not healing. Nor is it leadership.

Way back in 2004, when we still thought that Iraq would be easy and Bush the “terrorism” president, Obama spoke about the need for unity and healing. He recognized how Bush was tearing the country apart with his 50.1 percent approach to politics. So Obama gave a stirring, inspirational speech about it. Experienced politicians still envy that speech as one of the most striking entries into national politics in our history.

Over three years later, Clinton has yet to recognize and articulate how important restoring unity is to our country and our future. We are deeply divided on Iraq, on Al Qaeda, on the budget, on our military, and on the proper roles of religion, government and the Supreme Court in our public life. Bush has fanned the flames of discord at every turn. Obama recognized the danger years ago and wrote a book about it. Where is Hillary?

* * *

On every issue that has mattered, Clinton has been missing in action, late, or wrong. Obama has been ahead of the pack, prescient and right. Who is better qualified to be president?

Clinton looks good on the surface. She’s attractive and white. Obama is funny-looking and coffee-colored. Clinton is glib and self-confident. Obama is serious and thoughtful. Clinton seems to have a quick answer for every question; she’s studied her talking points well. Obama knows you can’t govern a country of 300 million people with thirty-second sound bites.

The trouble is, we’re looking for a president, not a talk-show host. Attractiveness, whiteness and glibness won’t save our ass in the Cabinet, where bright, aggressive, cocksure people all have their own pet solutions, and everyone looks to the head of the table for leadership, wisdom and judgment.

So wake up and smell the coffee, Democrats! Don’t waste this chance to save your party and your country. You owe it to yourself and your kids. We can do better than a woman who has spent her entire career copying others, temporizing, and “spinning” her mistakes.

P.S. The Bill Factor

Apparently lots of people like the “twofer” argument: if you buy Hillary, you get Bill, too. I love Bill, but not in the White House again.

There are reasons why the presidency has a limited term. Among other things, it distinguishes our Republic from a monarchy. Bill shares Hillary’s penchant for political triangulation; he does it even more brilliantly than she. Foreign and military policy was never his forte, his near miss at fostering peace between Israel and Palestine notwithstanding. The time for that sort of triangulation has passed; we need a new kind of leadership.

But there’s a much more important reason not to want Bill redux. It is seldom mentioned, but it needs to be: Bill’s triple bypass. A significant fraction of people who undergo procedures like that suffer loss of brain function.

In Bill’s case, he had so much intelligence to begin with that you might never notice. But what about Dick Cheney? Recently Jon Stewart aired clips of a much younger Dick Cheney explaining cogently, during Gulf I, why invading Baghdad was a bad idea. Cheney was just as conservative then, but he still had all his faculties. The difference between Cheney then and Cheney now is frightening.

Cheney’s multiple heart attacks and corrective procedures may have decreased his mental functioning. He is no longer the whip smart, savvy, “with it” adviser that he was during the first Bush Administration. He has become a rigid, senile figure, repeating himself, immune to new ideas, and increasingly out of touch with reality. He is the kind of old man that a family shunts upstairs into a rocking chair, hoping he will stay there and not cause too much trouble. Unfortunately, he still helps run our country.

The chance that Bill, with his medical history, might suffer a similar fate during an eight-year, pressure-filled Hillary presidency is far from negligible. If that happened, it would be a Clinton family tragedy. We oughtn’t set things up to make it a national tragedy, too.

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