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

11 April 2015

Can Hillary Win?

Six months shy of eight years ago, over a year before the 2008 presidential election, I wrote a post about Hillary. Its title was different, but it addressed the very same question: “Can she win?”

Then my prognosis was not positive. After analyzing her judgment and decisions on key issues, I concluded that she could easily have won the Democratic nomination but lost the general election.

So I threw my support behind Barack Obama. Despite his relative deficit of national experience, he seemed to have a finer, better, surer mind—a firmer grasp of real issues and the way the world works. I’ve never regretted that decision, not for one moment, not in the darkest days of Tea Party obstinacy, racism and mindless opposition to rational health insurance.

I used to have a near-photographic memory for things I read and wrote. Now I no longer do. But hits from visitors to this blog constantly remind me of posts I wrote in 2007 through early 2009 criticizing Hillary. There were many (see 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5).

After re-reading them, I find myself in a quandary. I want to believe that Hillary has grown and changed. I want to be able to support a female candidate for president and align myself with all the women who’ve been waiting patiently, for nearly a century, to vote for one of their own. I desperately want us Yanks to come up with a female leader like Queen Elizabeth I, who can usher in a new era of human cooperation and bump our whole species up a notch.

Unfortunately, it’s too early for our own Elizabeth, and she knows it. In the midst of our desultory war with IS, the Middle East falling apart, and Putin bizarrely stalking Ukraine, a credible candidate must have some real experience and gravitas in foreign and military policy. So far, our modern Elizabeth has none.

So I want to believe in Hillary. But I have trouble believing.

It’s not that Hillary is evil or stupid. She’s a Democrat in an era when Republicans have allowed themselves to become the Party of Extremists, a believe-anything, say-anything gang deluded and misled from its principles by twisted operatives like Rove and Luntz.

It’s not Hillary’s heart or fighting spirit that worries me. She has plenty of both. It’s her capacity for hard, penetrating and independent judgment. Before and during the 2008 campaign, she said and did a number of things what made me wonder, “What was she thinking?”

Perhaps the most important was her voting as senator to go to war in Iraq, without even reading the National Intelligence Estimate. The Estimate was full of strong dissents from our own intelligence community, questioning every rationale for war. Those dissents turned out to be both right and prescient. But Hillary cast her vote, apparently, for her own political future, knowing that if she didn’t beat the drums for war the GOP would tar her as weak.

Another lapse in judgment came later, in debate with the President. She accused him of threatening to bomb an ally, Pakistan. What he really wanted to do was ignore national borders and go after bin Laden, as he eventually did, successfully. Did Hillary really think a hyper-legalistic attitude toward national boundaries would stay the hand of justice? Did she prefer to make two unnecessary decade-long wars and invade and occupy two sovereign nations than to mount a surgical strike and kill the butcher?

Once the President gave her the chance to do something real, as Secretary of State, Hillary grew and matured as a leader. She and her team worked a minor miracle in getting UN approval for action in Libya just before the mad tyrant Qaddafi could annihilate all rebel opposition. The crusade of Madman Issa to find a way to blame her for the later Benghazi tragedy was nothing more than a witch hunt.

But, sadly, Issa didn’t have to work so hard to come up with another “what was she thinking?” moment. How could anyone performing the function of our Secretary of State, fourth in line for the presidency, ever believe it was a good idea to keep all her electronic messages and many official records on a privately-owned and privately managed server in her own private home?

That blooper will hardly destroy our Republic. Congress will eventually get all it wants—at least all that Hillary hasn’t yet erased. But Hillary’s gross error of political and practical judgment has left many of us with the suspicion that our Yankee official records are vulnerable to the same sort of personal control and Stalinist revision that made the Soviet Union such a butt of jokes. How could any great democratic leader think that was a good idea, or implement such a flawed system for sheer personal convenience?

Now Hillary is trying to soften her imperial “anointed one” image with social media. She is about to announce her candidacy on Facebook and Twitter.

Social media are no substitute for leadership. If we had put hard decisions to a “like” vote on Facebook in October 1962, most everyone reading this post would be dead (or never born), with older ones like me rotting in still-radioactive shallow graves.

The most important presidential decisions cannot be delegated. Some of them turned out to be good ones. They include Harry Truman’s decision to shorten history’s most horrible war by using nuclear weapons, and his even more important decision later to implement the Marshall Plan and love our erstwhile enemies. They also include his later removal of General MacArthur, thereby avoiding all-out war with China.

Perhaps the most important presidential decision ever made was the one by Jack Kennedy and two Russians not to give nuclear Armageddon a try. Lesser good decisions include our current President’s calls to wind down two decade-long unnecessary wars, to go after bin Laden in Pakistan, and currently to seek a reasonable rapprochement with Iran.

You can only measure how important decisions like these are by comparing them with the bad ones. Consider, for example, LBJ’s decision to escalate our losing War in Vietnam. a problem we inherited from the French. Then there were Dubya’s decisions to invade Iraq to stop the use of nonexistent WMD and his decision to invade Baghdad. Just compare the latter to Dubya’s own father’s decision, with Colin Powell’s sage advice, to stay out of Baghdad. That good call produced our quickest, cheapest, simplest and most decisive military victory since World War II.

Like it or not, our Constitution leaves life-and-death matters like foreign relations, war and peace almost exclusively in our president’s hands. As Harry Truman said, the buck stops at the president’s desk. Behind that desk there is no substitute for brains, curiosity, humility, flexibility and penetrating, independent judgment.

Does Hillary have those qualities? So far, we have little evidence she does, despite her growth as Secretary. It’s no excuse that all but one of the GOP hopefuls have no such evidence either, and that Jeb’s judgment is still a matter of conjecture, despite some good campaign strategy so far.

The trouble is not campaigning, but governing. So many pundits now talk of making Hillary “likable.” What utter balderdash!

I don’t want to “like” our president. If Hillary gains the White House, she will be the person who makes life and death decisions, not only for our much-abused troops, but for all of us. She will decide how long our two-century experiment in democracy continues, and whether it survives. And as we Yanks are still the world’s biggest economy and leaders of the free world (although rapidly losing that mantle), she will help fix the fate of our entire species.

So no, I don’t have to or want to “like” Hillary. Win or lose, she will never be my drinking buddy. I want to know that her key decisions are right. I want to feel respect, admiration and a bit of awe for her and her hard judgments, just as I do with our President now.

We tried the “bar buddy” bit with Dubya the Frat Boy. We got the worst bungler we’ve had in over a century, maybe our worst bungler ever.

What precisely did we get? We got two decade-long unnecessary wars, the Crash of 2008, the “too big to fail and no jail” rule for the bankers who caused the worst financial panic since the Great Depression, a stagnant economy, and economic inequality exceeding that of the Gilded Age. We also got Soviet-style apparatchiks Rove and Luntz in one of our two major parties, who turned it into something resembling the Russian Communist Party far more than anything in any European democracy.

I would be overjoyed to cast my vote for a woman. But Hillary has to show me that she’s worthy of the job. Cleverly exploiting Facebook and other social media won’t do that. Nor will her usual “triangulating” or strong campaigning; we know she’s pretty good at that. She’s got to convince me and millions of others that she’s really “ready on day one,” as her 2008 campaign slogan touted.

If not, we still don’t have to settle for Jeb and yet another dynasty. John Kerry will still be in the wings. His credibility will stand or fall on his Deal with Iran, and on its resembling the outline he made in his PBS interview this week. He courageously and rightly set himself a high bar. But if he leaps it, he will have my support if he wants it. He, too, knows how to campaign, at least (like Hillary) how to lose.

Only Hillary and John Kerry, plus a few others living, know how much that hurts. Only they know how much they will compromise for ambition or (in Hillary’s case) for the chance to be first, a modern Queen Elizabeth I.

Let’s be frank. If Hillary wins the nomination, I and tens of millions of others like me may have no place else to go. Hillary will move toward the center—which means toward the right—and take voters like me for granted. So will any other pol who wants to win. It’s part of the game.

So let me be frank. There are few, if any, circumstances that I can foresee under which I would vote Republican or stay home. I might vote for Jeb if he proves a rare political savior who can reform his broken party in less than eighteen months, crush the Tea Crazies and bring back the Party of Lincoln, with its practical care for equality, democracy, majority rule, prudence and caution abroad, personal liberty, and George Washington’s “no foreign entanglements”—in short, all the things that Dubya, Rove and Luntz threw under the bus in their mad dash to win at any cost.

That’s all about as unlikely as Putin is to go back to the kind of leader he was during his first presidency. Then he was most concerned about poverty in Russia and building a peaceful commercial and trading zone from the Atlantic to the Urals. Wouldn’t that zone include Ukraine?

So, no, I don’t foresee voting Republican or wasting my vote. I’ll go to my grave proud of having voted for Hubert Humphrey in 1968. I believe that voting for the lesser of two evils is the sacred duty of every small-d democrat.

But holding your nose while voting is not the same as enthusiastic support. That’s what Hillary needs to become our first female president. She will have to overcome residual sexism and the sad legacy of her many mistakes in campaigning, not the least of which was treacherously playing the race card in her losing battle with Obama.

She will have my enthusiasm—and my money—only if and when she shows she deserves it. I’ll give her the benefit of every doubt. But she’s a long way from earning that enthusiasm now.

So I thank God that John Kerry may be waiting in the wings. He’s still got a Labor of Hercules to perform, and he knows it. But if he performs it, and if he runs, he may well have my wholehearted support, despite his loss for lack of vision in 2004.



  • At Mon Apr 13, 02:31:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Jason said…

    Good post, Jay. I don't see any hint of a viable primary challenge to Hillary, so I'll have to hold my nose and vote for her in the general. But I will never be excited about it after the way she campaigned against Obama in 2008. Obama has surely forgiven her, but I can't forget what was revealed (or at least confirmed) about her character by her flagrantly dishonest attacks on him and stupid guilt-by-association games she tacitly embraced. I know some people have said that wasn't the "real" Hillary, and that she was manipulated by cynical advisors into campaigning outside her comfort zone. But I'm not sure which is worse for a president: brazen dishonesty, or amenability to manipulation?

  • At Wed Apr 15, 03:14:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Jason,

    Thanks for your insightful and well-written comment.

    In answer to your final question, I can only say that both are pretty bad, especially when either undermines your party's longstanding and hard-won values and, in the long term, a human social-evolutionary necessity: suppressing tribalism.



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