Karma Chameleon in Chief

Column: Hillary Clinton and the politics of expediency

Hillary Rodham Clinton
• June 26, 2015 5:00 am


I’m a man without conviction

I’m a man who doesn’t know

How to sell a contradiction

You come and go, you come and go

—Culture Club

Hillary Clinton is a woman without conviction, a woman who doesn’t know. She was first lady of a southern state, she sat on the board of directors of Wal-Mart from 1986 to 1992—but is there any record of her voicing opposition to Wal-Mart’s labor practices, of her opposing the sale of the Confederate battle flag? Until recently, has there been any moment in the decades following her appointment to that board, in the many years in which she has been egregiously prominent in public life, when she led on, was prominently identified with, the issue of the flag or racial matters in general?

They say Obama’s audacious. What’s truly remarkable, though, is his potential successor’s blatant contempt for the politics of principle and conviction—her unique ability to adopt, quickly and seamlessly, the most expedient position at any moment, to flaunt her temporary stance with the righteousness and self-regard of a longtime committed activist.

Her husband campaigned in the ’90s as a tough-on-crime neoliberal who would lock up criminals, even put them to death, who challenged the racism of Sister Souljah, promised to "mend" affirmative action, worked hard to recover the Democratic position in white working class precincts. Hillary was his active partner. Nor did she denounce her husband’s policies when she ran for Senate in 2000 and 2006 and for president in 2008, when the chances of her nomination rested on her ability to win "beer track" white and Hispanic Democrats.

It is only today, when the Democratic Party of Barack Obama has veered left, written off the white working class, and been seized by a practically religious enthusiasm for cultural reformation and purgation, that Clinton has called for an "end to the era of mass incarceration," said America has "to face hard truths about race and justice," and launched a campaign, in the words of the New York Times, "focused more on mobilizing supporters in the Great Lakes states and in parts of the West and South than on persuading undecided voters."

What we have, on issue after issue, is a presidential frontrunner uninterested in leadership, who holds an ambivalent attitude toward notions of political courage and intellectual independence, who is devoted exclusively and mechanically to the capture of high office. She has latched on to the president’s ad hoc and failing Iraq policies because her party’s base supports them; gone from opposing same-sex marriage as recently as a few years ago to marching at the vanguard of America’s latest Cultural Revolution and saying that "deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed"; pledged to "go further" than Barack Obama’s constitutionally dubious executive amnesty despite being silent when her husband signed tough immigration bills in the ’90s, and despite having voted for an amendment that helped kill a pro-immigration bill in 2007; waffled on a trade agreement that she backed while secretary of state; somehow avoided committing to an intelligible and consistent position on the Keystone Pipeline despite taking money from the anti-Keystone billionaire Tom Steyer. Is there any doubt that this supposed pro-Israel Democrat will back whatever nuclear agreement President Obama is able to reach with Iran, no matter how much he capitulates to the ayatollah’s demands?

Hillary Clinton’s approach to politics is cynical, uninspiring, robotic. She’s a chef who follows the recipe without exception, who’s too afraid of failure to challenge the authority of either her superiors or her customers. She’ll be a president suitable for the age of intelligent machines. Like a Terminator she is fixated on her mission—though the Terminator has more personality, greater charm. There’s an assumption behind all her latest moves, a programming code that determines the automaton’s behavior: that the country’s demographics and culture have changed to such an extent that a winning campaign needn’t do more than identify and mobilize core supporters by assuming the various poses most likely to drive them to the polls. There’s the chance the code could be garbage.

Clinton isn’t the first politician who’s inconsistent—far from it. What she and her husband have pioneered is a mode of inconsistency, an entire lifestyle of ideological flexibility the goal of which isn’t public-minded but wholly self-interested. "The only way a man can remain consistent amid changing circumstances is to change with them while preserving the same dominating purpose," Churchill wrote in "Consistency in Politics" (1932). But the dominating purpose Churchill had in mind was a public one: the common good. And the pursuit of the common good often requires the statesman to disagree with public opinion—to challenge his base, or indeed the majority.

Earlier this year Bill Clinton identified the dominant purpose behind his family’s inconsistency: "I gotta pay our bills." Blessed with loquacity, smarts, and personal charisma, the man from Hope, Ark., used political office as a means to acquire fame and fortune. Unable to go into business, or perhaps uninterested, convinced that his good and the public good are synonymous, he derived riches from his political talent: lucrative friendships, generous supporters, speaking audiences ready to pay.

The maintenance of what Mickey Kaus calls the "Clinton mode of production" requires at least one member of the family to hold office, so that powerful and wealthy people might obtain a frisson of access and influence through financial gift-giving. What the Clintons understand is that the easiest way to hold office, and thereby keep up the mansions and private jets and villas and beach vacations, is to flatter and cater to the ever-changing morality and self-conception of the liberal ruling caste, to understand what troubles their guilty consciences, to put yourself forward as the representative of their fluctuating and malleable concerns.

Such an approach requires a canny operator able to obscure changes in policy behind a smooth veneer of likability and guile—and if we have learned anything so far in this campaign it is that Hillary Clinton is not such an operator. She is clumsy, stilted, tentative, suspicious, rehearsed, monotonous. She might satisfy, but does she inspire? Do any of the voters nodding their heads at her latest declaration of the conventional wisdom consider themselves "Hillary Clinton Democrats"? What does she stand for besides her own ambition?

It would take someone like Bill Clinton to overcome another obstacle: The differences between the primary electorate and the general one. The social issues on which the left is proclaiming victory may become insignificant next year when voters compare them to a moribund economy and a collapsing international order. The combination of an uninspiring and untrustworthy candidate and a political environment hostile to the incumbent party might overwhelm Hillary Clinton’s meager skills. Like Boy George, Hillary doesn’t quite know how to finesse the contradiction between her past and her present, between what she’s selling and what the general electorate might want. Voters are fickle, after all. They come and go.

Published under: 2016 Election, Hillary Clinton