“I’m a progressive who gets things done.” Dave Eagle takes a closer look at Hillary Clinton and the truth.
“Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
If the Democratic nomination for president were a football, Hillary Clinton is poor old Charlie Brown. This time it was New Hampshire Democrats playing the part of Lucy van Pelt.
Or did they? Clinton’s problem connecting with Democrats is nothing new. This time around the trouble began with a word she thought was rightfully hers: progressive. She wasn’t entirely wrong to assume that. On paper, Clinton’s an intelligent and thoughtful woman who—when we as a country first met her—already had a successful legal career. As a professional with her own identity, she didn’t play the role of a traditional First Lady, getting more involved with the executive branch than many were comfortable with. Clinton put up with all kinds of what can only be called crap during those years and still bears some scars of the heightened scrutiny. She left the White House for the Senate, then went back to the White House as Secretary of State. Through all of this, she traveled the globe and was never afraid to call bullshit on sexist questions about her clothes or hair. She’s fierce, yet forgiving (see: Clinton, Bill, the infidelity of). She’s the kind of feminist who would make Rush Limbaugh rage-sweat through his golf shirt even if her husband wasn’t Bill Clinton.
Wealth and Wall Street cronies aside, there’s no denying that Hillary Clinton is a progressive in many ways. But something happened on the way to the primaries: Bernie Sanders jumped into the race and reminded Democrats what progressivism actually looks like. Turns out, it wasn’t some lesser-of-two-evils compromise funded by a wealthy donor class and aiming for a palatable middle ground. In the eyes of many, Sanders entering the race transformed Clinton from progressive to establishment thinker overnight, without her having to utter a single word or change a position. The fact that she’d used so many words to change her positions over the past decade (see: Same-Sex Marriage, Keystone Pipeline, TPP Trade Agreement) explains why it’s so easy to put the woman and her liberal bona fides on the defensive. Her candidacy is built partly on experience, partly on words. The former is solid and unassailable, but when she speaks about her progressivism the result is pure wind.
Lately, Clinton is trying on some new words, declaring herself “a progressive who gets things done.” She’s trying to cast a new light on her image as part of the establishment. It’s the same kind of wordplay that George W. Bush used when he branded himself a “compassionate conservative.” Ask any semiotician and they’ll tell you that meaning is actively inferred by the listener. Politicians know this, too, and often say things that are true enough, while relying on the public to fill in any blanks they want to. While most of the country wondered where Bush’s compassion for humanity was in the aftermath of Katrina, they missed that his heckuva-job backslap for FEMA Director Michael Brown was it—we were the ones who assumed his empathy had a broader reach.
And so it goes with Clinton, modifying the term “progressive” with the phrase “who gets things done,” she is winking at the moderates in the audience, letting them know her progressive ideology is balanced by a practical realism. It’s also a clever way to defend her record from a position of strength, insisting that learning the ins and outs of Washington for 25 years gives her the upper hand in advancing her progressive agenda. This insider status, her supporters argue, makes her “electable” and shows she “knows how to play the game.” Sanders is too pie-in-the-sky, they insist, and no one will work with him.
Even if we take Clinton at face value and believe she’s the practical choice, there are two issues with the whole notion of her ability to work within the system. First, it ignores that the system itself is the problem. Saying you can advance a progressive agenda because you know how to work within the current system is like saying you can boil up an amazing vegan soup stock because you use free-range chickens. Second, and just as problematic, is her use of the phrase “who gets things done” to differentiate herself from her opponent, that wide-eyed dreamer named Bernie Sanders.
Vermonter Frederick J. Bailey sees things a little differently. He served as a member of the Burlington Board of Alderman during Sanders’ first term as mayor, a legislator to Sanders’ executive. Bailey was and is a conservative Republican, but was forthright in his praise of Sanders when The Boston Globe contacted him for a piece in October of 2015. He praised Sanders for his attention to detail and a pragmatic approach to problem solving. As he succinctly put it, “He got things done.” And crazy old Socialist Sanders, he only got elected to mayor three times more after that; transforming the city and then stepping down at the end of his fourth term. He then slipped into the obscurity of the U.S. House and Senate for 25 years, winning a mere 10 elections in a row. If only he had Clinton’s experience on a national level.
Whether or not Clinton or Sanders can do the job is all a matter of speculation at this point anyway. If either is elected President, they will both deal with a resistant legislative branch. The Republicans hold a majority in both the House and Senate, where the incumbency rates are 85% – 90%. If you think Clinton has a chance to work successfully with Congress, now’s a good time to evaluate who the actual idealistic dreamer is (hint: it’s not Sanders). But let’s assume an equal ability to Get Things Done. The question over choosing between the two then reverts back to ideology; and it’s unclear what, exactly, that is for Clinton.
Here again, words fail to coalesce truthfully in support of Clinton’s claim to the progressive mantle. When defending her left-wing street cred, the best she’s been able to muster up in support of it is to point out the various industries and people that attack her. The drug companies took out ads against her in the ’90s, she reminds us. Karl Rove’s PAC attacks her constantly, she’s fond of saying, and we’d better believe that those billionaires are worried about a Clinton presidency. It’s brilliant rhetoric since it does make a certain kind of sense. But being attacked by the right wing could, by the same logic, be used to argue that Clinton is actually Climate Change in a blue pantsuit. Are her words reflecting a reality or shaping them?
Probably both: In last week’s NH debate with Bernie Sanders, Clinton bragged that the “hedge fund guys are trying so hard to stop” her—which is, I’m guessing, at least technically true. She’d just attended a fundraiser in Philadelphia hosted by hedge fund managers the week before; Franklin Square Capital Partners, currently under “federal scrutiny” for its sketchy portfolio of unregulated “Business Development Companies,” organized the event on her behalf. This is the flip side of special interests attacking a politician: special interests funding a politician. In either case, they’re trying to prevent legislation or regulations that are bad for the bottom line. In this case, they bought access to a presidential contender, one $1,000 fundraising ticket at a time. So, sure: the hedge fund guys are trying to stop her, which is true. Clinton’s relying on you to make the inferential leap what “stopping” them looks like.
This is where the “progressive who gets things done” moniker starts meaning as much as “compassionate conservative” did for George W. Bush. He told us he had compassion, that he believed the government had an obligation to help citizens in need. In 2008, that compassion was on full display as Bush didn’t hesitate to help the corporate citizens who went broke. Now, funded by those same people Bush helped rescue, Clinton wants to get things done. That’s exactly what progressives are afraid of.