I have Clinton fatigue -- and it's not even 2014 yet

Two Clintonland profiles remind us of the power couple’s coziness with corporate America and the top 1 percent

Published September 23, 2013 6:31PM (EDT)

  (AP/Cliff Owen)
(AP/Cliff Owen)

I’m on record hoping Hillary Clinton runs for president. Or at least I thought I hoped that. But reading two masterworks on Clintonland back to back on Monday morning – Joe Hagen’s Clinton profile, complete with interview, in New York magazine, plus Alec MacGilles’ exhaustive takedown of longtime Bill Clinton minder Doug Band in the New Republic – I felt a wave of Clinton fatigue that I was immune from in 2008.

Combined with the pomp and self-congratulation that always accompanies the week-long Clinton Global Initiative in New York, which also opens Monday, the two pieces made me think about the risks of continuing the domination of the Democratic Party by Clinton Inc., the corporatist, Wall Street-friendly machine that engages in some genuine do-gooding while also making its friends very rich. I hope Clinton reads both pieces very carefully even during this whirlwind week.

The Hagen interview was less disturbing than the Band profile (more on that in a minute), although it featured one quote directly from Hillary Clinton herself that irked me. Asked about her ideas for ending partisan gridlock, Clinton delivered a “both sides do it” bromide that could have come from the man who defeated her in 2008, Barack Obama, before he learned his lesson:

It comes from both sides of the political aisle, it comes from the press. It’s all about conflict, it’s all about personality, and there are huge stakes in the policies that are being debated, and I think there’s a hunger amongst a very significant, maybe even a critical mass of Americans, clustered on the left, right, and center, to have an adult conversation about how we’re going to solve these problems … but it’s not for the fainthearted…I have a lot of reason to believe, as we saw in the 2012 election, most Americans don’t agree with the extremists on any side of an issue, but there needs to continue to be an effort to find common ground, or even take it to higher ground on behalf of the future.

Excuse me?

In fact, 2012 saw an even more polarized electorate than in 2008, with Obama winning reelection by a smaller margin than he won the first time. To borrow from Mitt Romney, apparently there are 47 percent of the people who will not vote for the president no matter what, and who voted for Romney even though he transformed himself from a Massachusetts moderate to a “severely conservative” fraud and ran one of the worst campaigns in modern political history. Additionally in 2012, we welcomed Sen. Ted Cruz to the Senate, on the heels of his fellow “wacko birds” Rand Paul and Mike Lee in 2010. Gerrymandering has left the House even more polarized, with red districts getting redder and the GOP keeping a lock on the House even though its candidates won a million fewer votes than Democrats did.

Clinton knows that. In fact, I voted for her in the 2008 primary precisely because she seemed tougher than Obama, and had the experience to know that Republicans would be working to defeat her from the moment she walked into the White House. She can’t possibly believe her own platitudes about “common ground.” I also didn’t much like her insisting she has plenty of time to decide whether to run for president in 2016. That’s only true if she’s in fact running (and the profile increased my already sizable confidence that she is). If she’s not running, Democrats have a weak bench (apart from Vice President Joe Biden) and can’t be complacent.

Alec MacGillis’ devastating profile of how Doug Band enriched himself using his relationship with Bill Clinton was far more disturbing, although both pieces featured close looks at the philanthropic sausage-making inside the Clinton Global Initiative, where everyone is congratulated for doing well by doing good. The super-rich are flattered into supporting some genuinely important work globally, while the wannabe-rich try to parlay Clintonland ties into real money. You come away from both pieces relieved, I guess, that Chelsea Clinton exiled Band and put an end to really gross conflicts of interest and profiteering off of her father’s global reputation. And yet the ongoing work of the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation is still a shining example of the coziness with corporate wealth and power that Clintonism always represented.

Peter Beinart had an important piece about “The Rise of the New New Left” last week that I under-appreciated, at first, because he overestimated the national implications of progressive Bill de Blasio’s mayoral primary victory. But the demographic and policy shifts Beinart identified, especially among young people, are very real and worth attention from Democrats. He assembled a heap of reliable data from various polling sources to show that Millennials are a pro-government voting bloc who look skeptically on the wealthy and powerful. A 2010 Pew poll found two-thirds favored a larger government with more services to a smaller, cheaper one; in late 2012 polls showed they favored expanding Obamacare while older Americans favored repealing it. They’re pro-union as well as pro-choice. They believe business has more control over their life than government does. And they narrowly favor socialism over capitalism.

Beinart sees Millennials as capable of launching a seismic generational shift in national politics to challenge the Reagan-Clinton consensus that has dominated both parties since the 1980s. Provocatively, he links Clinton and Reagan because the Arkansas Democrat validated the California Republican more than he repudiated him, because “at Clintonism’s core was the conviction that to revive their party, Democrats must first acknowledge what Reagan got right.” The cautious, compromising Obama, who got in trouble for praising Reagan during the 2008 primaries, actually extended Clintonism, even if he defeated the woman who shared its name.

I think Beinart is a little over-optimistic in seeing this Millennial transformation of the Democratic Party heralded in de Blasio’s win, and possibly in a 2016 run by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. I’m intrigued by the polling numbers Beinart produces that show a younger generation of GOP leaders, like Cruz, Paul, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker leaving Millennials cold – he crunches results from their electoral victories to find they did worse with younger than older voters in their states – while the baby boomer Warren, who is almost a grandmotherly political presence, won the youth vote in her race. Beinart acknowledges that Warren is unlikely to run, and he doesn’t name anyone else on the national stage who might channel the same economic populism among young voters, but he still sees warning signs for Hillary Clinton in the data.

And so do I. This week is full of reminders that Clinton brings a long résumé and huge approval ratings and 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling to the table, if she runs. But she also brings a lot of baggage, with longtime associates who’ve cut ethical corners and/or enriched themselves thanks to their Clinton ties. (Huma Abedin’s role with Band’s Teneo, a global consulting firm crafted wholly out of his Clinton Global Initiative relationships, ties Hillary, not just Bill, to Band).

If she runs for president, she will be looking to unite a Democratic Party that is having a long-delayed argument with itself over income inequality, and whether its coziness with business and Wall Street helped increase it. The revolt of progressive Senate Democrats, including Warren, that sank Larry Summers' hopes to run the Federal Reserve Bank is evidence of that internal debate. Clinton has many friends and admirers among the folks who torpedoed Summers, but she is an unlikely standard-bearer for their discontent.

Still, no one seems likely to challenge her if she runs. But an electorate that features a growing number of angry and economically pessimistic young people could surface surprises for both parties. They are unlikely to be satisfied by platitudes about finding “higher ground on behalf of the future.”

By Joan Walsh