Hillary's meritocracy problem: The GOP will paint her as an elitist -- and the right can make that charge stick

Hillary reminds us of 2008 flaws, and the ghosts of every losing Democratic candidate of the last 30 years

Published March 15, 2015 10:58AM (EDT)

  (AP/Rich Pedroncelli/Reuters/Samantha Sais/Photo collage by Salon)
(AP/Rich Pedroncelli/Reuters/Samantha Sais/Photo collage by Salon)

Things were looking bleak for Walter Mondale on the 1984 day I dropped in on one of his top aides to critique his performance. The brilliant Paul Tully listened to this politically-minded nuclear freeze activist for as long as he could bear, then slammed his fist on his desk so hard the drawers rattled “Bill!" he screamed at me. "I can change everything but the candidate!”

Many Democrats this week are hoping Tully is wrong and that an experienced politician of deeply ingrained habits might change, either on her own or with some outside help. The debate over Hillary Clinton's email is also a debate about every concern Democrats harbor about their frontrunner. The way the questions have been posed -- can she change? must she change -- means they never go anywhere.

As framed by a facile media and D.C. political class, these questions are about as useful as the endless chatter before a Super Bowl about whether a quarterback or coach needs "to the win the big one" in order to "secure his legacy." So much of the talk is cosmetic. Some say that Hillary needs to adjust her personality: She must take criticism better, accept more responsibility, smile at the press. Others talk horserace, believing that a real campaign structure, the right consultant or an open-for-business Clinton war room will stem the attacks.

Few mention any need to change policy -- for example, her faith on global capitalism, or her fondness for military intervention. And for all the talk of Hillaryworld dysfunction, no one challenges her campaign's basic model of mortgaging itself to the status quo to raise the billion dollars it costs to gather the demographics and pay the consultants to craft the empty ads it takes to win.

Hillary’s most avid fans say she doesn’t have to change a thing. Her spin is that all's well. The race hasn’t started yet. Voters aren’t paying attention; those who are don’t care; those who care are Fox News voters she wouldn't win over anyway. This is a tempest in a Tea Party, a tiny flame lit by the far right and fanned by a Clinton-hating news media. She did nothing illegal or wrong. There was no real issue -- and if there was one, the steps she took to address it were more than adequate. Case closed.

Polls support her on that. A Pew survey this week found just 17 percent of respondents followed the email story closely. Most were old—just 4 percent of the under-30 crowd said they were interested—and set in their ways. Forty-four percent of conservative Republicans were apparently glued to their screens. In other polls Hillary’s support held steady.

But we take all polls too literally. It’s hard to capture a softening of resolve or the emergence of doubt in a survey. The problem for Hillary is that her issues run deeper than this.

The week before the email story broke Hillary pocketed $300,000 for a Silicon Valley speech she gave to “women in technology.” Her campaign—no matter what the pundits say, and however she may pay for it, she has one—spun it as a preview of her 2016 ‘message.’ If so, she has a mountain of work to do. A month after the president struck a new and widely applauded populist chord in his State of the Union, Clinton managed to sound like the old consensus-seeking Obama. She actually vowed to restore bipartisanship in words so corny it hurt to hear them: “I’d like to bring people from right, left, red, blue, get them into a nice warm purple space where everybody is talking and where we’re actually trying to solve problems."

She recited the usual Democratic economic litany but took care not to offend the odd technology billionaire who might be listening. Given the venue, one might expect as much, but weeks later she offered up the same riff, worse actually, at an Emily’s List gala where she called for a “new participation age” and for America to “help more people start small businesses and invest in the…entrepreneurs that will create the new jobs of tomorrow.” Also, Hillary said she'd cut "red tape."

The Emily’s List audience was worshipful and Hillary tried her hardest to be more spontaneous and "real." That meant two lame pantsuit jokes, another about her hair and one about the color of that Internet dress. Talking about Sen. Barbara Mikulski she said, “We have to work out macro issues and also macaroni and cheese issues … for hardworking families they’re one and the same.” Listening to it all a second time, I felt bad for her.

Her worst performance was the 20-minute press conference she held at the U.N. to take a very few, selected questions about her emails. It was a strange venue for lots of reasons, not least among them that she has still to explain her 2009 order to U.S. diplomats to spy on other diplomats, including U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. You’d think it the wrong place to plead the right to privacy. Her team bet it was the right place to cut short a media availability and they bet right.

The event has been criticized for everything from how long she waited to hold it to how quickly it unraveled and even its crazily discordant Guernica backdrop. Two of the criticisms matter. The first is that in delivering a masterpiece of syntactical elusion Clinton never conceded making a mistake of any kind.  The second is that she seemed to think none of the issues raised had any validity.

She’s wrong. The issues raised are not only valid but vital. Both our right to privacy and our right to know what our government does in our name are under assault. Politicians of both parties promise to safeguard and even expand these rights, but with each passing year our government knows more about us and we know less about it. At stake is our very autonomy as persons and as citizens.

The issue of transparency looms largest in matters of foreign and defense policy. The harm done our nation and the world under cloak of state secrecy is beyond measure. What we do in the open makes us proud; from the Marshall Plan and the Berlin airlift to the Alliance for Progress and the Peace Corps. It’s what we do in secret that shames us, whether overthrowing and assassinating elected leaders in Guatemala, Congo and Iran to condoning mass bribery and spying on our own allies. The way to fix American foreign policy is to take it public. If we’ve learned anything in the last week it’s that Hillary doesn’t understand or believe that.

When Clinton does what no other cabinet officer dared do and then offers an excuse as flimsy and annoying as her convenience, she plays into an image that could be her undoing. It's not the shadowy, secretive Clinton narrative the media loves to push. It's the true story of the new American oligarchs who play by separate rules; who live privileged lives to which they feel entitled and who condescend to the less educated and prosperous whose expressions of democratic will they trust far less than their own expert knowledge.

Making charges of elitism stick is what Republicans do best. Think about it. Three times they were able to persuade voters that some poor Democratic sap—first Michael Dukakis, then Al Gore, then John Kerry--was more elitist than the Bushes It didn’t help that Dukakis was buttoned down, that Gore was stiff or that Kerry spent a lifetime cultivating the very accent the Bushes worked so hard to shed, but Republicans are good at this. Hillary reminds us of the flaws of her 2008 campaign but also of the ghosts of every losing Democratic presidential candidate of the last 30 years.

It isn’t just the Republicans’ flair for dividing us that makes this such a problem. America struggles under a failed meritocracy. Jefferson dreamed of a meritocracy -- but not one that flocked to Wall Street or that took more than it gave. Nor did he dream of a country that rewarded its elites so richly that integrity and hard work would no longer ensure a decent life for everyone else.

Hillary knows how to give a populist-sounding speech. In 2008 she died two political deaths before her resurrection as an economic populist, of all things. She’d do well to recall that from then on she outpolled Obama by 400,000 votes. If she’d run that way from the start, she’d have likely won. This time she can’t afford even one political death. If she falters in a primary, she’s toast.

Clinton can't truly change her message or even her style without changing her policies and the very business model of her campaign. Can she do it? This much seems clear: In a political vacuum, she won't even try.If she's not challenged, she'll see no real reason for it. And if no real primary competition emerges, it will be up to progressives to apply the necessary pressure. We need to establish our own bottom line, to galvanize a strong movement to support it, and not back down.

All who would protect Clinton from such competition do her no favors -- and the country a great disservice.

By Bill Curry

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Bill Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut.

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