The case against Hillary Clinton: This is the disaster Democrats must avoid

She's not the candidate of economic fairness, peace or a genuine progressive agenda. She's also not more electable

Published February 28, 2016 11:00AM (EST)

Hillary Clinton   (Reuters/Randall Hill)
Hillary Clinton (Reuters/Randall Hill)

You like what Bernie’s calling for, but you just don’t think he’s likely to win the general election, perhaps because “this country would never elect a socialist.” And even if he did win, you don’t think he’d be able to accomplish his goals, given how entrenched the GOP opposition is. Maybe you even think it’s already settled—that Hillary’s got the nomination locked up.

Here’s why going with that assumption—and backing Hillary in general—would be, in the words of Donald Trump, a disaster.

Contrary to conventional pundit wisdom, Hillary is not the stronger general-election candidate.

So far Clinton seems to have retained the status of favorite for the Democratic nomination. But there are strong signs that it’s Sanders who would fare better against the eventual GOP nominee.

Recent polling shows Sanders doing better than Clinton against each of the Republican contenders. One can question the relevance of early-stage matchups such as these, but as Princeton’s Matt Karp recently noted in his eye-opening piece on Sanders and Clinton’s comparative electability:

We may be skeptical about the predictive power of these findings, nine months before Election Day. But it’s wrong to call them “absolutely worthless” … In a comprehensive analysis of elections between 1952 and 2008, Robert Erikson and Christopher Wleizen found that matchup polls as early as April have generally produced results close to the outcome in November.

Even much earlier “trial heats” seem to be far from meaningless. As partisan polarization has increased over the last three decades, there’s some evidence that early polling has become more predictive than ever. In all five elections since 1996, February matchup polls yielded average results within two points of the final outcome.

Still skeptical? Consider the candidates’ favorability ratings: Sanders is the only one of the leading candidates—from either party—with a greater favorable than unfavorable rating. Hillary’s 53-percent unfavorable rating would, as Karp noted, “make her the most disliked presidential nominee in modern history.” (See all of the candidates’ ratings here.)

A look at party identification is also revealing: Independents now vastly outnumber Democrats or Republicans, and among independents, Sanders is far and away the favorite. Meanwhile, as statistician Joshua Loftus notes: “Dangerously, even Donald Trump and Ted Cruz get a much greater proportion of independent voters than Clinton.”

Putting Clinton and Sanders side by side, Salon’s H.A. Goodman summarized it well:

In one major poll, Bernie Sanders is now leading Hillary Clinton nationally. In most others, he’s not far behind from the former Secretary of State. … Bernie Sanders is the only Democratic candidate capable of winning the White House in 2016. Please name the last person to win the presidency alongside an ongoing FBI investigation, negative favorability ratings, questions about character linked to continual flip-flops, a dubious money trail of donors, and the genuine contempt of the rival political party. In reality, Clinton is a liability to Democrats...

Even if she were more electable (which—again—it seems she isn’t), consider Hillary on her own terms.

Some say Sanders’ plan is too ambitious. (Others very much disagree.) The critics say Clinton’s proposals are more likely to get past entrenched opposition. But this position seems strange: Why would starting out asking for less yield better results? If the Obama years have taught us nothing else, it’s that far-right members of Congress will prioritize obstruction. So why not go for broke, harness the appeal that increasing taxes on the wealthiest to redistribute money to the middle class has with a majority of Americans, and invest in jobs, infrastructure, public education, healthcare, etc.? (Admittedly the difficult first step would be building the necessary coalition to end ownership of our elections by the wealthy. But here, Clinton seems even less likely to fight tooth and nail.)

But even apart from question of feasibility, we have to ask: Were Clinton to take office, would she seriously push for greater economic fairness, more peace and a generally progressive agenda, or would she defend the status quo?

To answer this, let’s look first at our context.

Strange things are happening. Establishment neoconservatives seem to be gravitating toward Clinton as an anti-Trump. Meanwhile, Billionaire right-winger Charles Koch writes of Sanders:

The senator is upset with a political and economic system that is often rigged to help the privileged few at the expense of everyone else, particularly the least advantaged. He believes that we have a two-tiered society that increasingly dooms millions of our fellow citizens to lives of poverty and hopelessness. He thinks many corporations seek and benefit from corporate welfare while ordinary citizens are denied opportunities and a level playing field.

I agree with him.

So what the hell is going on?

Hillary at Home

Famed economist Thomas Piketty recently offered a brief take on where things stand: “Sanders’ success today shows that much of America is tired of rising inequality … and intends to revive both a progressive agenda and the American tradition of egalitarianism. Hillary Clinton, who fought to the left of Barack Obama in 2008 on topics such as health insurance, appears today as if she is defending the status quo, just another heiress of the Reagan-Clinton-Obama political regime.” To explain, he points to wealth distribution under the past century’s presidents:

From 1930 to 1980 – for half a century – the rate for the highest US income (over $1m per year) was on average 82%, with peaks of 91% from the 1940s to 1960s (from Roosevelt to Kennedy), and still as high as 70% during Reagan’s election in 1980. … Reagan was elected in 1980 on a program aiming to restore a mythical capitalism said to have existed in the past. … The culmination of this new program was the tax reform of 1986, which ended half a century of a progressive tax system and lowered the rate applicable to the highest incomes to 28%.

Democrats never truly challenged this choice in the Clinton (1992-2000) and Obama (2008-2016) years, which stabilized the taxation rate at around 40% (two times lower than the average level for the period 1930 to 1980). This triggered an explosion of inequality coupled with incredibly high salaries for those who could get them, as well as a stagnation of revenues for most of America – all of which was accompanied by low growth.

It’s hard to imagine that Hillary would break—much less break significantly—from this wealthy-friendly, bipartisan consensus.

One reason is her take on the financial sector. She’s made it clear that she won’t seek to reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which Bill repealed, and whose absence is broadly considered central to the 2008-2009 financial crisis, during which countless Americans lost their savings, homes, and jobs, while major banks were bailed out from the public coffers and bank executives continued receiving massive bonuses. So, it doesn’t take much skepticism to see why Wall Street is donating so heavily to her campaign (to say nothing of her controversial paid speeches to the big banks, whose transcripts she refuses to release).

When it comes to the poorer end of the economic spectrum, we can rewind to Clinton’s time as first lady—or “co-president” as some called her—for more background. Recently Michelle Alexander noted that “Hillary wasn’t picking out china while she was first lady. She bravely broke the mold and redefined that job in ways no woman ever had before. She not only campaigned for Bill; she also wielded power and significant influence once he was elected, lobbying for legislation and other measures.”

Arguing that the Clintons decimated black America, Alexander offers a stunning anecdote:

In [Hillary’s] support for the 1994 crime bill, for example, she used racially coded rhetoric to cast black children as animals. “They are not just gangs of kids anymore,” she said. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”

When the Clintons left the White House in 2001, with the War on Crime and War on Drugs by then entrenched public policy, the United States had the highest rate of incarceration in the world. “Human Rights Watch reported that in seven states, African Americans constituted 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison, even though they were no more likely than whites to use or sell illegal drugs,” Alexander explains. She follows this with one of the clearest summaries of Clinton-era welfare reform:

The federal safety net for poor families was torn to shreds by the Clinton administration in its effort to “end welfare as we know it.” In his 1996 State of the Union address, given during his re-election campaign, Clinton declared that ‘the era of big government is over’ and immediately sought to prove it by dismantling the federal welfare system known as Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC). The welfare-reform legislation that he signed—which Hillary Clinton ardently supported then and characterized as a success as recently as 2008—replaced the federal safety net with a block grant to the states, imposed a five-year lifetime limit on welfare assistance, added work requirements, barred undocumented immigrants from licensed professions, and slashed overall public welfare funding by $54 billion (some was later restored).

Experts and pundits disagree about the true impact of welfare reform, but one thing seems clear: Extreme poverty doubled to 1.5 million in the decade and a half after the law was passed.

Many Hillary supporters argue that it’s unfair to judge her by Bill’s work as president. But even aside from her active engagement on these issues as first lady, it seems naive to imagine that she would somehow represent a significant break from this history. Hillary Clinton is more Wal-Mart board member and less friend to labor.

Hillary Abroad

The foreign policy argument for Clinton tends to skip over her time in the Senate—when she voted for the Patriot Act and the 2003 invasion of Iraq—and focus on her experience as secretary of state. But the details of this experience (apart from the email scandal and the ill-founded GOP congressional investigation into the 2012 Benghazi attacks) receive little attention.

Even a mildly critical look at her time as secretary of state reveals a chilling record.

After Clinton’s dramatic hearing on Libya in Congress last October, Patrick Cockburn (for decades one of the most incisive and sober journalists covering the Middle East) wrote that “neither Clinton nor the Republican Congressmen showed much interest in the present calamitous state of Libya, which is divided into fiefdoms ruled by criminalised warlords reliant on terror and torture. Benghazi is partly in ruins and is fought over by rival factions, while Islamic State has carved out enclaves where it decapitates Egyptian Copts and Ethiopian Christians.” Cockburn continues:

Of course, there is a strong case against Clinton’s actions in Libya, but they relate to her support for the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 … . There is no doubt that she played a crucial role …  in the decision by the US to intervene on the side of the anti-Gaddafi rebels. ... Clinton was proud of her action, proclaiming in October 2011 after the killing of Gaddafi: “We came, we saw, he died.” She said during the recent Democratic presidential candidates’ debate that what she did in Libya was “smart power at its best.”

Arguing that “Hillary is the Candidate of the War Machine,” Columbia’s Jeffrey Sachs recently extended Cockburn’s point: “After the NATO bombing, Libya descended into civil war while the paramilitaries and unsecured arms stashes in Libya quickly spread west across the African Sahel and east to Syria. The Libyan disaster has spawned war in Mali, fed weapons to Boko Haram in Nigeria, and fueled ISIS in Syria and Iraq.”

Sachs moves on with this summary of Clinton’s work in Syria:

Perhaps [her] crowning disaster ... has been [her] relentless promotion of CIA-led regime change in Syria. Once again Hillary bought into the CIA propaganda that regime change to remove Bashar al-Assad would be quick, costless, and surely successful. In August 2011, Hillary led the US into disaster with her declaration Assad must "get out of the way," backed by secret CIA operations.

Five years later, no place on the planet is more ravaged by unending war, and no place poses a great threat to US security. More than 10 million Syrians are displaced, and the refugees are drowning in the Mediterranean or undermining the political stability of Greece, Turkey, and the European Union. Into the chaos created by the secret CIA-Saudi operations to overthrow Assad, ISIS has filled the vacuum, and has used Syria as the base for worldwide terrorist attacks.

It seems Secretary Clinton’s hawkishness was matched only by her arms dealing. As the Intercept’s Lee Fang recently reported: after making weapons transfer to Saudi Arabia a “top priority” as secretary of state, emails from Clinton’s private server recently released under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit:

show her aides kept her well-informed of the approval process for a $29.4 billion sale in 2011 of up to 84 advanced F-15SA fighters, manufactured by Boeing, along with upgrades to the pre-existing Saudi fleet of 70 F-15 aircraft and munitions, spare parts, training, maintenance, and logistics. The deal was finalized on Christmas Eve 2011.

Afterward, Jake Sullivan, then Clinton’s deputy chief of staff ad now a senior policy adviser on her presidential campaign, sent her a celebratory email string topped with the chipper message: “FYI — good news.”

As for what became of the arms: Saudi Arabia is almost a year into a bombing campaign in Yemen that, as Fang explains, has been led by the American-made F-15 jet fighters:

The indiscriminate bombing of civilians and rescuers from the air has prompted human rights organizations to claim that some Saudi-led strikes on Yemen may amount to war crimes. At least 2,800 civilians have been killed in the conflict so far, according to the United Nations — mostly by airstrikes. The strikes have killed journalists and ambulance drivers.

The planes, made by Boeing, have been implicated in the bombing of three facilities supported by Doctors Without Borders (Médicins Sans Frontières). The U.N. Secretary General has decried “intense airstrikes in residential areas and on civilian buildings in Sanaa, including the chamber of commerce, a wedding hall, and a center for the blind,” and has warned that reports of cluster bombs being used in populated areas “may amount to a war crime due to their indiscriminate nature.”

But the Saudi deal was just one small part of a larger and even more troubling picture. As the International Business Times (IBT) reported, under Clinton the State Department signed off on $316 billion in arms sales to countries that donated to the Clinton Foundation. Now the Clinton campaign has received vastly more support from arms manufacturers than any other candidate of either party.

A look at her work in Latin America adds to the trouble. In June, Salon’s Matthew Pulver showed how Secretary Clinton provided cover for a right-wing coup in Honduras. Political violence spiked in the chaos that followed, and the country went on to have the highest murder rate in the world.

And as the IBT reported last April: As the United States was liberalizing trade with Colombia in 2011, “union leaders and human rights activists conveyed … harrowing reports of violence [by the Colombian military against striking oil workers] to then–Secretary of State Clinton ... urging her to pressure the Colombian government to protect labor organizers, she responded first with silence, these organizers say. The State Department publicly praised Colombia’s progress on human rights, thereby permitting hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid to flow to the same Colombian military that labor activists say helped intimidate workers.” The IBT report continues:

At the same time that Clinton's State Department was lauding Colombia’s human rights record, her family was forging a financial relationship with Pacific Rubiales, the sprawling Canadian petroleum company at the center of Colombia’s labor strife. The Clintons were also developing commercial ties with the oil giant’s founder, Canadian financier Frank Giustra, who now occupies a seat on the board of the Clinton Foundation, the family’s global philanthropic empire.

The details of these financial dealings remain murky, but this much is clear: After millions of dollars were pledged by the oil company to the Clinton Foundation -- supplemented by millions more from Giustra himself -- Secretary Clinton abruptly changed her position on the controversial U.S.-Colombia trade pact. Having opposed the deal as a bad one for labor rights back when she was a presidential candidate in 2008, she now promoted it, calling it “strongly in the interests of both Colombia and the United States.” The change of heart by Clinton and other Democratic leaders enabled congressional passage of a Colombia trade deal that experts say delivered big benefits to foreign investors like Giustra.

Hillary in General

It seems then, that the only remaining argument for Clinton is that she knows what all of us idealists don’t: that to get things done in a messy world, you have to get your hands dirty. (After all, as some leftist critics have argued, Sanders’ hands aren’t entirely clean. If Clinton wins the nomination, we may even come to see him speaking passionately on her behalf at the Democratic National Convention.)

This argument might be compelling if it weren’t for the fact that Clinton, far from “getting things done” for those who need it most, instead seems primarily to be about “getting things done” for the corporate elite, for vassal states like Saudi Arabia, and indeed for herself.

By P.J. Podesta

P.J. Podesta's work has appeared in Slate, The Paris Review and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among other outlets.

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