Three Historians Debate Hillary Clinton's Credibility Gap

By Doctor Comrade

The following is a conversation I had with two historian friends about an article in Vox by Ezra Klein called "Understanding Hillary: Why the Clinton America Sees Isn't the Clinton Colleagues Know."

Matt Hall is a student of History at Harvard University. Taylor Rogers is a graduate of the University of Idaho in History and Spanish and is now a student of Conservation Biology.

Taylor Rogers: An interesting take on Clinton. Both critical and not. It was interesting to read something about her methodology as a politician and its pitfalls and advantages. I'd be interested in anyone else's thoughts.

DC: First thing I noticed immediately was how Hillary's loyal supporters view her more positively than everyone else. It rings to me like the statements of sycophants. It is unsurprising that people who already respect her would say nice things about her to a journalist. So when I hear, "She listens," all I can hear is, "Hillary Clinton listens to Washington insiders and Goldman Sachs bankers." I guess I'm just cynical.

From Klein, he says, "Multiple Clinton aides told me that the campaign’s plan to fight opiate addiction, the first and most comprehensive offered by any of the major candidates, was the direct result of Clinton hearing about the issue on her tour." OK, she found an issue that matters to white people and she can exploit it for political gain. Why would we believe for one instant that she actually cares about poor people dying? Her foreign policy has killed more poor people than she could ever hope to save with drug rehab reforms. She opposed raising the minimum wage in Haiti for women garment workers. Why? Maybe because they're poor, black, and can't help her politically.

What I'm trying to say is that everything in this article can be read two ways: the optimistic, sycophantic, naive way; or the cynical, cold, calculating way. And that is the Gap. Who cares what the people closest to her think? We already know what they think. What we--as voters--care about is her record, which doesn't suggest at all that she truly listens. 

She's loved by some liberals because she "gets things done," like the Greenstein example Klein brings up. But that policies that work in her worldview retrench capitalism and exploit the working class. There is no ethical consumption under capitalism. "Getting things done" and "listening" to certain kinds of people are the problem.

Matt Hall: Your explanation would seem to imply that, in office, she would be hated, but her approval ratings go up when she's off the campaign trail. The Gap isn't just "people who know and like Hillary personally vs. people who don't", but also "how much people like Hillary in office vs how much people like Hillary when she's on the campaign trail".

DC: Look at Klein's admission that her greatest strength is also her greatest weakness. She listens too much, and as a result too many voices get in. Her speeches sound like they were focus-grouped a thousand times. Her debate performances were so flat and scripted. To people who already don't like her, that makes her look less human. To people who already like her, they pat themselves on the back and say, "Look, she listened to me!"

Let's be clear on this point as well: there are a certain number of Americans who won't like her no matter what she does. She's tremendously disliked by a majority of Americans. About 50% or so hate her "pretty much equally all the time." You're probably right that when people meet her in person, they probably like her better. But I'm sure you could say that about most politicians. I find the entire thesis of the article to be underwhelming, liberal back-patting.

MH: While I agree that this is a rather "man, aren't liberals great?" sort of piece, I think your reaction also reveals something that might also help explain her currently low approval ratings.

Negotiation and compromise are skills that get legislation passed and make friendships, but they aren't attractive to the general public. Any action you take in favor of business makes you a corporate shill, and any action you take against businesses makes you a dirty Communist. The extremes naturally attract, and Clinton is, I think we can all agree, not very often at those extremes. What's interesting is that she once was -- providing legal defense for Black Panthers facing murder convictions, hanging out with radicals like Saul Alinsky -- and in the 90s just saying she wasn't cut out for making cookies in the kitchen drew tons of Republican ire, but by today's standards she's pretty tame. She's a 90s progressive, and a 2010s conservative.

In any case, it doesn't surprise me that the most bipartisan candidate is one of almost the most hated in this election, "the Gap" be damned. Perhaps the biggest problem of this article is that it tries to create a mono-causal explanation of the "Gap", when it's actually probably dependent upon different moments and situations, not something so simple like "she listens maybe too much".

In addition to this, there are some aspects of a person that matter more while campaigning and less while in office, and vice versa. For example, the fact that Hillary Clinton is a woman irritates people -- I have had now three different people say to me, "I'm a woman, and I just don't think women are cut out for leadership positions." Then they reference something about mood swings or periods, etc. There's pretty overt sexism. But once she's in office, the fact that she's a woman doesn't matter as much -- she's expected to do her job regardless.

This chart seems to show that her approval ratings are all over, all the time. Her switch in the current election from favorable to unfavorable only happened in January/February -- basically right when the voting began for the Iowa caucus. Bernie support plunged her down. If I had to give the biggest causes of distaste for her, I'd say, mid-campaign: Progressives get their false prophet. Bernie riles up the far left branch with his angry message. Slowly, his rhetoric goes from "Yeah, Clinton is okay, but I want to be President" to "Clinton is a Wall Street shill and unacceptable as President". Amusingly, if you listen to Lindsay's podcast [from eight months ago], you can hear him make the same transition, and here we are!

I think she's got a strategic flaw: she tends to go with inverse campaigning. Instead of setting forward a strong series of plans and ideas, her plan seems to be, "Let's maintain the status quo, make small improvements, and look -- I'm not Sanders so I can get things politically accomplished and know what I'm talking about, and I'm not Trump so I'm not Hitler Lite. Vote for me!" I don't want to vote for not-Trump, I want to vote for a leader with interesting, forward-thinking ideas and an ability to put them in place. Then again, that attitude will actually be fairly good in office, since it's similar to how politics work in reality. It just doesn't make for good rhetoric.

So I think Lindsay is right in that the idea of a Gap that can't be consistently explained and the Vox article is liberal back-patting. However, there are definitely giant swings in Hillary's support.

TR: I agree with both of you that it was liberal back-patting. I find myself going back and forth between feeling cynical in a more Lindsay-esque approach to my views on Clinton (where she's a corporate shill and the living embodiment of Frank Underwood) and a more Matt-esque view in which she is a fine politician that used to be very popular and became less-so when she started running for office again and is therefore a victim of the media and the times. She isn't as liberal as is in vogue right now, but I think she's liberal enough for me for now (especially given the alternative).

While the article is obviously pro-Clinton, she worked with a lot of different people and actually got things done. That is commendable in a day and age when Congress hasn't gotten anything significant done in almost a decade. 

And you two are right, you can look at her "listening" and inclusiveness in two ways. She either is a calculating politician that is always trying to make people feel special so they will vote for her or work with her, or she is someone who genuinely cares to some extent about compromise and doing the best job implementing liberal values, albeit slowly. I'm not sure what I believe yet. I would like to believe the latter.

DC: Let me take a stab at the favorability ratings and then I'll move on to the other part of our conversation. As Matt said--is it because during campaigns she gets continually shit on by the media on her critics? Maybe Hillary Clinton should bear the responsibility for this latest dip in her numbers. The email scandal reaffirms what everyone already believed about her at the end of the 1990s. Her statements to the media over the last year have been shown to be complete fabrications and lies. Moreover, she refuses to turn over the speech transcripts, which proves she is untrustworthy, non-transparent (opaque?), and she's a Wall Street shill. Sanders--in many ways--was her perfect foil because he is the opposite of both those things.

In terms of democratic compromise, we've lionized "compromise" as the only way to get things done in American politics. I disagree. Look first to the New Deal coalition and you'll see sweeping reforms enacted by a president and a Congress who were on the same side. Look also at what is happening in California right now because they have a Democrat governor and legislature. And you can see the kinds of garbage passed by states like Texas and Alabama, which have Republican controlled executives and legislatures. Those are potent historical examples.

But in terms of democratic philosophy, compromise isn't the only way to move forward on something. Is it pragmatic in the context of the 2016 American Congress? Yes. This is the context into which Hillary Clinton will be inserted. Great. That means the GOP will get to water down everything on her agenda for four or eight years. If you like Clinton as a politician, this is not what you actually want. You want to see her agenda passed without issue in Congress. The GOP-led Congress is going to brutalize her agenda at every turn, just like they did to Obama. Would Sanders fair better? Probably not. But at least he's not giving up before the game has even started.

How "politics are in reality" is what we're forced to settle for by a two-party system run by corporate conglomerates. We are forced to compromise because "radical" solutions are dismissed out of hand by almost everyone who buys into the ideological Cult of the Middle. But as you said, if she is a 2010s conservative, why should we find that acceptable?

MH: She might not be the dot on the very far left (good ol' Sanders!) but she's also not a dot in the middle of the pack.

I personally hope strongly for her to become President, because with Presidential politics, it really is a two-person race. Currently Nevada has Clinton with only a 3% lead, well within the margin of error. If your vote goes to a more "acceptable" candidate, like Jill Stein, and Trump wins your state, is it fair to be... somewhat frustrated? Are we looking at two F candidates, or an F and a D+ or C- from a socialist standpoint?

TR: True. Even if I did think she was evil, I would still think she's the less of two evils. And with the Supreme Court in the balance, that would be more than enough reason to vote for Hillary just so Trump didn't get it.

DC: I'd bet that all the socialists in Nevada combined would have almost zero effect. In 2012, 1,258,409 people in Nevada voted, so I would be 0.000008% total.* Not exactly a promising outlook for democracy.

OK, if we're going to grade them, we are dealing with someone who should have dropped the class before midterms and someone who is taking the class for the 10th time and still failing. I can't in good conscience vote for her. No matter what, a Clinton and Trump presidency guarantees a continuation of American imperialism, the deaths of thousands of innocent people, and the retrenchment of capitalism. Every foreign policy expert I've read said that Hillary is more hawkish than Obama. Thousands of civilians have died under Obama's watch. That seems to guarantee that thousands more will die under Clinton's. And thousands will certainly die under Trump. So you can see why I'd be frustrated with these choices. Do we want to do a body count? Maybe Clinton will kill less civilians than Trump? Or can we say every civilian death is unacceptable and reject them both?

I'm tired of black and brown people dying because we have a two party system that doesn't allow us to pick a candidate who refuses to wage a systematic war against all colonized populations, domestic and foreign. I'm tired of American soldiers dying for oil money. Both Clinton and Trump are unacceptable, and taking the "lesser of two evils" is still evil.

TR: I'm a little surprised you aren't more concerned about SCOTUS as someone who wants sweeping reform as opposed to incremental change. To me, SCOTUS seems far more important than the presidency and far more able to actually bring about significant reform than our paralyzed Legislative and Executive branches. If someone like Bernie was elected I'm fairly certain that Congress would block any revolutionary reforms he brought forth even more so than they did to Obama. But the SCOTUS transcends all of that and lasts far longer. If we get some good liberal justices, we're much more likely to be able to enact real liberal and socialist change that could effect the country far into the future. 

The SCOTUS, however, in a single day made marriage equality mandatory throughout the entire country, bringing about sweeping and, dare I say, revolutionary change that has been a milestone of social justice in our country. Black Lives Matter? A liberal Supreme Court could enact sweeping changes to the justice system and to policing laws that would make the movement swoon. But a conservative court (that we would get under Trump)? Good luck with any social justice issues. 

Voting for Hillary seems like the lesser of two evils in that world view. And the greater evil is so evil that it seems worth it considering how much better the lesser evil could be than the greater.

DC: SCOTUS never implements sweeping reforms; SCOTUS responds to shifting political movements. Just look at same-sex marriage: yes, the SCOTUS decision was a major win, but they were also late to the game as several states already had same-sex marriage or civil unions, and numerous groups mobilizing was the only way that same-sex marriage even came to the court in the first place. Same with segregation and Brown v. Board: SCOTUS waited years for the NAACP's test case model to slowly erode segregation before eventually giving the landmark case. Landmarks are good, don't get me wrong, but very, very rarely is SCOTUS on the frontlines of social progress.

"Revolutionary" and "reforms" are antithetical terms. There is no such thing as a revolutionary reform. Reform, by its nature, is anti-revolution: it suppresses revolutionary energy by diffusing social tension. Revolution can't be achieved through reform, and having liberal SCOTUS justices does not, in any way, guarantee social progress. And I'd argue that relying on SCOTUS--as you mentioned, an anti-democratic branch of government--is a dangerous way to approach social change. Change--be it incremental or radical--must and always has started at the bottom.

With that in mind, I challenge this notion that SCOTUS is the defining issue in this campaign. Why should dead kids in Syria matter less than black lives in America? To me, these issues are inseparable. They both result from imperialism, racism, and capitalism. Will SCOTUS protect Syrian children from death? No, no matter who picks the justices. We have to get past this idea that somehow foreign and domestic policy are separate or distinct when they are not. Clinton is too hawkish for me to vote for in good conscience, regardless of what her colleagues say about her. You can't say that Trump is more likely to start a war than Clinton is, you simply can't, given what she did for Iraq and Libya and Syria.

TR: "In the true spirit of politics, it's important to not become so divided that we're working against ourselves." Your better half, and my basic point.

MH: A retreat from global politics to focus on national populism is not a strategy, and likely to get just as many people killed. A great example of what happens when the US sits by and watches global politics unfold, well, just look at Bosnia and Rwanda. Bill Clinton lists Rwanda as his greatest regret. This latent idea that aggressive intervention is always the wrong choice, that it results in massive civilian casualties, forgets wide swathes of 20th century history, where lack of intervention allowed hundreds of thousands of innocents to die. Hillary's liberal interventionist tendencies may (may!) ultimately save more lives, and she would be vastly better equipped to deal with a major crisis. Would she be continuing and propagating the liberal capitalist system with her policies? Yes, sure, but I'd prefer the stability of that system than the most likely alternative, which is to burn it all down. The question should be, "Did US involvement get more innocent people killed than the status quo?" Further, "Could US involvement prevent more people from being killed?" 

SCOTUS may not be able to induce sweeping changes on its own, but a liberal majority is incredibly important to protect even tiny steps in the right direction, like Obamacare and gay marriage. The Warren Court is perhaps the best example of what the court can do when there is a liberal majority: Baker v. Carr, Brown v. Board, many rights for the accused, especially Miranda v. Arizona and Gideon v. Wainwright, and Griswold v. Connecticut. These cases had huge impacts! Millions of people will be affected by the next Justice+President mix, for the worse, if Trump becomes President, and a vote against Hillary is tacit acceptance of those lost lives. We're not just judging black lives in America, but the lives of millions of immigrants, gays, women, and those from ethnic backgrounds Trump doesn't deem white enough.

This push to extremism and purity weakens the liberal movement, because that movement is essentially a coalition. Sanders never understood that. The purity bandwagon will be just as destructive for Democrats as it is for Republicans with the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus.

I have been one of those people eagerly promoting compromise and moderation. The real goal of legislation is to build a coalition big enough to pass it. Shouldn't Democrats be trying to quietly pull those moderate Republicans over to their side? 

Sanders got people excited about a reality that was never going to exist, that he couldn't deliver, and he stirred up hatred against an otherwise fantastic liberal candidate, in a way that none of her other opponents could. Many millennials are going to use their anger with Hillary to justify voting for third parties or not voting at all. And that could, absolutely, swing the election towards Trump.

TR: I certainly agree, Lindsay, that SCOTUS is rarely at the forefront of a movement and infrequently enacts massive change on their own without a large movement behind it to bring it to their attention. However, my point was more that they are necessary to give any movement legitimacy in our legal system and society, for without legal legitimacy, nothing can really become a permanent part of our society. For significant positive social change to happen in a permanent way, you almost need SCOTUS to lean liberal, or you need an overthrow of the current system as a whole (which I'm sure you'd prefer, but isn't likely as of yet). If we get a conservative Supreme Court, I'm quite scared of what could become legal in terms of minority rights, policing policy, gun rights, etc. This would not happen under Hillary (probably, she can't control SCOTUS obviously). Therefore, if you want any sort of positive progressive change in this country, and you're against bigotry, xenophobia, racism, and hate crimes, I would recommend voting for the person most likely to beat Trump and appoint a liberal court. While it may not be ideal, it is the state of things from my point of view.

Also, if you feel the need to point out the insignificance of your vote, I would posit that there may be some guilt under there. Furthermore, 0.000008% of the total sounds like quite a bit when it's such a close race. An independent voter such as yourself has much more power than such a small percentage seems to suggest. So cast your vote wisely my friend. Your vote is much more important in a swing state than my vote in Idaho. I may as well not exist!

I could write much more in response to so many great points brought up by both of you, but I'll lay down my arms for now.

*Correction: Turnout in Nevada in 2012 was actually 1,016,664 of the 1,258,409 registered voters. Therefore, my calculation of the percentage of voter turnout my vote would represent is slightly larger.

This conversation was edited for length. You can read the full PDF of this discussion here.

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