Constructive and Not At All Condescending Criticism for Progressive Men

Hey, guys! It seems like you need a completely unqualified person to audit a cherry-picked selection of your actions, disparaging your competence and making uncharitable assumptions about your motivations. And you have a Hillary Clinton problem. So I’m here to help. For liberalism and stuff.

I mean, I wouldn’t use the word hero, but it’s not an unreasonable assessment.

This isn’t about, say, the Intercept writers, who may be comfortable in leftist social circles but whose primary political orientation appears to be anti-Clinton. This is about people who clearly know better, like the great Robert Reich, offering half-baked hot takes.

Vilifying Trump and creating a broad bipartisan coalition against him are entirely justified. Trump is indeed a menace.
It’s also a winning strategy if Hillary Clinton’s only goal is to get elected president.
But a singular focus on Trump poses two big risks for what happens after she wins.
First, it reduces her presidential coattails that might otherwise help Democratic candidates now running for the Senate and House. Portraying Trump as an aberration from normal Republicanism gives their Republican opponents a free pass. All they have to do is distance themselves from him……
Focusing on Trump’s character flaws instead of the flawed Republican agenda is appropriate — up to a point. Donald Trump is dangerous. And, yes, the first priority must be to stop him.
But that shouldn’t be the only priority.

What it lacks in realism, it makes up for in condescension.

This is not to argue with the substantive point that Trump is the creation of the party which nominated him. The problem is that Reich imagines the election as a conversation between himself and a candidate who should be satisfying him, rather than a conversation between a candidate and a lot of voters, a majority of whom need to be met where they are.

Voters are not blank slates. The past few months’ differentiation between Trump and other Republicans may not have been satisfying for us who hold the GOP in justified contempt. But the thing is, a lot of voters don’t think of Republicans as “elected GOP officials and Fox News anchors.” They think of themselves as Republicans. And sure, implicating rank-and-file Republican voters in the rise of Trump is fair and feels good. But we’re not talking about mature, rational decision-makers here. We’re talking about the people who inflicted the sociopathic Freedom Caucus on us in the first place.

In context, this argument requires the assumption that if Hillary Clinton, of all people, had helpfully informed them of their culpability in creating this monster, the scales would fall from their eyes, leading them to forget all else but hunger for redemption. Maybe she’s not doing it because she has met people. Rubbing the harsh truth in someone’s face right out of the gate is a great way to get them to double down. Leaving a grace period lets people come around on their own terms, or at least lets them demoralize themselves enough to stay home. Moderate Republican voters who would be open to hearing the truth from the Clinton campaign can, and did, get there on their own.

Moreover, let’s acknowledge that there would be valid concerns if she were running a campaign that strapped him to the GOP right out of the gate. That would run a very real risk of normalizing Trump rather than treating him like the existential threat he is, and about how she’s risking the presidency by encouraging Republican solidarity and passing up the low-hanging fruit of moderate Republicans who can be picked up merely by telling the truth about Trump. This isn’t a term paper, it’s a campaign.

And to think that Clinton’s “only priority” is to get elected is to completely disregard the substance of this campaign. A dogmatically liberal campaign like Clinton is running is something that we usually understand presidential candidates can’t afford to do. But from her, ideological consistency is discounted on account of not being rhetorical purity. That’s not the explicit sexism we’re seeing from the GOP, so, good job I guess? But it is still congruent with sexist expectations that are one step underneath conscious thought. Deciding that uncompromising purity is important in a woman when it hasn’t been important for similarly situated men is not, like, mind-blowingly innovative strategic insight. It is, however, a necessarily innovative way to condemn her for seeking power. How dare this presidential candidate try to get votes?! She should be martyring herself on principle at every opportunity!

I know, I know, nobody means it that way. It’s about Congress, which clearly Hillary Clinton hasn’t considered. Or perhaps congressional races are being run by congressional candidates who get to make their own tactical decisions and a Democrat who’s too incompetent to hang Trump around their opponent’s neck is probably a lost cause anyway.

You know that scene that’s in the middle of every Law and Order episode where the cop takes a bunch of pot shots at the DA for “cutting a DEAL!” with some guy who “deserves to FRY!”? That’s what’s happening with this. Maximum vengeance against all wrongdoers sounds great, if you’re someone who doesn’t have to put in the time or underwrite the risk.

I actually caught this one on All In with Chris Hayes, because I mostly like All In. Hayes — bless his heart — seems to have an issue projecting his own conscientious approach and good intentions onto people who profess to be criticizing HRC from the left, even when they’re critiquing some mythical politician who isn’t HRC from a perspective which is questionably progressive. Last week, though, he gave away why he’s susceptible:

If President Obama had unilaterally decided to undermine the Clinton campaign’s strategy while out campaigning for her, it would be more troubling than interesting. The president trying to jump in and exert control over a strategic decision that is his preferred successor’s prerogative to make would be a pretty blunt play for authority. And, frankly, it’s not something you’d take in stride as being merely interesting, if you weren’t already intuitively comfortable with the assumption that Clinton is not the person with ultimate authority over the Clinton campaign’s message. Fortunately, this was several days after the Clinton campaign had made the same shift. So this comment from Hayes is…..giving a man credit for something a woman said first.

Brian Beutler at TNR just did Hayes one better. Wednesday, he implored Clinton to follow Obama’s example in tying Republicans to Trump, directly quoting the president emphatically claiming that Trump is launching an unprecedented assault on public confidence in the electoral system.

“[W]e recognize that there is something more important than any individual campaign,” Obama said, “and that is making sure that the integrity and trust in our institutions sustains itself. Because democracy, by definition, works by consent, not by force. I have never seen in my lifetime or in modern political history any presidential candidate trying to discredit the elections and the election process before votes have even taken place. It’s unprecedented.

Here was the current president of the United States offering the other party’s presidential nominee a basic civics lesson about the peaceful transition of power, as a way of beseeching him not to vandalize American democracy. ….

This is a particularly low moment in a campaign that Trump debased long ago, but it also presents Obama and his presumptive heir, Hillary Clinton, an opportunity to flesh out their closing argument ahead of election day: that as bad as Trump is, he is a creation of and standard-bearer for the rest of the Republican Party.

Obama already took advantage of that opportunity earlier this week. When will Clinton do the same?

Yes, when will she do that? Well, according to Beutler, last Wednesday.

The problem is not the substance of Beutler’s argument. I’ve laid out the costs to this strategy, but it also has benefits, and there’s a good argument that tacking in that direction now will maximize those benefits. (Personally, my disagreement is that the focus on 2016 is thinking small. The real value of it is that Trump has discredited and contaminated a lot of Republican rhetoric, and we should prepare to stay on it for the foreseeable future.) The issue is the underlying assumption that Clinton is so lacking in authority and intelligence that you can credibly scold her like this without even having to make sense.

Even if President Obama said what Beutler wants him to have said, instead of the opposite of that, the assumption that she needs to follow him in that direction assumes that the Clinton campaign isn’t bothering to use basic campaign tactics. A campaign is not a trial. The candidate herself does not have to enter things into evidence to get them into the conversation. Surrogates — and when Obama comments on the election, he is one — are valuable in part because they can take direct swings while allowing the candidate to strike a conciliatory pose. Those of us not on the campaign don’t know what is happening when Obama leans hard on something that Clinton herself handles delicately. But we can figure out what explanation is more likely: a) that Obama has decided to publicly undermine the clearly horrendous strategy of the person he has entrusted with his foreign policy, his legacy, and the actual fate of the world, or b) that Clinton and Obama are competent professionals making effective use of a common campaign tactic? If you present no other evidence, and you assume that Clinton and Obama have a basic level of competence and professionalism, the second scenario is vastly more likely than the first.

As Charlie Pierce articulated when praising its savviness on the part of President Obama, taking a tactful approach to voters also has tactical merit in handling GOP leaders. Oddly, Pierce has also complained about Clinton’s willingness to isolate Trump from Republicans. Something (gosh, I wonder what?) about HRC seems to fry his circuits.

On Monday, there was a fascinating piece in Tiger Beat On The Potomac in which some unnamed people in the campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton whispered to a reporter that the campaign was sending out feelers to what the story laughingly referred to as the foreign-policy “elders” of the Republican Party. The list of foreign policy “elders,” according to TBOTP’s sources, included the following examples of the Republican Undead:
Henry Kissinger: war criminal and abettor of abattoirs around the world…..
If Hillary Clinton actively seeks, or publicly accepts, the endorsement of Henry Kissinger, I will vote for Gary Johnson and Bill Weld on November 8.

The threat to vote Libertarian is considered criticism “from the left.” That is a contradiction in terms. While the depths of Johnson’s stupidity had not been exposed at the time of this article, his radical Koch brothers-style approach to economics has been public knowledge for years. The bigger problem is his mischaracterization of the Politico article:

As Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign reaches out to Republicans alarmed by Donald Trump’s national security blunders, there’s a group of high-profile GOP hold-outs whose endorsement would be a major coup if the Democrat could win them over.
Condoleezza Rice, James Baker, George Shultz and Henry Kissinger are among a handful of so-called Republican “elders” with foreign policy and national security experience — people who have held Cabinet-level or otherwise high-ranking positions in past administrations — who have yet to come out for or against Trump.
A person close to Clinton said her team has sent out feelers to the GOP elders, although it wasn’t clear if those efforts were preliminary or more formal requests for endorsement, or if they were undertaken through intermediaries. Clinton campaign aides did not respond when asked if they had solicited endorsements or tried to persuade the elders to speak out against Trump.

Basically, Politico reports that she could have asked for Kissinger’s endorsement, while Pierce implies that she actually did. (She didn’t.)That’s an awful lot of self-righteous dudgeon about conjecture that doesn’t even amount to Trump’s “many people are saying” weasel words. (“One anonymous source isn’t not saying….”) Certainly there’s an article to be written about how frightening it is that Hannibal Kissinger might be a useful endorsement for the many Americans who are reluctant to see even Democratic men as CIC material. That article does not need to be a freak-out about how HRC is personally a horrible person if her campaign spoke to someone, which it didn’t. “Here’s a list of some members of a group of people the campaign reached out to, and here’s another person who’s in that group who’s not on the list, which raises questions” was all Pierce needed to decide she’s practically a war criminal in waiting. You only fall for that if you want to fall for it.

It’s unfair to single out Pierce on this, since he’s not the only one that ran with Politico’s innuendo. But he is the only one I’ve seen claim that Clinton will be “distressingly vulnerable” to overtures from the people who rewrote First Amendment jurisprudence to savage her. Women! So conciliatory and tender-hearted, when they’re not busy being rabid warmongers. Or something.

Pierce isn’t some closet Clinton-hating conservative. He’s doing a real service in educating readers on the history and workings of the Clinton scandal industrial complex. But he, like many others, seems unwarrantedly confident that his instinctive response to her has nothing at all to do with him.

That gets at the point of these Clinton “scandals”: they aren’t made with the expectation of convincing a majority of people about the wackiest claims. Propaganda works a lot like the way we usually think about the Overton window. The right throws the crazy stuff out there, so debunking the most off-the-wall allegations is the liberal position. This defines the conversation around ostensibly reasonable criticisms, even if we should find them objectionable in general rather than accepting their premises while arguing for what the right casts as relative leniency, which in turn defines HRC’s public image by the fact that everyone condemns her somehow. So, for example, we dismiss the Benghazi hearings as partisan theater, but bend over backward to condemn the email server and insist she apologize at least one more time for holding herself to a significantly higher standard than her predecessors instead of an exponentially higher standard than her predecessors. And then somehow that becomes the way to prove your credentials as a critic from the left, even when it’s ideologically nonsensical. Liberal values include opposing witch hunts, supporting philanthropy, condemning double standards, and respecting women’s medical privacy on principle, even if you’re not talking about the only person standing between a deranged authoritarian and the Oval Office.

Moreover, the scandalmongering sticks to her in a way that it didn’t stick even to Bill, because it doesn’t have to create a visceral negative response in people, so much as give an ego-shielding cover for suspicions and hostility they already had. It lets you tell yourself, it’s not because she’s a woman. I don’t think this about all women. I just meant this woman. Everybody knows she deserves it.

All of this leads to an environment where even ostensible support for HRC is breathtakingly dismissive, where the best thing folks can think to do is just negate her entirely.

It’s hard to think of another American politician who has had so many makeovers. [ed: mmm-hmm]…..
The trouble with Clinton is not so much her congenital “moderation.” It’s that she is the Silly Putty of American politics: malleable and shapeless, taking on the imprint of whoever presses hard enough against her.

Ah, yes, she cares consistently about nothing. Despite literally decades of evidence to the contrary.

At first blush this looks like run-of-the-mill implicit sexism. Heer pretends to put a positive spin on the trope that ambitious women are cold and hollow, devaluing her work in the process. (He also discusses the need to “keep her in line” and implies that her choice to make her marriage work despite her husband’s infidelity somehow negated her feminism.) And if you think about it, that’s really useful from a writer in a liberal publication, because conservative media is so overt in its outreach to people with visceral contempt for women, and people need some role models to show them some ideological diversity on that score.

But what’s really ugly about this assertion is the substantive nature of the work that Heer presumes is irrelevant. Like many politicians (and, frankly, most adults), Hillary is flexible on some things but works hard to maintain her commitment to what’s most important to her. But a lot of Democratic commentators seem either unwilling or unable to see her commitment or to acknowledge the importance of those she prioritizes. Bluntly, Heer’s argument only makes sense if you believe that women and children don’t count.

This is someone who clearly knows better. Heer’s writing about the overt monstrosity of right-wing sexism is thoughtful and clear-eyed. But that’s not the only problem. At this point, it’s probably not even the biggest problem. The real worry is that lizard-brain suspicion that manifests itself in “concerns” about “likeability” and “trustworthiness.” Realistically, that’s the only thing that can do us in. The ideological misogynists are already in the unwinnable minority of deplorables. The debates are over. Any black swan event would result in Trump reminding everyone how manifestly incapable he is of dealing with challenges. There’s no logical reason for this election to go wrong. There’s only the illogic of unconscious bias.

The point here is that the Republican party isn’t the only one that needs to do a little bit of soul-searching. They built Trump and so they have a moral imperative we don’t. But over on our side, yeah, there needs to be a conversation. Most of it can and should wait until November 9th. But unfortunately, the issue itself can’t. It affects the election when influential progressives are all too ready to take the attitude that “sure, I know she’s better than an off-brand Mussolini, BUT…..” because they reflexively ignore her words, diminish her experience, and question her competence. All that does is feed the concern trolls who love nothing more than dampening enthusiasm for HRC by crowing about low enthusiasm for HRC, which forces the Clinton campaign to waste time on our feelings. It affects the election when folks pick through stolen correspondence to build up a narrative that borders on useful idiocy for the right-wing propagandists at the Kremlin and Citizens United, or whatever the fuck is trending by the time this goes up.

Guys. We don’t have time to screw around like this. We have less than three weeks to head off absolute catastrophe. For three weeks, you’re going to have to be minimally conscious of the fact that if you are a person socialized to American culture, gross subconscious assumptions about powerful women are a problem for you. You’re going to need to think about that before you speak. If it’s not uncomfortable, you’re doing it wrong. Seventeen days. Suck it up.