Hillary and Liberals: Here’s the Deal

You don’t have to say you love her, because the election isn’t even directly about her. It’s about finally undoing the Reagan revolution.

05.02.15 4:01 AM ET

In the last few days, I’ve heard from a couple of relatives who have, or know of friends who have, come down with a case of Hillary Anxiety. Having covered Clinton’s 2000 Senate race closely and spoken at the time with many New York women among whom the malady was first diagnosed, I know the symptoms well.

They like her, generally speaking, and admire her (I should note that Hillary Anxiety is not limited to women by any means, although it is perhaps more sharply felt by them than by men). They want to see her succeed. They yearn for her to slay the beasts of sexism and gender-role definitions that she has taken it upon herself to battle. Hillary Anxiety, in these respects, is very different from Hillary Distrust or Contempt, which is the more commonly found inflammation among journalists and others inside the Beltway. The Hillary-Anxious are basically on her side.

But those symptoms: they’re queasy, these folks. The years of charges (valid or not) about corruption, the endless debates about how polarizing she is…it leaves some people feeling exhausted. Before the race has even started, really! Oh, Lord. I like Hillary and want her to be president, but am I really ready to slog through all this…crap again?

The anxiety is compounded in this case by the natural liberal inclination to want to fall in love, to become besotted. Yes, sure, conservatives want to love their nominees too; but liberals more so. Conservatives have a much more limited agenda; the main changes they really want are lower taxes and to be left alone. But liberals behold a nation and world that is wanting in a thousand ways, and they want their nominee to fix it all! That’s a prodigious faith to place in one person, and a faith that prodigious requires love. Liberals want to fall in love, like they did in 2008.

All this puts Clinton in a pickle. People aren’t going to love her like they loved Barack Obama. Actually, check that, in part: There are in fact millions of Americans who adore Clinton. I saw them in 2000, too; mothers at upstate county fairgrounds, waiting an hour on the rope line to introduce their daughters to Hillary. You don’t become America’s most admired woman in 17 of the last 20 years without lots of people loving you, but somehow this cohort doesn’t register much on the Washington radar screen.

So some—many—people do love Clinton, but it’s fair to say that this campaign is just not going to be like Obama’s. Obama was a fresh entity; no real baggage. There was nothing complicated or vexing about getting your heart behind Obama (provided you managed to rationalize away Jeremiah Wright and the verb “cling,” which most liberals did). But basically he was tabula rasa. With Hillary, though, there’s 20-plus years of history here that she, and in our own ways each of us, has to carry into the boxing ring.

So this isn’t about love. It’s about a deal between Clinton and liberals. It’s strictly business, and it’s about work. The work of maintaining Democratic control of the White House and keeping the loony right at bay for another four or eight years. The work of trying to move the country forward to a post-supply side economic paradigm. And, yeah, the work of electing our first woman president.

If you don’t love Hillary, let me offer you two things to love:

1. A liberal majority on the Supreme Court for the next 30, 40 years. You know that the next president may name three or four new justices. Two liberals, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, will likely retire soon. A Republican president would be able to expand the conservative majority to seven, replacing the two aforementioned with two more Alitos or Scalias. Sit with that.

President Clinton, on the other hand, will replace them with liberals and may replace Anthony Kennedy or Antonin Scalia, or both, with liberal justices (I’m not wishing illness on anyone here, just being actuarial about things). We haven’t had a liberal Supreme Court majority in this country in 35 years. Such a court would reverse loads of terrible Rehnquist-Roberts era decisions—it would restore voting rights, reverse school re-segregation, revisit the Second Amendment; at the same time it would uphold Roe, defend affirmative action, endorse workplace anti-discrimination policies for LGBT people, and on and on. And those are just the things the Court does that generate the big headlines. Corporate personhood; workers’ rights; campaign finance laws; campaign finance laws (right, I wrote that twice). If you are a liberal and these things aren’t awfully important to you, well, it’s hard to understand exactly what sort of liberal you are.

2. A coming civil war in the Republican Party, and the hope/prayer of a little moderation on its part. When a party loses two consecutive presidential elections, the losses can be chalked up to the appearance of a charismatic candidate and, then, the powers of his incumbency. But three; that’s when people have to start looking hard in the mirror. 

Certainly, there will be some in the GOP who’ll trot out the “we weren’t conservative enough” argument if their side loses. But say Clinton wins with somewhere between Obama’s 2008 total of 365 electoral votes and his 2012 performance of 332; say 347 (Obama’s ’12 map plus North Carolina). A party that has won 173, 206, and 191 electoral votes, respectively, in the last three elections is a party that’s simply never going to have a prayer of hitting 270 without some major changes.

For one thing this would be great fun to watch. If the party goes crazy(er), it could split in two. And if it decides to respond with sanity, there’s a great silver lining in that for Democrats and for the country: Tea Party power will wane, non-extreme Republicans won’t fear Club for Growth-financed primary challengers so much, and some of them will actually make compromises and legislate!

I could go on, but you get the idea. What I’m talking about here is not just a handful of policies. I’m talking about the bulk of the Reagan-Gingrich-Bush legacy. Obama could not undo it because he had to deal with the Great Recession. But eight more years of a Democratic presidency can do exactly that—undo it, across a whole range of fronts.

This and nothing else is the basis of the deal. This election isn’t about Clinton’s personality or vision or lack of it or anything else that’s directly about her. It’s about having the chance to undo what conservatism has wrought for two generations. I can assure you—smart conservatives understand these to be precisely the stakes, if the Democrats win two more straight presidential elections.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

This is not of course to say that people should bottle up all their reservations about Clinton and support her blindly. Some of the reasons for Hillary Anxiety are real—even though their enemies usually misfire, the Clintons do have a way of handing them round after round of ammunition.

And we should always have reservations. In fact, that’s one of the key things liberals ought to have learned from 2008: There are no saviors. There is just the hard trench warfare of politics fought within the confines of a system with checks and balances that an obstructionist minority can exploit to great effect. Under this system, victories, like the health care bill, count for a lot; but so too do losses staved off, like handing the top 1 percent still more massive tax relief while adding $2.4 trillion to the deficit, as a President Rubio would do. And they tell us he’s one of the reasonable ones.

To be a meaningful deal, though, a deal needs two sides, and Clinton has to hold up her end here as well. Simply put, she can’t blow it. The pressure not to blow it is heightened by the fact that she will apparently have no serious intra-party competition. If you’re the franchise player, you’d damn well better get your 30 in the championship game. This is why I wrote last week, apropos the foundation mess, that she and Bill had best clean it up and clean it up fast. I think she deserves liberals’ presumptive support with the minimum of media-induced anxiety. But she better not let us down.

Some early signs are encouraging. It can’t be said enough what an improvement John Podesta is as chief strategist over Mark Penn. Leaps and bounds, ideologically, strategically, ethically, you name it. It reflects well on her judgment that she made this change. And she deserves more credit than she seems to have been getting, in Washington liberal circles anyway, for this criminal justice speech. She called for an end to the era of mass incarceration. When is the last time a first-tier Democratic presidential candidate said that? Heck, her husband, working within the confines of the post-Reagan political landscape, helped to exacerbate that problem. If she is able to follow through on only that, what an incredible undoing of the post-backlash conservative legacy—and change for young black men in this country.

This is where we are right now in the United States—on the cusp of the end, finally and definitively, of the Age of Reagan. It is attained through seriousness of purpose and focus on the things that matter, on her part and ours. What’s love got to do with it?