The early days of American political campaigns are always marked by a certain pantomime absurdity, but one could be forgiven nevertheless for wondering whether Hillary Clinton’s confused, staccato launch has been especially daffy. For an event that has been at least six years in the making, last Sunday’s confirmation was unusually schizophrenic and almost entirely inchoate. In the morning, we were told that Clinton would be demonstrating her tech savvy by announcing with a video and a tweet. Instead, we got an insipid e-mail from an aide. In the evening, we were informed that Clinton would be driving across the country on a “spontaneous” meet-and greet tour. In fact, this idea turned out to be a reprise of a stunt pulled during her 2000 campaign for the Senate. Clinton, we were assured, would be using her trip to engage with “everyday” people. Instead, she alternated between contriving photo opportunities with members of her constituency, and steadfastly ignoring everyone else. In the meantime, her loyalists revealed that they were unsure as to whether or not she was an officially declared aspirant. Brought onto Fox News to discuss the announcement, longtime Clinton consigliere Lanny Davis inexplicably suggested to Megyn Kelly that Clinton hadn’t actually launched her candidacy at all. Those who have been surprised that serious journalists have been reduced to reporting on Clinton’s preferred type of tea shouldn’t be: Aesthetically, her overture has been a mess.
These trivial missteps are interesting, certainly. It is always diverting to poke fun at the arrogant. But what has been infinitely more fascinating is just how off-kilter Clinton’s substance has been, too. Love them or hate them, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul all came out of the gate with a clear and distinct pitch. Thus far, by contrast, Hillary has not said anything coherent at all. Rather, she has submitted variously (a) that the leadership that her party has provided for the United States in the last decade has failed to bring about the change that America needs; (b) that rich, well-connected, politically powerful figures such as herself are what is primarily wrong with the country; and (c) that while she is in the race there will be no platitude that is too banal to share. In so doing, she has set herself up for some obvious and potent criticisms. We are talking here, remember, about a woman who has become a critic of income inequality despite being a prime example of that overhyped problem herself; who has glommed onto the cause of campaign-finance reform while planning the best-funded campaign in American history; and who has argued that the game is “rigged” despite being a staunch advocate of precisely the sort of government-led corporatism that ossifies economies and traps people in their places.
As someone who opposes a potential Clinton presidency, I can only hope that Hillary’s likely opponents have noticed that, far from radiating confidence, the Democrats’ inevitable candidate has begun her bid by dancing a delicate dance. Each and every election, a great deal of ink is spilled explaining the grave difficulty that Republican candidates tend to have in reconciling their primary and their general-election campaigns. In order to win the nomination, the conventional wisdom has it, the GOP’s hopefuls need to tack right; having got the nod, however, they are obliged to disavow their prior severity and move back to the center. This is a fair critique, and a real problem for conservativism. As a rule, though, less attention is paid to this same dynamic on the Left, and, this time around at least, that might be a mistake. Indeed, if the last few days are anything to go by, we seem now to be witnessing the beginning of a strange — perhaps unique — shadow primary, in which Clinton is attempting to maneuver not around the American public, but around an array of invisible but potent progressive opponents. Sure, it is unlikely that an Elizabeth Warren, a Martin O’Malley, or a Bernie Sanders will successfully topple Hillary from her perch as the anointed one. But, with the vast majority of Democrats hoping earnestly for a challenger of some sort, they can certainly do her some real damage. Clinton appears to know this, and she appears to be reacting to it.
This, I think, represents a double-edged sword. By taking on the priorities of the Democratic base, Hillary is sending important signals to her dissidents. But she is also fighting on deeply uncomfortable terrain, and playing with a host of themes that could well come back to haunt her. It has been noted acerbically in recent days that it is possible to be both a wealthy patrician and a beloved champion of the working class. Indeed, history shows that both Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt were just that. But there are some subtle differences between Roosevelt and Clinton — differences that those who make glib comparisons often assiduously ignore. It is one thing to lament that “the deck is stacked in favor of those already at the top” when one got to the top by virtue of one’s birth, but it is quite another to do so when one was born into no great wealth and now enjoys tens, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars. The former acknowledgement is music to the ears of the dispirited aspirational class, a good chunk of which is now wondering why it hasn’t made it. The latter, by contrast, looks downright peculiar. “I made it from modest beginnings,” Hillary seems to be saying. “But you can’t.” Certainly, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took sharp shots at the “malefactors of great wealth.” But he did so as an inheritor, not a producer. That matters.
Tuesday afternoon, during a stop in Iowa, Clinton griped aloud that “there’s something wrong when CEOs make 300 times more than the American worker.” Presumably, many American workers would agree. Again, though, this criticism rings a touch hollow when made by a woman who has recently been making $300,000 per speech peddling little more than political influence, and who was paid $14 million to write a book in which nobody was remotely interested. Paul Begala may be an unconscionable hack, but he is onto something real when he confirms that the greatest gift the Democratic party had in 2012 was Mitt Romney’s ostensibly plutocratic mien. Say what she will, Hillary is going to have an “elitist” problem — especially if she goes up against a candidate of modest means such as Scott Walker or Marco Rubio. Is there anybody in the race, one wonders, who is less suited to complaining about pay?
Equally odd is that Clinton has picked up the mantle of campaign-finance reform. “We need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all,” Clinton told students yesterday. “Even if it takes a constitutional amendment.” Taken at face value, this is a fairly standard remark — and one that we have become accustomed to hearing from Democrats in the last half-decade. Since 2010, “Citizens United” has become a veritable obsession on the left. Much as to say “Benghazi” to a conservative is to hit harshly at his knee, so to utter the words “corporation” and “Supreme Court” in the same sentence is to induce involuntary conniptions in the progressive nervous system. In their reflexive frenzy, however, most critics of the Court’s decision forget (or ignore) what the case was actually about. Contrary to the common belief, Citizens United neither invented the legal notion of “corporate personhood” (that goes back almost two centuries), nor granted the right of free expression to corporate entities for the first time (this happened during the Second World War). Rather, it confirmed in general that the federal government was prohibited from limiting the political speech of corporations, associations, unions, and other collective entities; and it determined specifically that the First Amendment protected the speech rights of a group of conservative Americans who wished to pool their resources and to put out a video that was critical of a presidential candidate.
That presidential candidate? Hillary Clinton.
“Does anyone doubt,” Glenn Greenwald asked over at Salon in 2010, “that the facts that gave rise to this case — namely the government’s banning the release of a critical film about Hillary Clinton by Citizens United — is exactly what the First Amendment was designed to avoid? And does anyone doubt that the First Amendment bars the government from restricting the speech of organizations composed of like-minded citizens who band together in corporate form to work for a particular cause?” Alas, it is clear that many do indeed doubt these things. Or, at least, that they are prepared to undermine those crucial protections in the name of hobbling their opponents’ power. In and of itself, such a view is unseemly and myopic — the constitutional questions aside, it is an act of breathtaking illiberalism to propose that the state should decide which political organizations are to be permitted to speak around election time and which are not. But that Hillary Clinton is among the people advancing this view is nothing short of extraordinary. Clinton is one of the most powerful people in the world. As we have seen this very week, she is able to get her message out wherever and whenever she wishes — often at no cost, and via a media whose speech rights her proposed constitutional alteration would leave in tact. (We are currently living in a country in which “Hillary Clinton Orders a Burrito” is headline news.) That she would seek to undermine the capacity of less powerful Americans to band together and respond to her dominance — thereby implicitly endorsing a law that, but for the Court, would have had the practical effect of silencing her opponents — should tell us a great deal about the woman. Perhaps she will lobby for the return of seditious libel, too?Or maybe not, for in truth Clinton probably does not care a great deal about either money in politics or about CEO pay. It is possible — nay, probable — that Hillary leans farther to the left than does her husband. But whatever differences exist between them, neither of the Clintons is a wild-eyed radical. Rather, they are electable, poll-driven moderates who are cozy with Wall Street, friendly with the wealthy, and entirely comfortable with corporate America and its supposed excesses. If Hillary’s early days have been marked by Warren-esque populism, it is not because she believes that it will be an electoral winner, or because she lies awake at night worrying about social justice, or even because she hopes that it will help her fight back against the many “out of touch” epithets that her potential opponents are at present fermenting. Rather, it is because political expediency demands cynicism, and Hillary Clinton is a cynic.
If played smartly that cynicism will provide her critics with a golden opportunity. To placate Elizabeth Warren is to sound like Elizabeth Warren. To indulge Bernie Sanders is to channel Bernie Sanders. To win the hearts of Netroots Nation is to speak the words that their seduction demands. The gap between Hillary Clinton the General Election Candidate and Hillary Clinton the Panderer is enormous and it is pronounced. Conservatives should ensure that the voters are watching as she wanders nervously into the middle of it.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.