Magazine | August 1, 2016, Issue

Clinton in Purgatory

She leads a coalition that loves her little.

Hillary Clinton is the standard-bearer of a party coalition explicitly constructed to deny her access to the office she now seeks as its leader. She has become the face of the very amalgamation of groups that eight years ago handed her the worst defeat of her career. At the same time, a significant portion of her former support has forsaken her party and turned against her personally with bristling hostility. What are we to make of this peculiar arrangement, and how will it shape Clinton’s agenda should she attain the White House?

For much of the last century, the white working class was the Democratic party’s base, a force to be reckoned with in any contested Democratic primary. Republicans golfed; Democrats bowled. George W. Bush’s administration shifted the party coalitions somewhat, pulling many blue-collar churchgoers into the GOP while pushing away some socially moderate northern suburbanites. Labor unions have weakened steadily since their apex a half century ago. Nonetheless, when Clinton faced off against Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries, blue-collar whites were most likely the largest section of the Democratic primary electorate.

That year, the Democrats divided neatly on both foreign and domestic policy, on the Iraq War and illegal immigration. Obama was a dove on Iraq and sided with New York governor Eliot Spitzer’s decision the previous year to grant illegal immigrants access to driver’s licenses. Clinton fumbled the license question badly in a debate, but came to robustly oppose Spitzer’s policy as a point of distinction with Obama, whom she did her best to portray as too reflexively dovish abroad and too permissive at home.

Both candidates crafted their primary coalitions with this divide in mind. Clinton built her campaign on an alliance of working-class white voters and moderate suburbanites favorably disposed toward her husband’s tenure in office. Facing a steep uphill climb in the primaries, Obama crafted an alliance between the ideological Left and minority voters. The former won him Iowa; the latter, South Carolina. Thanks to some timely and significant missteps by Clinton, Obama was able to ride this coalition — the “rising electorate” — to victory in the primaries. With the housing market in freefall come November, and two wars grinding on, the general election was never really a contest.

Surprising as it may seem in retrospect, Clinton’s positions were much more within the Democratic mainstream than Obama’s. Fully 29 out of 50 Democratic senators voted in favor of the Iraq War. The bulk of the Democratic Senate caucus, including both Clinton and Obama, supported comprehensive immigration reform in June 2007, but most Democrats reacted to Spitzer’s actions with considerable suspicion, and in many cases with downright hostility. Even in blue New York, it was one of the least popular decisions Spitzer took as governor that didn’t involve the Mann Act.

So Clinton’s coalition should have put her over the hump and secured her the nomination. Her alliance of white-collar centrists and blue-collar whites voted reliably and was well distributed geographically. The nomination was Clinton’s to lose. It took diligent incompetence on her part to do so; yet lose Clinton did.

Obama’s primary victory thus had significant implications for the Democratic coalition once he reached the Oval Office. His policy priorities have been those of his primary supporters, priorities that have in some instances come directly at the expense of Clinton’s blue-collar backers. Five policy areas in particular have distanced the Obama administration from working-class whites: gay rights, free trade, illegal immigration, environmentalism, and Obamacare.

Obama’s gay-rights agenda, initially an afterthought, quickly became a politically expedient means of endearing him to white-collar social liberals underwhelmed by his economic and foreign-policy track record. By contrast, working-class whites, including the unchurched, have looked on these efforts with indifference at best. On free trade and illegal immigration — both incorrectly blamed for wage stagnation by many working-class whites — Obama is indistinguishable from his Republican predecessor. On gay rights and trade, Clinton and Obama largely agree.

But on illegal immigration, Obamacare, and environmentalism, genuine differences between Clinton and Obama existed in 2008, and her primary coalition would have pushed her in a strongly divergent direction from his had she won. Clinton lacks Obama’s grand appetite for policy change, and a Clinton presidency looking to working-class whites for political support would have run as fast as possible away from Obama’s amnesty edicts. Similarly, as Thomas Edsall has pointed out in the New York Times, the political calculus behind Obamacare cut directly against Clinton’s blue-collar supporters: In the face of wage stagnation, the comparatively “benefit rich” white working class reacted with predictable hostility to a health-care scheme that disrupted the provision of a basic good. That the scheme caused disruption with no immediate payout in return only enhanced this sense of grievance. And finally, while Obama’s kowtowing to Tom Steyer and other anti–Keystone XL fundamentalists might seem positively Clintonian in its unabashed enthusiasm for campaign contributions, it is not. If the Clintons have shown a strength at anything, it has been at raising lots of money from a wide array of sources. The radical greens are a narrow, affluent constituency with zero opportunity for support among conservatives; recognizing this, Clinton would hardly have allowed them to keep her from promoting a wildly popular infrastructure project.

Because Clinton lost in 2008, Obama has been able to remake the Democratic party in the image of his primary coalition. To the white working class, his administration has seemed fixated on parochial social issues, overly permissive of “job-killing” immigration and trade policies, openly hostile to the hydrocarbon industry, and reckless with the health and future well-being of a population that has not seen its income grow in two decades.

The political costs, for the Democrats, of this coalitional change have been obvious. Obama has stood by, seeming almost blasé at times, as his party’s conferences in the Congress have been painfully culled. Democrats are arguably at their weakest at the state-government level since the end of the Civil War. Democrats have an Obama coalition, yes. But without the white working class, do they have a Democratic party in any meaningful sense? It is inconceivable that Clinton would have overseen such a political slaughter with the same indifference as Obama has.

To the Left, this is the best argument against Clinton: She is unwilling to pay the political price required to make real change. That is the subtext of Bernie Sanders’s jeremiad in favor of a “political revolution.” And with the white working class now largely expelled from the Democratic primary electorate, the ideological Left has not been this powerful relative to other factions within the party for almost a century. Clinton was saved only because minority voters, with a more sophisticated appreciation of the virtues of incrementalism than the ideologues backing Sanders, came home to Clinton.

It is ironic that Clinton has inherited this new Democratic coalition — that she is now the symbol of a version of the Democratic party she tried to strangle in its crib. They, candidate and party, need each other. Yet there is little love lost between jockey and racehorse. In respect of this mutual disdain, at least, she differs little from Trump.

And as for the blue-collar whites left behind by the Democratic party? Hell hath no such fury. They view the Democrats with all the affection and warmth of an ardent apostate. West Virginians exemplify this shift. Bill Clinton carried West Virginia twice. Democrats continue to enjoy a 16-percentage-point party-registration advantage statewide. In 2008, Clinton won West Virginia by a whopping 41-point margin over Obama. Indeed, it was in the heat of the West Virginia primary that she infamously warned that Obama’s support was slipping among “hard-working Americans, white Americans.”

In the general election, West Virginia chose John McCain over Obama by more than 13 points. Four years later, the state went for Mitt Romney by nearly 27 points. It is now one of only two red states in which Trump consistently polls better than Romney’s 2012 general-election vote share. This staggering swing played out again in this year’s Democratic primary. Clinton lost West Virginia to a mathematically eliminated Sanders by 15.6 points. If not strictly unprecedented, this sort of tectonic shift in candidate allegiance is rare. A reliable blue-collar establishment state, indelibly shaped by New Deal liberalism, overwhelmingly threw in its lot with an insurgent socialist with no realistic prospect of victory rather than back the party’s presumptive nominee.

Thus, Clinton’s camp faces a choice: once in the White House, use policy to bring blue-collar whites back into the Democratic fold — or give them up as lost. Those in Democratic circles opposed to reconciliation have a few powerful arguments in their favor: Contrary to much conventional wisdom on the right, Obama did not lose considerable chunks of the white vote vis-à-vis his Democratic predecessors. True, his 39 percent vote among whites was slightly on the low end; but he compensated for losses in the white working class with gains among young whites and white college-educated professionals. Moreover, many blue-collar white Democrats had already been voting Republican in presidential elections for several cycles.

Clinton may have signaled her disposition on the matter in March when, taking a stage in Ohio, she declared that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” A far cry from “hard-working Americans, white Americans,” Clinton’s statement doubtless contributed to the hostile reception she received in Appalachia. With it, she ratified the Obama administration’s war on the hydrocarbon industry and seemingly put herself on the side of a bourgeois, technocratic vision of liberalism better suited to San Francisco than to the Mountain State.

Yet Clinton is not Obama. Because she cannot trust the affections of Obama’s coalition, she will need to broaden her base in order to defend her party in Congress and secure her prospects for reelection. Her technocratic stylings may appeal to suburban moderates, but these voters will look dimly on her ethical problems and tendency to exacerbate rather than ameliorate polarization. Whereas Obama has persuaded many quarters that blame for Washington dysfunction rests with congressional Republicans, Clinton is flypaper for controversy. She cannot count on the indulgence of middle-class types; she will likely see her popularity slip very shortly after she is inaugurated.

Clinton may be the personality least well suited to handle such a slip. Plumbing the depths of individual psychology usually detracts from political analysis, but it cannot be avoided entirely when it comes to the personalized, brand-heavy, and awesomely powerful presidency we have today. Much as we might wish otherwise, the office is now more than ever an extension of the person holding it. Presidents less and less grow into the Oval Office; today, the Oval Office conforms to their vices.

Clinton’s personality has two conflicting yet conspicuous elements that are relevant to politics. On one hand, she can be paranoid, a tendency accentuated by her bevy of court parasites. She sees enemies in dark corners and tends to ascribe adverse events to malice aforethought. On the other hand, her ideological promiscuity is so pronounced as to be almost admirable. The mind searches in vain for an issue on which she seems impervious to change.

To stave off political headwinds, she will need to simultaneously reinforce her base and broaden her appeal with precisely the working-class whites she has managed to alienate so thoroughly. She will look for a deal that does both. Unlike Obama on health-care exchanges, she will not look to the Republicans. She distrusts them in her very bones, will suspect that their ideas are laden with poison pills, and, having just vanquished them at the ballot box, will despise them. Her aides will reinforce these views, and so she will look to her own coalition’s ideas in search of a mast to which she can affix her colors.

Two realistic answers will present themselves: infrastructure spending and an increased minimum wage. The 2009 stimulus ran aground precisely because the federal government makes it hard for itself to build anything — so she will probably see the “Fight for 15” as the best chance to pull together the Left, her dogged minority supporters, and the vestigial tail of the white working class.

In 2014, non-college whites voted for the GOP by 64 percent to 34 percent. Yet these same voters overwhelmingly supported ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. She can deploy her husband’s considerable retail political skill to sell the issue. The former president has always been more comfortable talking pocketbook issues than he has been tiptoeing around the combustible lines of identity politics. While the minimum wage didn’t bolster Democratic legislators, perhaps this time will be different. (Never mind the disastrous economic side effects of the policy.)

Finally, Clinton finds herself in a truly unprecedented position in terms of the Democratic party’s self-understanding. For the first time, a political party self-consciously on the left of the ideological spectrum will have nothing to do with the conditions, aspirations, and struggles of what was once quaintly called the proletariat. Yes, working-class people will remain a considerable part of the Democratic coalition, but chiefly via the service industry or as employees of the state. The central engine of Marx’s historical materialism — the struggle between labor and capital for control of the means of production — will happen almost entirely outside the ranks of, and policy priorities championed by, her party.

Arguably, Obama has been in the same position since his first election and the mass defection of blue-collar workers described above. But Obama’s theory of history is anchored by a notion of historical redemption that Clinton does not share. For Obama, the arc of the moral universe bends inexorably if unevenly toward justice as the sins of our collective past are brought forward, acknowledged, and atoned for in one manner or another. Marginalized groups come “out of the shadows.” We have one “national conversation” after the next — typically about our need to have a national conversation rather than about the subject of that conversation itself. For Obama, if not for his coalition, politics is about recognition first and redistribution second.

For all her rhetoric about shattering a glass ceiling, Clinton is not driven by the same sense of historical mission as her predecessor is. Indeed, it is unclear that she gives a damn about elevated notions of “history” at all — one of the very few things that recommend her. Yet if not for the working man, what becomes of the Democratic party? The ideological Left has long since abandoned the class struggle as a major part of its psyche, preferring to fight battles over culture and identity politics instead. Those blocs that cling to the old teleology of labor and capital despise Clinton utterly. She returns the favor.

Can a cartel party exist in full and unflinching knowledge of itself as merely a distributive coalition of convenience? Can Clinton give them something to believe in other than checks every month? One suspects, given her insularity and severely limited political skills, that the answer is “no.” In this sense, and this sense alone, the Democratic coalition will come to fully mirror its unloved leader: They will be held together largely by acquisitive purpose and externally directed loathing.

Loveless marriages can limp on for a long time and, outside the ideological Left, Democrats have a limited appetite for rebellion. Nonetheless, the foundations of the Democrats’ coalition are easily as feeble as those of the Republicans’. At least Republicans will have sufficient company in this dismal age.

– Mr. Thompson is a partner at the Applecart political consultancy.

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