How Hillary (and Bill) Clinton Lost Me

For years, my opinion of Hillary Clinton was neutral. I didn’t understand why people on the right despised her and Bill Clinton. I still don’t. I simply felt disappointment and, eventually, disconnection.

When Bill Clinton was elected president, I was 20 years old. I went to college by day, and worked two jobs, including a midnight to 8 AM graveyard shift at a supermarket.

I remember one night talking to the produce guy about the election. As he cleaned and stacked oranges he said, “Yeah, it’s gonna take him eight years to turn the country around.”

I knew what he was talking about. When I was growing up, my mom worked as a union charter bus driver, and in those years, Ronald Reagan (former union leader and New Deal Democrat) crushed the unions. This had a devastating impact on our lives.

We knew a lot of other people whose lives, like their wages, had stagnated. Heck, Bruce Springsteen was singing about it all the time—his song “Born in the USA” was a lamentation.

On my college campus, I remember listening to a woman who lived through the 60s tell me that Clinton’s election gave her hope for the first time since JFK, RFK, and MLK had been assassinated.

Like a lot of other people, I thought Bill Clinton’s election was going to bring back FDR-style shared prosperity for everyone.

After all, Clinton seemed to get it. He decried trickle-down economics. He said the way to improve an economy was from the middle class out. He seemed to legitimately “feel your pain.” As a master storyteller, Bill Clinton was (and still is) like a Hollywood movie: exceptionally good at telling you the truths you already know.

It’s now abundantly clear—both in the historical data and in the sentiments of people whose wages have continued to stagnate for decades—that despite some important gains, the Clinton administration was, both unwittingly and otherwise, part of a larger movement that the rest of the world called neoliberalism (a term that hasn’t come up much in your average American conversations about politics until recently).

How so? Like Barack Obama’s, Bill Clinton’s financial team (Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan, and Larry Summers) was simply carried over from the preceding Republican administration—and continued with business as usual, further decoupling the economy from the middle class. In Clinton’s case, the dotcom bubble mitigated some aspects of the economic fallout for some people (and even enriched some) and worsened it for others.

The ultimate coup of these financial geniuses was the obliteration of the law known as Glass-Steagall, which separated consumer banking and speculative banking, allowing banks to take the hard-earned deposits of regular people and gamble with them. While this deregulation wasn’t the only cause of the 2008 crash, it was an essential factor.

To his credit, Bill Clinton has since called the removal of Glass-Steagall a mistake that he regrets. That’s one reason why it’s strange that Hillary won’t back renewing the law—especially since the crash still casts a long shadow over the economic lives of the vast majority of Americans.

From “sometimes disagree” to “strongly disagree”

For years, my opinion of Hillary Clinton was neutral. I didn’t understand why people on the right despised her and Bill Clinton. I still don’t. I simply felt disappointment and, eventually, disconnection.

But before I say anything further about Hillary Clinton, let me be clear about something. If there’s a parallel universe in which women have run America without one male president, I’m certain that America is a much better place. And I think Julia Ward Howe’s proposal that the UN security council be women-only is a great idea.

My opinion of Hillary Clinton began to turn negative after her about-face with Elizabeth Warren on Wall Street reform and regulation. As Hillary built her résumé for the presidency, this same pattern of behavior was repeated on multiple issues—she was seemingly driven more by political trade winds and the flow of campaign cash rather than the principles she nominally stood for.

Hillary Clinton sees herself (and wants us to see her) as a centrist. She sees centrism as inherently virtuous—and it might be, if only our left-right political spectrum was a fixed constant, but “that ain’t the world we’re living in.”

On the contrary, our democracy has been so radically distorted from what it once was, that our center today is actually on the right side of the spectrum. Under these circumstances, centrism isn’t inherently virtuous at all. It’s simply Neoliberal Lite.

Strangely, Hillary Clinton doesn’t seem to get this. In a recent debate, Bernie Sanders referred to her as the “establishment candidate” and she replied that she found that idea “amusing.” That reaction underscored the size of her blindspot in this area.

Hillary’s 2016 campaign is trying to pitch her as the candidate living in “reality” and Bernie as the real “radical.”

This is similar to how she framed Barack Obama in 2008. As we now know, Obama was hardly a left-wing radical.

In reality, Bernie Sanders is about as radical as Franklin Delano Roosevelt—a democratic socialist who was the most popular president of all time. Like FDR, Sanders is calling for a kind of new New Deal that recouples the economy to the middle class.

I was at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, and I remember a moment when they brought a man onstage named Stanley Morgan, and he said it was going to be great to have an administration that cared more about Stanley Morgan than it did about Morgan Stanley. It was a good applause line.

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama used progressive language in their campaigns, and I believe they were both sincere. But both also seemed to believe it was possible to serve two masters (in essence, Stanley Morgan and Morgan Stanley). Hillary Clinton believes the same thing, despite all the evidence that this approach has primarily helped one of those masters at the expense of the other.

As Robert Reich recently put it, Hillary Clinton is a perfect president for our current system—the problem is that system no longer works for the American people. Bernie Sanders could—with our help—transform the system into the democracy we deserve.

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