Hillary Clinton has worked for nearly half a century to establish her bona fides on the left. In 1968, she stuffed envelopes in New Hampshire for Eugene McCarthy’s anti-war presidential campaign, and four years later, she registered Texas voters for liberal icon George McGovern. During Bill Clinton’s first campaign for governor in 1978, she riled traditionalists in Arkansas because she hadn’t taken her husband’s last name. She had enough of a liberal fan base that in 1992, buttons read “Elect Hillary’s Husband.” In 1993, she shattered the first lady mold by becoming a major policy aide with a West Wing office. In her first year, she fiercely fought the corporate health insurance lobby in her quest to enact universal health coverage.
So how did we arrive at a place today where, to some on the left, she is “the candidate of the war machine” with a “deeply pro-corporate ideology” who is“building on the legacy of Ronald Reagan.” How does one go from a symbol of women’s equality and battler of corporate interests to being perceived as the personification of the corrupt intersection of corporations and government?
The short answer is her record, and her husband’s. Clinton’s 2002 vote in the Senate to authorize an invasion of Iraq was the first big crack in her bond with the Democratic base. Her 2008 presidential campaign further alienated anti-war voters when she criticized President Barack Obama’s pledge to meet with leaders of rogue states in his first year. She fed the perception of a craven, calculating politician when she gave a convoluted answer on whether undocumented immigrants should get driver’s licenses. When Wall Street shenanigans tanked the global economy, Bill Clinton’s deregulation policies were fingered, and her ties to the financial industry were put under the microscope.
But even that doesn’t fully explain why Hillary Clinton doesn’t have more street cred today with the progressive movement—and why she herself often appears to lack faith in it. It’s an attitude, and voters notice. It’s the way Clinton talks when she dismisses Sanders’ ambitious proposals by saying they “just won’t work” and “the numbers don’t add up.” It’s her squeamishness toward his desire to mobilize the grass roots behind single-payer health care (“I don’t want us to start over again [and] plunge our country into a contentious debate”).
The best explanation may be deeply personal and goes back to one of the worst moments of her life: the searing experience of being entrusted with the biggest piece of Bill Clinton’s domestic policy agenda in the first two years of his administration—universal health coverage—and failing totally, arguably contributing to her party’s loss of both chambers of Congress and with it, the end of hope for an ambitious legislative legacy for herself and her husband.
As described in Carl Bernstein’s biography, A Woman in Charge, the “near universal view” of White House staffers was that afterward, she sank into a deep depression. The preternaturally prepared Clinton had her confidence shaken, reportedly telling current Clinton antagonist but then-top strategist Dick Morris, “I’m so confused. I just don’t know what works anymore.” However, we don’t know the exact nature of her emotions because, as Bernstein writes, “Hillary appears to have kept to herself her deepest feelings about the wreckage of the twenty months between inauguration day and election day … Except for conveying her general despondency she did not even discuss with her close friends … her role in the debacle.”
Most strikingly yet rarely remembered, her health-care failure came from trying to win the battle Bernie-style: publicly attacking corporate interests and overcoming corporate influence by rallying the public behind reform.
Perhaps it’s because many progressive voters sense that she doesn’t have the religion when it comes to movement-style politics that they don’t forgive her as readily as they do other Democratic politicians.
After all, Obama raised a lot of Wall Street coin too, and rebuffed efforts to break up the big banks. While in the Senate, Joe Biden voted for the Iraq War authorization and wrote legislation that protected Delaware’s credit-card companies. Sen. Elizabeth Warren copped to taking Wall Street contributionsduring her 2012 race (“Securities & Investment” ranks sixth on the list of industries that have contributed to her), and has followed the wishes of home-state corporate interests including medical-device companies and defense contractors.
While Hillary Clinton’s associations with Lloyd Blankfein and Henry Kissinger are treated as damning, little is said about Bernie Sanders’ top aide, Tad Devine, who in the documentary “Our Brand Is Crisis” epitomized neoliberal meddling in Latin America.
Of course, there’s a difference between those mentioned and Clinton: They’ve had the opportunity to prove that they were not defined by past votes and individual ties. Obama built up early reservoirs of good will on the left for gutting out the Recovery Act and Obamacare, and maintained it in the second term with a steady stream of liberal executive actions. Biden has been depicted as a dovish voice within the Obama administration. Warren and Sanders have taken so many bold positions that they drown out the occasional discordant note. Clinton, on the other hand, didn’t have an unequivocally “liberal” accomplishment as secretary of stateand rather prominently took the hawkish side of many internal White House debates. And serving as Democratic senator during the George W. Bush administration didn’t provide many openings for big legislative wins.
Understanding that her progressive bona fides were going to be questioned in the primary, Hillary has tried to re-introduce herself to the Democratic electorate in the past 12 months, with biographical spots covering her civil rights activism in the 1970s and Bill talking up her policy initiatives as Arkansas first lady in the 1980s. The idea was to define what’s in her core.
But there is a big hole in Hillary’s own self-narrative that probably tells us more about how she’s perceived today than anything else. And that’s the health care debacle.
In a May 1993 address to the Service Employees International Union, Clinton tore into the health care industry. The New York Times reported: “What most energized Mrs. Clinton’s speech were her populist attacks. ‘We have to be willing to take on every special-interest group,’ she said, asserting that ‘the status quo exists because there are people who benefit from it. … Talk to your friends and neighbors about what you see every day in terms of price gouging, cost shifting and unconscionable profiteering.”
The rhetoric alarmed the lead health insurance lobbyist at the time, Bill Gradison. As reported in Haynes Johnson’s and David Broder’s definitive book chronicling the health care fight, The System, Gradison immediately sent her a letter complaining about her attacks, but asking for a meeting. The legislation hadn’t been drafted yet and he said, “We stand ready to help you” with it.
She snubbed his request. Instead, the White House encouraged congressional Democrats to echo Hillary’s attacks on “profiteers” during the summer recess. That prompted Gradison to give up on pursuing compromise and shift to war footing.
In September, the health insurance lobby launched the famous “Harry and Louise”advertising campaign, in which a despondent middle-class married couple in the future grapples with the aftermath of the, at that point, nonexistent bill. “Having choices we don’t like is no choice at all,” says Louise. “They choose,” Harry responds. Louise finishes the sentence, “we lose.”
The ad immediately made waves, but the health insurance lobby quickly offered a deal: “Stop bashing the industry” and the ads would be pulled. The Clintons didn’t respond, and the ads kept coming.
Hillary Clinton escalated the fight in a November speech, ripping the “Harry and Louise” campaign as dishonest and the industry as greedy: “They like being able to exclude people from coverage because the more they can exclude, the more money they can make. … They have the gall to run TV ads that there is a better way, the very industry that has brought us to the brink of bankruptcy because of the way that they have financed health care … One of the great lies that is currently afoot in the country is that the president’s plan will limit choice.”