Why Senator Clinton’s Electability Issue Is (Partially) Her Fault

Both Kevin Drum and digby argue that Senator Clinton’s ‘electability’ problem is due to Republican sliming and isn’t really a factor. Drum:

Hillary, by contrast, is polarizing not because she wants to be, but because the right-wing attack machine made her that way. She’s “polarizing” only because a certain deranged slice of conservative nutjobs detest her.
And guess what? By this standard, Jimmy Carter is polarizing. Bill Clinton is polarizing. Al Gore is polarizing. John Kerry is polarizing. Do you see the trend here?

There are plenty of good reasons to oppose Hillary Clinton. But anyone who opposes her because she’s polarizing is allowing the bottom feeders of modern movement conservatism to dictate who gets to run for president and who doesn’t.

Digby furthers the argument:

I would just add that allowing the Village stenographers to pick our presidents lets them off the hook too. They happily join with the neanderthals in carrying these little prophesies into the mainstream. We should not let gossipy junior high backstabbers dictate who our candidates should be either. I don’t give a damn if they think Al Gore is a stiff or think that Hillary is bitch or whatever. Nobody elected them to anything.

I agree, except Clinton’s problems are also of her own doing and her own background. Even were there very little or no Republican sliming and Mandarin nattering, she would still have problems. And it’s not the ‘castrating bitch’ issue. It’s the ‘Slick Willie’ and ‘Clintonista’ populist narratives which do resonate (and, yes, these narratives were populist, even if they came from faux-populist Republicans).

For whatever reason, many Americans don’t seem to mind two kind of elites: those born to wealth, and those who started with nothing. While the absence of dislike for the latter is obvious, the former is far more puzzling, but seems pretty prevalent (it might be something more like awe and intimidation than actually appreciation). But there’s a third type, what I’ll call the careerist for lack of a better term.

The best description I’ve read, and I think it defines many of the people from President Clinton’s first term, as well as Senator Clinton’s campaign advisors, was penned by Steve Stark in The Boston Phoenix. He was describing Senator Edward’s problems with the Democratic establishment, and in doing so, described the Democratic establishment quite accurately (boldface mine):

No, Edwards’s problem is different, and it’s not even about his politics. It’s about a piece of paper that hangs — or doesn’t hang — on the wall of his office.

Edwards, you see, didn’t go to Harvard or Yale.

….How the Democrats arrived at this state of affairs tells you a lot about the present state of the party, and why Edwards — a candidate who has been widely praised in everything from The Economist to the Wall Street Journal for setting the substantive agenda for the whole Democratic field; whose campaign appearances have been sharp; who’s been impressive in debates; and whose wife, Elizabeth, has been a formidable asset — is having more than his share of problems.

The Democrats used to be “the party of the people,” and still aspire to that title. But fundraising (particularly now that all serious candidates spurn public funding) and primary politics have been taken over by the well-educated elites for whom Harvard and Yale are the Holy Grails.

These voters and donors all dream of having their kids attend the best Ivies, especially now that the upward path to mobility in America is no longer membership in a labor union — once the backbone of Democratic politics — but is admission to a selective college.

Meanwhile, the elite press is now dominated by former classmates of the candidates. That’s a marked change from a generation or two ago, when the best reporters often didn’t finish college, but instead worked their way up from the police to the political beat.

To these people, Edwards doesn’t pass muster. It’s not that he’s not smart — he clearly has an impressive intellect. It’s much more subtle and insidious: if there’s one unstated lesson these select schools teach you, regardless of how much money your family actually has, it’s how to act like a member of the upper class.
The rules are clear: you should fluently appear to have money, but not appear to make money (which is why an entrepreneur like Michael Bloomberg would never go anywhere in a Democratic primary). And you should never flaunt it. Thus you can own an inherited family palace or a nice vacation house on Nantucket, but building your own ostentatious abode is utterly out of the question. The overriding lesson is to make it all seem effortless — to never seem too ambitious or grasping

Perhaps Edwards does strive a little too hard; kids who grew up without a lot of money often do. That puts him in the same straits as Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson — two other Southern Democratic politicians who didn’t grow up in a wealthy family and never attended an Ivy. Though both won the presidency — albeit in different political eras — both felt that Northeastern political and journalistic elites destroyed them. They had a point.

….in this circle of privilege, you can go into corporate law or academia, but how many Harvard and Yale law grads become plaintiffs’ lawyers or, as their critics call them, “ambulance chasers,” as Edwards did? That’s what the simple folk do.

Because it’s all so subtle, Edwards probably won’t be able to resolve easily this perceived shortcoming.

While I disagree with Stark’s characterization of this personality as “rich”, it is certainly professional and comfortable upper-middle class. Given the predominance of upper-middle class professionals who are involved with the Democratic Party and the ‘progressive’ movement in one way or another, I think much of the commentary from the liberal bloggysphere is simply blind to this.
Senator Clinton has defined herself as this sort of careerist–which is very different than an opportunist. Everyone has encountered the opportunist: the salesman who is too effusive, the social climber who is too ‘nice’ and laughs too hard at jokes that aren’t funny.

A careerist is different: in style, he is a financially successful hall monitor. The careerist also lacks a sense of self-centeredness–after trying to move up (without looking like you’re moving up) and being obedient to authority (including the Village Mandarins and other Properly Credentialed People*), it is absolutely unclear what the careerist’s core ethics and values are.

Senator Clinton’s narrative, which is partially her own doing, defines her as the kind of person who comes across as smart–and everyone knows it. She is very cautious and timid, because she doesn’t want to make a mistake and look bad. Worse, as was the case with the awful bankruptcy bill she supported (which she had opposed as First Lady), she sometimes appears deferential to authority even when it is wrong. This gives the impression that she lacks a core set of ethics or a vision that defines what America should be. That is, your policies are used to construct a narrative of who you are. A random hodge-podge of policies designed to appeal to different groups says that you yourself don’t have a vision. These same criticisms can be made against President Clinton (although not in the 1992 campaign, but certainly of his presidency as a whole), but he had three things going for him that Senator Clinton does not.

First, he was loaded with charisma. Even Newt Gingrich, when he personally met with him, was swayed by his charm. That charisma damped down a lot of the personality flaws. Second, his narrative wasn’t one of an upper-middle class careerist: he was the Man from Hope, not the Man from an Upper-Middle Class Suburban Moderate Republican Family–as is the case with Senator Clinton (doesn’t quite have the same zing, does it?). Finally, President Clinton presided over a booming economy, and money washes away a lot of bad narrative. People will like you if they’re better off financially.

In short, Senator Clinton is too much “Slick” and not enough “Willie.”

While some of Senator Clinton’s narrative unfairly is beyond her control (the constant political beating she took as First Lady has to be one reason for her caution), that doesn’t change the narrative and make her more ‘electable.’ Despite all of that, I still think she could be president given the catastrophic meltdown of the Republican Party, but the other component of ‘electability’ is how she, as the Democratic Party’s standard bearer, will define the party. I think she could hurt a lot of down-ticket Democrats who need a more aggressive and less careerist symbol of the party. The electability issue has much less to do with Senator Clinton, and far more to do with her effect on the Democratic Party. I’m not sure I want Senator Clinton to be the face of the Democratic Party.

I hope I’m wrong about all of this because the ‘conventional wisdom’ has all but crowned Senator Clinton as the Democratic nominee.

*There is some overlap between the Properly Credentialed People and the Very Serious People.

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3 Responses to Why Senator Clinton’s Electability Issue Is (Partially) Her Fault

  1. Ktesibios says:

    Perhaps Edwards does strive a little too hard; kids who grew up without a lot of money often do. That puts him in the same straits as Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson…

    And with George Washington as well. Really. His shabby-genteel origins and financial striving are nicely illustrated in Marvin Kitman’s books George Washington’s Expense Account and The Making of the Prefident 1789.
    As for Senator Clinton, if she is the Democratic nominee I’ll just have to put on my nose clips and vote for her, but my primary vote will go to someone else. I think that she’s thoroughly earned the description “gutless, unprincipled, time-serving, self-seeking aging yuppie scum”, and I see no need for any more such people in government.

  2. Michael Schmidt says:

    I think these observations are quite prescient. Back in the nineties, my sister recommended to me a Jon Hassler novel, and mentioned that he was a favorite author of the then-first-lady Clinton. I was rather unimpressed by the novel, and part of what I didn’t like about it was that it had a rather quaint, sweet view of academic life. I’m a professor and I have very little reverence for “the academy,” and quite a bit of distaste for some of its failings, excesses, and obvious privilege (despite the fact that I am something of a beneficiary). If that’s the sort of setting that turns Hilary on, well, that would fit quite well with what you describe as the modern Democratic elite.
    Sorry, my thoughts are disorganized, but hopefully you get a sense of what I’m trying to say….

  3. James says:

    For the most part I have liked your previous postings. Yet, this posting on Hillary Clinton’s ‘careerist’ personality is simply confusing. Maybe even … umm … Hooey!
    How, precisely, does having a personal desire for a professional career and having the personal will and drive to obtain it lead to the proposition that such a person’s personality “lacks a sense of self-centeredness” and “being [inappropriately?] obedient to authority.” Exactly what experimental methodology or statistical test was used to determine that the populous will or has concluded it is “absolutely unclear what the careerist’s core ethics and values are.” What academic school(s) of reference should one use to evaluate such a theoretical structure of personality: genetics, psychology, sociology, anthropology…?
    You state that Hillary is “very cautious and timid, because she doesn’t want to make a mistake and look bad.” Well, Of Course! Everybody wants to avoid making mistakes and to avoid looking bad, including me and everybody else who broke their huevos in doctoral school. Such behavior does not necessarily mean that one is ‘very cautious and timid’. Sometimes such behavior can actually be a symptom of intelligent decision making. I didn’t want to make a mistake in the jungle during my 18 months with the 101st Airborne in Vietnam, but that didn’t make me timid (attested to by a purple heart and two bronze stars). It surely didn’t make me look bad to my fellow soldiers.
    Mike, you have not lost my readership, just my (hopefully temporary) understanding of the theory of personality you are espousing.

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