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Not Just the Lesser of Two Evils: The Case for Clinton

The former secretary of state may have a chance to rehabilitate the art of politics.

Hillary Clinton
Former American secretary of state Hillary Clinton gives a speech in Iowa, November 22, 2015 (Hillary for America/Adam Schultz)

Millions of Americans will probably vote for Hillary Clinton in November because the alternative is worse.

There is no shame in that. Candidate who exhilarate their followers tend to either raise unreasonable expectations, as Barack Obama did, or all the wrong expectations, as Donald Trump is doing.

A two-party system can never satisfy everyone anyway and voting for the lesser of two evils is a perfectly rational choice. As Vice President Joe Biden once again, “Don’t compare me to the almighty, compare me to the alternative.”

But there is still a case to be made for Clinton — not just against Trump — that speaks to the mood in the country and her long career in government.

The right balance

Rather than run away from her experience and disavow the incrementalist politics of the center-left, Clinton should make an argument for both.

Anti-establishment sentiment is a dead end. As is the quest for ideological purity that has bedeviled the right for years and which Bernie Sanders is now organizing on the left. Both only lead to endless cycles of rejuvenation and purification, as the Republicans will attest. Neither gets much done.

Clinton knows this and she’s been trying to find a balance between lowering primary voters’ expectations and pretending that she’s not all that different from her opponent.

The second part is not convincing. Suddenly Clinton opposes a Pacific trade agreement she herself negotiated as secretary of state? We are supposed to believe that she will put a scare in Wall Street after collecting millions of dollars in donations and speaking fees from the financial industry?

She better stick to the former and convince voters that change for the better happens one step at a time and often involves compromise.

“I’m a progressive who likes to get things done” is something an electable Democrat would say. Only a fringe candidate who knows he doesn’t stand a chance of winning demands a “political revolution” for his plans.

For too long, politicians in both parties have been promising their voters the world and distorting their expectations of how government works and what it can do. The result is the disappointment and discontent that is so widespread today.

On the right, it has fueled an anger that Trump cleverly exploited. Clinton must prevent the same thing happening in the center and on the left.


It’s mostly Republicans who scorn moderation in favor of self-righteousness but Democrats can be similarly inclined.

The Pew Research Center has found that there is almost no ideological overlap between the left and the right anymore. 94 percent of Democrats are now to the left of the median Republican whereas 92 percent of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat. Twenty years ago, those numbers were 70 and 64 percent, respectively.

The share of Americans with a highly negative view of the other party has more than doubled in the same period. Nearly one in four Democrats has a “very unfavorable” opinion of the Republican Party. 27 percent even regard Republicans as a threat to the national wellbeing. The figures are even higher for Republicans: 36 percent see Democrats as a threat.

Such strong views lead Americans to erect what Pew calls “ideological silos.” Democrats and Republicans live in separate neighborhoods and increasingly in different cities and states. They read different newspapers. They watch different television shows. They send their children to different schools. They meet fewer and fewer people with opposing views in their social lives.


A Democratic Party led by Clinton might break through this gridlock. A Democratic Party led by Sanders wouldn’t. Certainly the Republicans aren’t going to.

Part of the reason is that the Democratic Party is itself a coalition.

David A. Hopkins and Matt Grossmann, two political scientists, have argued (PDF) that whereas the Republican Party is best understood as the agent of the conservative movement, Democrats don’t necessarily share left-wing principles but work together for reasons of group interest or identity. Hence Democratic leaders have to govern pragmatically in order to deliver concrete programs and benefits to their partisan constituencies.

Of course there are Republican voters who value governing over ideological purity as well. And, as Donald Trump’s rise has made clear, there are plenty of Republican voters who care about neither.

But many more Republicans would describe their own party as “conservative” or “for small government” than there are Democrats who call theirs “progressive” or “for big government”. Democrats rather describe their party as caring about the “middle class” or “working to help women”.

Hence Clinton’s appeal that she is not a “single-issue candidate” but has concrete policies for everybody, from child care and paid leave for single parents and low-income families to reform of a criminal justice system that discriminates against blacks to tax breaks for the middle class.

Transactional politics

If that sounds like transactional politics, well, maybe that wasn’t so bad after all.

Clinton recently defended the way stimulus money was spent in 2009 in an interview with the New York Daily News, saying, “Politics has to play some role in this.”

I got to get it passed through Congress. And I think I’m well-prepared to do that. I was telling you about Buffalo. I got $20 million. Now I got that because it was political. But it worked. And it has created this amazing medical complex.

Clinton is essentially arguing for what is derisively called pork-barrel spending. One of the few things Democrats and Republicans managed to do together in recent years was to ban “earmarks,” which made such horsetrading possible.

It seemed reasonable at the time. As Paul Waldman has written for The Week, “if a member can’t request and receive an appropriation for her constituents, then there will be no more repeats of the ‘bridge to nowhere’ and the taxpayers’ money will be spent more wisely.”

Except earmarks, which never made up more than a tiny proportion of the budget, served an important purpose: “They greased the wheels of government,” according to Waldman, “by allowing congressional leaders to bring wavering members on board to pass budgets and move other vital legislation, by giving them a new road or park or hospital wing in their district.”

Without any carrots to provide members, legislating becomes less transactional — less “political” — and more ideological.

The result is that virtually nothing gets done when two parties control separate branches of government, as has been the case for the past five years.


However badly Trump is defeated in the fall, Republicans are unlikely to lose control of the House of Representatives. They might even hold on to their majority in the Senate. A President Clinton would have to work with the other party to pass legislation — and they’re unlikely to bring back earmarks to make her job any easier.

Jonathan Chait suggests in New York magazine that Clinton take inspiration from a Democratic leader who, like her, failed to excite people but came to be seen as a steady hand: Harry Truman.

Like Clinton today, Truman had to cope with a divided left and reactionary madness on the right — in the form of Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts — in the late 1940s and early 50s.

Like her, he had to work with a conservative majority in Congress and at a time when America’s role in the world was uncertain.

Truman stuck to the middle and kept the Democratic Party together despite a third-party challenge from the far left. Underrated in his time, he is now ranked among the finest presidents exactly because he did not attempt grand designs that would either fail spectacularly (like Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society) or divide the nation (Obamacare).

“An über-establishment president leading in anti-establishment times may, over the long run, come to be seen as commanding the American center,” writes Chait — “even, perhaps, something like an American consensus.”

Let’s hope so, because a rehabilitation of the art of politics is long overdue. If Clinton can restore some respect for compromise, pragmatism and quid pro quo, it alone would make her presidency worthwhile.