Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Hillary Clinton: The New Nixon?

I'm in Las vegas, at yet another stiflingly full-of-shit Democratic debate, just breaking up now. The show tonight was a new low, with a suddenly cuddlesome troika of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards spending two hours giving each other friendly establishment back rubs while NBC played the Big Brother role, going to court to keep that meddling Dennis Kucinich off the stage. Afterward, the first flack to waddle into the spin cave is Mark Penn, Clinton's chief mouthpiece, one of Washington's most depraved and expensive lobbyist-whores.

Penn is the Democratic version of Karl Rove. He even looks like Rove, only he's fatter and more disgusting. Up close in a forum like this, his eyes bulge out of his fat, blood-flushed head; his neck spills out of his too-tight shirt collar; and he generally looks like Jabba the Hutt, his suit bursting at the seams, with only the bowl of snackable live toads suspended at arm's length missing from the picture.

After Obama's win in Iowa, everyone familiar with the Clintons and how they operate could have set their watches by the Hillary camp's inevitable decision to start reminding America of the dangers of electing a black teenager on coke. There is now a sudden sense on the campaign trail that the electoral chaos of the last year is a thing of the past, that this race is once again back in the hands of scaly Washington pros like Penn, the whole contest reduced to a series of empty PR ploys on the level of a staged crying fit and a series of back-channel character attacks. The Clintons are back, running things as they always have, with their back-stabbing, inside-baseball mastery, their fanatical, almost religious pursuit of the political fork in the road, their boundless faith in ruthless corporate bagmen of the Penn genus and other such faceless electoral point-shavers.

This all becomes punishingly obvious when Penn, smiling broadly, leans into the hive of spin-room microphones and announces with a straight face that Barack Obama's refusal to describe himself as a "chief operating officer" of the government bureaucracy marks a "critical distinction" in the race.

"But if that's the big distinction," I say, "doesn't that underscore how alike they are on the big issues -- like free trade, health care and their exit strategy in Iraq?"

Penn reiterates that Obama is nothing but a visionary, before adding a Nevada-specific line about the state's federal radioactive waste dump. "And I think we saw some distinctions too on Yucca Mountain, which is an important issue in this debate!" he says.

"So some amorphous thing on leadership and Yucca Mountain are the distinctions between the main Democratic candidates for the presidency?"

Penn pauses, then smiles. "Those are the distinctions discussed in this debate," he hisses.

So this is what it has come to. Conventional wisdom holds that when Hillary shed tears in New Hampshire, seeming to crack under the pressure of being pounded daily in the press as an unlikable loser, she struck a powerful chord with female voters who saw her as a victim of a male-dominated culture determined to punish a strong woman for daring to seek power. And who knows, maybe there's something to that -- but by the time Hillary reached Nevada, I was strongly tempted not to give a shit. To see Hillary Clinton as a martyr for anything is to give her far too much credit for weakness and not nearly enough credit for her strengths, one of which happens to involve resurrecting, against all odds, the ghost of Richard Nixon.

What people forget about Clinton is that she is basically a Republican at heart. She campaigned for Barry Goldwater once upon a time and even canvassed poor neighborhoods in Chicago looking for "vote fraud" by Democrats. She was president of the College Republicans at Wellesley. In 1968, at the height of America's most intense cultural debate in a century, she only abandoned the Republican Party because it backed Dick Nixon instead of her favorite, Nelson Rockefeller.

Which is ironic, because as a presidential candidate herself, Hillary has basically run exactly Nixon's 1968 campaign. Her stump speech from the get-go was all about the "invisible Americans," a nearly word-for-word echo of Nixon's revolutionary "forgotten Americans" strategy of that year. Like Nixon, she was targeting a slice of the electorate that had chosen to stay on the sidelines during a cultural war and secretly yearned for someone in the political center to restore order; it's no accident that Hillary was on the opposite side of every issue that sent lefties to the streets in the Bush years, from the war to free trade to the Patriot Act.

Her much-reported line about Martin Luther King needing LBJ to complete his "dream" was just another salvo in that effort, a subtle message to the public that the "change" she talks about so incessantly is only legitimate when it comes from the inside. Lest anyone think this is a fanciful analysis, listen to what Hillary wrote back in the day, in her senior thesis at Wellesley, which looked at the work of a Chicago community organizer named Saul Alinsky, who had offered her a job. "I agreed with some of Alinsky's ideas," she wrote, "but we had a fundamental disagreement. He believed you could change the system only from the outside. I didn't."

Ironically, after Alinsky's death, the man who carried on his legacy as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago was none other than Barack Obama, who took a $13,000-a-year gig similar to the one that Hillary turned down.

And while there's an argument to be made that none of this old history matters that much now, there's no denying the clear difference in the two campaign styles. In Barack Obama versus Hillary Clinton, we've basically got Kennedy-Nixon redux, and I mean that in the most negative possible sense for both of them -- a pair of superficial, posturing conservatives selling highly similar political packages using different emotional strategies. Obama is selling free trade and employer-based health care and an unclear Iraqi exit strategy using looks, charisma and optimism, while Hillary is selling much the same using hard, cold reality, "prose not poetry," managerial competence over "vision."

In Hillary's case, the Nixon analogy extends in almost every direction. To listen to a Hillary stump speech is to hear a tale of endless confrontations with enemies; at one event I attended in Iowa, she railed against the Republicans who tried to crush her over health care, the Chinese who tried to stifle her over her "women's rights are human rights" speech, a pharmaceutical industry that bucked when she passed a law requiring that drugs be tested for use on children, and a press that tells lies about her. The speech conveniently ignored the fact that Hillary (a) takes more money from Big Pharma than any candidate in the race and (b) voted to keep most-favored-nation trading status with China despite her human-rights concerns, and that she and her husband were bogged down in a scandal involving campaign contributions from the Chinese.

Hillary's campaign is and always has been presented as a pitched battle for political survival against bitter enemies, and no reporter who has watched the way she stage-manages every last utterance and generally treats the press like a gang of rattlesnakes (which they are, of course) can possibly fail to appreciate the similarity to Nixon's own troubled, hypervigilant relationship with the fourth estate.

Moreover, like Nixon, her "invisible Americans" deal is carefully couched to appeal to the fears of her own version of the silent majority -- fears about energy prices, layoffs, health care, terrorism. It's a conscious decision to contrast her approach to Obama's hokey-inspirational politics -- hence the relentless emphasis on the part of stooges like Penn on her "preparedness" and leadership, as opposed to Obama's airy "vision" and "hope."

From time to time, you hear Democratic insiders talk about this dynamic openly, as in the case of a "leading Democratic strategist" who appeared in the papers after New Hampshire claiming that Obama could have won a knockout if only he'd played the game right and concentrated on economic fears.

"Instead, he went for this professorial, highfalutin stuff," the flack told reporters. "A lot of these euphoria candidates, once they hit a bump, it's down the toilet."

And down the toilet is where we are, for sure. Watching Barack Obama in Nevada gave me a sick feeling. I bought the hype, and now I could see the straw sticking out of his suit.

Here's Obama, a black man, coming into a crucial debate having watched his white opponent and her henchmen slyly remind voters about what he was doing "in the neighborhood" as a kid and then point out that MLK couldn't secure his legacy without the help of a white man with a title. It was nasty, calculating politics, and any man with a pulse would have taken her to task for it here. But in the debate, Obama responded meekly by praising Hillary three times in the first five minutes, avoiding the word "black" as though it were a used Kleenex, and refusing to point out that he'd ever been against the war in Iraq.

While Obama -- apparently spooked back into say-no-evil "general election mode" by his New Hampshire ass-whippings -- bared his vagina to the state of Nevada, Hillary coolly mopped the floor with him. She refused an invitation to describe him as "prepared" for the presidency -- a slight that was especially biting given that Obama had just moments before described his opponents as "capable" -- and reminded voters that her opponents might not be prepared enough to save them from two wars, a foreclosure crisis, a recession, terrorist threats and a host of other scary shit.

Afterward, audience members had trouble identifying just what it was that they were left to choose between. "Before I came here I was vacillating between the two," Jocelyn Cortez, a civil rights lawyer in Vegas, tells me. "But I think Clinton did a really good job of giving us concrete elements of her plan."

Like what?

"Um, like, she was saying, I think she was going to set aside a certain amount of money for, um ... I think it was for, like, a bank to help people. ... It's kinda weird, but it was like the numbers spoke to me, the fact that she had thought about these numbers. And I love Obama, I think he's a great orator, but sometimes I think he went a little overboard with the, uh ...."

"The what?"

"The oral beautification of the whole thing."

Right, that. The whole prose-not-poetry deal. It's working for Hillary, just like her tears gambit worked. After all these years in public life, the only time Hillary Clinton sheds a tear is when her own political career is on the line? I didn't notice her crying when kids started coming home from Fallujah in rubber bags because of a war she voted for.

That was where it all came rushing back. Hillary's stunning victory had been in the books for mere minutes before we were all suddenly reminded of all the reasons we came to hate the Clintons over the years -- why there were scores of very smart people who by November 2000 were actually willing to pull a lever for Ralph Nader rather than go anywhere near a Democratic Party ticket. Seven years is, it turns out, a long time, just long enough to forget that Clinton fatigue was what saddled us with George Bush in the first place.

The crying incident was Hillary's own personal Checkers speech, a painful bit of self-mutilation tossed off on the last step before the political gallows -- a pure sea-cucumber tactic, scaring us off with a display of vulnerable green guts. We missed the chance to finish her off, and now she's back in charge, setting the tone for a campaign that gets dumber and meaner and dirtier by the day. Thanks to you, New Hampshire, the Clintons still have us to kick around.

Matt Taibbi is a writer for Rolling Stone.