thoughts on hilary clinton - part one....

NOTE: This reflection does not address the very real and important policy and program differences between Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton. That will come at a later date. Rather, this essay is my understanding of the very different starting point in politics that has shaped HRC's campaign. Last week I shared a similar review of Bernie's endeavors. So, while I am always open to challenge, critique and correction, this is not about policy but organizing principles.

In thinking about how to start this post I want to state for the record that my previous words about Mr. Sanders refused to disparage the Senator's ethics, modest legislative record or question his inner motivations. I would also like to start by noting that if Mr. Sanders were to become the nominee, I would support him as a solid alternative to any of the current crop of other candidates albeit with the same profound concerns that prompted my initial critique. There are genuine and important policy differences between Sanders and Clinton - and between the Republicans and Democrats, too -  that I anticipate reviewing in a subsequent posting.  

That said, I wonder if there is a way for HRC/BS partisans to get real about the fact that Clinton and Sanders are both political players? The current series of primaries is not an idealized mock election for a civics class, but the penultimate stage of hardball politics for two careers players. Bernie has 34 years as an elected official under his belt (with 15 years of other employment in Head Start, carpentry and film making) while Hilary has spent 35 years in political activity (including time as Secretary of State, First Lady, Senator from NY as well and number of years as a lawyer in both private industry and public advocacy.) The longevity of their political engagement is one of the reasons I find claims about Bernie's supposed virtue compared to Hilary's so-called ethical ambiguity specious: if you are a politician who plays to win - and both of these candidates are precisely that - and if you possess the semblance of success - as Clinton and Sanders clearly do - then you are very well acquainted with and highly practiced in the art of compromise, combat and nuanced deal making. 

From my point of view, I believe that career politicians possess their own private encyclopedias concerning the moral shades of grey that are simultaneously more complicated than anything that ever appears on their resumes; vastly more paradoxical than anything most of their supporters are able to comprehend; and uniquely informed by the peculiar contours of real life deal making. Otto von Bismarck noted in 1863, "Politics is not an exact science, but the art of the possible." And only those who are serious about winning AND serving the public have the courage, fortitude and imagination to wrestle regularly with their shadow as well as the light in pursuit of making things happen. To the best of my knowledge, there are no exceptions.

When I was first elected to the Cleveland Board of Education in the 90s - part of an interracial
team under the tutelage of Mayor Michael R. White - one of the blessings of that experience was working with attorney Robert Duvin. He was a labor negotiations veteran who had seen all the best and worst of human nature at and beyond the negotiating table. Like a seasoned soldier, Duvin was ready to follow the ethical edicts of the code of conduct for warfare on principle, but wasn't afraid to break these rules if necessary, in order to live to fight another day. On the night of our electoral victory he said: "Remember three things and remember them well. 1) It never gets better than right now (the afterglow of victory.) 2) Figure out quickly what you need to be able to go to sleep each night and then look yourselves in the mirror so you can go back to work the next morning. And 3) Do not make new friends after the election." 

He was not being cynical. Rather, he was sharing wisdom hard won. If you are going to act on behalf of others - and most people go in to politics for noble reasons - you need to know your ethical essence very early in the game. Because once you are elected, the compromises that are required every day become increasingly complicated and murky.  What's more, if you are unable to find ways to make a deal that maintains a modicum of morality in this context, then you will crash and burn because you are not a serious player.

Jesus put it in equally blunt terms: Make friends with unrighteous mammon. That is, learn how the world really works and use this knowledge as an ally for justice and compassion. Reinhold Niebuhr became a champion of this truth when he complained that the so-called "children of light" were regularly outfoxed by the "children of darkness" because they did not know how to make deals. Not only did they refuse to soil their pristine ethics, but they were naive about the paradox of power. There are always unintended and unanticipated consequences to even our loftiest commitments. But because the children of light are afraid to make hard choices that sometimes compromise their ethics, more often than not they are run over and devoured by their opponents. Look back to the Bush/Gore debacle if you think I am kidding: the Bush partisans were mean-spirited and ruthless bullies who fought to win while Gore's people were good souls who found themselves steam rolled trying to grasp the higher ground.

Small wonder that another friend and ally from my school board days gave me a copy of Sun Tzu's The Art of War just a few days after the election. I still have it. He knew that I had studied Niebuhr, Gandhi and King - and Marx, Lenin, Mao, Che and Fannon, too. But what I really needed in this rough and tumble environment was a time-tested measuring stick against which I could evaluate ALL the deals that had to be made while pursuing the common good within the context of winning. 

Please don't leave out the winning: Bernie and Hilary won't - and neither should we because you can't make much change standing outside the halls of power holding on to just your ethical purity. What I experienced during my years in Cleveland politics was that if those of us who were elected on a reform slate were going to be able to keep fighting for poor, urban kids, then we had to keep winning. And to win involved learning brother Duvin's wisdom. There were deals to be made of every configuration of people and money imaginable - and a few actually had something to do with educational reform.  In this world, those who win and last are those who know that Sun Tzu wasn't kidding: All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; and when far away, we must make him believe we are near. 

Both Clinton and Sanders learned these lessons long ago even if their supporters are still confused. They know there are enemies who oppose them with varying degrees of importance. That's why they rarely waste their time with distractions. Over the years they have both become just as ruthless and skilled as the other. I sense that Hilary is smarter than Bernie - she has an intellect unrivaled by anyone except her husband - but Sanders has good instincts, if not all the facts. Both have learned to gather around them people who can see and name their respective shadows (even if they don't always listen). And neither is afraid of getting down and dirty when it advances the cause. Bernie was magnanimous to Hilary during the early debates not because he was more virtuous, but rather because NO ONE thought he would keep on winning. Hilary was equally conciliatory towards Bernie in the early days because she knew he didn't have a fighting chance in primaries with racial diversity.  

 I don't accept for a moment that either of these candidates is any more noble or corrupt than the other. Senator Sanders has a marketable brand: the curmudgeon on the white horse. It plays - especially in a political culture corrupted by Tea Party rage and authentic class and race insecurity. The BS brand is mostly based on fact, but  is also a carefully constructed public relations creation that Sanders uses to his advantage when the chips are down - or the delegate count gets close. He is as much a street fighter when necessary as anyone as the events of last week make clear.

Secretary Clinton is equally skilled at taking on her opponents. After all, she has been unfairly attacked and labeled as corrupt by the media elite since the days she and Bill entered the White House. (see "The Media Have a Hillary Story and They're Sticking To It http://billmoyers .com/story/the-media-have-a-hillary-story-and-theyre-sticking-to-it/). And because her brand of politics is driven by incremental change, she has had a much harder time evoking passion this year. I do not believe it is true that she presumes a right to the Presidency. That is too shallow an analysis. She has constructed a legacy of not being an outsider on a crusade, but rather a shrewd loyalist who honors (mostly) a center-left agenda. 

This is a harder sell given our current volatility, but continuity has had more traction at other times in our history. Currently, however, the white working class - and their poor and all too often racist allies - have been mobilized over the past eight years by the Koch Brothers and their front organizations including the Tea Party. By exploiting the fear and anger caused by Wall Street, the greed of the banking cabal and an ever shrinking domestic manufacturing base in an era of economic globalization, the 1% have manufactured a cruel bait and switch that lays blames for America's suffering at the feet of an African American president.  As a result, after the mid year elections of President Obama's first term, obstructionism halted any deep political and economic restructuring in Washington. Today, while the macro economic scene continues to recover, there are still sectors of our population whose jobs have vanished, whose homes have been repossessed and whose social optimism has been destroyed. Not everyone is hurting - this is an ideological overstatement - but enough people are still reeling from the 2008 depression - and the staggering social changes of the past eight years - that Tea Party infused anger is available to abuse even from within the Democratic Party.

None of this works well for a politician like Hilary. The Donald can exploit fear and rage as a multimillionaire outsider and be taken seriously. Bernie can generate $40 million dollars of donations in a month and still claim to be the savior of the working class and no one bats an eye. But a process politician like Mrs. Clinton, who has strategically become close to a number of traditional bower brokers, has no wiggle room to portray herself as outside the mainstream. In another time, her history would make sense: gradual change that is measurable and codified matters. Just ask MLK who once said that while you can't legislate morality, you can pass laws to make sure people aren't lynched. Such an approach resonates with Rep. John Lewis and many in our nation's communities of color. Clinton's modus operandi is all about building on the previous success of an accountable process. That's why she works within the party structure. She is NOT presumptuous (which is not to say she doesn't have an ego but that is a fact of life for every career politician.) She is not an outsider.She understands social and economic change to work best by fortifying what has already been achieved and then advancing strategic improvements incrementally by law.

I happen to value this approach. I am not a fan of exaggerated rhetoric that evokes hopes that cannot be realized. It remains to be seen which approach will carry the day: the sometimes visionary rhetoric of Bernie or the wonkish insider legacy of Hilary? With about 40% of the American population frustrated and hurting, it is going to be a rough go for an insider like Hilary. There are a few very important primaries coming up, including New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland, that will make next steps more clear.  I don't believe that the tiny caucuses that have recently gone for Bernie do anything to advance his cause except give his hardcore fan base the illusion of momentum. But let's see what the people say over the next few weeks, yes? 


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