The story isn’t that the Democrats finally took on Hillary Clinton. Nor is it that they were gentlemanly to the point of gingerly and tentative. There was an air of “Please, somebody kill her for me so I can jump in and show high minded compassion at her plight!”
Barack Obama, with his elegance and verbal fluency really did seem like that great and famous political figure from his home state of Illinois—Adlai Stevenson, who was not at all hungry, not at all mean, and operated at a step removed from the grubby game. Mr. Obama is like someone who would write in his diaries, “I shall point out Estes Kefauver’s manifold inconsistencies, then to luncheon with Arthur and Marietta.”
The odd thing is it’s easier to be a killer when you know exactly what you stand for, when you have a real philosophy. The philosophy becomes a platform from which you can strike without ambivalence. Mr. Obama seems born to be mild. But still, that’s not the story.
Nor is it that John Edwards seems like a furry animal on a wheel, trying so hard, to the point he’s getting a facial tic, and getting nowhere, failing to get his little furry paws on his prey, not knowing you have to get off the wheel to get to the prey. You have to stop the rounded, rote, bromidic phrases, and use a normal language that cannot be ignored.
The story is not that Mrs. Clinton signaled, in attitude and demeanor, who she believes is her most dangerous foe, the great impediment between her and an easy glide to the nomination. Yes, that would be Tim Russert.
The story is that she talked about policy. Not talking points, but policy. In talking about it she seemed, for the first time, to be revealing what’s inside.
It was startling. It’s 1993 in there. The year before her fall, and rise.
I spent a day going over the transcripts so I could quote at length, but her exchanges are all over, it’s a real Google-fest. Here, boiled down, is what she said.
Giving illegal immigrants drivers licenses makes sense because it makes sense, but she may not be for it, but undocumented workers should come out of the shadows, and it makes sense. Maybe she will increase the payroll tax on Social Security beyond its current $97,500 limit, to $200,000. Maybe not. Everybody knows what the possibilities are. She may or may not back a 4% federal surcharge on singles making $150,000 a year and couples making $200,000. She suggested she backed it, said she didn’t back it, she then called it a good start, or rather “I support and admire” the person proposing such a tax for his “willingness to take this on.”
She has been accused of doubletalk and she has denied it. And she is right. It was triple talk, quadruple talk, Olympic level nonresponsiveness. And it was, even for her, rather heavy and smug. Her husband would have had the sense to look embarrassed as he bobbed and weaved. It was part of his charm. But he was light on his feet. She turns every dance into the polka. And it is that amazing thing, a grim polka.
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But the larger point is that her policy approach revealed all the impulses not of the New Centrism but the Old Leftism. Her statements were redolent of the 1990s phrase “command and control.” They reflect a bias toward the old tax-raising on people who aren’t rich, who aren’t protected, the old “my friends and I know best, and we’ll fill you dullards in on the details later.”
For a few years now I’ve thought the problem for the Democrats in general but for Mrs. Clinton in particular is not that America is against tax increases. They’ve seen eight years of big spending, of wars, of spiraling entitlements. They’ve driven by the mansions of the megarich and have no sympathy for hedge fund/movie producer/cosmetics empire heirs. They sense the system is rigged toward the heavily protected. They sense this because they’re not stupid.
The problem for Mrs. Clinton is not that people sense she will raise taxes. It’s that they don’t think she’ll raise them on the real and truly rich. The rich are her friends. They contribute to her, dine with her, have access to her. They have an army of accountants. They’re protected even from her.
But she can stick it to others, and in the way of modern liberalism for roughly half a century now one suspects she’ll define affluence down. That she would hike taxes on people who make $150,000 a year.
But those “rich”—people who make $200,000 and have two kids and a mortgage and pay local and state taxes in, say, New Jersey—they don’t see themselves as rich. Because they’re not. They’re already carrying too much of the freight.
What Mrs. Clinton revealed the other night was more than an unfortunate persona. What I think she revealed was that her baseline thinking has perhaps not changed that much since the 1990s, when she was a headband wearing, power suited, leftist-who-hadn’t-been-wounded-yet. It seemed to me she made it quite possible to assume you know who she’ll be making war on. And this—much more than the latest scandal, the Chinatown funny money and the bundling—could, and I think would, engender real opposition down the road. The big chink in her armor is not stylistic, it is about policy. It is about the great baseline question in all political life: Whose ox is being gored?
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A quick word here on why the scandals I refer to above do not deter Mrs. Clinton’s rise. There are people who’ve made quite a study of her life and times, and buy every book, from the awful ones such as Ed Klein’s to the excellent ones, such as Sally Bedell Smith’s recent “For Love of Politics,” a carefully researched, data-rich compendium on the Clintons’ time in the White House.
People who’ve studied Mrs. Clinton often ask why her ethical corner cutting and scandals have not caught up with her, why the whole history of financial and fund-raising scandals doesn’t slow her rise.
In a funny way she’s protected by her reputation. It’s so well known it’s not news. It doesn’t make an impression anymore. People have pointed out her ethical lapses for so long that they seem boring, or impossible to believe. “That couldn’t be true or she wouldn’t be running for president.” This thought collides with “And we already know all this anyway.” Her campaign uses the latter to squash the latest: “old news,” “cash for rehash.”
I’ve never seen anything quite like this dynamic work in modern politics. But the other night, for the first time, I had the feeling maybe it isn’t going to work anymore, or with such deadening consistency.