So much of the discussion of Clinton’s memoir and the promotion around it has been about whether or not it should even exist. This has in turn lead to a frustrating, circular debate where people point out the inherent double-standard in Clinton’s coverage and then other people point out that’s the only defense ever made in Clinton’s favor. While that’s false, I do think we’ve fallen into a vicious cycle of taking the least charitable view of Clinton’s statements, having the conversation about how that’s symptomatic of sexism and poor journalism, and then never getting back to her real points. Case and point:
So, she did say this. But this quote has a lot more to offer when put back in its original context, which is an hour interview. Both how Clinton immediately defends this point here and her wider ideas about what the center even is are different from what most people are reading in. Consider to start the full answer:
Clinton: If you’re running a raucus, diverse, pluralistic democracy where there are literally millions of different voices, you are going to hear from all kinds of voices. I was a Senator for eight years—but the vast majority of people who came through the doors of my Senate offices to talk to me to advocate, whatever they were doing, were not political donors, or certainly not political donors to me; they were constituents, they were citizens, they had something to say. So part of what—we’ve shrunk the political process to such a narrow set of questions—and that’s in the interest of the far right and the far left—both of whom want to blow up the system and undermine it and the rest of the stuff they talk about. I think we ultimately work best between center left and center right because that’s where, at least up until recently—maybe it’s changed now—that’s where most Americans were. Look, they didn’t get up every day obsessed with what the government and politics was going to do. They wanted to know what the results were and if this was going to make a difference in their life.
This is a messy answer, whatever you may parse out of it. Even if the content were less divisive, no one would think school children would one day recite this as an example of great American oratory. But her most immediate claim here, which I’ve bolded, is that both the far left and the far right are making undemocratic demands that she abandon the middle. It’s been wearying to point this out, but Sanders lost to Clinton by 3.8 million votes; Trump lost the popular vote by 3 million. Clinton may not be populist, but all evidence suggests she’s actually quite popular*. The answer that she could have won the popular vote by adopting more of Sander’s positions is both unfalsifiably speculative and premised on the idea that Sanders voters deserved more weight than equal after the primary. Clinton’s comments about how we’re debating a narrow set of deeply divisive issues are meant to convey that Washington has been hijacked by an undemocratic agenda—it turns a point Sanders and Trump like to make back around on them with the force of popular election soundly behind her. She’s also crediting Sanders less than you might think, as when questions about the agenda came up she focused in on the radical right and their ascendance since Reagan.
If her claim were merely that centrism works best because it is popular, she’d be arguing that she is right because she was popular. However, there’s a second prong that she sharpens before these comments and that informs her comments here. By this point in the interview, she’d repeatedly argued that she was popular because she was right. To get a sense of the argument, look at what she identifies as voter priorities at the end of the quoted passage! Voters wanted to know the bottom line, the end result. She is putting forward that voters didn’t put a lot of weight on ideological grudge matches; they put more weight on their pocketbook and the protections government offered them.
This is how Clinton conceives of the middle. She doesn’t see it as a tepid, incrementalism—though she does say that can be the practical form it takes. She says voters are passionately, intensely interested in results. Bipartisanship isn’t a virtue because it gives Clinton fuzzy feelings (see: Obama). It’s a virtue because it can be built on finding common ground in the outcome, in the humility of putting voters before ideology.
She gets specific in the interview. Clinton impatiently dismisses several of Sanders’ proposals along similar grounds. On both health care and tuition-free college, she expresses frustration that Sanders couldn’t answer basic, important questions about broad funding and cost-control. In Clinton’s view, what makes Sanders a radical is not that he wants tuition-free college; she seems to want that too. Its that he’s willing to propose it without answering basic questions about how we’re going to make sure the offer is sustainable.
Sanders’ supporters are liable to feel slighted by this; I think many passionately believe Sanders has feasible proposals. On tuition-free college, many have pointed me to how it did work in Germany. And while that is superficially true, Germany made it work by ruthlessly cutting access. They send a full 40% fewer people as a percent of population to university. It has worked out to be a massive subsidy for the middle class and shut many poor people out of university. This is more tolerable in the German context because trade jobs are plentiful and primary and secondary schools do a better job engendering class mobility. But Sanders’ plan doesn’t even acknowledge the German restrictions, instead throwing the national coffers wide open to universities.
When I’ve pointed this out, people have either accused me of holding values I do not or fallen back on parroting Sanders’ grandstanding. “There is a problem—and it must be solved.” Even if the latter part is true, even if we must solve the problem, it doesn’t negate practical trade offs in implementing solutions. Proving we need to have a solution doesn’t prove your proposal is actually a one of them. Clinton implicitly argues throughout the interview that a political extremist is someone who places ideological faith—in the market, in government subsidy—ahead of empirical proof. She is saying that Sanders’ has offered no solutions, merely empty promises. She is doing it with detail and specifics. Here is her disgust with Sanders on health care:
Well, I don’t know what the particulars are. As you might remember, during the campaign he introduced a single-payer bill every year he was in Congress—and when somebody finally read it, he couldn’t explain it and couldn’t really tell people how much it was going to cost.
This is followed by four paragraphs of cogent examples and analysis of the problems America faces in trying to get this policy. For Clinton, Sanders greatest sin was that he didn’t have a firm grasp on his own proposals. Repeatedly Sanders put forward aspirational proposals, but when people asked for the evidence, he blustered. She argues, and I don’t think it should be controversial, that she deserved to have her details covered, and he deserved to have his non-answers flagged as such. Instead, Sanders remarkable spell was a self-perpetuating story, and her campaigning was left strangely untouched.
Her notion of being better near the center isn’t that we’re better for being tepid. It is a notion that government works best when public servants can prove they are doing the best work that can be done. In the first quote above, she shows herself as working for voters, people with concrete problems that government can craft solutions for. She casts Sanders and Cruz as out of touch, putting abstract ideology ahead of the real people policy is intended to serve. It is, at its core, the assertion that risky, unproven policy based on wishful thinking can do more damage than the problem well-intentioned politicians seek to fix. She does not define extremism in terms of the results, but in rather in terms of the risk.
This argument is harder to attack than the screenshot makes it seem. (Who could have predicted that Hillary Clinton would be subject to a strawman argument???) If Clinton is wrong in the particulars, Sanders and his supporters could reckon in detail with the trade-offs inherent in his proposals. In Clinton’s framing, that is moving to the center and acquiescing to her long-held methods. Anticipating extremist responses to Clinton would take more space than I have and, besides, they can speak for themselves. But ultimately they all require at some point asking the audience if they believe that modern science is frequently, irrevocably in error and to greater degree than ideological reasoning. Are economics, social psychology, environmental science, finance, and the whole host of other disciplines stateswomen like Clinton draw on so truly beyond redemption that we should trust the musings of Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders?
Some will say yes, no doubt. But speaking for myself, I’ll take Clinton’s proof. And at any rate, we’ve truly heard little on her real arguments and we’d all benefit from a detailed response.
*”But the polling about likability!” Seems like at the ballot box voters set that aside more than not, right? This is truly a good question that deserves more time, but it ultimately doesn’t establish that Clinton didn’t get both the primary and general popular mandate over her respective opponents.