Clinton Coronation?

A rash of recent newspaper stories have proclaimed, a year in advance of the Presidential election, Sen. Hillary Clinton to be the next Democratic nominee, and the next President. The fixation of these stories is on campaign contributions and poll results, a sort of ‘inside baseball’ that our great newspapers now seem to regard as central to their informing function. But the oceans of ink expended in recirculating data provided by campaign organizations shed remarkably little light on what her interests in life are, what sort of public officer she has been, what her education has been, what methods she regards as acceptable or unacceptable, what campaign promises she has made and what their implications are, what sorts of people she surrounds herself with, what standards she will apply in making appointments, whether her political style is characterized by candor or the opposite, what importance she attaches to the less fashionable guarantees of the Bill of Rights, the vertical separation of powers, or federalism and localism, whether she is tolerant or vengeful in her attitude to those who differ, and whether she is a realist, a chauvinist, an opportunist, or a ‘liberal imperialist’ in her approach to international relations. Such questions have not been seriously asked about her, or about any of the other candidates. They deserve answers.

The conviction of many that Mrs. Clinton’s presidency will be the Clinton Presidency redux finds little support in history. Men and women equipped with power do not necessarily behave as their close relatives have done. For this we have the example of the current President, as well as innumerable illustrations from the history of monarchies. Filial ties, based on a common upbringing and social background, are apt to be deeper than spousal ones in predicting political behavior, even that of parties to a less unconventional marriage than that of the Clintons. The behavior of Edward VIII, we may recall, bore little resemblance to that of either his father or his brother. Kaiser Wilhelm II did not vindicate the hopes placed in his short-lived father. The list of available examples is a long one. Bill Clinton, a man who desired to be universally loved, may be regarded as the most benign emigrant from Arkansas since Al Capp’s Schmoo. The bunker may be his wife’s natural habitat.

What we do know prompts more questions. What, to ask a very British question, is Mrs. Clinton’s ‘hinterland’ What interests does she have in life other than the acquisition and exercise of political power? What are we to make of her much-vaunted educational reform campaign in Arkansas, productive of many speaking opportunities but few tangible achievements? What of her tenure as Chairperson of the federal Legal Services Corporation, which thought that political contributions to state referendum campaigns was a suitable use of federal funds? What of the over-enthusiasm for the criminalization of politics attributed to her during her stint as a Watergate special prosecutor, or the investigations of the New York police department threatened while Giuliani was a Senate candidate, which disappeared when he withdrew?

What of the health care task force, with its anti-democratic premise that ‘complexity is our ally’ and its fiscal projections, deflated by the Congressional Budget Office, asserting that the improvements could be fully financed by ‘savings’ and an increase in the cigarette tax? This was not the style of David Lloyd-George who declared, in presenting the National Insurance Act of 1911 to the House of Commons “it will cost money, and it will be worth it!”. Nor was its substance respectful of professional values, stampeding once-independent physicians into ‘managed care’ groups. Mrs. Clinton says she has learned from this experience. And what has she learned? To do more for the insurance companies! That the system is complex, that the country is diverse, that its civil service is not up to French or British standards, and that reforms require local governance and market signals this we have not heard from Mrs. Clinton. The United States cannot be a Greater Sweden.

Mrs. Clinton’s memoirs, unlike those of her husband, reflect no intellectual curiosity, quest, or pilgrimage. What does she read, what has she read, what impact has it had? This we do not know. As for methodology, we do know some things, and they are not encouraging. Does her presentation of an award to Anita Hill, for her ‘courage’ in being dragged forward by congressional staff to make ten-year-old allegations that were both unprovable and irrelevant presage further use of sexual defamation as a political weapon, or have lessons been learned from the Lewinsky saga? Will dissenters within her party be denied speaking rights, like the elected Governors of Pennsylvania and Kansas in 1992? Will there again be a clean sweep of U.S. Attorneys, invoked by the Bush administration to justify its purge of ‘difficult’ U.S. Attorneys, or has something been learned from this experience also? Mrs. Clinton professes to believe that the first action was legitimate, the second not. But it was Mr. Churchill who advanced as one of the tests by which freedom might be known in the modern world “Are the courts of justice free from all association with political parties?”

What of her promise of universal federally-funded preschool? What does that say to parents who want to stay home, at least part-time, during ‘the magic years’ when their children are very young? “Parents”, Bertrand Russell once said, “are apt to be fond of their children and do not want them to be fodder for political schemes. The state cannot be expected to have the same attitude.” What of the $5,000 child bond she has proposed? Why is this use of funds deemed more prudent than a comparable investment in science education in high schools? Or is the virtue of this scheme that it does not make trouble for the teacher’s union, however inconsistent it may be with the notions of earned entitlement that have informed most successful American social legislation: the Homestead Act, the Social Security Act, the G.I.Bill, the Welfare Reform law (which Mrs. Clinton opposed and which her husband twice vetoed)?

What of “Hillaryland”, a staff rivaled in its secretiveness only by that of the Vice President? Have any of its denizens drafted a successful statute or administered a successful program, or are they all obsessed with electoral mechanics, and only electoral mechanics? Are pollsters and political consultants likely again to participate on equal terms with the Secretary of the Treasury in meetings to determine domestic policy? Are we to have another ‘affirmative action’ domestic cabinet, whose members spend inordinate amounts of time dodging indictments, seeking pardons, or enjoying expense accounts, or will our problems of transportation infrastructure, secondary education, and mismanagement of public lands be effectively dealt with? Is the moral authority of the administration likely to be squandered by early and obvious payoffs to interest groups?

What does Mrs. Clinton believe about the budget deficit, about social security, about medicare? She has declined to say. She appears to be against raising the retirement age in a rapidly aging society, against private accounts, and against benefit reductions. The remaining options are not pretty ones: increased wage bases, which erode political support for social security and fall heavily on small businessmen, increases in already high and regressive payroll tax rates, or the vigourous operation of the printing press. Where does Mrs. Clinton stand, or is she to be given a free pass?

Finally, there are the questions of separation and division of powers. With respect to both Iraq and Iran, Mrs. Clinton has voted to aggrandize presidential power. Her defense of the writ of habeas corpus, and her opposition to the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales, were scarcely robust. In her memoirs, she refers to the posse commitatus act as something in the nature of an obscure nuisance. Her husband greatly expanded federal criminal jurisdiction; she has been an enthusiastic supporter of the ‘hate crimes’ bill. What, in her view, are the limits on federal executive and prosecutorial power, or are there any? Has there not been essential continuity between the Justice Department of Reno and that of Ashcroft and Gonzales; between the thinking that led to the Kosovo War and the first bombing of a European capital since 1945 and that which led to the Iraq War? Is she pleased by the present state of Kosovo, or does she, like the press, avert her eyes?

How can a President lead, without disclosing her views and purposes? Elections are where mandates are obtained. And what reason is there to think that accountability and constitutional government can survive a President who has never held a proper press conference? It is not too soon to seek answers to these questions.

George Liebmann, a Baltimore lawyer, is the author of The Common Law Tradition: A Collective Portrait of Five Legal Scholars (Transaction Books, 2005).

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