Persuading Myself for November


Far too much of my thought about the election campaign comes down to persuading myself that I should feel okay about supporting Hillary Clinton. Barring an indictment or a coup at the Republican convention, or something even more bizarrely unforeseen, our next president will be either Clinton or Donald Trump, although in this strange year 'twould be ill-advised to rule out anything. I cannot conceive that a greater good would be served by any course other than whatever seems most likely to keep Trump away from the Oval Office.

Each day brings new reports of Republican Party stalwarts and prominent business figures who want nothing to do with their party's presumptive nominee. Some go so far as an open declaration that they will vote for Hillary Clinton. The trend speaks to the case against Trump, with which I trust most readers are familiar. Yet Clinton's lead in any number of polls remains tenuous. She is notoriously unpopular, weighed down by perception that she is untrustworthy. I confess that I waffle between bafflement at the virulence of anti-Clinton sentiment, where "hatred" may not be too strong a word, and frustration, perhaps a word not strong enough, at her words and actions that only feed that sentiment.

A third-party candidate, Libertarian or Green, is not an option. Which is the third party anyway? And what would either say about being relegated to fourth-party status? Is it the Libertarians with ticket headed by Gary Johnson, the former Republican governor of New Mexico who pledges that if elected he will not smoke dope in the White House ("Notable & Quotable: Libertarian Gary Johnson," Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2016)? Or might it be the Green Party, whose nominee, Jill Stein, has run four times for statewide office in Massachusetts and come up empty? Her most successful showing was in a 2004 election for the House of Representatives, when she garnered a rousing 21.3 percent of the vote in a three-way race where the winner scored a decisive 59.6 percent. These observations are made somewhat tongue in cheek. There are substantive reasons to look askance at the candidacies of Johnson and Stein. Of these, perhaps more at another time.

Back during the primary campaign, Sandersistas young and old reveled at the prospect of voting for someone who stood for principles and policies they want to stand for instead of being forced once again to choose the lesser of evils, condemend to vote not for one candidate but against the other. I share that feeling, just as I would like to be young, handsome, and able to dance good, but that is not how things are. As Wendell Berry put it, it is not often that we have the luxury of choosing between good and evil. Most times the moral choices are between evils. That is why they are difficult.

Clinton does not make it easy for us. She is defensive and secretive. Her instinct is to hunker down and lawyer up. Some of this is understandable. There are indeed people out to get her who have invested considerable resources in the effort over a period of decades. That they have come up empty time and again may not be conclusive proof of her innocence, but it is highly indicative that much ado has been made of little. Their bona fides are as much open to question as hers.

She is not a gifted speaker. On the hustings she comes off stilted and insincere. Yet she is intelligent and by many accounts conscientious and hard-working. She sweats the details. On some issues, more than a few, she is wrong, as even highly intelligent people can be. I do not buy that she is fundamentally dishonest or untrustworthy, or no more so most of us sadly human humans, your oft humbled scribe included. During the primary season Factcheck and PolitiFact consistently rated her in the ballpark with other candidates on the truthfulness of statements and claims.

Clinton is certainly no more untrustworthy than Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, at the low end of the scale, and not manifestly more so than even Bernie Sanders, who is not above a little dissimulation on behalf of a noble cause. Public figures, in the private sector as well as in government, are prone to hyperbole, exaggeration, dressing up or eliding the facts when making the case for themselves and their programs. It should not be taken for granted that they are lying, duplicitous scoundrels, though this happens. At least sometimes, with some individuals, it is a matter of expressing genuine beliefs, assumptions, points of view, and convictions, putting them in the best light, in what the speaker takes to be good faith.

Then comes James Comey's report from the FBI. Clinton was not indicted, a decision for which Comey made a plausible case. It has been pointed out, with some vehemence by individuals already ill-disposed toward her, that the report was by no means an exoneration. As to that, an unidentified North Carolina Republican nailed the salient point. "Perception is reality in politics, and the average voter equates indictment with criminal activity. Republicans can weaponize 'indictment' more so than 'rebuke.' Hillary dodged a bullet. Ask Scooter Libby if it is better to be sternly rebuked rather than indicted." (Steven Shepard, Insiders: Hillary's not out of the woods yet on emails, Politico, July 8, 2016 ). The report may be more damning and damaging in other respects. Clinton is running on a campaign of competence, professionalism, and judgement. No one sees her as a gifted communicator or looks to her as an inspirational leader. The email episode and her handling of it called her competence and judgment into question from the beginning. Comey's detailed account substantiated conclusions we already had reason to draw.

Surely it is not too much to want more and better from one who would be president. Should we expect she will learn from this episode? Or will she walk away, possibly into the White House, more convinced than ever, not without reason, that unscrupulous enemies will stop at nothing to bring her down and the press will target her no matter what? Now what president of my lifetime does this call to mind? Yes, I cannot but think of the trickster himself, Hunter S. Thompson's old pro football pal, Monsieur Richard Milhous Nixon. The comparison does not put my spirit at ease. I recommend Ezra Klein's article Understanding Hillary: Why the Clinton America sees isn’t the Clinton colleagues know (Vox, July 11, 2016).

This is not a profile of Hillary Clinton. It is not a review of her career or an assessment of her campaign. You won’t find any shocking revelations on her emails, on Benghazi, on Whitewater, or even on her health care plan.

This is an effort to answer a question I’ve been struggling with since at least 2008: Why is the Hillary Clinton described to me by her staff, her colleagues, and even her foes so different from the one I see on the campaign trail?

Klein does not spare Clinton. This is not a fluff piece. He lays out the case against her and the flaws that make even her supporters uneasy. And he presents another side.

And then there is the Hillary Clinton described to me by people who have worked with her, people I admire, people who understand Washington in ways I never will. Their Hillary Clinton is spoken of in superlatives: brilliant, funny, thoughtful, effective. She inspires a rare loyalty in ex-staff, and an unusual protectiveness even among former foes.

The article is worth the read.

Memo from the Editorial Desk

Minor editorial revisions were made to this essay after publication. This morning's final draft was worked over in precipitious haste. The edits were made in the interest of clarity and felicity of expression. There was no substantive change.

Late breaking: Another reason to support Clinton. Newt Gingrich announced, “I will be sort of the leader in how we [a Trump administration] rethink and how we reformulate the entire federal government. And that’s what I want to do, that’s what I think I’d be good at." (Nick Gass, Gingrich: I'll lead Trump effort to 'rethink' and 'reformulate the entire federal government,' Politico, July 15, 2016)

Related Reading

Nick Gass and Nolan D. McCaskill, FBI recommends no charges against Clinton in email probe, Politico, July 5, 2016

Dylan Matthews, The Clintons and the press are caught in a pointless, toxic cycle of scandal, Vox, July 5, 2016

Hillary Clinton calls for police reform, national use of force standards, Judy Woodruff interview, PBS Hewshour, July 2, 2016

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David Matthews

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