Highline—American Electoral: 7 Days on the Trail

(reported and written with Jack Hitt)

Day 7:  What Democrats Need Is a Defensive President


JACK HITT: With both parties chronically incapable of settling on a nominee, we prepare to leave South Carolina—opting for the luxury of a JetBlue coach seat instead of one more spin cycle in an Amtrak insomnia suite. After the debate brawl on Saturday, in which no one—including the audience—managed to corral the bellowing Trump, the Republican campaign has imploded into whispers of a brokered convention, a third party candidate or a split party. Meanwhile, the Democratic candidates are blowing up in Nevada—where Hillary was previously expected to win handily—and there is talk that younger black voters in South Carolina are giving Bernie a second look. And so the question that has been tormenting the Republican establishment for months—“My God, are we really nominating Donald Trump?”—is now also tormenting the Democratic establishment: “Bernie Sanders, really?”

Both parties now have to decide whether to support a candidate that a significant chunk of their own voters find depressing. Even Hillary’s most ardent supporters look away and admit that, yes, we will be bringing the fuming, belching, soiled Clinton machine back to town. Democrats and Republicans have other choices, very attractive to most of their voters, but the dynamic forces of the primaries are heading where they are heading. Soon enough, summer will be upon us when they will shed their mortal coils as mere candidates and the mythic elevation will take place. “I accept your nomination to be President of the United States.” And we will all have to start thinking very differently about these people.

KEVIN BAKER: Electing a president isn’t simply about selecting the best person available. It’s about choosing the best person for an historical moment. As Bismarck said, a statesman “must wait until he hears the steps of God sounding through events, then leap up and grasp the hem of his garment.”

Sometimes you need an “offense president”—someone who will take seize a historic opportunity to rally the country behind ideas your side has been championing for years. Think a Franklin Roosevelt or a Ronald Reagan, a Jefferson or a Lincoln. Other times, you need a defensive president—someone who will protect the best of what your party has done when the footsteps of God are sounding fainter and fainter.

A good defensive president uses a variety of tactics, depending on whether he is trying to revive his party after a temporary setback, help it through a long spell in the wilderness, or accommodate it to an immutable change in the world that threatens its existence. He or she can push forward the interests of his or her side—and, one hopes, what is best for the country—by using every resource at their disposal. Through executive actions, canny appointments, and by taking every possible opportunity to win over the public and challenge and divide the opposition.

Harry Truman, for instance, took office when the country was temporarily exhausted by his party’s activism, not to mention a war and a depression before that. An accidental president, he was perceived as a much smaller figure than the giant who preceded him, Franklin Roosevelt. But Truman turned things around, playing up his “everyman” persona and taking on the new Republican Congress at every turn.

His successor, Dwight Eisenhower, was seen by some conservative Republicans as just the leader to roll back the New Deal. But Ike correctly recognized that most of the Republican rank-and-file—as well as the country—generally approved of the reforms. In both domestic and foreign policy, with some notable exceptions, Ike struck a balance, while reining in the more radical elements of his party. In the process, he managed to recast the GOP as a moderate bastion of national defense and fiscal responsibility—and, amazing as it may sound to modern ears—a supporter of civil rights in the South.

Sixteen years later, Richard Nixon came out of a much more right-wing tradition, but he, too, saw that the spirit of the times was against conservatism. He would have to contend with large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, and Democrats dominating state and local politics in most of the country. So he made some calculated moves to coopt liberal issues, starting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and proposing a guaranteed national income and universal health care.

Nixon’s successes provided cover for a more thorough transformation. By pushing a combination of a relatively liberal economic agenda and conservative social policies, he was able to pry blue-collar workers away from the Democrats in the South—and much of the North.

How does all this translate to 2016? Well, we know that a Democratic president is not going to be able to pass any sort of wide-reaching agenda. Thanks to a long series of electoral disasters, Democrats have lost Congress and the overwhelming majority of governorships and state legislatures. And unlike Truman, Eisenhower, and Nixon, a Democratic president won’t have anyone to work with across the aisle. There is no consensus to be built on at least a few key issues, no chance to win over voters on the other side in the short term.

This means that one of the main tasks facing a Democratic president will be simply holding the line while the demographics swing—if they swing—and the party reorganizes. And if the next Democratic president is going to do nothing but fight for his or her political life against a constant barrage of imprecations, lunatic conspiracy theories, and baseless threats of impeachment—something that any and every Democratic president will now face at the hands of a thoroughly radicalized Republican party and its sleazy corporate masters—I really can’t think of a better defensive specialist than Hillary Clinton.

JH: Hillary’s flaw as a public figure has always been that she has so many personae that everyone gets the Hillary they want. Brian Williams scolded her, on the night of the New Hampshire primary, for needing a teleprompter to remember her own history. That was totally unfair. If you told as many different versions of your life story as Hillary has, you’d need a teleprompter, too.

And this is what terrifies Republicans, ultimately, about Hillary. It’s not that she’s a shiftless, unprincipled, cunning, teeth-gritting flipflopper; it’s that she’s as good at it as they are.

Today, strategic reversal of what one believed passionately only the day before is practically a requirement for exercising political power. (Watch Republican Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell this week as he brazenly flip-flops on his principled position that a president has the constitutional obligation to appoint his own Supreme Court justices—a point he has written about at length.)

It’s precisely these transformations that make so many uneasy about Hillary, and for good reason. But it’s hard to think of another politician who has doggedly beaten back so many setbacks with new versions of herself. As feminist First Lady who wanted to be known as Hillary Rodham, she got burned and a few weeks later she was reborn as HRC, the good mother to Chelsea and baker of cookies. Remember how she became a tireless advocate for small-town New Yorkers in her first Senate run? Later, she was the careful, respectful student of military matters, when she needed to win over her skeptical colleagues in the Senate. She has been beaten and burned in every which way—and there are few politicians who have learned by fire not only how to create the (new) new Hillary but do it successfully.

Perhaps the best showcase for how a Hillary presidency might proceed was seen last October when she walked into the House chamber for the Benghazi hearings. What was true genius was not merely the hipster cool she maintained for eleven hours in the dunking chair. It was the ten days that preceded her arrival. At the time, the Republicans were beginning the 11th hearing and/or report on Benghazi—all of which reached the conclusion that Clinton was not to blame. Then Republican Kevin McCarthy went on Fox and blurted, “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.” Afterward, there was a constant barrage of items in the press about the partisan bias of this panel—a leaked transcript, a neutral staffer quitting because he’d been ordered to dig dirt on Hillary, then Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat, challenging one-sided procedure. By the time a rested and ready Hillary took her seat, the Republican chairman, Trey Gowdy, looked frail and afraid.

It’s what Marines call “preparing the battlefield.” Three days of airstrikes to wound and terrify the enemy, then you send in the devil dogs for the kill. Those ten days were not random chance: It was tactical brilliance reminiscent of early Karl Rove. If only her campaign could ask the voter out loud, is Bernie capable of orchestrating anything as strategically successful as Hillary’s Benghazi appearance?

KB: I suspect that Bernie himself originally intended his campaign as no more than a useful protest, an attempt to push Hillary to the left. There is nothing wrong with that. But now that he has become a serious contender, what does he have to offer us?

My guess is that George McGovern started his ill-fated 1972 campaign with much the same objective in mind. It’s become a cliché to characterize McGovern as a starry-eyed peacenik who pushed the boundary of how far the left could go in America and led his party to disaster.

Actually, McGovern was a decorated bomber pilot from World War II, and a practical enough politician to win three terms in the senate from South Dakota. His liberalism was not far at all from the mainstream beliefs of his time. Had he decided to hold off running until, say, 1976, he might well have been elected—and might have made an excellent president.

Instead, running a ramshackle campaign without much of a plan as to how he might win or govern, he was crushed. His loss led the media to conclude that liberalism was probably finished in America. And yet in almost every way, he was a candidate with a much more attractive resume and far more effective political chops than Bernie Sanders.

Taking office at 75, if he can, Bernie would be the oldest president in history, in an age when the average American males lives to be a little less than 79. Would we even be voting for Bernie, really, or his vice-president?

The Clintons are, in many ways, disgusting. I vowed never again to vote for a-one of them after Bill nuked the safety net in 1996, in order to secure a few more votes in a re-election campaign he already had in the bag. If I thought that Hillary Clinton actually had a chance of passing any new program she devised, I probably would keep my vow.

But she doesn’t. No Democrat does, because we liberals couldn’t be bothered to come out and vote in an off-year and lost our majority. Until we do the long, hard work of clawing back representation in Congress and state governments all around the country, we need someone who can hold the barbarians from the gate. As FDR liked to say, “Some people can never understand that you have to wait, even for the best things, until the right time comes.”

JH: If Bernie’s victory in New Hampshire has actually eaten away at Hillary’s base support, we’ll soon know—she’ll develop a slight hint of hoarse anger to her voice, and some fresh intemperance for mortgage bankers. By the end of this week, as Nevadans go to their caucus and South Carolinians to their voting booths, she will sound like the reincarnation of trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt atop his steed. The pundits will express disbelief—not because Hillary has so instantly reversed course, but because it will work. She will win the nomination and in all likelihood the presidency.

Kevin says that she’ll be condemned to govern as a defensive president in the first-term Nixon mode. I don’t know. George W. Bush limped into the White House in 2001, and, once in office, he faced an enraged Democratic Party. Yet he managed to outmaneuver the scattered Democrats on message and tactics nearly every time.

If Hillary were president right now, her first Supreme Court appointment might be Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, a Mexican-American triple threat (Harvard, Yale, Stanford) who is beloved by Latinos. She’d float his name long enough to lure Republicans into trashing him. Which is key, because Marco Rubio’s seat in Florida is open this year, and any Republican forced to say that Cuellar should not be on the Court would probably lose. Then Hillary would hold a press conference, announce that the Republicans had politicized the process, withdraw Cuellar’s name and announce instead Illinois native Merrick Garland. The Senate seat there is currently held by Republican Mark Kirk and considered extremely vulnerable. And so on.

Obama would never do this because it is just not in his blood to battle politically this way. Fervent Hillary supporters don’t see Bernie ever thinking or acting in this manner either. The Hillary supporters know that there is only one person who has the scar tissue to fight like this. It’s why they so passionately support her.

If she were running this Supreme Court appointment, by the end of the summer, the vulnerable senatorial candidates would be wailing at the Republican leadership to get this issue “off the table.” So, a nominee would be confirmed and afterward, on the White House lawn, there would be Hillary, wearing that smile that drives her enemies insane, saying that the great strength of American democracy is our “ability to compromise.”

Jack Hitt is an author, most recently of Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character.

Kevin Baker is a novelist and the author of several books on American history.