At The New Republic, Rebecca Traister writes of the ‘New, Old, Hillary’ Clinton, of the woman who started out as the kind of politician-cum-activist the left would love to have as president, but who became an opportunistic ‘contortionist’, one only too willing to compromise to be accepted, to hold on to power and exercise it:
America did not much like this woman when she first came to us: ambitious and tough and liberal and feminist and interested in social progress and civil rights and reforming the world for women and children across classes…And so, in her quest to become a mainstream, powerful politician, she contorted; she bent and stretched to be more like what the people could stomach….Her willingness to shape-shift will always haunt her; she’ll pay for it in low estimations of her trustworthiness and moral timbre. Those costs are on her, and they are ones she may have calculated from the beginning.
But it’s also on us, and our longstanding lack of appetite for women who threaten or trouble us.
I agree with Traister: many reactions to Hillary Clinton have been distasteful and acutely revealing of the deep-rooted sexism that animates this patriarchal society of ours. Still, there were many who cheered for Hillary too, who wanted her to be the politician who had racked up the impressive activist credentials and history that Traister cites in her piece. (I remember my delight at finding out Bill Clinton’s to-be-doomed healthcare initiative would feature Hilary Clinton in a central role. For a counterview though to the history Traister provides, do read Doug Henwood‘s ‘Stop Hillary!’ essay.) The booing from the gallery was admittedly louder than the cheering, the catcalls more numerous than the bouquets, but a mystery remains: Why did Hilary respond with such alacrity to the former and not the latter?
Hilary’s retreat from her formerly held positions was even more disheartening because she has had so many opportunities to redeem herself, very few of which she has taken on. We might perhaps be pardoned our distrust then; it seems the only time we see the old Hillary is on the campaign trail. This old Hillary that Traister speaks of, how much have we seen of her when the going was good? In the eight years of the Bill Clinton presidency, how did she exert herself and burnish her progressive credentials? She did so by inducing two swings to the center–‘the balanced budget and welfare reform.’ Did she do so when she was Secretary of State? Instead, she oversaw a more ‘hawkish foreign policy.’
We all know the story: idealistic politician storms out of the gate, spouting fire and brimstone oratory, swinging for the fences, every word and gesture suggesting no prisoners will be taken; then, reality sinks in; pragmatism rules the roost; governing, not campaigning, takes over. (Yes, we thought we could!) We’ve all tasted the bitterness of watching an unconventional candidate become conventional. This is what generates Hilary’s greatest credibility crisis: We are more betrayed by the supposed idealist than by the supposed pragmatist. Hilary’s task is not to convince the latter, it is to persuade the former to return the fold. I’m afraid the going will be tough.