Over Labor Day weekend the pundits and prognosticators have been bringing us the good news—and it truly is good news—of Hillary Clinton’s steady march to victory in November. It’s not just that Trump is still flailing and shape shifting; it’s also that Clinton possesses an incredible field operation, an incredible strategic team, and an incredible steely resolve to achieve what she couldn’t quite achieve eight years ago.
Clinton’s advantages have definitely put control of the U.S. Senate into play. And, as Robert H. Frank wrote in his Sunday Times piece, it is theoretically possible for the Democrats to seize control of the House of Representatives as well, which would bring stunning surcease to the hideous gridlock that has blocked urgent action on so many fronts, ranging from climate change to immigration and women’s rights.
I’m a Robert Frank fan, but as I read his thoughtful assessment of the House challenge I could not escape the realization that the kind of electoral surge needed to wrench the House from the Republicans is just not going to materialize. More to the point, I felt, quite viscerally, the loss of this opportunity. I felt what a doggone crying shame it will be for us to continue to bear the huge cost of divided government and to watch yet another young and hopeful generation grow cynical about a broken system.
Put simply, the only force that could break the GOP’s lock on the House is the force of a morally awakened electorate. Were Obama running again, I believe that the Republican House just might crumble and fall. The president remains America’s Idealist In Chief, and he would run on his evident moral passion to bind up the nation’s wounds. He would take the high ground and smite the sworn enemies of American ideals–of liberty and justice for all–on both hip and thigh. He would chastise the Republicans as a group for their decades-long stirring of the toxic slime from which Trumpism emerged.
Secretary Clinton, on the other hand, often sounds moralistic when speaking of the nation’s problems, but she never comes across as a deeply ethical reformer in the mold of Barack Obama, Franklin Roosevelt, or even 1964’s Lyndon Johnson. Her pandering to groups representing underdogs—women’s rights groups, civil rights groups, trade unions—feels in both intonation and gesture exactly like that: highly calculated pandering. Tom Kaine’s down-to-earth Joe Biden impersonation can’t compensate for this defect at the top of the ticket. No number of morally-impassioned surrogates can compensate.
We should not forget that a widely-shared yearning for a moral revolution formed the heart of the Sanders movement. We shouldn’t forget that this surge of moral energy surprised the Vermont senator himself, or that it was really a remarkable thing to behold, especially considering the many liabilities of the senator as a credible candidate. We shouldn’t forget that what many read as “class warfare” and raw resentment of the overclass always arises from a deeply moral center. It’s not just that the 1% sucks up more than 90% of all new the new wealth generated in this country; it’s that their arrogance and presumption regarding their entitlement to power and wealth is widely seen to be undemocratic and simply wrong.
But it appears that Clinton and her team may have forgotten all of this.
In the same Sunday editions that included Prof. Frank’s call to take back the House, the Times reported that Mrs. Clinton, who has not been willing to meet the press in over 200 days, made time last month to meet with dozens of millionaires and billionaires at their gilded retreats in the Hamptons, Beverly Hills, Martha’s Vineyard, etc. The Times’ analysis found her “raking in roughly $50 million at 22 fund-raising events, averaging about $150,000 an hour.”
Does anyone suppose that Secretary Clinton and her ultra-rich contributors are plotting a moral revolution—that they are framing a clarion call to end income inequality and ease the pain of working-class America—as they chat it up over foie gras in the gated mansions of both coasts?
Part of the arrogance of the overclass subsists in their assumption that the rest of us won’t notice their arrogance: they assume that we are too dumb or too distracted to pay attention to how the system works. Historically, many a ruling elite has made this mistake. In today’s U.S. context, the seeds of popular awareness and popular revulsion are thick on the ground, but those seeds still need to be watered by the kind of political leadership that awakens rather than suppresses moral outrage.
Sadly, even tragically, Hillary Clinton is just not that kind of leader. Never mind her other problems: the core problem is that she is far too much “at ease in Zion,” as the Hebrew prophets would have put it.
In 2008, Barack Obama didn’t have to say that his was a righteous cause. That righteousness was already almost self-evident in the very notion of someone like him, a proud African American, contending nobly for the nation’s highest office. But Obama then really energized and (I would say) sacralized his campaign by making the whole thing about the ethical promise of hope and change. He tapped into the deep yearning out there for a moral revolution. Obama’s appeal for a restoration of decency and fairness and an end to American torture held great appeal, not only to “people of faith” but to all people of good faith and good intent.
Obama’s ability to mount a “secular sacred” campaign, and not just his ability to run a superb field operation, is what catapulted him over Hillary Clinton to become the 44th president.
I fully expect Secretary Clinton to succeed Obama as #45, but my heart does not beat faster in contemplation of that outcome. Hers will not be a moral victory, and there won’t be enough of a popular insurgency to decimate the Republicans and finally lift the curse of extreme partisanship and divided government, not to mention the rule of concentrated wealth in Washington.
The favored rich will certainly rest easy with her in office. The rest of us, I’m not so sure.