As a reporter and columnist for Time, Newsweek, the Washington Post, USA Today, Esquire, Salon, and other publications, Walter Shapiro has covered nine presidential elections and the nation’s politics for four decades. He is currently a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University and a lecturer in political science at Yale while he finishes a book about his great-uncle, a vaudevillian and con man who once swindled Hitler.
Shapiro is also an accomplished Hillary-ologist, having first interviewed Hillary Clinton in the Arkansas governor’s mansion for Time in September 1992. In early May, Shapiro sat down with Prospect editor-at-large Harold Meyerson to talk about a question he’s internally debated for years: On balance, would a Hillary Clinton candidacy and presidency be a good or bad thing for the liberal cause?
The following discussion has been edited for concision and clarity.
Harold Meyerson: Walter, when liberals look at Hillary Clinton, what should they see? The Democratic Party and the country have certainly changed since she was first lady, and even since she was a senator and secretary of state.
Walter Shapiro: I’ve always thought that Bill Clinton was never really a person of the ’60s. Bill Clinton started in 1960 as a 14-year-old who wanted to be governor of Arkansas. He came out of the ’60s as a 24-year-old who wanted to be governor of Arkansas without going to Vietnam. But Hillary did the full, life-changing conversion from the obedient Goldwater Girl to delivering an ethereal but genuinely anti-war address at Wellesley in ’69. So in a sense, as far as the culture of the time washing over someone, it washed over her more than it ever washed over Bill.
HM: Still, she spent so many years in Arkansas, and Arkansas’s political culture is not one with which most liberals are comfortable. Both Clintons were clearly supportive of the civil-rights revolution. But the other part of that culture is the Stephens investment firm and Wal-Mart, and to get somewhere in Arkansas politics, you eventually have relations with them. Hillary famously was on the Wal-Mart board for a while.
WS: What stayed with me, and I still think it’s really important for understanding Hillary, happened in March of 1992, at a debate before the Illinois primary. Jerry Brown (Bill Clinton’s primary opponent) went after Bill Clinton in part for the legal work that Hillary did at Rose Law Firm on behalf of banks. And Hillary at some point said, in effect, “Of course I work for banks; who do you expect me to work for if I’m a lawyer?” Well, there were, believe it or not, other clients in the state of Arkansas in the 1980s while her husband was governor.
HM: That’s no small part of what gives liberals pause about Hillary—who is, of course, still going around giving talks to the Goldman Sachses of the world. Is she too inextricably linked to that world? One of the major issues liberals had with Obama is that his economic team has been, like Bill Clinton’s, primarily Robert Rubin protégés. That’s two straight Democratic presidencies with a Wall Street pedigree.
WS: As a campaigner, Hillary can do a shot and a beer better than Barack Obama can. She was an exceedingly good candidate when it was too late in the ’08 primaries with white working-class voters in Pennsylvania, in Indiana, in states like that. That said, everything in the ledger says she’s not a policy populist.
Remember that the Bill Clinton administration at its most successful was the Democratic answer to Reaganism. It was what the French call “the spirit of the staircase”—coming up with everything you should have said at the party just after you’ve left it. The administration said, let’s get off the table everything Reagan criticized about the Democrats. It was welfare, so they ended it; it was crime, so they came up with funding for 100,000 more cops; it was economic deficits, so they came up with a balanced budget.
To some extent, electing Hillary Clinton in 2016 could continue a debate with Ronald Reagan that no one else in American life is still having. The Democrats have mostly forgotten Reagan, and the Republicans have turned him into this sainted soul of political constancy. But a Hillary presidency would be still framed by the Democratic memory of those horrible years in the wilderness in the 1980s, when the Democrats got wiped out in three successive elections.
HM: But the political landscape, the demographic profile of voters has changed so much since then. More political space has opened up on the left; the nation has plainly moved in a liberal direction on social issues; there are very few Blue Dogs remaining. Is this defensive crouch against the Republicans a politically viable stance?
WS: I’m talking about what makes her tick. Of course, she won two elections in a very diverse state since Bill’s presidency, and she won an awful lot of presidential primaries in ’08. She understands the diversity of America in 2017—except in the economic sense.
That said, I don’t think she’s the candidate of Archie Bunker’s America. But the worst thing that could have happened to her in terms of framing any economic populist message was to run for the Senate from New York rather than, say, Arkansas. Not only do the Clintons have a certain psychological need for money—that would probably be a separate course in the Department of Hillary Studies—but her constituents were Wall Street, and they were also the people who were funding all the Clinton initiatives and giving speaking fees to Bill.
Ultimately she has an orthodox, mainstream, centrist, Eisenhower Republican view of the economy. It is much to the left of today’s Republican Party since there are no Eisenhower Republicans left, but it is also much less in keeping with large segments of the Democratic Party. I can see her being very involved in raising the minimum wage, because it’s not as if hedge-fund billionaires are on the barricades against it. But trying to do a better, tougher version of Dodd-Frank? Let’s merely say that the polls would have to get very dismal for Hillary leading up to the 2020 election for that to even be on her agenda.
HM: Let’s go to foreign policy.
WS: If you wanted me to state my own personal reservations about Hillary, I would have started with foreign policy.
HM: What would those reservations be?
WS: First of all, other than the anti-war feeling, which is more generational than an elaborate, nuanced foreign-policy view, I don’t think she had terribly developed foreign-policy views during Bill’s presidency. OK, there was the general, and to my mind, admirable tilt toward humanitarian intervention in both Haiti and, much more important, in Bosnia. I do not think she would have dithered the way Obama has on Syria.
That said, I’ve seen no evidence that she had too much anguish over her vote to authorize Bush to go to war in Iraq. John Kerry turned himself into elaborate pretzel positions to try to justify that vote. Hillary may have anguished about many things, but that does not seem to be in the Top 10 Hillary Anguish moments.
HM: What do you think her hawkishness on Iraq would portend for foreign policy if Hillary were president?
WS: While she is not a Dick Cheney groupie, in a situation where there is a range of military actions on the table and there’s a responsible, mainstream opinion within the administration toward using the military—and the foreign-policy community says military action is called for—she would probably go with it and cheerlead it on. I don’t think she’s going to invent a war with Mongolia out of some crazed geopolitical effort to encircle China. But hers would probably be a more hawkish administration than we have now with Obama and John Kerry.
I’m much less worried about her starting a war with Denmark, though, than I am by the fact that she is probably the Democratic presidential candidate who would do the least to rein in the National Security Agency and all the leftover aspects of the “war on terror.” Sadly, both Hillary and Bill know that civil liberties is that which closes on Saturday night.
HM: Bill Clinton was not famed for his managerial prowess and neither is Barack Obama. That’s certainly part of the president’s job. Is Hillary a better manager than Bill?
WS: I think she is much more than just that. If you have been through a disaster like the first two years of the Clinton administration, you know what to do now. Flash forward to a White House in 2017. First, Bill and Hillary will have worked out their marriage, with her 69 and him 70, as well as any couple is likely to. If ever there’s a marriage that by 2017 has few surprises, it’s probably that one. Second, Hillary has been through two disastrous, disorganized White Houses under Bill Clinton and Obama. The way Obamacare was handled, in that the entire story of health care got lost, also the failure to put enough emphasis on the economy after the stimulus passed—all these things Hillary saw. She would come into the White House with a greater understanding of White House dysfunction than anyone in Democratic Party history. To have been in the Obama cabinet would also steel you against creating a White House where people believe they’ve invented the wheel, that they’re geniuses—the problems that have afflicted this White House.
HM: Bill is clearly going to be her chief adviser. How does this factor into everything?
WS: It will cause certain lines-of-authority confusion in the White House. But ultimately, I think it’s more good than bad. Every president, from what I’ve read and seen, communes with the ghosts of presidents past. It’s sort of nice to have a ghost of presidents past available on call. There will come a point if Hillary is president in, say, 2019, that something happens that already happened somewhere, sometime during Bill Clinton’s eight years in the White House. It would be really good to have the lessons from that analogue on tap.
HM: Right now, there’s no one else in the Democratic Party who’s within 40 or 50 points of Hillary in presidential polling. How do you assess her strengths and weaknesses as a candidate? A lot of what you’re describing is not necessarily the stuff that resonates with younger voters, except possibly that her election would be historic.
WS: There is an iron law of campaign journalism: Never assume anything with absolute certainty in presidential politics, because there are always surprises. President Muskie would be the first to remind us. That said, I had drinks last night with two prominent Republican consultants. What they told me is that they believe that Hillary—running as a centrist, not a populist, and moderately hawkish—would just sweep the field. There is no Republican who could possibly beat her except in exceptional circumstances. Part of it is the history-making nature of the race. But it is also this: All the things that make liberals a little uneasy about a Hillary presidency are the things that are perfect for a general election against a fill-in-the-blank Republican. Of course, in the remote chance that Rand Paul got the nomination, it would be interesting to see a Republican running against a Democrat with the Republican running to the left on national security.
But the larger point—and it’s one of the reasons, after going back and forth within myself, I am more in favor of her running than not—is that American politics since the 2000 election has been balanced on a knife’s edge. While there are moments when one party surges ahead, pretty much the country has been in equal balance. Beyond 2000, had just 130,000 votes been different in Ohio in 2004, John Kerry would have been president even though he would have lost the popular vote. Mitt Romney, not exactly someone who is going down in the Candidate Hall of Fame, still got, what, 47 percent of the vote?
HM: That was the appropriate percentage for him.
WS: The point is that Hillary could win a resounding victory that could bring in a Democratic majority to govern. And I would much rather have a president with a majority to govern, even if the decisions she made were not always decisions I agreed with, than another eight years, or four years, of a Democrat hamstrung by a divided Congress.
HM: Why don’t we hear more of an outcry from the left of the party for an alternative to Hillary?
WS: Three reasons come to mind. For some, it’s that electing a woman president would be historic. For others, there is the depressed sense of dashed expectations after five years of Obama. But the biggest reason, I suspect, is the political truism: “You can’t beat somebody with nobody.” And despite Elizabeth Warren fantasies, the Democratic left doesn’t have anyone who looks like a plausible president now willing to run.
That doesn’t mean that Hillary will run unopposed. Maybe it will be former Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana. Maybe it’ll be Howard Dean—or Senator Bernie Sanders, to keep coming up with Vermonters. I went back and checked since World War II. Aside from incumbent presidents, no one has ever been handed a presidential nomination unopposed other than Richard Nixon in 1960. And even Nixon had to kiss the hem of Nelson Rockefeller’s garment with something called the Compact of Fifth Avenue.
HM: Can Hillary turn out young people like Obama did—a key to both his victories? Can she engender a remotely comparable excitement factor?
WS: No. But probably neither can any other Democrat. Obama leached the sense of political excitement out of an entire generation with the gap between his campaign style and his governing style.
Also, remember that young voters in 2016 will have different life experiences than young voters in 2008. A 21-year-old in 2016 will have been in first grade on 9/11 and was too young at the time to understand the lies that sent us to war with Iraq. That means that these 2016 voters—no matter the candidates—will react to different stimuli than young voters in 2008.
So how can Hillary win in 2016? Maybe by sparking greater enthusiasm from women—especially single women. Maybe a 54-year-old waitress in Waterloo, Iowa, will vote for the first time. Hillary might also change the political map by running competitively in states like Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana, and Arkansas.
HM: How would a primary challenge from someone like Warren affect Hillary’s campaign? In terms of constituencies, I can see the party establishment—unions, electeds, blacks, traditional donors—sticking with her. But could that “Mondale-ize” her? And could Warren muster the kind of support that Gary Hart did in his 1984 challenge to Mondale?
WS: My heart goes pitter-patter whenever I get a Walter Mondale question. Which, oddly enough, happens less and less these days. But Mondale-Hart in ’84 is one of those races that explains the Democratic Party, along with Carter-Kennedy in 1980 and Bobby Kennedy versus Gene McCarthy in 1968.
I’d be stunned beyond belief if Elizabeth Warren ran against Hillary. Of course, I never expected Spiro Agnew, Dan Quayle, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus to be vice presidents of the United States. The Hart challenge to Mondale, which was based on amorphous “new ideas,” was in hindsight a generational battle. Elizabeth Warren is only two years younger than Hillary.
There has to be an issue with a passionate following to sustain a major primary challenge to Hillary. Right now, the Democrats don’t have one. For a project at Brookings, I’ve been watching what’s being stressed in Democratic House primaries around the country. At this point, NSA spying and drone attacks are just not voting issues for liberals. Getting tough with Wall Street—like single-payer health insurance—was something much more likely to trigger an adrenaline rush for the left in 2009 than in 2016.
HM: But Walter, a lot of recent polling done for Democrats shows that there is a sizable constituency that believes the economy is rigged; that the rich get away with low taxes while the middle class can’t; that free trade with other nations has damaged our economy; that when a candidate says he or she sides against Wall Street and with workers, they have more of a claim on this constituency’s support. Don’t you think there’s real political space for a candidate who positions herself or himself to Hillary’s left on these issues?
WS: Polls, schmolls. Which should be a Yiddish word meaning “enough with the cross-tabs.”
I agree that there’s space on the left. But that’s a lot different than having a charismatic candidate capable of exploiting it. What’s needed to run against Hillary is more than just the ability to play to the choir by mouthing off on MSNBC. That’s the campaign of Dennis Kucinich redux.
The more that we talk about this, the more I wish that Paul Wellstone were still alive. I don’t see anyone of his liberal stature—anyone with his sense of fun—willing to take on Hillary. It would take an exceptional candidate to harvest that underlying unease with a Clinton restoration. But it’s 18 months until Iowa and, boy, have I been wrong before.
For Hillary, a challenge from the left—as long as it didn’t catch fire—would actually help set her up for the general election since it would send the message that she was more of a centrist than a Karl Rove caricature. I also suspect it would be easier for Hillary to co-opt a primary challenge by making the right dovish noises on foreign policy or NSA eavesdropping than by attacking Wall Street, which would be for her an Olympic-level gymnastic trick. But, then, we’ve already seen Bill Clinton’s Dick Morris–inspired triangulation for the 1996 campaign. So maybe I shouldn’t dismiss Hillary’s malleability on economic issues if that was what was needed to win the nomination. But I wouldn’t count on follow-through if she got to the White House.
This article is from the July/August 2014 issue of The American Prospect magazine.