Seven Ways Hillary Clinton Changed Our Politics

Hillary Clinton will announce tomorrow that she is suspending her presidential campaign. We asked seven leading political writers and policy thinkers to tell us one key way Clinton affected the 2008 Election, and progressive politics, over the course of the primary. Here's what they had to say:

K.A. Geier: She Was a Front-runner, and She Stood Up For Women's Rights
Christopher Hayes: She Made Us Talk About Sexism
Ed Kilgore: She Helped Create a United Democratic Front on Iraq
Paul Starr: She Figured Out Health Care
Rebecca Traister: She Kept Voters, and the Candidates, Engaged Until the End
Moira Whelan: She Provided Leadership on National Security Issues
Kai Wright: She Made Us Reconsider Whether Progressives Understand Race

She Was a Front-runner, and She Stood Up For Women's Rights

The list of women who have run for president of the United States is surprisingly long. But there were two things about Hillary Clinton that stood out. First, unlike Shirley Chisholm or Pat Schroeder, Clinton was a front-runner. And unlike, say, Elizabeth Dole, Clinton's campaign was not just about elevating her personally; it was about elevating the status of all women. Clinton's most influential advisers have always included many women. Even more important, the policies she has advocated have been aimed at improving the status of women as a class.

Clinton has always been staunchly pro-choice, but her feminist agenda went far beyond that. Clinton has been a strong advocate of expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act, guaranteed paid sick leave, promoting workplace flexibility, and outlawing workplace discrimination against parents. She has also championed universal pre-K and high-quality child care, providing reproductive and other health care services for women in the U.S. and greater access to reproductive health care overseas, fighting AIDS in the U.S. and globally, and expanding women's opportunity as a tool for global economic development.

But the part of Clinton's feminist policy agenda that I particularly appreciate has been her efforts to strengthen anti-discrimination legislation. For one thing, Clinton is a co-sponsor of the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would strengthen the Equal Pay Act of 1963 by making it easier to sue for wage discrimination, as well as toughing the enforcement of equal pay laws. Clinton has also co-sponsored another piece of legislation, the Fair Pay Restoration Act, which would reverse the Supreme Court's egregious Ledbetter decision and give women more time to file a lawsuit if they believe they are being paid unequally.

Finally, Clinton came out strongly in favor of fully funding the E.E.O.C., a crucial step toward enforcing antidiscrimination law. Ever since Ronald Reagan became president, the E.E.O.C. has been crippled by destaffing and budget cuts. If we are serious about making workplace discrimination against women a thing of the past, putting teeth back into the E.E.O.C. is a crucial first step.

If Barack Obama wants to win the support of Clinton's legion of female supporters, the best thing he could do would be to wholeheartedly adopt Clinton's feminist policy agenda, and speak out frequently and forcefully in favor of laws and programs that protect the rights of women.

--K.A. Geier, blogger at The G Spot

She Made Us Talk About Sexism

There were some truly admirable policies put forth by Sen. Clinton in her historic campaign for the presidency, most notably her ambitious (if flawed) plan to provide universal health care. But ultimately I don't think policy positions will be the greatest progressive legacy of her candidacy. The fact is that while her policy proposals helped cement the center-left consensus around health care, climate change, and withdrawal from Iraq, that consensus preceded her.

What was most striking about her campaign was the sexist venom directed at her from so many corners of the establishment, and the steely resolve with which she faced it down. That dynamic is what, I think, helped her win New Hampshire, avoid an early demise, and inspire the passionate support she gained from white women of her generation. These women are the backbone of the Democratic coalition, and they live life within the chaffing confines of a culture that feels as if it has, depressingly, outrageously, grown more sexist over the last several decades. As a male writer, I can say this lived reality is probably too easy for me to brush aside. But as Dana Goldstein pointed out, the presence of these sentiments, in all their vulgarity, presented progressive men with ample occasion for introspection on the ways in which progressive politics, and the discourse we all engage in sometimes explicitly, and more often tacitly, reinforces this power imbalance. This will, I hope, I believe, have a profound lasting positive and progressive effect.

V. I. Lenin believed that the only way to bring about the revolution was to heighten the contradictions between capital and labor. Hillary Clinton, as the most accomplished female candidate for the presidency, bore the burden of heightening the contradictions between the patriarchy and our fundamental progressive commitments to equity. They are now much harder to ignore.

--Christopher Hayes, Washington, D.C., editor of The Nation

She Helped Create a United Democratic Front on Iraq

Beyond the issues raised by Dana Goldstein and Mark Schmitt, I would like to make a different point about a less momentous but still important contribution of Hillary Clinton's: her role in creating a united Democratic front on Iraq.

This idea probably doesn't sound right to those Democrats who remain angry to this day about Clinton's refusal to admit her vote for the Iraq War Resolution was a mistake. Others dislike Clinton's (and for that matter, Obama's) position on residual troop commitments. Still others are unhappy with her won't-rule-out-force posture on Iran, and her criticism of Obama's willingness to negotiate with foreign governments without preconditions.

But let's remember where Democrats were on Iraq a just a year ago: deeply, angrily divided, in Congress and across the country. Yes, we were all pretty much united in opposing the "surge," but beyond that, there were highly fractious arguments going on in Congress and in the blogosphere about withdrawal deadlines, appropriations cutoffs, and in general, the extent to which the party needed to be unambiguously and aggressively identified with a date-certain termination of the war. As someone almost universally identified as a leader in the "liberal hawk" faction of the party, with a very limited ability to change perceptions about her national security views, Clinton could well have helped exacerbate rather than heal those divisions. Indeed, there were those in her camp who wanted her to do exactly that, "triangulating" against the more vocal antiwar Democrats and the candidates they supported.

But she didn't. As a candidate, she quickly adopted a position favoring a fixed withdrawal timetable, voted for a cutoff of Iraq War appropriations, and made a speedy end to combat operations a key campaign pledge. A series of candidates, from Vilsack to Richardson to Dodd to Edwards, sought to make prospective Iraq proposals a wedge issue against both Clinton and Obama, but never got much purchase. And when the campaign finally became a two-candidate contest, Democratic divisions on what ought to happen in the future in Iraq were pretty much off the table.

There were a lot of moving pieces in this shifting landscape, but the most important was Hillary Clinton's determination to stick close to Obama on Iraq policy. Whether you attribute it to principle or to political expediency, it's clear in retrospect that Hillary Clinton helped ensure Democrats could go into the general election united and sharply differentiated from John McCain on Iraq. Right-from-the-start nominee Barack Obama solidifies that positioning, but Clinton deserves some credit as well for this particular "dog that didn't bark" in the long dogfight of the nominating contest.

--Ed Kilgore, managing editor of The Democratic Strategist

She Figured Out Health Care

In retrospect, Hillary Clinton's introduction of her plan for health-care reform last September may have been the zenith of her presidential campaign, just as the 1993 health plan may have been the nadir of her time as first lady. Warmly received by many who had been doubtful about her, the proposal seemed to put to rest fears that the earlier health debacle would continue to haunt her candidacy. She had learned her lesson, many observers said, and seemed thoroughly in command of an issue that was widely expected to be the central domestic priority for Democrats in the election.

Sen. Clinton's new proposal--as I explained here last fall-- not only reflected a prudent recognition of political realities but in several respects represented a real improvement over the 1993 model. The general spirit could be put in these terms: Set simple new rules for health insurance that people will acknowledge to be fair and reasonable, and then let both individuals and employers have lots of choices about how to obtain coverage -- including the choice to keep what they have. Rather than create new institutions, she wisely sought to put old institutions to new purposes--for example, using the Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan, instead of establishing “regional health alliances,” as the mechanism for making available an array of health plans to consumers not otherwise provided with coverage.

She was also wise to move away from a reliance on employer financing, to discard the idea of an employer mandate (except for the largest firms), and instead to call for an individual mandate along with tax credits that would cap individual premiums as a percentage of income.

What I didn't expect last fall was that the individual mandate would become virtually the entire focus of the debate about health-care reform during the primary season. A requirement that individuals pay a share of costs has always been part of proposals for universal health coverage, just as such a requirement is essential to Social Security. But although John Edwards called for an individual mandate, Barack Obama did not--and he made it the central focus of his criticism of Sen. Clinton, giving the impression, so appealing to many, that his own plan was voluntary, whereas hers was coercive.

In fact, Sen. Obama's plan also had a mandate--actually, two--a mandate on employers (either to provide coverage to their workers or pay a percentage of payroll) and a mandate on parents to cover their children.

There is no point in rehearsing this debate again, except to say this: In standing up for the principle of universality that is essential to social insurance, Sen. Clinton fought the good fight. If we are ever to have universal coverage, I expect that she will be vindicated on that score. And, more generally, the health plan that she presented deserves to outlive her campaign.

--Paul Starr, founding co-editor of The American Prospect

She Kept Voters, and the Candidates, Engaged Until the End

The most valuable contribution Hillary Clinton made to progressive politics was staying in the race for as long (decades, right?) as she did.

Critics talk a lot about the costs of her perseverance -- the blows to party unity, the drain on the wallets of Democratic supporters. But Clinton's tireless march through the states and territories provided something far more valuable than good Democratic vibrations or excess funds: She (with ample help from her inspiring opponent) engaged record numbers of Americans in an addictive serialized political spectacle called democracy.

Seemingly every week there were new plot twists, fresh characters, and outrageous sound bites to be picked over. We made predictions and watched them get blasted apart; we picked favorites, and then our feelings for the characters changed. Amazingly, we managed to follow along, even though the narrative included conversations we don't usually like to have: conversations about race, gender, and class discrimination.

In her seemingly eternal quest, Clinton also found herself in places neither she nor the rest of us ever expected to be so late in the spring: Indiana, North Carolina, West Virginia, Oregon, Puerto Rico, South Dakota. For the first time in decades, voters in these states got a chance to feel invested in a primary election, to educate themselves about and maybe meet the candidates, to cast their votes and hear that night on the news that they had mattered.

But the extended contest didn't just give voters face time with the candidates; it forced both Clinton and Obama to pay attention to the voters, to hear about people's problems and dissatisfactions and priorities and circumstances, to treat areas of America they might otherwise ignore with respect and interest. Voters around the country had a chance to lay out their concerns in front of politicians who had no choice but to listen to them.

Mostly, what Hillary Clinton did, through sheer, uncut, and occasionally delusional gumption, was give us a primary season that was as compelling as it was maddening. She made politics the most exciting show on television, the most readable story in the newspaper, the most heart-pounding race at the track. It was great! Better than Survivor or any division series! For six sweet, difficult months, presidential politics has been the greatest game in town, drawing fans who might otherwise never have tuned in.

And there's nothing more progressive than that.

--Rebecca Traister, staff writer at Salon.com

She Provided Leadership on National Security Issues

Hillary Clinton has taken a great deal of criticism, and rightfully so, for her vote to authorize the war in Iraq. And while that decision must not be discounted, the vote has overshadowed the contributions she has made on other central national security issues -- most notably Afghanistan. Clinton used her platform to remind voters early and often of the need to focus on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border and not buy into conservative rhetoric that Iraq was the central front in the "War on Terror." This set the bar for her fellow candidates to do the same.

Prioritizing Afghanistan in such a manner was no small feat given the waning media focus on what Clinton refers to as "the forgotten front line." Shortly after announcing her candidacy, Clinton laid out her national security vision in Foreign Affairs, but unlike her opponents, her article tackled Afghanistan first, before moving on to Iraq. Despite the fact that stories about the Taliban rarely found their way to the front page, Clinton has visited Afghanistan three times since 2003, given multiple speeches on the issue during her run for the White House, and led the consistent questioning of U.S. military leaders such as General Petraeus as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. She was among the first in Congress to call for additional troops to be sent to Afghanistan, and to call out the costs that resulted from concentrating troop strength and U.S. resources in Iraq rather than Afghanistan. As late as March of this year, while the punditry focused on super delegates and surrogate gaffes, Clinton laid out a detailed plan for fixing the problems that have resulted from the Bush Administration's abandoning of Afghanistan. She floated the idea of a robust counternarcotics program, as well as a special U.S. envoy to the region, a role usually reserved for such issues as the Middle East Peace Process or North Korea's nuclear program.

Clinton's performance in the campaign, solidified by the extensive knowledge of the military she has cultivated during her time in the Senate, will secure her role as one of the few strong female voices on security issues in this country,. However, the respect she has earned within foreign policy circles comes not from her gender, but from her mastery of the complex issues we face and her willingness to use her powerful platform to educate Americans about what we need to do to make the country safe.

--Moira Whelan, director of strategy and outreach for the National Security Network

She Made Us Reconsider Whether Progressives Understand Race

I don't know if Hillary Clinton and her running-mate spouse are racists, cynical opportunists, or just plain deluded egotists. Nor do I care. I've stopped trying to figure out what makes nominally progressive white people act out around race, because the only way to navigate America's racial house of mirrors is to ignore motives and focus on outcomes. And when it comes to the Clintons' desperate campaign to get back into the Oval Office, the results are clear: From Iowa forward, the former first couple and their surrogates have stirred up one regressive race debate after another.

The sad litany requires little recounting at this point -- diminishing Martin Luther King Jr.'s role in securing voting rights, stoking distrust between blacks and Latinos, insinuating that Barack Obama is an affirmative-action candidate, and on and on. Clinton provided laughable symmetry to it all when she equated the historically massive voting-rights movement with her petty crusade to count uncontested Michigan and Florida wins.

At the campaign's end, Clinton re-styled herself from inevitable powerhouse to progressive populist. But her camp's ongoing effort to pit working-class whites against blacks and liberal elites is actually reactionary conservatism at its worst. From Andrew Johnson to George Wallace, American political history is littered with demagogues peddling this unnatural divide; the effect has always been to undermine a progressive coalition that could finally create equal opportunity for hard-working whites and blacks alike.

It's fitting, then, that the spectacle began with Bill Clinton dismissing Obama's South Carolina win by comparing it to Jesse Jackson's. Set aside the implication that black voters' choices don't matter. The crucial point the former president missed is that Jesse's Rainbow Coalition suggested a formula for successful progressive politics: Unite working-class whites and people of color.

It strains credulity to suppose the Clinton camp -- masters of reading the right-wing conspiracy's coded language -- haven't known what vein of American culture they're tapping with the race-baiting they, at minimum, have tacitly condoned. And it doesn't matter whether they believed it or just trafficked in it for political gain. Either way, they've lit fires that Barack Obama now must put out if he has any hope of winning, much less governing.

Perversely, maybe that's the greatest contribution Hillary Clinton's run has made to progressive politics. She's cemented -- or at least demonstrated -- an unavoidable truth: The future turns on our ability to connect the interests of working-class whites, blacks, and immigrants. The first step is tossing the divisive politics of Clinton's campaign into the rubbish heap of history.

--Kai Wright, freelance writer, author of the new book, Drifting Toward Love: Black, Brown, Gay and Coming of Age on the Streets of New York (Beacon Press)

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