Jay Parini: Clinton has high negatives after decades in positions of authority
But, he asks, is there any real reason to hate someone who would be one of the most qualified presidents in recent times?
Some of the hate is sexist, some is fear from Republicans who consider her a strong candidate, Parini says
Editor’s Note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont and is the author of “Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Before I got out of bed this morning, my wife asked: “Why do they hate Hillary Clinton so much?”
Although I voted in the primary for Bernie Sanders, my senator from Vermont, I don’t dislike Clinton in the least. Quite the opposite. I will happily vote for her in November.
She is an admirable public servant, despite her obvious flaws, which are mostly the consequence of her decades in positions of authority. Every coin has two sides.
Her work as first lady certainly gave her a close view of life in the Oval Office – a time of “daring and hubris,” according to The New York Times’ Peter Baker and Amy Chozick, when she learned how the levers of power work. Having served as a U.S. senator for eight years, she knows how Congress functions – or doesn’t. And she has a vast comprehension of foreign affairs, having visited 112 countries during her years (2009 to 2013) as secretary of state – more than any previous person in that post.
Her achievements in Congress and at the State Department can’t be denied, though many will try. Don’t forget her courageous China speech on the rights of women, her aggressive work on climate change and her skill as a senator in guiding the Children’s Health Insurance Program through Congress. She helped to negotiate a ceasefire with Hamas during a tense moment in Israel. I think of her successes in forging alliances in South America, Africa and Asia, and her part in establishing tough sanctions against Iran. That’s only the beginning.
And yet people hate her. Her negative ratings, in fact, have been shockingly high for someone this close to the nomination of her party. Indeed, one of the most frequently posed questions to the candidate herself is some version of “Why don’t they like you?”
Of course, Republicans have known for a long time that Hillary Clinton is an unusually strong candidate, and this terrifies them. So they have seized on talking points like Benghazi (for which she bears little or no responsibility) and her email scandal. On the latter, even columnist Ruth Marcus – certainly no fan of Clinton’s – recently wrote in The Washington Post that “there is no clear evidence that Clinton knew (or even should have known) that the material in her emails was classified.” As we’ve seen, neither Benghazi nor the email trouble are likely to put off Democratic voters, who regard them as Republican talking points.
It’s perhaps too easy to blame sexism for the nastiness that colors the opposition to Clinton. Yet one sees misogyny bubbling out in the comments section of articles on the Web, where no sentiments – however crude – are off limits. They attack her voice, her hairstyle, her pantsuits, her laugh. On and on.
Even in the mainstream, one hears misogynistic comments, as when Tucker Carlson said of Clinton on MSNBC: “When she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs” or when Rand Paul said, “I’m starting to worry that when Hillary Clinton travels, there’s going to need to be two planes – one for her and her entourage, and one for her baggage.”
Clinton gets slammed for “shouting” and not smiling enough, though these are criticisms we don’t hear about the male candidates. The main thing to dislike about Hillary Clinton seems to be her gender, and one can only begin to imagine the kind of language Donald Trump will summon in the general election.
Serious criticism of Clinton does arise. Some believe, for instance, that she doesn’t tell the truth. Or that she’s beholden to Wall Street. Or that she got four people killed in Benghazi. Others insist that she played fast and loose with her emails, risking national security and breaking the law.
I myself would fault her for pushing President Obama to intervene in Libya: That hawkishness worries me. Regime change is not our business, and I would hope she has learned this lesson.
Yet it makes no sense for people to hate her.
She does shade the truth at times, as do all politicians, including Sanders. Politifact, an excellent website, measures the truth-quality of statements by everyone running for president on both sides of the aisle, and Clinton comes out as perhaps the most truthful of the pack, even more so than Sanders – although the two are more or less even, telling the whole truth or something like the truth about half the time. (By contrast, only 9% of the statements made by Donald Trump and reviewed by Politifact were rated “true” or “mostly true.” More than three quarters of Trump’s statements were rated “mostly false,” “false” or “pants on fire.”)
As for Wall Street: The financial industry has supplied roughly 3.9% of Clinton’s funding, or 7% if you count money from related PACs. She did, of course, make a fair number of speeches to big banks – though by no means did the bulk of her income as a speaker derive from those speeches.
And what did Wall Street get for its money? Not much.
In the Senate, she voted for TARP, the Bush plan to bail out the banks. But this was a wise move, in my view, helping to rescue an economy in free fall. She argued from the floor: “For two years, I and others have called for action as wave after wave of defaults and foreclosures crashed against communities and the broader economy.” She has, in fact, called for a tax on high frequency trading, the sort of maneuvering that puts people’s retirement savings at risk.
Not perfect, but smart and experienced
In general, Clinton has been fairly sympathetic to Wall Street and willing to work with it, even help it at times. This annoys some on the left. But do we really want a president who hates Wall Street, which is the engine house of our economy?
I don’t think so.
Make no doubt about it: Clinton remains a liberal Democrat. She and Sanders actually voted “the same way 93% of the time in the two years they shared in the Senate,” according to an analysis done by The New York Times. She is, plainly, more centrist than Sanders on most issues – but the differences between them are hardly vast.
The main reason that Republicans, in particular, hate Clinton is that she will probably beat Trump or Cruz or anyone thrown up by the GOP in the general election.
The abuse of Hillary Clinton must stop. She’s not perfect. But she’s smart, experienced and compassionate, and she will step into the Oval Office better prepared to take on an exacting job in difficult times than almost anyone in recent memory.
Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont and is the author of “Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.