by Elizabeth Schulte
“Economic inequality.” “Robber barons.” “Champion for everyday Americans.” “Feminist.” It’s almost as if Hillary Clinton’s campaign team has started believing what Republicans say about her.
Clinton’s campaign staff is working overtime, shipping her out to Iowa in a van — stopping at Chipotle along the way — to show how well she relates to ordinary Americans. But the people whose opinions really matter in the presidential election know better.
As one Wall Street lawyer put it, “If it turns out to be Jeb vs. Hillary, we would love that and either outcome would be fine.”
Indeed, if Clinton talks today about economic inequality while she throws her crown into the ring, she has a long and loyal relationship with money and power. Among the top ten contributors to her 2008 campaign were employees from JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, CitiGroup, Morgan Stanley, and Lehman Brothers — institutions that can all benefit from a few friends in high places.
As secretary of state, she pressured governments to change policies and sign deals that would benefit US corporations like General Electric, Exxon Mobil, Microsoft, and Boeing. She also promoted hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and contracts with US oil companies like Chevron in Poland, Bulgaria, and elsewhere.
But perhaps her most telling corporate relationship is with the union-busting retail giant Walmart. Clinton served on the company’s board of directors from 1986 to 1992, and the law firm she worked for, Rose Law Firm, represented the corporation.
During those years, Clinton sat quietly as Walmart waged a war on workers trying to unionize and fight for basic rights on the job. This fealty to Walmart never wavered. During her three trips to India as secretary of state, she tried to convince the government to reverse its law aimed at keeping out big-box retailers.
Clinton’s newfound populism would be laughable if it weren’t for her actual record — decades’ worth of cruel attacks on workers and the poor. From support for welfare reform and tough-on-crime policies in the 1990s to shilling for US corporations abroad as secretary of state, Clinton has never strayed from the Democratic Party’s aim — protecting corporate America’s bottom line.
During Bill Clinton’s tenure in the White House, Bill, Hillary, and the New Democrats helped shift the party further to the right, regularly stealing Republicans’ rhetoric and making it their own. Bill situated himself in the center between reactionary congressional Republicans and liberal Democrats who were becoming disillusioned with Clinton’s broken promises.
He took office promising to “end welfare as we know it” — as he had in his home state of Arkansas, with the misnamed Family Support Act. The federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act included strict deadlines for how long recipients could receive benefits, as well as stringent new work rules.
Hillary Clinton, with her close relationship to the Children’s Defense Fund, aided the administration’s push for welfare reform. When an agreement was finally reached, after the administration had squabbled with Newt Gingrich and the Republican-led Congress over more punitive measures like eliminating food stamps, Bill claimed it was the best he could do. And then Hillary helped round up the votes.
With her assistance, the Clinton administration managed what no Republican could achieve, shredding a key New Deal program that often served as the only thing standing between poor families and absolute destitution. The whole effort was steeped in the language of “personal responsibility,” getting people to work and off welfare, and “ending a culture of dependency” — as if poverty was the result of moral failings.
Far from regretting the decision to destroy the welfare system, as New York senator in 2002, Clinton joined Republicans like Orrin Hatch in supporting a bill that increased already punitive work requirements imposed on welfare recipients.
Alongside the former president, Hillary Clinton helped the Democratic Party jettison its pro–labor union, pro–civil rights, pro–social spending image, going on the attack against government programs that people had counted on for sixty years — even while they knew they could still count on the people who supported those programs to vote Democratic.
The field of “education reform” gives more examples. Hillary Clinton was there at the ground floor, when Bill Clinton appointed her chair of the Education Standards Committee in Arkansas. The committee supported standardized tests for students, but primarily mandatory testing for teachers. Clinton highlights her own role in passing this attack on teachers in her memoir Living History:
Though this enraged the teachers union, civil rights groups and others who were vital to the Democratic Party in Arkansas, we felt there was no way around the issue. . . . In the midst of this contention, I stepped before a joint session of the Arkansas legislature’s House and Senate and pled our case . . .”
School reform plan was implemented in 1984. “She shepherded it through and was absolutely instrumental in getting it approved through the legislative process and accepted in general by the public,” said Peggy Nabors, president of the state teachers union at the time.
The record, once again, speaks to the disconnect between Hillary Clinton’s newfound populist rhetoric and the policies she has always championed.
Recently, the Black Lives Matter movement and street rebellions in Ferguson and Baltimore against police murder have forced Clinton to criticize an “era of mass incarceration,” which of course was pushed along by one of the former Clinton administration’s key achievements: the 1994 crime bill.
Hillary Clinton may have words of criticism today, thanks to growing public outrage at the justice system’s targeting of black and brown people, but during the tough-on-crime days of the Clinton administration, she was leading the call for harsher policies.
In a speech before police officers in 1994, she lauded the legislation’s plan to put more money into prisons and one hundred thousand additional cops on the street, arguing, “We will be able to say, loudly and clearly, that for repeat, violent, criminal offenders — three strikes and you’re out. We are tired of putting you back in through the revolving door.”
The Clinton crime bill did indeed put more police on the streets, and thousands more black men in prison for petty, nonviolent offenses. More were incarcerated under Clinton than any other president. AsThe New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander wrote in 2010:
Clinton was not satisfied with exploding prison populations. He and the “New Democrats” championed legislation banning drug felons from public housing (no matter how minor the offense) and denying them basic public benefits, including food stamps, for life. Discrimination in virtually every aspect of political, economic, and social life is now perfectly legal, if you’ve been labeled a felon.
Setting aside this record, for a number of voters there will be one reason that they will feel compelled to, or even excited about, supporting Hillary — electing the country’s first female president. The Clinton campaign is already discussing exploiting the feminist tag. But is this really the feminism that most women have been waiting for?
Like all those other key issues, Clinton’s brand of empowerment falls far short of the policies that would actual improve the lives of the majority of women.
Take reproductive rights. Clinton is on record supporting women’s right to abortion and access to birth control. But like the much of the Democratic Party leadership, she is also for striking a balance with those who oppose abortion. In a speech to abortion rights supporters on the anniversary of Roe v Wade in 2005, Clinton argued that both sides of he abortion debate could find common ground to reduce the number of abortion, which she called a “sad, even tragic choice to many, many women.”
Hardly the fierce defense of abortion rights that’s necessary to turn back the right-wing attack on women’s reproductive rights.
Clinton has also given credence to some of the Right’s arguments, saying that she supports bans on late-term abortions, including some “partial birth abortions” — a medically inaccurate term used by abortion opponents to describe a procedure that is only used when the life of the mother or the fetus are in danger. She has also supported state parental notification laws, with judicial exceptions.
Supporting restrictions in the interest of finding common ground with abortion opponents has only made the argument for abortion rights weaker. Bans on individual procedures or restrictions like parental consent or twenty-four-hour waiting periods have made abortion less and less accessible. And when a leading female Democrat says it, it only helps demobilize the forces that might actually go out and protest these restrictions.
At the 2004 pro-choice “March for Women’s Lives” in Washington, Clinton touted the record of her husband’s administration. “We didn’t have to march for twelve long years,” she bragged, “because we had a government that respected the rights of women.”
The truth however, is that more restrictions on abortion rights were enacted during Clinton’s eight years in the Oval Office than the twelve years of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. There may not have been marches, but it wasn’t because we didn’t need them — it was because the forces that should have called them, like NARAL Pro-Choice America, didn’t because a Democrat was in power.
And while Clinton emphasizes the importance of women ascending to positions of power — more women holding government office and sitting on the boards of corporations — she ignores the issues that affect working-class women. In fact, Clinton’s policies have made the lives of the majority of women phenomenally worse. Like the millions of women affected by welfare cuts, the War on Drugs, or the anti-worker policies at Walmart.
Of course, this didn’t stop every Democratic woman in the Senate, including Massachusetts populist Elizabeth Warren, from signing on to a letter in 2013 encouraging Clinton to run. And the endorsements from mainstream women’s organizations are sure to follow.
Not everyone has yet fallen in line behind Clinton yet. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was Clinton’s campaign manager in her 2000 Senate race, has so far withheld his endorsement, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders announced that he will be running to the left of Clinton.
But while these politicians argue that they can play a role in pushing Clinton to the left, in the long term, they may end up corralling everyone behind Clinton. Because, if she is in fact the Democratic candidate in 2016, the most persuasive argument the Democratic Party will be making won’t be for Clinton but against whatever Republican is opposing her. All this means that Clinton will be under absolutely no pressure to listen to the Left.
The “mavericks” like Warren and de Blasio — just as Dennis Kucinich and Jesse Jackson before them — will remain loyal Democrats who convince liberal and progressive supporters of the party to set aside their principles and vote for the moderate, “electable” choice. And alongside the liberal Democrats are the organizations whose job it is to line up support by fundraising and sign up voters — like the National Organization for Women, which endorsed Clinton when she ran for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
The problem isn’t just Clinton, but the iron grip the Democratic and Republican parties hold over elections, where independent alternatives to the two corporate parties have few opportunities to break in. The Clinton campaign stands in sharp contrast with the mood of the people who will be strong-armed into voting for her — frustrated with corporate greed, low wages, and police racism, they are beginning to organize for change.
But Hillary Clinton isn’t the candidate of people’s hope and dreams, she is the one shooting those dreams out of the sky.