Even in the face of Bernie Sanders recent blowout victories, the pundits continue to proclaim that the 2016 presidential race is now firmly between Secretary Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The stakes of this contest supposedly go far beyond conventional partisanship. It is a struggle for the soul of American politics, pitting principled – yet “boring” – moderation against an alluring but profoundly dangerous extremism.
Indeed, as the general election season approaches, the main storyline seems to be whether a “boring” policy wonk can defeat an inciting demagogue. Clinton is portrayed as above all informed and reasonable. Trump, by contrast, is lambasted as ignorant and irrational.
At least for Trump, some have come to wonder whether this is more caricature than reality. Is it all an act that stirs up the crowds but masks a genuine streak of thoughtfulness and knowledge? Whether this is true or not, of course, hardly justifies his populist appeal to racism and xenophobia.
However, it is telling that remarkably fewer voices have asked if Clinton’s widespread depiction as the most informed candidate is also being propagated to similar political effect? Undoubtedly, the Secretary is quite well-versed on the issues. Still does her moderate veneer mask a less knowledgeable and more extreme agenda than is popularly assumed?
Clinton’s Intelligence Act
The idea that Clinton is the most informed candidate has been repeated so much and with such conviction that it is now almost unconsciously accepted without question. She is seen as not only having vast experience but also a deep understanding of the country’s problems along with a well thought out set of policy solutions ready to address them.
"Undoubtedly, the Secretary is quite well-versed on the issues. Still does her moderate veneer mask a less knowledgeable and more extreme agenda than is popularly assumed?"
Clinton and her campaign, for their part, have increasingly drawn on this reputation for expertise as part of its public pitch to voters. The former first lady, Senator and Secretary of State admits that she is “not a natural politician”. She claims though that she makes up for this lack of charisma by her exceptional competency once she is given the job.
Her opponents are portrayed by comparison as unwitting idealists – as is the case with Sanders – or willfully ignorant manipulators in the mode of Trump. Clinton stands out for her “hardheaded realism” and erudition. Even if one disagrees with her positions, it is seemingly impossible to argue with the idea that they are unsubstantiated or not based on evidence.
This perception is implicitly challenged by the fact that her views seem to be consistently changing. She has famously “evolved” on LGTB rights and now decries the racially charged strategies of mass incarceration that she once vigorously promoted. The same holds true for economic issues like free trade and environmental ones such as the keystone pipeline.
A charitable reading of these substantial policy shifts would be to say that her opinions change as she learns more about a subject. Yet there is a worrying and far to common to be mere coincidental trend that these adaptations adhere to whatever is politically popular at the moment rather than informed principle.
Moreover, the sharp discrepancy between perception and reality raises broader questions regarding the degree to which this reputation for policy acumen is political theater as much as it is fact.
There are far worse political sins, of course, then exaggerating your strengths. And it is not mutually exclusive to conclude that Clinton is both extremely informed and driven by an overriding desire to win elections. Still it presents voters with a potentially skewed version of her credentials and the credibility of her stated positions.
Most notably, it justifies a rather narrow reform agenda as being “pragmatic” rather than guided by special interests. Her rejection of free college tuition and single payer health care are seen as the result of a deep study of the issue as opposed to her ties to the health care lobby and for profit colleges, respectively.
It leaves these arguably quite realistic proposals seem not only politically inexpedient but fundamentally unviable. It is a picture that Clinton works hard to perpetuate. Her attacks against Sanders idealism are reminiscent of those she leveled at Obama in 2008 when she mockingly declared
“Let's just get everybody together. Let's get unified. The sky will open. The light will come down. Celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect.”
This now well-trodden narrative is especially problematic in the present campaign. Her opponent Bernie Sanders has directly questioned her judgment, noting that despite having the same information as lawmakers she was as disastrously wrong about Iraq as he was presciently correct.
This critique is not just typical election rhetoric either. It goes to the heart of Clinton’s case to be President – if she is really the most experienced and informed candidate than why has she shown such consistently poor judgment when it mattered? Indeed, what is the benefit of her deep well of knowledge if it does not translate into wisdom?
The Smart Con
These questions raise more serious concerns than just lack of foresight. It points to a potentially dangerous effect of this intelligence act. It represents the worrying effort of making otherwise irrational and unacceptable policies seem reasonable and sane.
Iraq is by far not the only examples of such a (mis)informed strategy. Clinton was the leading force behind the United State’s destructive military intervention in Libya. It echoed Iraq in being touted as humanitarian mission to remove a brutal dictator (exchanging Saddam Hussein with the equally reprehensible dictator) that in actuality was influenced by US oil interests with similarly costly consequences for the population it was meant to liberate.
As worrying as Clinton’s push for this ultimately failed strategy was how she internally justified it to the administration and later as a Presidential candidate to the public as formed through intensive research after an exhaustive personal investigation. In both Iraq and Libya, the fantasy of neo-conservatism was legitimated by the mass respect for Clinton’s intelligence and her unparalleled “smart power”.
To this end, Trump is rightfully criticized for playing to a crowd that feeds off of the crudest forms of scapegoating and fear mongering. Yet Clinton offers her supporters a different but potentially just as threatening political fantasy. In her persistent appeal to her own knowledge she makes the racism, inequality and imperialism of the status quo seem well considered and moderate.
It is the same “informed” perspective that promoted “free trade” for decades before suddenly rejecting it, to publicly declare that marriage is a “sacred bond” between a man and a woman before realizing it is a human right guaranteed to all people, to call passionately for war before repudiating it when the fog of nationalist fervor disappeared to reveal a battlefield strewn with unnecessary casualties. It remains to be seen if the American public will continue to fall prey to this smart con or finally wise up.