The latest argument against voting for Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primaries is that, compared to Bernie Sanders, she just isn’t liberal enough. Pundits claim that the Democratic Party in recent years has shifted as far to the left as the Republicans have to the right. Therefore Democratic voters are dissatisfied with the “inevitable” Clinton: she’s just too centrist to be inevitable.
Assume that this critique of Clinton is sincere, not just a Trojan horse hiding the usual reasons for the reluctance to vote for her, that she is a woman. But if people are genuinely worried that Clinton’s centrism makes her an undesirable candidate for a newly liberal Democratic voter base, their concerns are mistaken for a number of reasons.
First of all, I am not persuaded by the pundits that the Democrats as a group have swung as far to the left as the Republicans have to the right. It is only too easy to count up a very large number of highly conservative Republicans in Congress. Hell, it’s hard to find any other kind to count. Positions that would have been troglodytic twenty-five years ago are today proudly held by “moderates” like Mitch McConnell: the destruction of Planned Parenthood, disbelief in climate change, restriction of voting rights, opposition to even minimal gun control, “birtherism” – the list goes on and on, and very few Republicans express opposition to any of the items on it.
But how many Congressional Democrats would fall under the rubric of “liberal”? Not all that many, realistically speaking. In the Senate, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, of course; Barbara Boxer and Chuck Schumer; Dick Durbin, Amy Klobuchar, and Al Franken; Sherrod Brown; and we could probably round up a few more, depending on what you would count as reliably liberal. But there are Democrats, or better, “Democrats,” like Joe Manchin and Bob Casey, and perhaps even California’s own Dianne Feinstein, who are really Republocrats and not liberal in any way. The Republican Party has no counterparts to them; there is no pro-abortion rights Republican anywhere in Congress, while Casey (among other “Democrats”) is reliably anti-reproductive rights. So the idea that Clinton is out of step with her party and its voters is a mere fiction. The center of the Democratic Party remains reliably centrist.
Secondly, voters need to differentiate between voting for the message and voting for the reality. The candidate you hear in election campaigns is not the president you get, and voters need to vote for the president. The rule to follow is this: in evaluating campaign rhetoric, pay no attention to any sentence with a verb in the future tense: it is meaningless. Some candidates give voice to progressive ideas because they need to sound liberal to win in their districts, but are not really liberal; some, like Sanders, are unquestionably sincere but have no chance of getting their proposals enacted into law by this or any future foreseeable Congress. (And if they somehow did, the Supreme Court would fix that.) So listening to a Sanders makes old lefties feel all warm and fuzzy and hopeful, but it’s a delusion: it ain’t gonna happen.
What President Hillary Clinton wants to accomplish in her heart of hearts may or may not be very different from what President Bernie Sanders wants to accomplish in his. It doesn’t matter. Without a miraculous change in the legislative branch, neither one’s agenda is likely to get very far. True, Barack Obama has finally figured out how to achieve significant aspects of his program, largely through executive orders. But any future president can undo Obama’s executive orders with the flourish of a pen, so a great many of Obama’s liberal achievements may not be permanently realized.
There is one significant difference between what we can realistically hope for from Clinton, and what we can hope for from Sanders (and could realistically hope for from Obama). Clinton spent eight years in the Senate as a highly effective senator. She made alliances across the aisle with people she had every reason to loathe and despise; she came to know them personally and form friendships with them that got things done. Neither Obama nor Sanders achieved anything similar. So if Clinton became president, there is a reasonable chance that she would be able to get some progressive legislation through even a recalcitrant Congress because she knows how to work with her adversaries, as Sanders (or any other imaginable Democratic candidate) does not.
But that ‘s not the major reason why liberals should be enthusiastic supporters of Clinton’s campaign. This is: having a woman in the chair behind the desk in the Oval Office, having a woman as President of the most powerful nation in the world, in and of itself, is the most liberal and progressive thing that could happen in this country and in the world. Of course I need to qualify that statement: I mean a rational woman, i.e. one with pro-women ideas and ideals. So no, I would not advocate for a Sarah Palin or a Carly Fiorina. But the election of a woman with a concern for women’s issues that has been demonstrated over 25 years would be a representation of the power that women can potentially achieve. That power might be largely symbolic, but we are a symbol-loving species and this symbol would be deeply meaningful to women everywhere, especially the most oppressed. It would cause ISIS to gnash its teeth, and that in itself would be gratifying. Having to deal with a powerful woman might do more to demolish ISIS than all the bombs Donald Trump wants to dump on it. Even more gratifying, having to deal with a powerful woman might also cause Donald Trump to gnash his teeth.
The symbolism that a Clinton presidency would represent is therefore of lasting importance for liberal beliefs. The election of Hillary Clinton would be a victory for liberalism more concretely too: she has the skills and the experience to move the progressive agenda forward. But more important still than that (and that is certainly important), her assumption of the presidential role will force everyone everywhere to imagine and accept a new relationship between womanhood and power, raising hopes for a new kind of future. Clinton’s presidency offers the possibility of a new world, and there is nothing more progressive than that.
Liberals can support Clinton with a clear conscience; she is the real thing.