Hillary Clinton Tempts Progressives to Embrace Cheneyism

An influential journalist who supports the presidential candidate offers an unusually naked defense of her ends-justify-the-means approach to public life.

Scott Morgan / Reuters

An influential progressive writer published a blunt assessment of Hillary Clinton this week, declaring her unusually willing to transgress against civic and legal standards.

“From her adventures in cattle trading to chairing a policymaking committee in her husband's White House to running for Senate in a state she’d never lived in to her effort to use superdelegates to overturn 2008 primary results to her email servers,” Matthew Yglesias declared at Vox.com, “Clinton is clearly more comfortable than the average person with violating norms and operating in legal gray areas.”

He goes on to flesh out those examples and to offer still more:

There was no winnable Senate race for her to enter in Illinois or Arkansas in 2000, so she ran in New York instead. Barack Obama forbade her from employing Sidney Blumenthal at the State Department, so she employed him at her family's foundation instead. Sandy Berger faced criminal penalties for destroying classified documents at the National Archives, but that didn't stop Clinton from informally employing him as an adviser on sensitive Middle East peace negotiations.

She decides what she wants to do, in other words, and then she sets about finding a way to do it...

In some ways, he sees these characteristics as weaknesses: “She can't credibly portray herself as the kind of outsider who's going to clean up a broken and corrupt Washington system, because she is very much a part of that system and has been for years.”

Yet the article in question isn’t a takedown of Clinton. It is a strange endorsement of the presidential candidate. The tendencies described above demonstrate  “exactly the mentality any Democrat would need to move the needle on policy in 2017,” he writes.

He urges Democrats to support a corrupt Washington insider with an ends-justify-the-means attitude because he believes she’ll advance his preferred domestic agenda. “Committed Democrats and liberal-leaning interest groups are facing a reality in which any policy gains they achieve are going to come through the profligate use of executive authority, and Clinton is almost uniquely suited to deliver the goods,” he writes. “More than almost anyone else around, she knows where the levers of power lie, and she is comfortable pulling them, procedural niceties be damned.”

That sounds a lot like Dick Cheney, another longtime Washington insider who spent lots of time in the White House, learned how to manipulate the levers of power in unusual ways, and was comfortable doing so, procedural niceties be damned. Of course, Hillary Clinton has big policy disagreements with Dick Cheney. But as a United States senator, she joined him in favoring an Authorization for Use of Military Force that significantly expanded executive power; an outside-the-U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay; a preemptive war against Iraq; the Patriot Act, with its many civil-liberties abrogations; an expansive program of extra-legal, warrantless surveillance on tens of millions of innocent Americans; and the use of lethal drone strikes over civilian populations in Pakistan and Yemen.

Hillary Clinton would almost certainly pull the levers of power in some of the same ways as Dick Cheney, perhaps relying on the same John Yoo and David Addington memos. She believes in “asking what she can get away with rather than what would look best,” Yglesias writes. Her Office of Legal Counsel will surely oblige.

Yglesias’s opportunistic support for extraordinary, legally questionable uses of executive power and his dubious claim that “liberals need an iron fist in the White House to make progress” is a naked embrace of the process-be-damned logic that has been contributed to horrific government abuses in both recent memory and U.S. history. Against all that, Yglesias posits that aggressive, norms-violating uses of executive power can bring marginal gains to the domestic agenda of technocratic progressives.

“On many issues she'll push executive power in somewhat unorthodox ways in pursuit of an agenda conservatives hate,” he writes. “On a handful of issues—likely those most directly connected to foreign policy—she'll push executive power harder than Obama in pursuit of an agenda that liberals will find much less congenial...”

​Why does he think that progressives should embrace that tradeoff? Perhaps his judgement is clouded by his status as a movement wonk: He is far more likely to be invited to a Clinton White House to share his policy views than to have its occupant bomb his ancestral village, surveil the place of worship of his family members, or send him to die in a foreign conflict where the U.S. does not achieve its objectives.

For whatever reason, Yglesias is apparently blind to the fact that executive power wielded for foreign-policy and national-security purposes is far more consequential in terms of lives lost, money spent, and human rights abrogated than anything the left can achieve domestically through executive orders. This is partly because stupid wars of choice like Vietnam and Iraq are easily the most ruinous projects a country can undertake; and partly because starting wars, killing innocents, and violating civil liberties are irreversible acts, whereas a domestic agenda achieved via executive order could mostly be overruled by Congress or undone by the next non-progressive president.

At one point, Yglesias tries to put a positive gloss on Clinton’s ends-justify-the-means attitude. “Her view is that the bad guys don't play fair and square,” he writes, “and there's no reason the good guys should unilaterally disarm.” Note that the “bad guys” here are duly elected officials who disagree with the progressive domestic agenda, and that Yglesias uses a war metaphor to describe vanquishing  them.

His analysis fails even if we look past the inapt metaphors. Look back at some of the examples of Clinton’s dubious behavior that he himself cites as indicative of her approach:

  • “Her effort to use superdelegates to overturn 2008 primary results”
  • “Barack Obama forbade her from employing Sidney Blumenthal at the State Department, so she employed him at her family's foundation instead.”
  • “Sandy Berger faced criminal penalties for destroying classified documents at the National Archives, but that didn't stop Clinton from informally employing him as an adviser on sensitive Middle East peace negotiations.”
  • “Her email servers”

​These aren’t instances of “good guys” refusing to disarm because “bad guys” don’t play fair, unless progressives now define “bad guys” so expansively that the phrase includes candidate Barack Obama and the 2008 primary voters who cast ballots for him; a White House that wants control over who works on its diplomatic team; laws against entering the National Archives and destroying classified documents held there; and the Freedom of Information Act. Yglesias has unwittingly stumbled on an insight into Clinton: for her, the “bad guys” that ostensibly  justify her ruthlessness tend to include any person or law that impedes her.

One finally wonders why Yglesias presumes that Clinton’s domestic actions will please progressives more than they upset them. Certainly she will push the progressive agenda when it aligns nicely with public opinion––as her evolving stances on issues like gay marriage and criminal-justice reform show, she is perfectly happy to champion the rights of marginalized groups as soon as it is politically advantageous, which is to say, as soon as any other Democrat would do the same.

But Clinton is also someone whose personal and political bank accounts are flush with money from Big Finance—shouldn’t she be expected to serve their agenda with the same disregard for process? And if, say, a spike in crime led to renewed public support for mass incarceration or a terrorist attack led to renewed public demand for a crackdown on illegal immigrants or racial profiling, how confident can anyone be that President Hillary Clinton would use her penchant for violating norms and pushing the boundaries of executive power in service of “good” rather than “bad” policies?

There is precedent within the progressive movement for horrific excesses perpetrated by politicians and intellectuals who believe the ends justify the means.

As Yglesias once wrote of Woodrow Wilson:

Wilson was a real racial reactionary who turned the clock backwards. He signed a bill banning miscegenation in the District of Columbia and segregating DC streetcars. He appointed white southerners to his administration who introduced segregation into their previously unsegregated departments, including the postal service which was a major employer. Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt had African-Americans appointed to federal office, but Wilson did away with that.

His administration’s handling of the great influenza pandemic was disastrous, and his record on civil liberties was the worst in American history. On the pro column, Wilson’s tax policy (lower tariffs, higher income tax) was good and he did some good regulatory things. On the other hand, the switch from “trust-busting” lawsuits to attempting to use the FTC to establish regulatory cartels doesn’t seem to me to have been a great idea. Creating the central bank system was a good idea, but I don’t think it was distinctively Wilsonian.

The importance of process is always more evident in hindsight. Commentators aware of the relevant history and as smart as Yglesias ought to discern the obvious lessons.

One last curiosity in Yglesias’ argument: For someone who takes an ends-justify-the-means approach, Clinton isn’t actually all that successful at achieving her ends. If she had it to do over again she’d surely forgo the cattle-trading. As First Lady, her health care efforts failed. Despite the ruthlessness of her 2008 primary campaign, she lost to Barack Obama, who succeeded in passing a health care bill through normal democratic means—indeed, Obama has achieved more over fewer years in public life with his approach. And neither employing Blumenthal in her foundation nor setting up a private email server seems to have worked out well for Clinton.

It’s now primary season, at the apex of progressive leverage over Clinton, who is catering to the sensibilities of Democratic voters more now than she will in a general election or once in office.

She’ll only get less congenial to progressive demands over time.

If she’s elected president, progressives can expect a lot more ends-justifies-the means behavior that works out about as well as the war she urged in Libya despite the lack of Congressional approval. They can expect needless scandals, a hawkish approach to foreign policy, disdain for transparency in government, and civil-liberties abuses. And they can expect to be thrown policy bones here and there—at least enough to maintain the support of progressive wonks amid all the unprincipled abuses.

That isn’t to say that Yglesias himself will be an apologist. I expect his independent streak would cause him to regret his shortsighted disregard for the importance of process and norms and to speak out in opposition to Clinton if and when she advocates for a stupid war of choice, as she has done again and again in public life.

I expect that he would also speak out when Hillary Clinton’s conservative or neoconservative successors start exploiting the norms she weakened to push their own agendas.

But it will be too late.

It would be much better for progressives to put a different Democrat in the White House, rejecting the temptation that an unethical, ends-justify-the means leader will best serve the country so long as she happens to agree with parts of their agenda.