Of Course Hillary Clinton Exemplifies the Establishment

The most surreal moment in the Democratic debate came when one of America’s most powerful insiders took umbrage at an accurate characterization of who she represents.

Ho New / Reuters

Last week, I flagged Damon Linker’s column lamenting the fact that so many members of the Republican establishment are in denial about their place. “By thinking of themselves as perennially outside the Republican power-structure,” he argued, they  “exempt themselves from the need to admit and learn from their own mistakes. It’s always someone else’s fault. The Iraq War and its outcome may be the most egregious and disgraceful example of such shirking, but it’s not the only one.”

I applied his logic to Rush Limbaugh, who gets invited to the White House every time a Republican is elected, socializes with GOP power brokers, has their ear five days a week, and yet speaks about them as if describing a bitter enemy totally alien to him.

That shirking denial came to mind Thursday during the Democratic debate, where an exchange about “the establishment” had both candidates denying their own place in it.

Of course, “the establishment” has no agreed-upon meaning. By Wikipedia’s definition, a dominant group or elite that holds power or authority in a nation or organization,” Bernie Sanders qualifies. He has spent 26 years in Congress, 10 as a senator. As he points out repeatedly, he sat on the committee that wrote Obamacare. And he was chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. On the other hand, he’s the longest-serving independent in the history of Congress and cast lonely votes against establishment endeavors as popular as the Persian Gulf War and the Patriot Act. He disliked Alan Greenspan long before the financial crisis. He’s fiercely critical of America’s existing economic power structure. And he once recorded an album of folk music titled “We Shall Overcome.”

Establishment or not?

Here’s what Sanders said Thursday after Hillary Clinton touted the long list of prominent Democratic Party officials who have endorsed her bid for the presidency:

I  will absolutely admit that Secretary Clinton has the support of far more governors, mayors, members of the House. She has the entire establishment or almost the entire establishment behind her. That's a fact.

I don't deny it. But I am pretty proud that we have over a million people who have contributed to our campaign averaging 27 bucks apiece. That we have had meetings where 25,000-30,000 people have come out. That our campaign is a campaign of the people, by the people, and for the people.

So, Rachel, yes, Secretary Clinton does represent the establishment. I represent, I hope, ordinary Americans, and by the way, who are not all that enamored with the establishment, but I am very proud to have people like Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva in the House, the co-chairmen of the House Progressive Caucus.

Notice that Sanders didn’t say he isn’t a member of the establishment. He said he doesn’t “represent the establishment.” That strikes me as a perfectly defensible claim.

Hillary Clinton didn’t dispute it. But she did take umbrage at how Sanders characterized her. “Honestly, Senator Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment,” she said. “And that it is really quite amusing to me.”

Did you notice how she changed his words?

Sanders said that she “represents the establishment,” not that she “exemplifies the establishment.” But even the stronger claim strikes me as true. There may not be one true definition of “the establishment,” but Hillary Clinton is a member by any reasonable definition.

Growing up, Hillary Rodham joined the Girl Scouts and participated in the National Honor Society. At 17, she volunteered for Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. Then she went to Wellesley, where she served as president of the Young Republicans, president of the student government, and commencement speaker.

Next, she went to Yale Law School.

She met Bill Clinton there, married, and became a law professor in Arkansas. Later she became the first female partner at the oldest law firm west of the Mississippi. She represented corporate clients and influenced judicial appointments. Her husband became governor. She took an active role in the statehouse.

She also sat on Walmart’s board of directors.

This is as good a time as any to note that, even at this stage, she has a tremendously impressive resume! The fact that a person is a member in good standing of the establishment is not, itself, a bad thing. I’ll bet that every institution Clinton touched back then was better for her work. Perhaps she even pushed them all in a progressive direction. The point is that she always did so as a powerful insider seeking incremental improvements to the established order. I don’t say that as a criticism. It’s a perfect good way to effect change. The only point is that way back in the 1980s, she already exemplified the establishment.

Then she became First Lady of the United States.

Jason Reed / Reuters

By her own account, she played an influential role in her husband’s White House, even participating in world forums where the global elite go to decide what should happen.

Arno Sgier attaches a plate reading “Hillary Clinton Run” near the Swiss resort of Davos. (Reuters)

She later became New York’s junior senator; after the September 11 terrorist attacks she voted with the establishment for the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the Patriot Act, and the Iraq War. She joined the Senate Prayer Breakfast. When the Democratic establishment opposed gay marriage, she did, too.  She didn’t flip until 2013, when equality was an establishment position. In the interim, she was a cabinet secretary.

Jim Young / Reuters

Throughout her tenure, she believed that America’s governing elite was justified in running a secret program of mass surveillance and waging secret drone warfare.

Jacquelyn Martin / Reuters

“A few weeks after Hillary Clinton was sworn in as secretary of state in early 2009, she was summoned to Geneva by her Swiss counterpart to discuss an urgent matter. The Internal Revenue Service was suing UBS AG to get the identities of Americans with secret accounts,” The Wall Street Journal reported. “If the case proceeded, Switzerland’s largest bank would face an impossible choice: Violate Swiss secrecy laws by handing over the names, or refuse and face criminal charges in U.S. federal court. Within months, Mrs. Clinton announced a tentative legal settlement—an unusual intervention by the top U.S. diplomat. UBS ultimately turned over information on 4,450 accounts, a fraction of the 52,000 sought by the IRS.”

Later UBS paid her husband seven figures in speaking fees.

After leaving Foggy Bottom, she joined one of the nation’s most powerful philanthropic organizations, underwritten by ultra-rich donors, including foreign governments.

Its name: the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation.

Lloyd Blankfein, the chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., speaks while former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks on. (Shannon Stapleton / Reuters)

In addition, she was paid lavishly to give speeches to some of the most powerful corporations on the planet. She earned more on three Goldman Sachs speeches than many Americans earn in their lives. Forbes estimated her individual worth at $30 million.

Given all that, one of the most absurd statements in any debate this cycle has got to be, “Senator Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment.” And again, that wasn’t even Sanders claim. But it is nevertheless accurate.

I don’t think Hillary Clinton is unaware that she’s a part of the establishment. Rather, I think that she was willing to feign offense to deflect from a charge that she knows to be true. “She has the entire establishment or almost the entire establishment behind her,” Sanders declared, and she “does represent the establishment.”

That is absolutely correct. See for yourself.

In all this, she is not alone.

There are politicians aplenty who have played outsized roles in shaping U.S. politics and policy who nevertheless deny that they are, in fact, part of the establishment. In so doing, they avoid grappling with their roles in national failures. That sort of nonsense deserves to be called out.

2016 Distilled