A no-holds-barred look at the American presidential race
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The Bern Sweeps the West, So Is Hillary Toast?
By Maria Behan
If character is destiny, what does fate hold in store for former first lady, senator, and secretary of state Hillary Clinton? Can her ambition and smarts propel her to the world’s most powerful role, president of the United States? Or will her Nietzschean will to power, coupled with her un-Machiavellian inability to hide it, make her a tragic figure, a formidable yet ultimately uncompelling also-ran?
As a candidate, Clinton’s Achilles’ heel may turn out to be her personality. When she’s trying to seem human, you can feel her trying to seem human. As she sometimes puts it, she’s not a “natural politician.” Or as Barack Obama remarked during a 2008 debate that helped him wrestle the Democratic nomination away from her that year, she’s merely “likable enough.” Often, her social awkwardness reads as inauthenticity, reinforcing an idea that’s already widespread among both Republicans and Democrats: She’s untrustworthy.
Clinton works prodigiously hard, is smarter than most other human beings, and knows the intricacies of the U.S. political system better than just about anybody. But she lacks Obama’s charm, the authenticity of Bernie Sanders, or even the freak-show appeal of Donald Trump. And in America today, it seems like you need one of those three commodities if you’re going to ascend to the country’s highest office.
Certainly, there are times when I feel sympathetic towards Clinton. Never more so then on the very long day in October 2015 when she testified at the congressional inquiry into the deaths that took place at the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya, three years before. She endured myriad pecks from preening Republican popinjays who spent nearly 11 hours unsuccessfully wracking their birdbrains to find a way to blame her for the embassy takeover and subsequent deaths.
While her attackers looked ineffectual and petty, Clinton came off as stalwart and impressive: mustering an arsenal of facts to deflect their assertions, speaking in full sentences, even managing to keep her expression neutral for most of the grilling. Watching the spectacle, I not only admired her, I got the feeling that if she felt truly threatened, her eyes could shoot lasers to vaporize a particularly troublesome interlocutor. But much as they ached to be, those Republican lightweights were no threat to Clinton, who batted them aside with just the occasional eye roll.
Now that she’s enmeshed in the contests that determine who gets the Democratic presidential nomination, Clinton has to contend with the one member of Congress who actually might block her seemingly inexorable march to the White House: Senator Bernie Sanders.
The Red Queen Versus the White Knight
Clinton’s “likable enough” persona is even more problematic when she’s running against a candidate who has quirky character in spades. Sanders is a curmudgeonly idealist who attracts the admiration of notables ranging from rapper Killer Mike and French economist Thomas Piketty to comedian Sarah Silverman and progressive pundit (and Bill Clinton’s former Secretary of Labor) Robert Reich. He’s also winning over an increasingly large percentage of voters; in mid-April, he’d won eight of the last nine Democratic contests—most of them by double-digit margins.
After one alit on the podium as he addressed a crowd recently, it seems that even the birds are feeling the Bern. One can practically imagine him being dressed by songbirds, à la Snow White (albeit a Snow White with a gruff demeanor and Brooklyn accent). Indeed, that might explain why his clothes sometimes seem off-kilter. But try as hard as you can: I bet you can’t picture Hillary Clinton getting dressed by songbirds.
As she demonstrated during the Benghazi show trial, Clinton can be canny and rigorously “on message.” But steely intelligence and sang froid are not all that’s desirable in a U.S. president. The people who have the power to grant or deny a candidate that role want to not just respect their president, they want to like him or her. And “likeable enough” may not cut it.
Personality is one thing; integrity is another. The Clinton camp is depressingly correct in its assertion that she’s not the only one in Congress who has raked in staggering sums from sectors that the government should be regulating, not coddling. Indeed, as they like to point out, similar charges could be leveled against Obama, who’s looking pretty damn good to many Democrats this year, the victory-lap finale to his presidency. But when Clinton points out that dubious-seeming contributions from Wall Street and Exxon are both common and legal under the current American political system, she sounds as lame and unconvincing as a teenager caught smoking who protests that all the kids are doing it. You’re free to make that argument, but it sure as hell isn’t a compelling one.
Especially when you’re running against one of the very few members of the U.S. Congress who doesn’t take money from big corporate donors. And not only that, has spent his entire political career railing against the corrupt campaign finance system that encourages those shady transactions.
Clinton tries to dismiss Sanders as a single-issue candidate. He is not; but he is focused on just a critical few, like universal healthcare and free tuition at public colleges. Unfortunately for her, Sanders’ biggest issue of all, reforming the political and economic system so it’s no longer rigged in favor of the richest individuals and enterprises, may be Clinton’s greatest vulnerability, since she and her husband work that rigged system so exceedingly well.
For instance, after the Democratic debate in New York, Clinton jetted off to San Francisco for a George Clooney-hosted fundraiser where two seats at the head table cost a staggering $353,400. That’s more than four times the average annual income in San Francisco—which is a pretty affluent city. Following his barn-Berning debate performance, Sanders got out of town, too: He flew to the Vatican to address a conference on global income inequality. The contrast literally couldn’t be starker.
The democratic primary season is moving from the West back to the East, and Clinton’s campaign may regain its momentum. In the coming weeks and months, she may be able to capitalize on the advantage in delegate numbers and Democratic-party support that she’s held on to throughout the campaign. But I’m hoping that Sanders continues to confound the pundits by inspiring the kind of passion that recently propelled 27,000 people to attend a rally in New York’s Washington Square Park.
As a lifelong feminist (not to mention a female), I long for the day when the United States elects its first woman president. I’m hoping for one whose integrity and ideals excite me as much as her gender. That’s why I’m going to work my butt off for Senator Elizabeth Warren in ’24.
Maria Behan writes fiction and non-fiction. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Stinging Fly, The Irish Times, and Northern California Best Places.