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Rehabilitation for Herself: What Could Clinton Say?

Most of you realize that two of us post here now – Nate (the guy who built everything and all around super-star, formerly known as Poblano), and Sean (PocketNines). Some haven’t quite caught that, probably because our names are not bolded at the bottom of posts.

I point this out because the subject of the following piece is me speaking for me only. Nate is much more Josh Marshall-objective in his public writings; I always have to keep my inner Rude Pundit in check.

Nate and I both have biases toward Barack Obama – he openly notes his in the FAQ, and although mine isn’t noted there yet, if it weren’t already clear I’m openly saying so now.

With Hillary Clinton’s highly anticipated speech endorsing Barack Obama hours away, I wanted to try a thought experiment at this landmark moment about what kind of approach she could take to reach someone like me. I know that in my feelings toward her I belong to a real, significant percentage of Democrats. Not a majority, but a problematic number if her goal is to ever run for president again. Previously, I haven’t believed Hillary Clinton could say anything to bring me back from the alienation toward her I feel. But, what if that’s wrong?

In the commentary on this subject, some of which you are sure to see today on television, I haven’t seen this subject approached or explained in this manner. Which is why I decided there was value in writing this.

Again, what follow are my opinions, not Nate’s. And if you don’t want to read a lengthy piece, stop now. It winds up being much longer than I intended, but so be it.

And, yes, this is not a polling piece or a numbers piece, or “the reason you originally came to this site.” All of those elements will still be here adding value, but there will also be some other types of pieces here. Like Nate’s epic Lanny Davis takedown, or my perspective on Brian Schweitzer the other night. Both of us will still write about the numbers and the data, but that’s not all we think about. This post won’t help you learn whether Obama or McCain is likeliest to win Nevada, so don’t bother pointing that out in comments.

As a Democrat and Obama supporter who has been horrified by some of what I have seen this year, I want to explain how I got to where I’ve gotten with Hillary Clinton, and explain what I think I need to hear to ever change my mind about her as a national candidate in my party. That matters in terms of strategy for what she says if she’s thinking of 2012, because she has a lot of work cut out for her if that’s an actual realistic intention. I may even be atypical in the force and depth of my thoughts on Hillary Clinton, but I suspect that atypicality has more to do with following the race more closely than it does the natural reactions to what I’ve witnessed. Even before the things that disturbed and offended me, she was only getting 29% and 3d place in Iowa. She has a LOT of obstacles to future viability.

My first impression of Hillary Clinton was I liked her. I shook her hand and came away impressed by her speech in 1992 when she came to Hanover to stump for Bill before the New Hampshire primary. She reminded me of my mom – an energetic, highly intelligent, unashamedly accomplished woman. That she didn’t play the traditional window dressing role many women had played to male politician counterparts was a big plus for me. She was a role model for a new generation of working women. I admired her. And when she drew an absurdly over-the-top reaction from Bill’s political enemies, it only gave me more resilience in liking and admiring her. If awful people hated her and expressed their hatred in irrational terms, I concluded, she could only be an even better person than I thought. So I dug in and defended her, countless times.

Richard Mellon Scaife, godfather of the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” spent hundreds of millions of dollars to attack this woman, to produce writings and videos and fund the rise of individually groomed attack pundits whose #1 task was to aim at Hillary Rodham Clinton. Richard Mellon Scaife formed an entire cottage industry around smears, lies and hatred toward this woman. It was sick, it was out of proportion, it was offensive in the extreme.

During this campaign, Hillary Rodham Clinton went to Richard Mellon Scaife’s little shitburg newspaper board and made friends with him in order to slam a fellow Democrat.

I will not be able to wrap my mind around that, for the rest of my life. It’s the most breathtakingly cynical moment in this campaign season.

Now, the arrogance and entitlement annoyed me, but those aren’t dealbreakers. Surrounding herself with sleazeballs like Mark Penn and Lanny Davis was unfortunate and spoke to her character also, but that was not a dealbreaker. Brazenly lying about Tuzla and all that was annoying and revelatory of character but still not a reason to be unwilling to forgive at a later date. The gas tax pander was a Vegas-class neon sign of non-leadership (even the shamefully shilling Krugman had to concede that one) but it was not a dealbreaker.

By time of the Scaife appearance, I had already had one dealbreaker: Hillary’s responsibility, as her campaign’s leader, to forcefully stamp out the race-baiting patterns of her surrogates, the carefully-phrased, plausible deniability moments of “I take him at his word,” etc. The hard-working white people comment aimed at stressing racial divisions. Tepid, slow reaction to Geraldine Ferrarro. Pushing Wright. The failure to take a strong stand on Bill’s comments in South Carolina, when the most apt example of winning South Carolina but losing the nomination so it’s no big deal was John Edwards, the candidate who won SC in 2004 and did not get the nomination. Taking Bob Johnson “at his word” that he meant “community organizing” as the unmentionable youthful behavior. And so on and so forth with a parade of disgraces. It is insulting to pretend that she was – alack! – just the victim of an unbelievably unfortunate series of strokes of bad luck with all these moments. She’s a smart cookie. You can’t believe she’s both a brilliant woman capable of leading the country and yet one too dull-edged to understand the patterns here and what they mean in context.

Let me be clear. I did not become a Democrat in a vacuum. Core values got me to this party. Speaking as a white man belonging to virtually every majority demographic this country has, I am a Democrat above all other reasons for the most fundamental principles and values of fairness and equality. That civil rights and equal rights have had to be fought and died for, that the notion that all people are created equal is even controversial… is mind-blowing. I knew those values by the time I was 4 years old. (The things you learn by kindergarten, indeed.)

I came to the Democratic Party at the most basic level because after 1964 and during my entire lifetime the Democrats were the party of civil rights and the Republicans were the Southern Strategy party, the one turning hatred and mistrust of Americans against each other into electoral advantage. Conservatives blocked women’s rights. They backed their beloved Reagan as he went out of his way to refuse funding for AIDS research and prevention when the disease was in its incipiency when an aggressive education policy could have saved many lives of my fellow human beings. I don’t need to be a gay man to know that is morally corrupt at the deepest level. Just a human being.

These values represent a moral bright line that make me a Democrat and not a Republican. They matter to me. One reason it was so easy to pour the personal energy of grueling hours and negligible pay into defeating Conrad Burns in 2006 was his racist tendencies. This value is no light thing for me.

I believe Hillary Clinton unacceptably violated that line with the way she ran her campaign. You have every right not to see it the same way, but I am telling you this because people like me are real, we exist, we feel fundamentally offended by the campaign she chose to run. We may not even be the majority of Obama supporters who hold Hillary Clinton liable, but we are at least a strong minority. We are very clear-minded on why we feel offended, and we are not overreacting.

So I was already done with her when the Richard Mellon Scaife thing happened. But when that happened, I came to see her as purely amoral. Not immoral, as when George Bush and gang set out to do harm and then go do it, for reasons that are internally logical for them and bring about results they fully intend. Amoral, as in: not attached to any moral principle that isn’t completely negotiable if there is an obstacle in the way of what is wanted.

Richard. Mellon. Scaife.

And in this case what was wanted was the Presidency of the United States. Obama became the obstacle. In that context, the Scaife appearance and dogwhistling make perfect sense. It’s not that Clinton is a racist or likes Scaife. It’s that those behaviors are calculated to serve the ultimate purpose of The Getting of What is Wanted. It’s a gamble that everything can be rehabilitated later with time healing wounds, but right now is when action has to be taken. It’s not that she’s a bad person. It’s that she seems to have something missing that most people have that makes them attached to morality and values. You’re born with what you’re born with.

That’s why the open discussion of one way of removing the obstacles in her path to the presidency included things like June assassinations, which have happened in the past. Had she dropped out earlier than the latest possible moment, she wouldn’t be taking full advantage of every possible scenario that could still get her what she wanted. It made me feel a cold, sick horror and dread toward her, but it has a perfect internal logic if Obama is not a person, the feelings of his family and little girls are not real (or even publicly apologized for as of this very moment and counting), they are all objects. In the way.

You may be full of desire to tell me how terrible I am for observing all these things. That’s ok. What matters only is that I reached my opinion honestly and that I’m not alone, and I am part of the Democratic Party, for those Clinton supporters who actually want to understand how someone like me could go from A to B in a thoughtful, values-based way. (Without the pathetic and self-demeaning charge of sexism, of course.) I used to feel empathy for this woman, and wanted to see her succeed even if at times only to spite her opponents. Now, I truly feel that she is a danger. To the extent I would feel motivated to work against her winning any future elections for any office anywhere in America, it is not a feeling of revenge, but rather a grim necessity out of fear of her having any power. It’s a defense of integrity and love of country. And no way in a hundred million years could Obama ever feel comfortable with her on the ticket. That’s insane risk-taking.

So, given that I am very clear on these things and am not alone (many, many Democrats have expressed similar reactions to her jawdroppingly amoral campaign), what could this woman say when she speaks today to ever begin changing my mind? It seems like an impossible task. But it’s important, because I obviously moved a long, long way in my opinion on her, and when she launched her presidential bid in 2007, I was not in the 50% of the country who would never, ever consider voting for her. It’s important because she has problems for a future bid if that number has swelled to include mainline Dems like me.

How could this person rehabilitate herself with the Democrats she’s alienated?

I’ll confess up front I don’t think it’s possible, at least with me. I believe that all the king’s horses… well, you know. But there is a spectrum of disgust, and if I am too far to one end of that spectrum, there may be a point X along that spectrum of alienated folks she needs to reach.

This high-profile moment is important. All eyes are on her this morning. She needs to start the reconciliation now. She completely blew it on Tuesday, when she could have really done something. Not that I expected her to diverge from the soul-crushing path of denial and widely noticed non-generosity of spirit toward the presumptive nominee in her speech on Tuesday night (and said so in the liveblog here). And I don’t expect her to say any of these things today. I have, shall we say, low expectations of what comes out of her mouth. And if she doesn’t want to preserve future national ambitions, she needs to say none of it.

What could she say? Fundamentally, she would have to show she understands exactly why there’s real, legitimate anger and apologize for her behavior. She could say that the political wars she has been through had convinced her that playing big time hardball was going to cost her with some Democrats in the short term but could be repaired in the long term. That becoming President was so important, when Obama’s campaign out-strategized hers and she fell behind, she decided going for broke first and repairing any hurt feelings afterward was what she had to do.

She definitely needs to say that Obama ran a clean campaign while hers was down and dirty. She must stand her supporters down from their disappointment and anger by acknowledging this truth. She must cease stoking that emotion and giving her supporters implicit permission to toxically aim it at Obama and/or his supporters. It’s ok if she says she learned in her experience that Americans don’t mind dirt in their politics, it’s ok if as a safe face-saving stance she still targets the media as not treating her campaign fairly, but she needs to tell her supporters that Obama took the high road, that his stances on Florida and Michigan were merely playing by the rules everyone agreed to.

And she must go into detail about why Obama is not an elitist, and why his rising from a very modest upbringing on his own merit makes “elitism” a sham of a charge that she deliberately fueled because she hoped it would help her win. The reason she needs to do this is she knows it to be true (just as she knows it to be true Obama is not a Muslim, not “as far as she knows”), and unless she openly talks about some of the things she said about him as products of an all-out genuine desire to win rather than because they’re true, those things get left open for the coming general election.

She must treat us like adults and give us credit for knowing how the surrogate game works, and deeply apologize for the race-baiting dogwhistle comments. This is non-negotiable for mending the damage she’s created between herself and Democrats like me. She should say any leader is responsible for the tenor of her campaign, and that there were many comments that she wishes she’d quashed, immediately stomped on, and that she apologizes even for putting out surrogates like the despicably craptastic Sean Wilentz blaming Obama for playing the race card.

For all these things, she should beg forgiveness. She needs to sound regretful. She should explain that words do matter, that words hold amazing power in the service of both good and ill, that they can divide people and call upon their worst fears and prejudices, and that this is the one thing she wishes she could go back and do over because that’s not how she’s lived her life before now. She can say this is not who she is in her heart, and that she has shed tears knowing so many people she formerly called friends have been hurt by her campaign’s actions.

And absolutely, she must openly and publicly apologize to Obama and his family and his supporters for the assassination comments, and say that while she made those comments repeatedly and in no way wants harm to come to Barack Obama, that she wishes she could take the words back (that she used with aforethought multiple times) and apologize directly to Obama’s children. That political assassination has hurt this country so grievously and that openly making those comments were the worst public comments of her lifetime. And just simply ask for forgiveness, even if it only comes in time. It is absolutely unacceptable that she not take responsibility for this, if she wants to speak to people like me.

Then she should say, as for the Richard Mellon Scaife thing, that was… well that was unacceptable. And that she knows nothing she could ever do or say can excuse that after all he did to force good faith Democrats to defend her against him. Again, she can ask directly for forgiveness, noting that she wanted something so bad she lost sight of her values and that she is determined to show us by her future deeds and leadership that this was out of character.

If she covers those bases, if she shows she understands why there has been such depth of adverse reaction to her campaign by many true Democrats, that it goes deeper than mere heat of the moment, those are the things that might make a successful future run realistic. She then has to go back to the Senate and dispense immediately with the violent video game, flag burning ban giant pandering don’t-offend-anyone nothingness of non-leadership that has characterized her entire Senate career. Freed from fear of being in any way controversial, she can finally behave like she has nothing to lose and go for broke in pushing all the “Solutions for America” she has been talking about for months. It’s a terrible burden to feel like the risk of losing even 1 vote means she’s cooked for a general election nailbiter, always the best-case scenario. She’s free now. As a friend pointed out to me, she could be the new post-1980 Kennedy if only she had it in her. Let her be a flagship leader on health care reform. Let her sponsor bills left and right that don’t change the name of some building somewhere in the state of New York, but actually affect people.

What’s my prediction about what will happen? Do I expect her to come anywhere close to any of this?

No. I expect she’ll praise Obama, she’ll acknowledge the passion and sincerity of his supporters. She’ll thank her own supporters at length, recollect wistfully on her attempt, maybe try and gain sympathy with an “I tried so hard” awww moment. If she alludes to regret over hard feelings, it’ll be brief and incomplete and not in any way go into showing she understands why real people came to real feelings by good faith. I don’t think she’s ready to come to grips with what-all went down here. I think she thinks the hard feelings are heat of the moment and will be forgotten by August. That would be terrible judgment.

Tragically, she doesn’t seem to have caught on to the transformation I’ve described, or maybe just doesn’t take it seriously and thinks four years is a lifetime in politics and everyone will forget, the only memory residue that she’s “gritty.” If she were to realize the truth of the matter, she knows that she already has her own base of support, and she could win so many of us back with an open confessional. Maybe she doesn’t have to say all of these things, immediately, but in such a high-profile moment she needs to say many of them, particularly the apology to Obama’s young girls and the emphasis on his clean campaigning as a way of standing her stoked-up base of voters down.

Of course, some of you in the comments are going to throw out the random Samantha Power comment (immediately fired, btw), or various this or that mailer you think was unfair. Obama openly acknowledges there were times when he felt he had to throw a punch back, and said so explicitly Tuesday night in St. Paul. But there can be no arguing who ran the kitchen sink, smear-by-association, dogwhistling, open assassination-ruminating campaign and who ran the high road campaign.

As I wrap up, I want to emphasize that from my perspective, it’s been difficult watching many of the dealbreaker things go down and seeing her supporters stick with her. That’s been bewildering and hurtful, just as I’m sure you feel hurt by what feels like Hillary Clinton being unappreciatedly forsaken by her party. We don’t understand how your loyalty trumps the breaching of non-negotiable values, and you don’t understand why we don’t just remain loyal to someone whose character has seemingly long been established and about whom we shouldn’t need to further question. Because it seems so irrational that many of us would opt for someone else, shamefully self-demeaning explanations like “it’s a cult” (thanks for that hacktastic nugget, Krugman) or “it’s sexism” are offered. For my part, I see an uncommon authenticity and wisdom in Barack Obama, and I see gifts no Democrat in my lifetime has brought to the table. That feeling he inspires in millions of my fellow Americans of wanting to engage in the bettering of America and in the lives of our communities is visceral and no joke. He’ll be the Tipping Point President.

But I came to my opinions about Hillary Clinton in good faith, and I am capable of believing that most Clinton supporters have stuck with her in good faith as well. Once upon a time, I appreciated Hillary Clinton the way many of you still do appreciate her. I and the vast majority of my fellow Obama supporters went in with no agenda to dislike her, despite what you may be tempted to believe. Please understand that while at times we have felt outrage at your silence over things we perceived as unacceptable, we don’t want to fight with you. I mourn the division. I mourn that one candidate began lobbing grenade after grenade in a kitchen sink strategy that hardened both sides. That isn’t your fault. But that behavior was wrong, and it needs to be owned by the adult who chose to engage in it. The longer she waits to speak directly to harshly alienated, good faith Dems like me, the more distant her future nomination possibilities become.

Re-reading what I’ve written, if she did say most or all of those things I proposed for her, I’d openly post that I was wrong in my expectations of her, and I will guarantee you that you’d see a massive outpouring of appreciation from all corners. With such a speech admitting to such failures and deficiencies of behavior, she might think it was painful to have such a raw and open confessional. She might think she would be accused of weakness or attacked for openly admitting to hypocrisy, etc. But it would be human, and principled. Ironically, I think she would become beloved with such a speech. It is a natural human stance to want to forgive. But what happened here went deep, deeper than I suspect she realizes, and half-measures will absolutely not cut it.

I just don’t think she has it in her. I’d love to be proved wrong.