All presidential candidates face a core problem. To win their party’s nomination in an age of growing polarization they have to adopt base-pleasing, pseudo-extreme policy positions. But to win a general election and actually govern they have to adopt semi-centrist majority positions.
How can one person do both?
Nobody had figured this out until, brilliantly, Hillary Clinton. She is campaigning on a series of positions that she transparently does not believe in. She’ll say what she needs to say now to become Bernie Sanders in a pantsuit (wait, Bernie Sanders already wears a pantsuit!). Then, nomination in hand and White House won, she will, it appears, transparently flip back and embrace whatever other positions she doesn’t believe in that will help her succeed in her new role.
In other words, one of the causes of polarized gridlock and political dysfunction is that we have too many politicians with ideological convictions. Clinton seems to be eliding this problem.
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Her most impressive elision concerns trade, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. When she announced her opposition to Judy Woodruff on the “PBS NewsHour,” she was performing a flip-flop of the sort that leaves gymnasts gaping and applauding. As CNN pointed out, she’s praised the deal 45 separate times, at one point calling it “the gold standard in trade agreements.”
This was not only a substantive flip-flop. It was so naked it amounted to a bold and clarion statement of faith on behalf of flip-flopping itself. It suggested a whole style of campaigning and method of governing based on the principle of unprincipledness.
In order to navigate her way through the wilds of politics and the morass of an ungovernable nation, she’ll do whatever she needs to do, say whatever needs to be said and fight for whatever constituency is most useful at the moment.
She’ll get things done. (Whatever those things happen to be.)
This flexibility has become something of a leitmotif. The most exhaustively reported account of her various policy adjustments comes from Evan Popp, a journalism student at Ithaca College who documented Clinton’s shifts while he interned at the Institute for Public Accuracy. He has collected Clinton’s statements on either side of various issues.
In 2000 she supported the Defense of Marriage Act, although now she is pro-gay marriage. In the 1990s she was for more incarceration. “We need more prisons to keep violent offenders for as long as it takes to keep them off the streets.” Now she’s against mass incarceration.
In 2007 she was against allowing undocumented immigrants to have driver’s licenses. Now she supports them. In 2002, she was against ethanol subsidies, but now she’s bullish.
We all get to change our mind in response to the facts, but each of these intellectual inquiries happens to have led her in a politically convenient direction.
This deftness could, if used wisely, help Clinton placate the left in order to get the nomination and then placate the powerful in order, as president, to pass legislation. By contrast, if a conviction politician like Sanders or Ben Carson got elected, he wouldn’t be able to get 35 votes for anything he proposed.
But there are downsides to the Opportunist Solution. First, politically. The Clinton theory of the campaign seems to be that people vote on the basis of what policy a candidate can deliver or what interest group he or she kowtows to. But it could be that voters actually vote on the basis of authenticity and trustworthiness. In that case, Clinton could be hurt by the fact that only 35 percent of, say, Floridians think she is honest and trustworthy, according to a Quinnipiac poll, whereas, just to pick a random name, 71 percent think that of Joe Biden.
Second, as a matter of practical governing, it’s hard to organize an administration around an uncertain trumpet. Administrations generally work best when everybody on the team knows consistently what the president stands for. As the old wisdom goes, the problem with pragmatism is that it doesn’t work.
Third, there’s the humanitarian issue. Clinton once supported the Pacific trade deal for good reason. According to a report from the Peterson Institute for International Economics, the deal would bolster U.S. gross domestic product growth and jobs over the next decade. It would lift Malaysian growth by 6.6 percent and Vietnamese growth by 14 percent. It would also build a solid Asian alliance to balance Chinese hegemony. If Clinton’s flip-flop ends up sinking the deal, she will have helped sentence millions of people to further poverty and destabilized the world’s most dynamic region.
Still, it would be interesting to see how government by flip-flop might work. If we had a president hopping opportunistically from issue to issue, that might disrupt our ossified landscape and tear down the old-fashioned partisan walls.
In an era of polarization and dysfunction, maybe authenticity, conviction, consistency and principle are the hobgoblins of little minds!