The release of thousands of hacked emails from Hillary Clinton's top advisers paint a clear picture of the Democratic nominee as, well, a politician. Writes Russell Berman in the Atlantic: "They capture a candidate, and a campaign, that seems in private exactly as cautious, calculating, and politically flexible as they appeared to be in public."
Yup. And that, of course, is a major problem in our current political environment. People hate politicians. The more you look and sound like one, the worse they think of you.
One email in particular tells the story of Clinton as politician particularly well. It's this one — which contains some of Clinton's talking points for her private speeches — the transcripts of which have not been released.
"Politics is like sausage being made," Clinton says. "It is unsavory, and it has always been that way, but we usually end up where we need to be."
That's a sentiment that any politician — in either party — would have agreed with as recently as even a decade ago. Compromise is hard. It requires pressure, sticks and carrots and horse-trading. From Lincoln's presidency until around 2010, that was the understood order of things.
The farm bill always passed with a big bipartisan majority because it had food stamps provisions attached to it as well as a series of smaller projects for individual members who needed something to show for the vote. Good-government types might not have liked it, but it usually got the job done.
Then came the rise of the tea party movement, which fueled Republicans' retaking of the House in 2010. John Boehner immediately got rid of earmarks upon his ascension as speaker — a key piece of the carrot-stick dynamic. Almost as quickly, "compromise" became a dirty word, meaning "capitulation," to many elected officials and, more importantly, to the party bases. "Transparency" became the watchword. The idea that if politicians were doing something behind closed doors, it must be nefarious and/or against the wishes of their constituents became the new conventional wisdom.
Writes the Atlantic's Jonathan Rauch in what I believe to be the single most important piece of political journalism written this year:
Chaos syndrome is a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization. It begins with the weakening of the institutions and brokers — political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees — that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time. As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal — both in campaigns and in the government itself.
Clinton is, of course, the ultimate party creature. She has spent the last two and a half decades working to elect Democrats and build out a cohesive set of policy proposals that the party can get behind. (Clinton's husband spent much of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s doing the same.) That experience — in the White House, in the Senate and at the State Department — have made her, at root, a pragmatist. Clinton is a practitioner of the politics of the possible. She is pitching herself as the person who can best work within the bureaucracy of the federal government because she knows the bureaucracy of the federal government better than anyone else.
Unfortunately for Clinton, she is running for office at a time when distaste with the "way things have always been" has never been higher. Bernie Sanders's campaign against Clinton was, effectively, based on this premise: She's good at working within the system. I think we need to tear the system down and build a new one in its place. It worked surprisingly well as the 74-year-old Democratic Socialist put a real scare into a campaign that entered the 2016 election as the biggest non-incumbent front-runner for a party's nomination ever.
That same message could and should work for Donald Trump. Clinton is the symbol of the backroom deals and the idea of politicians looking out for themselves and their friends that people hate. Trump, theoretically, is the straight-talking outsider beholden to no one.
That contrast is a winning one for Trump: "Clinton is a politician. I'm not." Simple and direct. Of course, Trump has't been able to drive that message because he (and his past) keep getting in the way.