Danielle Allen is a political theorist at Harvard University and a contributing columnist for The Post.
After Thursday night’s debate, I’ve got a piece of unsolicited advice for Hillary Clinton. Don’t use this line again: “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.”
The problem with the remark is obvious. Clinton does not merely exemplify the establishment. She and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, are the Democratic Party establishment. We’re in the realm of description, not characterization. That candidate Clinton could deliver her line with a straight face goes to the heart of her trustworthiness problem.
She really believes she can put a line like that over on us?
Just the night before, in the Derry, N.H., town hall, Clinton had explained her motivation for running for president as “the concerns I had about the Republicans taking back the White House, because I think they wrecked what we achieved in the 1990s with 23 million new jobs and incomes going up for everybody. I did not want to see that happen again.”
If having a preexisting presidential record to run on ain’t establishment, I don’t know what is. You don’t have to read Simon Head’s remarkably detailed account in the New York Review of Books about “the Clinton System” of converting networks into influence and influence into money to see that the Clintons are the establishment. We can read that fact plain as day from the unfolding campaign.
Compare the relatively empty Democratic debate stage with a Republican stage so full that folks look in danger of falling off.
Anybody who has been within shouting distance of Democratic Party politics in the past 20 years knows that the Clintons own the show.
This was the major lesson I learned when I worked as a regional field organizer for the 2008 Obama campaign in California. The number of elected officials who considered themselves indebted to the Clintons, and therefore not free to endorse Obama, was staggering. The Clintons appear to have shown up to campaign on behalf of Democratic candidates more often than any other players in the party.
A few years later, I was reminded again of the Clintons’ power when being vetted by the White House for a potential appointment to the National Council on the Humanities. I’m an academic whose specialty is politics. I’ve written a heck of a lot, some of it controversial. I imagined the vetting personnel would want to talk to me about that body of work. But no. They had one object of concern: a blog post I’d written during the 2008 campaign that criticized then-Sen. Clinton. The post was so obscure that even I had difficulty finding it to remind myself of what I’d said.
After the Iowa caucuses, I got another reminder of just how establishment the Clintons are when Michael Crowley tweeted out a 2008 article he wrote about Iowa for the New Republic. That time around, Bill Richardson’s late-in-the-game endorsement of Obama helped put the upstart senator over the top. Crowley described a post-caucuses conversation with Clinton ally Terry McAuliffe about the Richardson endorsement, in which McAuliffe asked, “How many times did [Clinton] appoint him? . . . Two? U.N. ambassador and energy secretary?” Crowley joked back, “I don’t know, but who’s counting?” McAuliffe’s answer: “I am.”
Bernie Sanders is right that Clinton’s long list of endorsements represents her muscle within the Democratic Party.
So ’fess up, Madame Secretary. You are the establishment. Playing the gender card can’t get you out of it. If anything, it only makes the disavowals weirder. My guess is that, despite this year’s anti-establishment waves, voters will ultimately tolerate your establishment status. It’s certainly more tolerable than a straight-faced claim that the pearls don’t fit.
Here are the lines to use: I have been privileged to serve this country in many ways over many years. As I have done so, I’ve made it possible for women to take their place at the table of leadership. I will continue to open up politics to those who haven’t previously had real opportunities to serve. Let’s get all these fired-up young people running for office.
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