“I like Hillary,” I said to some friends over lunch last Christmas Eve.
“What do you like about her?” one asked.
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
I did know, more or less, but my reasons weren’t going to stand up long in the conversation we were having. We were having a conversation in which a dear friend had just suggested that Hillary, once elected, would turn Social Security over to Wall Street. My reasons for liking Hillary weren’t going to stand up to that, and they’re not going to stand up to all the what-abouts I can hear ringing in my ears as I type: what about Libya? Goldman Sachs? The Clinton Foundation? Welfare reform? I have only an impression to offer in return. Having followed Clinton’s career for 25 years, I’ve formed the impression that she’s smart, tough, hard-working, deeply informed, compassionate, and funny. She has some less attractive qualities, but who doesn’t?
Since this impression is essentially apolitical—it doesn’t take a stand on this or that issue—it may be unimportant, or worse, a distraction. Who cares if she’s funny if she invades Syria? And yet arguments about Hillary keep falling into the realm of impression. “The lesser of two evils is still evil,” began a typical comment on a recent New York Times op-ed. “Hillary Clinton has proven herself to be totally corrupt” appeared today in response to a David Brooks column. The idea that Hillary is not just wrong, but evil and corrupt, a power-hungry robot destroying everything in her path, has become a cherished truism of both the left and right. Elements of this portrait fly in the face of fact. Critics describe her as “entitled,” waiting for her “coronation,” but her worst enemy will tell you she works like a dog. How is that entitlement? Unless you mean that coming within an ace of winning the 2008 primary entitled her to serious consideration in 2016.
It worries me to hear this smart, capable woman described in terms usually reserved for comic book villainesses or the wives of Scottish thanes. She’s ambitious. Presidential candidates usually are. It’s hard not to catch a whiff of misogyny in the ways she gets caricatured. Would an ambitious man be reduced to hunger for power, all other attributes falling away?
Here’s why this matters: I’ve begun more and more to believe that you can’t do anything about a problem if you can’t describe it accurately. This may seem obvious, but after eight years of Obama, I’m not so sure. Within a few months of his election, I began to feel that I was living in a different country from the one his critics occupied. In the country I lived in, there was an opposition party devoted to obstructing not just the president but any reality-based analysis of the problems that threatened us, whether gun violence or climate change. In the country I lived in, a rabid right-wing commentariat was branding the president a tyrannical Kenyan Maoist bent on destroying America. In the country I lived in, the president’s more progressive ideas—the public option, the jobs bill—were widely understood not to have a snowball’s chance in hell, given opposition that ranged from the craven to the virulent. His critics on the left, however, appeared to be living in a country led by a “corporate hack” who never intended to fulfill his promises because he was secretly on the side of the war-mongers and the investment bankers. At the Glenn Greenwaldian extremes of this argument, he was no different from or even worse than the Republicans.
I’m not saying that there aren’t principled reasons to oppose Clinton or Obama on the issues, but much of what I was hearing, and have been hearing in the last months, falls into the category of magical thinking. Sanders will do what Obama was supposed to do: transform a rigged system through the magical power of his convictions. Again, it’s a problem of naming the problem. If Obama is a corrupt tool of a rigged system, then electing a Sanders or a Trump might do an end run around the system. Shake it up, as supporters of both men said. But if the system has been hijacked by a party increasingly dedicated to know-nothingism and intransigence, then those end runs will keep running into stubborn blocks. And Obama’s accomplishments, which have required not so much end runs as steady determination, start to look pretty good.
When we describe complex problems in storybook terms—villains and saviors, evil queens and Manchurian candidates—we lose our ability to deal with them, and we play into the hands of the other guy, whose great gift is reducing complex problems to fantasy novel tropes. These are problems, he assured us last Thursday, that he “alone” would solve “fast,” (though we might note that this is the language of the villain in a fantasy novel. Frodo accomplishes nothing fast or alone.)
I’d like to think that his speech on Thursday shook everyone out of their complacency. The bellowing strongman claiming to be the people’s “voice” has never come so close to the center of American politics. Surely everyone now could see the stakes involved.
But I worry.
Thursday afternoon I was visiting my parents, who live in a building where the demographic skews old. In the elevator, a woman I didn’t know asked me if I’d been following the convention. I said I’d caught the end of Ted Cruz’s speech.
“Unbelievable,” she said. “Dump—I call him Dump—how could anyone take him seriously?”
“It’s pretty amazing,” I agreed.
“But the other one,” she said. “She’s such a liar.”
“Oh, I think she gets a bad rap.”
We were now standing in the lobby. She shook her head. “You don’t know what to do.”
“Not me,” I said. “I’m voting for the smart woman.”