Conservative efforts to portray Hillary Clinton as unusually nefarious have steered the GOP into political cul-de-sacs from Vince Foster to the Benghazi Committee. Republicans have built up such a vast anti-Clinton hate debt that they’ve become incapable of acknowledging that Clinton is a largely conventional, mainstream politician. Doing so, after all, would reveal the underlying fraud to their voters.
Donald Trump is changing all that. For the first time since Clinton was secretary of state, and members of both parties spoke of her admiringly, Republicans are once again able to praise her, or at least vouch for her competence. In fact, more and more Republicans with real clout in conservative politics are announcing they will support Clinton in November, to guard against Trump’s becoming president as a kind of side effect of Clinton derangement syndrome. At least 50 former defense and foreign policy aides recently signed a letter promising to oppose Trump, and leaked it to The New York Times.
Clinton and her campaign are welcoming these defectors. They’re encouraging disaffected conservatives of all stripes to set aside partisan and ideological allegiances and support her, if only for one election cycle. At the Democratic National Convention last month, she showcased a coalition that extends from Bernie Sanders to soldiers in Ronald Reagan’s much different revolution. Democrats warmly welcomed former Republican Michael Bloomberg, whom Clinton offered a highly publicized speaking slot, and her campaign has since rolled out statements of support from prominent neoconservatives and other Republican national security hands who believe Trump is unfit for the presidency. It is clear the Clinton brain trust views this groundswell as an unalloyed good.
Not everyone sees it that way, though. Many Democrats, and Sanders’s supporters in particular, are alarmed by Clinton’s solicitousness.
They argue, in effect, that by touting their support for her, Clinton is validating their failures and helping to furbish discredited conservative crusades, from Reaganomics to the invasion of Iraq. That it would be better if, like FDR, she welcomed their hatred, rather than their endorsements. As long as they’re in the tent, after all, they might regain influence over government power.
“By rehabilitating the likes of [Max] Boot,” writes Michael Tracey, “Democrats effectively invite such people back into the fray of respectable discourse. They are once again seen as neutral, duly-credentialed ‘experts’ whose intonations are worth dutifully listening to. By association, Hillary’s tacit approval allows these neoconservatives to accrue renewed prestige and eventually insinuate themselves back into positions of power.”
It goes without saying that Clinton would be remiss to replay George W. Bush’s foreign policy or Reagan’s economic policy, and to the extent that progressives worry she will be tempted rightward by these allies of convenience, they ought to be vigilant overseers of her campaign and administration.
But there is no evidence yet—none—that conservative figures with blemished records are rehabilitating their reputations by endorsing Clinton, or that Clinton is cozying up to new advisers, or that together they’re doing anything other than insuring against the risk of a Trump victory. Clinton’s aim isn’t to validate Reagan, but to make conservatives who worship Reagan feel comfortable voting for her. There are drawbacks to this strategy, but they aren’t the one liberals are worried about.
In the Obama diaspora, the term of art for what Clinton is doing is building a “permission structure” for Republican officeholders and Republican voters to overcome their partisan inhibitions and vote for her.
If Clinton, or any Democrat for that matter, says Trump is unfit for the presidency, it does nothing to convince Republicans, and may even make Republicans more inclined to support Trump. But if former Reagan and Bush advisers validate Clinton’s claims, other Republicans might take them seriously.
This technique will be intimately familiar to anyone who’s seen a Pepsi drinker choose Coca-Cola in a blind taste test, or whose toothpaste is recommended by four out of five dentists.
It’ll be familiar as well to political junkies who remember the trumped up controversy over an Obama adviser’s description of the administration’s approach to Libya as “leading from behind”; or the undeserved mockery Obama endured after his reelection when he promised to “create a permission structure” that would allow Republicans to cut a budget deal with him.
Whatever your thoughts on mass-market soda pop or Aqua Fresh or the illegal invasion of Libya, recruiting trusted voices to do persuasive work is central to politics and coalition building. John Negroponte isn’t a trusted voice to me, but he may be a trusted voice to people like senator John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who in turn are trusted voices to some number of voters in Arizona and South Carolina. Democrats’ goal is to defeat Trump overwhelmingly, but they probably can’t do that without some unsavory ambassadors.
The problem with “permission structures” isn’t the fact that they rely on the influence of third-party actors, but that they often collapse. Obama never really got the budget deal he wanted, and the less said about Libya the better.
Meanwhile they can create appearances that frustrate more permanent allies. The coalition that will carry Clinton to victory resembles the one that elected Obama twice: young, educated, cosmopolitan voters who liked that he opposed the Iraq war. And if significant numbers of those more dovish voters take a pass in 2016, it won’t do Clinton any good if a few dozen Washington war hawks wrote a letter on her behalf, or showed up to the polls in November.
The danger of being too solicitous of conservatives is that it’ll bump progressives out of the opposite end of a huge, unwieldy coalition. That’s why I argued recently that the right thing for Clinton to offer her new surrogates in exchange for their support is nothing. Abandoning Trump is its own reward and there’s no reason to disrupt the liberal coalition by offering permanent policy concessions for the sake of what will likely be a one-time alliance of necessity.
And so far, that’s exactly what Clinton has offered them: squat. Republicans can support her, and in return they can preserve their dignity. Her economic policy hasn’t swung back to the center since winning the primary, and though most progressives have never been huge fans of her foreign policy, nothing suggests she’s become more hawkish or open to inviting neocons back into the government than she was before the endorsements started rolling in.
The fact that Trump-wary conservatives are saying nice things about Clinton tells us no more about her politics than Clinton-wary progressives tell us about Trump’s politics when they praise aspects of his candidacy. Liberal Clinton skeptics have plenty to be skeptical about without pretending that endorsements like these augur a revival of voodoo economics and the one percent doctrine. That’s not the permission structure Clinton’s building.