During the second presidential debate on Sunday, Hillary Clinton was questioned about a 2013 speech she gave to a housing trade group in which she spoke of the need to take “both a public and a private position” on difficult political issues, according to unverified WikiLeaks transcripts. Moderator Martha Raddatz asked Clinton if it was acceptable “for politicians to be two-faced.”
Clinton’s response would be best characterized as the Steven Spielberg defense. Referring to the filmmaker’s Abraham Lincoln biopic, Clinton pointed to the president’s “master class” in getting Congress to approve the Thirteenth Amendment, suggesting she wasn’t doing anything the first Republican president hadn’t done. “It was principled and it was strategic,” she said. “President Lincoln was trying to convince some people, he used some arguments. Convincing other people, he used other arguments. That was, I thought, a great display of presidential leadership.”
This is true. But there are several reasons that defense doesn’t work for Clinton—probably the same reasons she rushed to change the subject, pivoting to attack WikiLeaks for aiding the Russians in trying to influence an American election.
What Clinton described to the trade group wasn’t the use of various arguments to advance one position, as she said Lincoln did. It wasn’t doing political favors or withholding potentially influencing information, other tactics the president deployed. No, Clinton was talking about simultaneously espousing two distinct views—one for public consumption, and one behind closed doors—as a policymaking strategy, as sometimes necessary to negotiation. “If everybody’s watching, you know, all of the backroom discussions and the deals,” she told the group, “then people get a little nervous, to say the least.”
To be clear, this isn’t at all uncommon. Clinton is hardly the first politician to take one stance publicly while harboring another in private. President Barack Obama almost certainly supported gay marriage as early as his state Senate days in Illinois—he answered a questionnaire to that effect in 1996—but as Obama aspired to national office he bowed to the prevailing public opinion at the time. “Opposition to gay marriage was particularly strong in the black church,” the president’s longtime strategist David Axelrod wrote in his memoir, “and as he ran for higher office, he grudgingly accepted the counsel of more pragmatic folks like me, and modified his position to support civil unions.”
Obama showed similar modification in his healthcare position. He told a New Hampshire town hall in 2009, “I have not said that I was a single-payer supporter,” leaving the distinct impression he’d never held that position. He said it “would be too disruptive” for America and “a lot of people who currently have employer-based health care would suddenly find themselves dropped, and they would have to go into an entirely new system that had not been fully set up yet.” Obama allowed that he’d support single-payer if he were designing the system “from scratch,” but clearly conveyed that the current setup of healthcare in the U.S. made it unworkable substantively as well as politically.
As PolitiFact noted, though, the president called himself “a proponent of a single-payer” as a Senate candidate in 2003. It’s on tape, without a single qualifier. “I see no reason why the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, spending 14 percent of its gross national product on health care, cannot provide basic health insurance to everybody,” he said. “A single-payer health care plan, a universal health care plan. That’s what I’d like to see.” Obama’s very next line in this clip is revealing as well. Nodding to the politics of single-payer, he said that “we may not get there immediately. Because first we’ve got to take back the White House, we’ve got to take back the Senate, and we’ve got to take back the House.”
Obama was defending incrementalism, as he would routinely do as president. But he was also linking the conversation to broader political conditions—the context that dictates what’s possible to achieve as well as what’s prudent to say. Why won’t Clinton do something similar? Why can’t she give the nation the kind of “master class” in political sausage-making she so admired from Honest Abe?
Honesty is precisely the problem.
As substantively defensible—even virtuous—as dealmaking can be, taking this tack runs the risk of confirming the public’s worst fears about Clinton: that she’s dishonest and lacking in core conviction. That notion, which has a gendered element to it, explains why she and her campaign probably figure it’s best to avoid the topic, keeping the focus instead on Donald Trump’s implosion. That’s a shame, because it denies voters a valuable window into how Clinton would govern—not as an idealist or an idealogue, but as a practitioner in the art of the possible.
Hacked audio published last month by the Washington Free Beacon provides further insight into Clinton’s policymaking strategy. Speaking privately to campaign donors in February, she suggested the full-fledged “political revolution” Bernie Sanders advocated might be unfeasible, but that she hopes to channel the energy of his young supporters into something she could deliver. “I think we should all be really understanding of that and should try to do the best we can not to be, you know, a wet blanket on idealism,” she said. “We want people to be idealistic. We want them to set big goals. But to take what we can achieve now and try to present them as bigger goals.”
It’s doubtful Clinton wants to highlight this audio, not when she’s still struggling with millennials, but it certainly speaks to who she is. The notion that Democrats should temper expectations might be a responsible strategy, too, given the intransigence Obama faced from congressional Republicans and that there likely will be a divided government next year. But again, this kind of language isn’t likely to appeal to Sanders supporters.
Not that it doesn’t resonate with some lefties. Clinton’s strategic pragmatism may be different from the brand showcased in Lincoln, but it’s telling that the filmmakers behind the movie saw parallels with her. Earlier this year, screenwriter Tony Kushner told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes he backed Clinton over Sanders explicitly because she “has a more impressive record, and is a more skillful politician, which I think is more important ultimately than fantasies about how moral or immoral a person might be.”
In a separate interview with Laura Flanders, Kushner said Lincoln was a turning point for his personal politics. “I began to really ask questions that I’m still grappling with about dreams of revolution,” he said, “and what the dream of revolution has done to the progressive community, and whether or not change is more likely to be anticipated from movements that lie outside of the political, or if in mainstream politics revolutionary change can come about.”
In an election in which one of the nominees is promising he’ll make great deals—that he’ll deliver everything under the sun, without remotely explaining how any of it would be politically possible—there’s something bold, even radical, in espousing such a practical philosophy for political deal-making. Maybe it’s not a popular message in this populist moment, but it would have the virtue of being honest.