Why Do So Many Liberals Fall in With the ‘Crooked Hillary’ Smear?

This article first appeared on the Dorf on Law site.

After an exhaustive investigation that went on for more than a year, FBI Director James Comey recommended last week that no charges be brought against Hillary Clinton fur using a private email server for State Department business. Immediately, the two political parties reverted to form.

Although my focus here is on Democrats and liberals, it is necessary to note at least briefly that the Republicans' response is not only predictably unhinged but ultimately self-defeating.

The Republicans, as I noted a few days after Comey's announcement, immediately went into overreach mode. They called a hearing to yell at Comey, another hearing to yell at Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and now (essentially at the invitation of Comey himself) they are requesting that the FBI start another investigation into whether Clinton lied to Congress.

It is obvious why they are doing all of this, but it is fascinating that they do not see how badly they are bungling the political gift that Comey tried to give them. Comey, in clear violation of ethical standards (see, for example, here and here), essentially said to Republicans, "Here, I can't possibly justify recommending charges against her, but I'll now say a bunch of things that you can use to indict her in the court of public opinion."

Republicans essentially responded by saying, "Oh my God, we lost! WE LOST!! The one thing we wanted was a criminal case against Hillary, and we didn't get it, so we'll remind everyone for the next few months that we didn't get what we wanted. She beat us again."  

They violated the simple rule of dealing with adversity: declare victory when it is even remotely possible to do so and act like winners. Instead, they are almost pathologically committed to acting like losers.

The Democrats, on the other hand, reverted to a different kind of self-defeating behavior. Surprising numbers of prominent liberals essentially said, "Yeah, we understand that this was another witch hunt, and we're glad that the Republicans didn't get what they want. But, boy-oh-boy-oh-boy, do we feel uncomfortable with both Clintons!"

Consider two of the most prominent liberal writers on the op-ed page of The New York Times. Charles Blow wrung his hands on Saturday and said that "there is something about Clinton, and indeed the Clintons, that makes me uneasy," adding that "you have to accept the swirl of madness with the political mastery" from them. Similarly, Andrew Rosenthal wrote about Hillary Clinton using words like insecurity, paranoia and neuroses, saying that "too cute by half is a Clinton trademark."

I am not saying that these authors lacked any basis at all for making such statements. But, perhaps because I am sometimes a bit of a contrarian, I have recently been wondering exactly why liberals have always been so willing to accept the idea that Hillary Clinton is an exceptionally calculating politician.  

Once you look past the constant cloud of doubt that Republicans have succeeded in creating around both Clintons, it is actually not easy to find the factual basis underlying the narrative of Hillary Clinton as a uniquely problematic candidate.

Far from being a Hillary booster, I have never been a big fan of either of the Clintons. In a column earlier this year, I recounted some rather heated words that I had written about Hillary Clinton during the 2008 primaries: "I do not believe anything that Hillary Clinton says.... I have come to believe that Clinton...has no fundamental beliefs other than that she should be President."

07_17_Hillary_Liberals_01 Hillary Clinton speaks at the National Education Association’s 95th Representative Assembly in Washington on July 5. Neil Buchanan writes that the anti-Clinton narrative has become so entrenched that even solid liberals respond to attacks on her with "Well, yes, she does make me squirm at times." Kevin Lamarque/reuters

It is important to understand, however, that this was a statement about Clinton's policy positions, not a statement about what has now come to be known as "the trust issue" for Clinton.

That is, I was saying that I suspected that Clinton's conversion to some more liberal positions in 2008 was probably a matter of political positioning, and I suspected that she was not seriously committed to those policy positions. She would campaign on issues that could get her elected, but it seemed likely that she would want to pursue her more established, long-term policy agenda.

What is that policy agenda? In policy wonk-speak, both Clintons have spent most of their lives pushing neoliberal policies and undermining the liberal/progressive policies that are most closely associated with the New Deal and the Great Society.

There is a reason that that Clinton/Gore team marketed themselves as New Democrats, after all. From garishly supporting the death penalty, to "ending welfare as we know it," to pushing through financial deregulation (enthusiastically aided and abetted by Republicans, of course), to any of a number of other issues, Bill Clinton made lives miserable for actual liberals on issues of policy.

And Hillary Clinton? As Barack Obama would do 16 years later, she ruled out truly progressive policy ideas before even beginning to negotiate with the Republicans to overhaul health care in 1993. Early in her career, she had also attacked the teachers unions in Arkansas.  

It was reasonable to conclude, as many people did, that Hillary Clinton would end up pursuing policies to the right of Bill Clinton, especially on economic matters, along the disappointing lines of the Obama administration.

So where does that leave me now? Along with Bernie Sanders and many of his supporters, I hope that Clinton has truly seen the light. There is reason to believe that she has, but to the extent that the Sanders campaign's focus on her speeches to Wall Street groups had any content, it was in the idea that Clinton was possibly going to backtrack and support policies that would disappoint anyone with a progressive policy agenda.

This disagreement on substantive policy principles, I think, caused many liberals to generalize the notion of distrust to non-policy questions. For example, when the email story first broke early last year, I wrote somewhat approvingly of a column that Times op-ed columnist—and career Clinton hater—Maureen Dowd had written about the "blurred lines and fungible ethics and sleazy associates" of the Clintons.

All too predictably, Dowd followed up this past Sunday with a column, "The Clinton Contamination," in which she again went through her nasty routine of inventing snarky terms like "Hillary's goo" and saying that "the Clintons operate in shadows."

Because of my historical disagreements on policy with both Bill and Hillary Clinton, I have been all too willing to accept such vague personal attacks uncritically.

But why did I outsource the non-policy assessment of the Clintons to Dowd, of all people, who spends much of her time inventing innuendo-laden internal monologues for public figures? Beyond the blurry invocations of "sleaze" and similarly non-falsifiable descriptions, what is the content of the non-policy brief against Hillary Clinton?

A recent news article tried to address the question of why so many voters say that they distrust Clinton. The reporter wrote, "Voters often cite the emails or her paid speeches to Wall Street banks as reasons for their distrust, but they also point to past Clinton scandals and to a vague, gut feeling that she has never been completely truthful."

Precisely. The "throw a lot of feces against the wall" strategy has worked well for the Republicans. But again, why do even informed observers like Blow and Rosenthal echo Dowd's content-free spitefulness? They surely know that the supposed scandals, from Whitewater to Benghazi and everything in between, have all gone nowhere.

Again, it is not that there is nothing at all to support such concerns about the Clintons. Some of Bill Clinton's most famous moments involve wordplay that still makes my eyes roll: "I didn't inhale." "It depends on what your definition of is is." "I did not have sexual relations with that woman."

But carefully constructed misdirections are the stock in trade of all politicians, even nontraditional ones. For example, after Donald Trump insulted John McCain by saying that McCain was not a hero, he defended himself by pointing out that he had actually said, "He's a hero, he's a hero." And as the transcript shows, he did say those words. But he was saying them sarcastically.

Every politician ends up saying something along the lines of "Well, if you really look closely at what I said, I never actually claimed that..." Dealing with such matters is the day-to-day work of what were once called spin doctors and are now simply called campaign spokespeople.

Has Hillary Clinton said things that are false? Who hasn't? What is difficult to understand is how the anti-Clinton narrative has become so entrenched that even solid liberals respond to every attack on her with variations of "Well, yes, she does make me squirm at times."

I have said more than once that I would not want to be the person in the Clinton campaign who had to respond to inquiries about many of these questions. But I would similarly not want to be the one who had to explain Chris Christie's lies about the George Washington Bridge or Marco Rubio's attempts to distance himself from his own record on immigration, or any of the rest.

The important point is that, once we wipe away the outright falsehoods that have been told about the Clintons (and Hillary in particular), there is precious little to support the idea that she is somehow in her own category of crafty political operator. Both Clintons have often disappointed me on policy, and they sometimes say things in the way that politicians do, but that is as far as it goes.

I know that many, many people are convinced otherwise, but that appears mostly to be a matter of their buying into the established anti-Clinton narrative, which then gives that narrative a life of its own. I would hope that at least the people who are horrified by the prospect of a Trump presidency would hesitate to reinforce that storyline.

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar, a professor of law at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Taxation Law and Policy Research Institute at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts, and law and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.