I cannot pretend to have read each of the thousands of online articles devoted to criticizing Hillary Clinton, but I can tell you that the central claim of the 40 or so articles I have read in the last three days can be summarized in three words: Clinton is dishonest.
To be clear, the criticisms typically are along the same themes: she is a liar about the destruction of the American embassy in Benghazi; she campaigns on financial reform, but really is in the pocket of Wall Street; she changed her stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, gay marriage and mass incarceration, which in her critics’ eyes means she does not genuinely support any of those things.
However, these arguments overlook the way in which she embodies an honesty unparalleled by other presidential candidates. She refuses to reduce policy disputes to black and white, good and evil, right and wrong. In other words, Clinton personifies the kind of pragmatism and intellectualism that we need in the White House.
At Occidental, we are challenged to recognize the complexity of creating policies that affect positive change on our campus. We grapple with the politics of race, gender and sexual orientation, handling cases of sexual assault and many different and sometimes conflicting strategies for making our campus more diverse and equitable. No public policy debate on our campus, in our city, or in this nation has ever been easily delineated into neat categories of black and white. Real and effective political change comes from accepting and embracing the murky gray of public policy formulation and implementation.
Clinton, above all other candidates, embraces this gray.
Her political platform rejects the notion that a few policy changes will be enough to resolve inequality for a marginalized group.
On her hallmark issue of women’s reproductive rights and equal pay, she has fought hard throughout her career as a senator and secretary of state to close the wage gap and bring attention to women’s rights. Still, Clinton does not promise that her policies to mandate paid parental leave and expand affordable child care will solve professional problems for all women. She hopes they will help, but she is honest in her recognition that it isn’t that simple.
Bernie Sanders, by comparison, campaigns on the inspiring idealism that his policies will invoke a “political revolution” — a radical departure from the current status quo that is supported by the most disillusioned voters in our nation. As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in a recent article in The Atlantic, voters should give pause to Sanders’ promises of radical change. For example, on the problems of high unemployment and incarceration rates among black youth, Sanders’ proposed solutions are mostly sweeping socioeconomic reforms, such as increasing the minimum wage, introducing single-payer healthcare and offering free tuition at public universities. And as Coates rightfully points out, when we look to European countries who have adopted similar policies, we still see significant racial inequality. Though Sanders tells us his policies are common sense — black and white, again — it’s not that simple.
Hillary, on the other hand, embraces the gray in her rejection of the notion that policy decisions have clear enemies and champions. On the topic of financial reform, the candidates’ primary difference comes not in the substance of their proposed plans but in how they frame them.
Clinton talks about the importance of defending Dodd-Frank against Republican attacks while also acknowledging the important role American investment banks played in making the U.S. more secure: no longer solely an unparalleled military power, but also a leader in global finance.
Sanders, on the other hand, gained support by mobilizing the masses around a common enemy: the banks — specifically Goldman Sachs, and even more specifically Goldman Sach’s CEO and Chairman Lloyd Blankfein. Now, defining a clear enemy is a strategic choice, but in this case, it is also a dishonest one. Even if Sanders were elected president and got Glass-Steagall and his tax on Wall Street past a gridlocked Congress, income inequality in the U.S. would still be at an unprecedented level. Blankfein and the big banks are not the overpowering enemy that Sanders is making them out to be. They are a small part of a large and elusive income inequality problem, but they are also a small part of a large and elusive capitalist system that makes possible rapid investment in cutting edge technology and new industries.
Hillary is also embracing grayness in the number of times she has changed her stance on several key issues.
She acknowledges that throughout her political career her stances on certain policies have changed in response to new information and a shifting political climate. Nevertheless, her critics are correct when they say some of these changes are made as a calculated political strategy. But political issues are never as clear cut as they may initially appear, and changing an opinion is precisely what a nuanced understanding of policymaking in the current political environment demands.
A good politician saves their energy for the fights worth fighting. They adjust their positions when a policy cannot be passed in its entirety, and a smaller piece of that policy can still create positive change.
Clinton is that politician. As the New York Times editorial board points out, if Clinton wins, she will be one of the most experienced and qualified presidents of all time. She will also be a decidedly honest one.
She gives us the most authentic glimpse into what it takes to be effective in our political environment. She embraces the complexity of political gridlock. She accepts the truism that special interests are never going away. And despite the ease with which she could adopt the practices of the other presidential candidates who simplify policies and reduce their challenges into more palatable boxes of black and white, she refuses to do so. She embodies the not-so-sexy but brutally honest grayness that we engage with every day.