I am back from the Democratic convention, and beyond all the socializing and speeches, it made me reflective about these weird, wild, but truly historic times. Those of us who are part of the progressive movement should understand that we are living in a moment of unique opportunity, if only we choose to seize it.
One of the on-going dynamics this year at the convention was the presence of so many passionate Bernie people. Some of them were involved in various kinds of protests, fueled in part by their understandable anger over the wikileaks email release that forced Debbie Wasserman-Schultz to resign. But most of them were doing the regular delegate thing of participating in the life of the convention, and it was so good to see them there. As a long time progressive movement organizer, I was truly delighted to see people at a Democratic convention who looked and talked like the kinds of grassroots lefties I have seen at a hundred rallies and Netroots Nation kind of events. The angst that a lot of movement people have over Hillary Clinton, though, reminded me that I need to write something I haven’t yet written in this election cycle: why I am genuinely excited about a Hillary Clinton presidency.
A lot of progressive folks think of Hillary as the establishment, and associate her with Bill Clinton initiatives such as NAFTA and the repeal of Glass-Steagall, even though she had little involvement in those issues. That association led many people to support Bernie, and- especially as the primary’s intensity racheted up- to be suspicious of Hillary in every way. Most Bernie people will, sooner or later, follow his lead in supporting Hillary, mainly because Trump is so awful. But I want to make a strong argument that this election is important not just because Donald Trump is such a terrible man. We progressives have a lot of reasons to get genuinely excited, first of all because the bigger prospects in this election: if we get fired up and show genuine enthusiasm, if we build the movement and engage with progressive voters, we can turn this into a wave election. A big turnout of people of color, young people, unmarried women, and other progressive segments of the electorate could mean that we sweep this nasty Republican Congress out of power, and that we start to take back from the far right conservatives local officials up and down the ballot.
Beyond building such a wave, though, I also want my progressive friends to understand that Hillary Clinton is not the caricature that either the right wing attack machine or some progressive critics think she is. There is more you need to know about the Hillary Clinton I got to know in the 1990s.
A little background on me. I came out of progressive movement organizing starting when I was in high school. I was involved in student organizing, cut my teeth with an Alinsky style coalition of community organizations, and did environmental and labor organizing. In the last couple of decades I have worked or consulted for, helped start, or otherwise been involved with a wide variety of progressive organizations and issue coalitions. I have been a proud died in the wool lefty organizer for almost 40 years. But because I moved to Iowa in the 1980s, I also got to know a lot of the people who do presidential politics, and after Bill Clinton won the primary fight in 1992, I was convinced to join his campaign to help out in organizing progressives. After Clinton won that election, I was the Constituencies Director in the transition, and then became a Special Assistant to the President, where again my main focus was engaging with the progressive world, mostly on budget and economic issues and the health care fight. I got to know Hillary Clinton very well in those years, and I think a lot of my progressive allies would be surprised by the stories I am about to tell you.
Hillary Clinton gets a lot of blame for the Clinton era policies progressives don’t like, but what people don’t understand is that she was the leading advocate for progressive policies in Bill Clinton’s administration. As the main person working with progressive groups to push things in a more progressive direction, Hillary was the one I would go to help me fight those battles, and she consistently went to bat for me. One of the earliest examples: in an early budget meeting in 1993, Bob Rubin was pushing hard for lowering the deficit, and at one point he suggested we cut back on the increase we had laid out in the campaign for the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor. I spoke up at the meeting in opposition to Rubin, but I knew that in a battle of me vs. Rubin, I had no chance, so I went to Hillary, and she immediately got fully engaged. We quickly won that fight. That pattern played out again and again over the time I was in the Clinton White House: whenever I was in a pitched battle with more conservative people in the administration, Hillary was my ally in making our proposed legislation better. Even on issues she wasn’t working on much at all because she was so focused on health care reform and other budget issues, she had my back. For example on NAFTA, she supported me when I tried to get the US Trade Rep’s office to at least listen to progressives who had concerns about NAFTA.
On health care reform, she was a fierce advocate for a more progressive bill than a lot of the DLC types wanted to pass. Very early in the process, our chief lobbyist told her we should dramatically scale back the bill because it would be too tough to pass, and- her voice rising- she said “there are children in America dying every day because they don’t have health care, and you want me to back down because we think this will be hard? It is our job to fight for those dying kids, don’t tell me to give up before we even make the fight.” At another point, we were in a meeting talking through some policy ideas being pushed by business lobbyists and some inside the administration, and she just said flatly “these guys want the HMOs to have the power to run everything. That is ridiculous, they are not getting their way.” She fought off efforts by the health care industry to get us to strip out the provision of our bill that gave the states full freedom to pursue the single payer option, and she insisted that our bill make businesses carry more of the load for health care than individuals.
Hillary fought for that bill until the very end. I remember organizing a big meeting for progressive leaders close to the end, and I have never seen her fighting spirit better, as she rallied advocates to keep fighting the good fight. When the bill finally died, she immediately started talking to Teddy Kennedy and other congressional leaders about what we could do to at least get children covered, and the eventual result was the CHIP program, which today covers 8 million kids.
Another thing I loved about Hillary was the way she mentored and empowered progressive women and women of color. Her Chief of Staff, Maggie Williams, is an African-American woman who had come out of the Children’s Defense Fund. Her Deputy COS, Melanne Verveer, had come out of People For the American Way. Her scheduler (and later 2008 campaign manager), Patti Solis, was a feisty young Latina. Her eventual COS at the State Dept, Cheryl Mills, is African-American. Two great young women of color, Huma Abedin (still on her staff) and Neera Tanden (now President of the Center for American Progress, a leading progressive think tank) started out as very young women in her office, and she saw their potential and mentored them into the powerhouses they now become. Hillary’s office was a dynamic place in the Clinton administration, where many of the most progressive people and ideas found their champion.
Hillary is also a really good human being. Chelsea’s amazing speech last night reminded of one time when I was with Hillary in the residence when Chelsea, who was at that awkward middle school age when most kids and parents can barely stand each other, came into the room. They both looked so happy to see each other, such genuine love and affection. When her staffers would have babies and bring them to work, she would sweep them into her arms with joy. She would always take time out of her totally crazy schedule to spend a few minutes with a staff person’s parents or other family or friends who came to town, and when people she knew would get sick, Hillary would always call to check in on them.
I have so many other stories I could tell about the Hillary Clinton that I know would surprise my progressive allies, but I just want to say this: I know that us progressive movement folks won’t agree with Hillary Clinton on every issue when she becomes president. There will be plenty of powerful big business interests, as well as those in Congress that she has to work every day with, pushing her to support the usual pro-corporate policies. There will be plenty of conservative defense industry types and generals wanting her to be more aggressive militarily. We will have to work our hearts out after she is elected to influence her, her appointees, and the House and Senate to do the right thing. But this election is in no way the lesser of two evils. Yes, it is important to beat Trump, and we should never lose sight of that imperative. But progressives should also understand that it is equally important to elect Hillary president because we will have a genuine chance to get a lot of good things done in a Hilary Clinton presidency. The Hillary I know has deep progressive values and a big heart. She will work with us on a lot of issues, and will move our direction if we organize effectively even when she starts out in a place we don’t like initially.
This election is a choice between the most openly bigoted man to run for president since the early 1900s and a woman who has genuinely fought on behalf of progressive values her entire life. With our enthusiastic support, we could help her create a wave election that will decimate Trumpism for a long time to come, and give our ideas a genuine chance to become policy. We need to get to work.