Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is a politician whom many people think they know in and out, but whom few actually do.
From the right, she is about as despised as liberals come: “the Madame Defarge of the Left,” “the Ice Queen,” “the Wicked Witch of the West Wing.” The view from the left is obviously sunnier, but Democrats and moderates remain fairly fixed in their opinions: “She’s soft on the war,” “just not personable enough,” “flip-flops more than Kerry.” It’s no picnic to avoid the initial volley of nicknames and one-liners, but even if you survive the first salvo, it’s difficult to find the initiative to ask about a name you’ve heard in your house since kindergarten. She’s already been first lady and Sen. Clinton, but by next semester it’s going to be more important than ever before to take a moment to look what’s behind the catchphrases. I never thought I’d use an MTV line in a News op-ed, but I say now about HRC: You think you know, but you have no idea.
Ready or not, here they come: The primaries are earlier than ever this presidential election, and so too are the comparisons between Clinton and her most prominent rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. The popular perception is that Obama is a visionary and Clinton represents old partisan politics as usual. He is the new, electric candidate, she the stale politician. Yalies seem to find it easier to get excited about a candidate like Obama. But perhaps this has something more to do with circumstances than personalities. I reluctantly state that my home city of Washington, D.C. — the entire governing apparatus, not just the White House — has been a complete embarrassment over the past seven years, and it’s taken an almost complete overhaul of Congress to even begin to turn the boat around. New energy fresh off the bench is always welcome, and the extremely engaging Obama simply hasn’t been in D.C. long enough to be associated with the town circus since the Bush administration took over. Not to take anything away from Obama’s obvious talents, but a fresh face is naturally going to look pretty good when most of the supermarket is rotten.
We’ve seen this dynamic before. Yale alum Stuart Allen ’02, who organized Students For Gore, described to me in an e-mail how everyone at Yale was far more fired up about Sen. Bill Bradley as the “hipper nominee” than the vice president. And in 2000, people weren’t sprinting toward Bethesda and diving into the Potomac headed for Virginia, except perhaps to avoid seeing a stained dress.
The truth is that Obama is a younger version of Hillary in a lot of ways. This is the same woman who, a year out of Yale Law School in 1972, joined the impeachment inquiry staff for the House Judiciary Committee to take on Watergate. Ambition to bring sweeping change, to critique unjust policies, to toss out corruption with the garbage — these may sound like slogans for Obama, but the notions are quite familiar to Clinton as well. Nor has Clinton, despite popular notions, sat back idly with the rest of her unfortunate first Congress to witness Bush’s actions go unchallenged. This summer I watched her with my own eyes as she looked directly into the C-SPAN camera at the Senate Armed Services Committee, and called Secretary Rumsfeld a coward for canceling his appointment to appear as a witness the following day. Come morning, Rumsfeld decided to show, and as he sat down, glaring at Clinton, he said, “Well, I’m here.”
Another basic popular notion is that, after voting for the war in Iraq, Clinton refused to apologize for it and has flip-flopped her positions since. Actually, upon learning that there were no WMDs in the region and little threat posed, Clinton openly stated that she would take back her vote if she could, and has since supported a phased redeployment of our troops that will not result in an immediate power vacuum and chaos. Obama did not vote for the use of force, but to be fair, in a time of intense national patriotism and solidarity, also did not have a vote to cast.
I don’t mean to limit the Democratic field too much with comparisons, and former Sen. John Edwards will surely make a lot of noise, but when people gloss over Obama vs. Clinton in conversation, it would be nice to actually hear something real about her platforms, because if you look, you’ll find that her policies are quite similar to his. People read Obama’s book, watch clips of his speeches and generally are fascinated by him, and with good reason. And Hillary — I mean, it’s Hillary Clinton; what’s there to know, right? But if you bother to look deeper, you may be surprised.
Ben Zweifach is a sophomore in Silliman College. He is the founder of Yale Students for Hillary.