The Clinton campaign as Shakespearean Tragedy


by Demi Miller, Minnesota Progressive Caucus, 6/4/08 • As I’ve been following this campaign it has struck me that so much of how these events unfold is not in our complete control. Concepts that the writers of Greek Tragedy understood – the role of Fate, the power of pride and hubris, the blindness that ambition can sometimes create in us, the capriciousness of the timing of crucial events – all can influence outcomes in unpredictable ways. I offer this perspective on Senator Clinton’s campaign fortunes: she is best viewed as the tragic protagonist in a Shakespearean play – whose fate was decided by choices made much earlier – and then played out over a protracted time span!

The Clintons are now smarting – as are most of their pro-Corporate, Democratic Leadership Council allies – from the consequences of their own hubris in believing that they owned the future of the Democratic Party. They had been riding high through the first few years of this new millennium – largely on the afterglow of Bill Clinton’s presidency and Hillary’s success in getting elected to the Senate from New York State. But that dominance was all destined to change in the run up to the previous Presidential race, when Hillary Clinton made one very fateful decision – which changed the course of the future irrevocably: She chose to pass on the chance to run, unopposed, as the Democratic Candidate for President in 2004.

At that point in George W. Bush’s first term, the Democratic Party needed a champion to rally behind – and she was the obvious choice. Whether she was completely ready or not, America was ready for Hillary Clinton, and we needed her to step up to the plate and provide leadership. But at that key moment, instead of choosing to listen to the women of America who were saying: “Run, Hillary, Run!” – or to honor the rank and file within her own Democratic Party which was looking to her to give them permission to attack Bush’s failed Iraq and corporate welfare agendas – Senator Clinton chose to listen to her much more conservative, DLC advisers whose collective advice was: “Bush is too strong – wait until 2008!” That was Hillary Clinton’s fatal crisis of judgment, and the moment when she lost the opportunity to be the first Woman President. Real leadership requires having insight into what the grassroots wants and needs and then taking the risk to act on that insight. She declined to take that risk hoping to have a “sure thing” in 2008!

Everything that has followed has been a consequence of the power vacuum that she created by not stepping forward at that key moment in history. Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich, John Edwards, and Barack Obama all became national names and the charismatic leaders of powerful progressive grassroots campaigns/movements as a result of Hillary’s failure to act decisively when it most mattered. (And her inability to work effectively for John Kerry – because the ‘Clinton-in-2008’ Presidential strategy absolutely required that Kerry had to lose in 2004 – was yet another millstone around her neck.)

The Progressives came all out to work for a Kerry victory, even though – as a pro-war, Corporate Democrat – he was their least favorite candidate! As a result they gained huge strength, experience, respect, and clout in every state Democratic Party organization, despite Kerry’s defeat. So in January 2005 when it was time to pick a new Chairman for the Democratic National Committee the progressive wing (which had been in disarray in 2003 and no match at that time for the Clinton powerhouse and connections) was now, two years later, sitting in the drivers seat! The Clintons and the DLC were so weakened by their lackluster performance and ambivalence to the Kerry campaign – that none
of their hand picked candidates for DNC chair had a chance to win; and instead their arch-nemesis, Howard Dean took control of the Party structure and brought in his “Fifty State Strategy” with him.

The DLC and their pro-corporate allies in the Party, fought against the progressive wing all through 2005 and 2006 – and yet they still lost a number of primary elections to upstart progressive Democrats who were successful in unseating significant Corporate Democrat incumbents – most notably Joe Lieberman. The Clintons wasted even more political capital fighting these battles against other members of their own party. [Ironically, these were the same Progressive Democrats who, prior to the opening up of the 2004 election field, had had no champions around whom to rally! Now all those upstart 2004 Presidential campaigns had evolved into well organized political machines which worked together to win a huge upset victory in Congress in 2006 (a victory that Corporate Democrats had pretty much written off) – and which then began setting their sights on the White House in 2008! ]

In the run-up to the 2008 primary season, the Clintons used their Corporate Media connections to play the “front runner” card for Hillary at every turn – but by then other candidates were making popular statements and getting good poll numbers despite Senator Clinton’s nominal front runner mantle. And thus – as a direct consequence of the new leadership which arose out of the power vacuum that Hillary created with her decision not to run in 2004 – the huge advantage she might have had as being the “first Woman President”, had been effectively neutralized four years later, by a now seasoned Senator Obama, who presented himself as the potential “first African-American President”. The Clinton advisers could/should have anticipated much of this if they had bothered to think ahead – but they failed to really anticipate what possible outcomes might occur as a result of Hillary’s refusal to run in ’04. Such a failure to anticipate significant outcomes is as fatal a flaw for someone aspiring to be a great President as it is for someone aspiring to be a great chess master!

What we are now seeing is the end game (one would hope) of a person who ought to have seen it coming – but who was too wrapped up in the perceptions of her own “destiny” to see the weakness in her decision not to act at that crucial juncture back in 2002-3. To those (especially older white women) who would argue: “But – it was supposed to be her/our time now!” I would suggest that history argues otherwise: The time for Hillary Clinton was 2004 – and the opportunity to break the glass ceiling was not stolen by her opponents – it was “forfeited” by Senator Clinton, herself!

There is no better depiction of Senator Clinton’s dilemma than the words of Shakespeare from the play Julius Caesar. They are spoken by Brutus – who is the ultimate tragic character in the play:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.”

So it appears to be with Senator Clinton: The reality of her current dilemma is that it is ultimately the consequence of her own choices. She waited too long to be the decisive leader she keeps claiming to be. Just imagine how different the country would be if Hillary Clinton were now going into this year’s Democratic Convention, seeking her second term as a successful Presidential incumbent! Instead Senator Obama is now the presumed nominee because he has run a superbly organized and well-supported campaign, but especially because at crucial moments, he has not hesitated to act boldly and he has taken some big risks at key junctures when risks were called for.