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A Frightful Prospect: Hillary vs. Jeb

By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.

Around the world, elections happen; they are scheduled or called and then they are over and done with – all in short order. America is “exceptional.” Even before 2015’s April showers, 2016’s November election is taking shape.

The good news is that the first six months are usually low key. There is no reason to expect that this year will be different.

There is therefore plenty of time to stock up on anti-emetics. If, as seems likely, Hillary and Jeb become the candidates, the need for them will be acute.

There is time too to pray to a merciful God that we will not have to endure that nightmarish scenario, and that neither of those miscreants will ever see the inside of the Oval Office again.

The age of miracles is past, but what the hell. How about this:

“O Lord: in the marketing campaign about to be launched. please make the Democrats’ hucksters promote someone, anyone, less noxious than Hillary Clinton. And, for comic relief, let there be a bevy of certifiable whack jobs on the Republican side, like there was in 2012.”

But where can you find a merciful God?

Indeed, unless God is even more sadistic than past evidence suggests, there is only one conclusion to draw: that the Devil is running the show. For what besides deviltry could account for the fact that guilt by association has lost its sting – even for Bill Clinton’s wife and, more amazing still, for a scion of the House of Bush?

That is the bad news that balances the good news that we still have time. — more time than money, though. In American elections, money is not the main factor; it is the only factor.

And so, the Devil is having His way. In Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire, Democratic and Republican operatives are already hard at work preparing for next year’s caucuses and primaries.

Through their efforts and the corporate media’s, we will likely find ourselves saddled with a general election that pits Hillary against Jeb.

In a saner possible world, this would be unthinkable. In the actual world, it is shaping up to be our fate.

Therefore, stock up on those anti-emetics before the stores run out.

* * *

Once upon a time, liberals made Hillary out to be the Eleanor Roosevelt of the Clinton presidency. That fantasy lasted for years.

Unlike the bizarre notion, a decade later, that Barack Obama would superintend a Second Coming of the New Deal, the idea that Hillary was the good one had legs.

Illusions about the Obama presidency barely survived Inauguration Day. But it wasn’t until the Clintons were getting ready to move out of the White House that it finally dawned on the average liberal that, of the two Clintons, Hillary was the one more wedded to neoliberal nostrums, to Wall Street, to the military-industrial complex, and to America’s masters of war.

By then, it had become clear too that she was easily as opportunistic as her better half, as secretive, and as disingenuous.

It was also obvious that she is not very good at what she does.

Of course, the evidence had been there all along. The most obvious example: that, as First Lady, she set the cause of health care reform back a generation.

Instead of making health care a right, she contrived to make it a cash cow for her family’s corporate backers. But she couldn’t pull even that off.

Had she not floundered so badly, Obama would not have been able, twenty years later, to pick up the ball she dropped and run with it – into the arms of the insurance companies and the for-profit health care industry.

The Clintons were dead set on undoing as many New Deal-Great Society advances as they could. They even had Social Security in their crosshairs. Hillary failed at that too – thanks in large part to her hubby’s philandering. In Bill’s last years as President, there was only one woman close to him who served America well: her name was Monica Lewinsky.

By the time the nineties were over, those of us who looked forward to seeing the Clintons fade into obscurity would have been hard pressed to say which one we wanted most to see less of. It hardly mattered, though. The Clintons never went away.

Bill promoted himself and his interests assiduously, while Hillary parachuted into New York State and got herself elected Senator – on the strength of her celebrity, her Washington experience, and, not incidentally, a whole lot of corporate money.

Her Senate career was, as they say, undistinguished.

She was still at it, though, when, having bested her in the 2008 caucuses and primaries, Barack Obama found it expedient to make her his Secretary of State. At the time, liberal pundits explained that the reincarnation of FDR would govern through “a team of rivals,” just as pop historian Doris Kearns Goodwin claimed that Abraham Lincoln had.

The Obama foreign policy team did such a poor job overall that it is hard to know whom to blame for what.   But when real historians finally sort it all out, expect that Hillary will get a lot of the blame for making befuddlement the guiding principle of American foreign policy.

Who, then, would want to see her take on even graver responsibilities?

Remarkably, there are people who do. Maybe some of them are inveterate Obama-boosters who want to see their man look good in comparison. Others are unreconstructed Clintonites left over from the nineties, or Hillary diehards left over from her 2008 campaign in the Democratic primaries.

And don’t forget second-wave feminists worried that, if Hillary somehow fails to gain the nomination again, they will not live long enough to see a woman elected President of the United States.

This will happen too, unless fortune smiles on these United States between now and the Democratic Party’s 2016 convention. From that point on, the way the system works, only a Republican could defeat her and, with Jeb Bush their best shot, they won’t even come close.

* * *

If any of the spawn of the Silver Fox and George the Father seemed destined for the Oval Office, it was Jeb, not George W. George was what is known in polite society as a “fuck up.”

In time, though, he did what many like him had done before – he exchanged chronic dipsomania for faith in the Lord. Meanwhile, Bush family fixers had gotten him out of more than a few jams and set him up on Easy Street.

He gathered his own posse too; its star, Karl Rove, famously became his “brain.” Before long, the wayward son found himself installed as Governor of Texas.

Around the same time, also with a little help from his family and his family’s friends, Jeb became Governor of Florida.

The conventional wisdom, back then was that Jeb was the more capable of the two and the more rightwing. Their careers as governors bore this out.

Indeed, it was not until after 9/11 that George shed his bumbling, “compassionate conservative” image. Under the tutelage of Dick Cheney, the most villainous Vice President in American history, he morphed into a full-fledged (though still dimwitted), blustering, red meat neoconservative.

He then went on to make a mess of everything he did. While this was going on, Jeb, the smarter one, largely stayed out of public view.

This changed when Obama became President. On several occasions, Jeb surreptitiously tested the political waters. Seeing the results, he wisely remained more outside the fray than in – until now.

Because he has been out of public life for so long, evidence of where he now stands is weak. However, most informed observers agree that Jeb remains a shade or two to his brother’s right.

The grandees of the Grand Old Party, the GOP, are OK with this; he is one of them, after all, so they trust him to look after their interests. And while he may be a tad too reactionary for some of them, they do need a candidate who will keep their base on board.

It is far from clear, though, that the base they must appease will find George H.W.’s second son retrograde enough.

Very likely, they won’t; and very likely too, he will be the nominee anyway. Money talks.

Another Mitt Romney situation is therefore shaping up. If events play out this way, Bush will lose, just as surely as Romney did.

Then the good news will be that Hillary will slide through that “glass ceiling” that, for want of anything more positive to say, she and her supporters talk so much about.

That will be the bad news as well.

* * *

In the race to the bottom that our politics has become, the GOP’s smarty-pants du jour, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, author of the infamous open letter to Iranian legislators that forty-seven Republican Senators signed, wants to overturn the Constitution’s prohibition of Bills of Attainder through which, under Common Law, British monarchs could not only punish perceived enemies without trial, but also – by the doctrine of “corruption of blood” – their spouses, their children, their siblings, and even their grandparents and grandchildren.

Cotton’s intuitions are medieval, but not entirely inappropriate where the Bush family is concerned – at least not from the standpoint of universal justice.

They don’t pertain to the Clintons, however.

Even before she became a Senator and a Secretary of State, Hillary was more than Bill’s spouse; she was, by her own account, a fellow perpetrator – with much to answer for in her own right.

Not only did she help end “welfare as we know it”; she joined her husband in waging a protracted struggle against the entire liberal settlement that coalesced in the Roosevelt to Johnson era and that began to unravel in the waning days of the Carter presidency.

It was during Ronald Reagan’s presidency that the cause the Clintons advanced fully entered fully into public consciousness. Since then, in America at least, “neoliberalism” and “Reaganism” have been synonymous.

The Clintons were never ideologically committed Reaganites. They were opportunists: knowing then, and knowing now, where their bread is buttered.

And indeed there have always been beneficiaries of the Reaganite turn eager to butter their bread. They realize that the Clintons have a knack for bringing the opposition along. All Democrats do, but the Clintons are better at it than most.

Thus Bill was a more effective Reaganite president than any Republican, including Reagan himself; more effective too than Obama has so far been.   Perhaps Hillary will outdo him.

Jeb, on the other hand, has, so far, done little, if anything, to put the United States on a perpetual war footing or to increase the supply of enemies it can fight against. And neither has he done much outside Florida to help banksters and other corporate criminals wreak havoc with the impunity to which they have become accustomed.

Brother George did all that and more. His Poppy began the destruction of Iraq, and the Clinton administration continued, with sanctions, what the first President Bush began with force of arms. But George W. upped the ante many fold.

Whether by design or because he was in over his head, he took aim at the entire Middle East, laying the groundwork for the even broader assault on the Muslim world that the Nobel laureate Obama would later oversee.

He also helped steer the United States into the worst economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression; and, as much or more than his successor, he shredded Constitutional protections of basic rights and liberties whenever it suited his administration’s purposes.

Now, less than eight years later, his brother wants to take up where he left off.

How could such an idea even be floated, much less taken seriously by one of our two semi-established political parties? One can only be amazed.

And, though it means conceding that Tom Cotton’s thinking is not entirely off the wall, the very thought of Jeb running for President makes it hard not to acknowledge what jurists took for granted in the days before progress in the arts and sciences made the idea seem appalling: that Bills of Attainder have a certain appeal.

* * *

However that may be, we have an electoral season ahead in which we can count on major party candidates, distinguished only for their noxiousness, saying little, if anything, of genuine importance on any of the real issues of the day.

This means that our perpetual war regime will again get a free pass, and that it will continue to metastasize.

Forsaking a “peace dividend,” the first Bush set this “new world order” in motion. The Clintons then accelerated the pace of its development. They made the endless wars that would follow inevitable — once a suitable pretext was found.

And so, with the assistance of the Saudi-backed Islamists who drove hijacked airplanes into the Pentagon and World Trade Center, George Bush and Dick Cheney unleashed what they called a Global War on Terror.

This was a godsend for the military-industrial-national security state apparatus; for the neocons who rose to power under Cheney’s aegis, it was a dream come true.

Obama dropped the name and, to his credit, ended some of the more egregious forms of torture that Bush and Cheney had allowed. He made a few minor cosmetic changes as well. He also made the new dispensation truly global.

As for what Hillary will do, we can only speculate – and worry.

An even greater cause for concern is the Clinton family penchant for going after Russia, its nuclear weapons notwithstanding. The Clintons were triumphalists, and they made sure the Russians knew it.

Bill’s provocations occurred when Russia was too weak to offer much resistance; when its empire was lost and its economy was wrecked – less by the version of socialism it used to have than by the version of capitalism it was acquiring.

Now Clintonites in the Obama administration, many of them Hillary’s people, are at it again. The difference is that these days Russia is no longer weak.

It is natural to think of Cold War mongering and nuclear brinksmanship as a neocon thing, something Republicans do. It is an Obama-Clinton thing too. The so-called “humanitarian interventionists” they empowered are neocons under the skin.   They sport a kinder-gentler patina, but they are every bit as dangerous.

* * *

The total surveillance state that goes along with a perpetual war regime will escape serious criticism in the coming election too.

Having means, motive and opportunity after 9/11, Bush and then Obama set their sights on hard won and longstanding privacy and due process rights. Everyone says that they regret that it has comes to this, but no one will lift a finger to do anything that might turn the situation around – no one, that is, in the political mainstream.

Brother Jeb is obviously fine with total surveillance. Don’t expect Hillary to challenge any of it either.

Also, don’t expect her presidency to be more transparent than Obama’s or Bush’s — not if her piqued reaction to the Wikileaks and Edward Snowden revelations is any indication.

Those revelations embarrassed her, and the State Department she ran, but that doesn’t entirely explain her irritation. As the scandal around her emails underscores, she believes that it is her prerogative to rule secretively, when doing so suits her purpose. Keeping the public in the dark is a Clinton family tradition.

The irony is that thanks to the explosion of internet-enabled samizdat journalism, self-serving government lies and prevarications no longer automatically control public opinion.

That the American empire is the problem, not the solution, is, by now, widely understood; also government opacity has come to be widely despised. Infringements of privacy and due process rights in the name of national security fool no one either – except, of course, the willfully misled.

A large and growing segment of the public is therefore more than ready for a profound change of course. It is those who govern that lag behind.

These and other pressing issues are not discussed in the coming election. But that is hardly the worst of it. Presidential elections suck up all the air in the room. At best, they put constructive political efforts on hold — more often, they set them back; more often still they defeat them altogether.

Thus the 2012 electoral season helped do Occupy Wall Street in; this is more the norm than the exception.

* * *

Expect also that nothing constructive for holding back global warming will come from a Hillary versus Jeb election – or, for that matter, from a contest between any Democrat with any chance at all of securing the nomination, running against any Republican.

However, the situation with global warming is not quite the same as it is with war and peace and basic rights and liberties.

With the exception of a few “climate change deniers,” the bipartisan consensus is on the right side of the global warming issue – if anything, the political class is a little ahead of the general population, thanks to corporate media’s diligent dumbing down efforts.

But no leading political figure – certainly not Hillary or Jeb – is prepared to do much about it – not while there are powerful corporate interests opposed, and not so long as it remains easy to kick the proverbial can down the road.

Global warming is like the weather; everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. This used to be because there wasn’t anything anybody could do. With global warming, there is. Nevertheless, Democrats and Republicans won’t.

Certainly, Hillary won’t. Even less can be expected from Jeb Bush.

Fortunately, though, Jeb will never be President – not for “corruption of blood” reasons, compelling as they are, but, incredible as it seems, because too many Republicans think that his views, including his views on global warming, are too far out in left field.

Meanwhile, temperatures rise and the predictable consequences unfold.

It will be this way until some catastrophic event, or series of events, awakens a level of public concern that even Democrats and Republicans can no longer ignore — or unless enlightened statesmanship somehow supersedes politics as usual.

I’d bet on the catastrophes.

* * *

Both parties are also on the same page on rising inequality; they’re all against it.

To be sure, the idea that the love of money is the root of all evil is foreign to Democrats and Republicans alike. Both parties are out for all the “campaign contributions” they can get, notwithstanding the offense to democracy or the plain fact that a great many evils do follow from the corruption that ensues.

At the same time, though, they all pay lip service to the idea that increasing economic inequality is the root of many of the distinctive evils of our time.

High on the list is the sheer injustice of it. On this point, most fair-minded people agree. But not quite all.

Within the Republican fold, there are libertarians who do not object to grossly unequal distributions of income and wealth on grounds of justice.   Quite the contrary; they are wedded to views that suggest that everyone has a right to all they can acquire, provided only that their holdings are acquired through market transactions and inheritance (or other forms of gifting); not from plunder, force or fraud.

But even such doctrinaire free marketeers as these have come to realize that there are good reasons to resist rising inequality, irrespective of their views about what justice requires.

For one, inequalities of the kind and extent that are on the rise lately are bad for business – because a system that enriches only the very few, at the expense of the many, cannot sustain a level of demand conducive to economic growth.

Moreover, thanks to rising inequality, the great fear of centuries past – that too much inequality leads to political instability – is again making itself felt.

Syriza in Greece – and perhaps, before long too, Podemos in Spain, and like-minded political formations in Portugal, Ireland and elsewhere – frighten the ruling classes.   They are still a long way from modifying, much less ending, the neoliberal policies that have made these challenges to their power inevitable, but they are inching forward to that realization.

Unlike global warming, the evils of inequality are a problem now — for nearly everybody, ninety-nine percent of us, or more. It is therefore unsurprising that there is nothing similar to climate change denial where inequality is concerned, nothing nearly as politically debilitating.

But, as with global warming, the solutions the major political parties put forward are, at best, woefully inadequate palliatives.

On the Republican side, there is wrongheaded and frequently incoherent prattle about the virtues of “free markets” and about how even the vestiges of past government policies intended to raise people up actually make them worse off.

The underlying rationale, as best one can be made out, is that these programs somehow thwart equal opportunity, which then somehow leads to unequal outcomes.

It is not worth trying to puzzle through the purported connections; clear thinking is not the Republicans’ strong suit.

Democrats propose what amounts to a modest restoration of the social policies liberal Democrats introduced decades ago, plus modest spending on public works. Wanting to seem “strong on defense,” they don’t dare suggest cutting back on military spending or on any of the other wasteful expenditures that make it fiscally impossible for the state to do anyone much good.

Neither do they have much to say about why inequality is on the rise.

Their silence is puzzling, inasmuch as they know full well how capitalist societies typically counter the inequalities capitalism generates. Like their social democratic counterparts in Europe and elsewhere, they used to do a lot of that themselves — through redistributive taxation and welfare state measures of various kinds. They know too that strong labor movements can also be helpful too.

The consensus view, though, is that the days when these and other left alternatives within capitalism were feasible are over. There is even more agreement that alternatives to capitalism itself are out of the question.

No one in the political mainstream even bothers to say why. Hardly anyone on the fringes does either.

Evidently, it has lately become so widely assumed that, as Margaret Thatcher might say, “there is no alternative,” that it is simply taken for granted that capitalism must always be with us, and that the kind of capitalism we now have is the only kind there now can be.

And so, for all practical purposes, a century and a half of socialist and anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist theory and practice, and many decades of academic research, might as well never have happened.

But, of course, it did happen, and there is much to be learned from all of it.

Just don’t expect any of it to be brought up by Democrats or Republicans during the coming election season.   At least Mrs. Thatcher thought it worth her while to drive the “there is no alternative” idea home. Democrats and Republicans can’t be bothered.

Therefore, instead of a serious discussion of ways of addressing a problem that everyone acknowledges, there will be a whole lot of sound and fury that can be counted on to signify nothing.

* * *

If only the problems facing us were less urgent, the eighteen months ahead would be an excellent time to put politics on hold; to let the electoral spectacle unfold as it must, while, as Nietzsche would say, averting one’s gaze, as best one can.

Why nauseate oneself?

The short answer is because too much is at stake.

Presidential elections are sales campaigns; and the one that will soon be upon us is likely to be sillier, more enervating, and more disgusting than most – especially with Hillary and the Bush family involved.

But, with cunning and skill, even an election about nothing in which worse-than-nothing candidates compete can be put to advantage.

A Hillary versus Jeb election is a frightful prospect indeed. But because presidential elections, even ones as dismal as the one that lies ahead, focus peoples’ minds, the occasion can be used to work towards getting the public to focus on the real and urgent issues of our time – on war and peace, rights and liberties, global warming, and the increasing inequality that is feeding injustice and stifling what little democracy we have left.

Above all, it presents an opportunity for talking about the urgency of making left alternatives within capitalism and alternatives to capitalism itself, socialist alternatives, part of political discourse again.

There is no reason why such a discussion cannot now take place, and every reason why it should.

Impending catastrophes stare us in the face. Unless there is a change of course soon, the dangers will intensify.

But nothing will get better until the underlying causes of the perils we face are exposed and subjected to scrutiny. This cannot happen as long as the lessons gained in the pre-neoliberal age are off the agenda entirely, and as long as socialism is never even mentioned, much less discussed.

Ironically, the sheer inanity of the election we are facing makes the discussion of these and other pertinent issues more, not less feasible; it makes real politics possible. Full speed ahead, therefore; there truly is no alternative.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


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