Five years back, the New York Times pointed its telescope at what it called Clinton World, the seemingly endless ecosystem of staffers, clients, strategists, old friends, wonks, flatterers, henchmen, consiglieres, and hired dog walkers who have latched on to the Clintons over the years. The takeaway for the Times was that such a vast coterie is difficult to control, a big rig that can only turn so quickly—but one quote in particular stands out. Said a Clinton friend of Clinton World: “Some people get eaten up by the charisma and forget that, in the end, it is a business.”
And that’s just it right there. Has anyone ever fine-tuned the business-ification of politics as have the Clintons? Their conquering of the Democratic Party over the past 25 years has often felt like a corporate takeover, the absorption of a nationwide political apparatus into a family syndicate that exists to build and burnish the brand of a single couple.
It was this curious arrangement that Tulsi Gabbard ran smack into earlier this week. Gabbard, a congresswoman from Hawaii and Democratic presidential candidate, was attacked seemingly out of nowhere by Hillary, who implied that the Russians might somehow be controlling her. “I’m not making any predictions,” Clinton intoned on a podcast, “but I think they’ve got their eye on somebody who is currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate.”
It was a base (and baseless) smear, and it drew a furious response. Gabbard tweeted that Clinton was “queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long.” She also dared Clinton to jump into the race, declaring that the primary was now effectively between the two of them.
She’s wrong about that, of course, at least in the literal sense. Gabbard, who rarely clears 2 percent in the polls, has little chance of winning the Democratic nomination. But in a more macro sense, she’s correct. Of all the dividing lines vivisecting the Democratic Party right now, there’s an important and understated one that runs between Clinton World and everything that Gabbard has come to represent. At issue is whether or not one family ought to be able to run the Democratic National Committee like its own LLC, installing loyalists as its leaders, freezing its foreign policy in the past, embarrassing it with self-serving fabrications.
The reason Clinton slimed Tulsi as a Russian patsy is because Clinton herself is obsessed with Russia. Over and over again, she’s blamed her own loss on their supposed meddling in the 2016 election, even going so far as to call Donald Trump’s presidency “illegitimate.” This is partly understandable—no one wants to accept fault for difficult failures, least of all when the entire country is watching—and partly egotistical. But the belief that maybe Hillary really won, which extends well beyond the candidate herself and throughout Clinton World, is also good business. However scant the evidence might be that the Russians heave-hoed votes in Wisconsin, the Clintonian goal is always to guard their own—“protect the shield,” in the nonsensical words of the NFL. Better, then, to hang around Democrats’ neck a nutty conspiracy theory then to admit, even all these years later, that the Clinton product might not be what it once was.
Preserve the brand even at the expense of the party: that’s what the Clintons have always done. It’s why Bill dragged the Democrats into the realm of adolescent word parsing (“the definition of sex”) rather than admit to his affair with Monica Lewinsky from the start. It’s why he was willing to triangulate during his presidency, chucking half the party platform off the wagon in order to ensure he could net legislative victories. It’s why Hillary obtusely insisted on running in 2008 and 2016, even though anyone paying attention knew these would be populist years with her cast in role of Dickens’ Monseigneur. The common denominator in Clinton World is always personal short-term gain; all else, including political reality, is subordinated to that. And even when they lose, they still linger, their business more like a monopoly, having accumulated so much personnel power as to immunize it from market forces.
Still, all the bumps and losses have at least somewhat diminished the Clintons. There is little enthusiasm for another Hillary rev of the engine, no matter how badly she seems to want one. As for Bill, when people say they’re nostalgic for the 1990s, they generally mean boy bands and Legends of the Hidden Temple, not blue dresses. Now enter Tulsi Gabbard. She is both a walking repudiation of Clinton World and a product of its failures. A former vice chair at the DNC, she resigned after it became clear the organization intended to slight Bernie Sanders’ presidential candidacy in favor of Hillary’s. A political neophyte, she’s running a barebones campaign, in contrast to Clinton World’s legions. She remains unsullied by the corrupt Democratic influencers of yore, from Goldman Sachs to Jeffrey Epstein, all of whom the Clintons have rubbed elbows with. And most importantly, she served as a National Guard medic in Iraq and came away jaded by the very wars Hillary keeps endorsing.
Gabbard, then, isn’t Clinton World’s most formidable opponent, but right now she looks like its clearest antithesis. Her knight’s move has been to take the Clintons off the grounds of personal accomplishment and put them on the harsher terrain of policy accomplishment. Hillary loves to tout her (substantial) record of public service as a woman, but Gabbard, a war veteran, can claim that too. Hillary is less eager, meanwhile, to discuss her and her husband’s writ large policy records, given the current revolt against the liberal internationalism and Third Way centrism they’ve long regarded as de rigueur. Gabbard not only brings this up, her entire candidacy is a homing missile aimed at the establishment’s failed foreign policy, one of its most gaping vulnerabilities. While Clinton World thrashes on the floor screeching at the Russian nanobots in their nose hairs, Gabbard offers up informed critiques of actual events.
The contrast is unavoidable, and it’s made Clinton World look one slice short of a (faux New York-style) pizza. (It’s always wrong to say that conspiracy theories are the sole province of “the fringes”; they can afflict the center, too, and they’re all the more embarrassing when they do.) Sure enough, fade to Iowa, where voters are expressing renewed interest in Gabbard. One told the Associated Press that Hillary’s smear was “divisive and despicable” and said he likes Tulsi’s “anti-regime-change message,” while another accused Clinton of “sowing division in the primary.” As it turns out, protecting the brand of a couple that hasn’t won a nationwide election in 23 years is not a priority in flyover country.
It may be that this is the year the Democrats are finally ready to cast out the Clintons for good, along with all their attendant wars and machinations and courtiers. If so, the strongest tonic they could swallow would be the campaign of Tulsi Gabbard. You don’t have to support her candidacy (I don’t) to appreciate what she’s trying to do here.