Among Democratic voters, young women are so enthusiastic about electing the first female president that they’re giving overwhelming support…to Senator Bernard Sanders. A national poll found that women between the ages of 18 and 34 preferred Sanders to Clinton by a margin of 50% to 31%. A survey taken prior to the New Hampshire primary found women younger than 45 in that state supporting him over her by 64% to 35%. And according to entrance polls at the Iowa caucuses, women under the age of 30 favored Sanders over Hillary Clinton by a margin of six to one.
This unexpected development might make sense if young voters were closer in age to Sanders than Clinton. But at 74, he’s five years older than she is. Gloria Steinem, who’s older than both Democratic presidential candidates, has offered a Connie Francis theory: “When you’re young, you’re thinking, ‘Where are the boys?’” Steinem told HBO’s Bill Maher. “And the boys are with Bernie.”
A more plausible theory is that, as we’ve known since The Catcher in the Rye, young people detest phoniness, and Hillary Clinton suffers from profound authenticity deficiencies—in general, but especially in comparison to the rumpled, unscripted Sanders. A New York Times/CBS poll taken last year showed that, among Democratic primary voters, 62% regard Sanders as someone who says what he believes, compared to 28% who have the impression he says what he thinks people want to hear. The numbers were much closer for Clinton: 52% to 46%, respectively. Historical results from the same survey, going back as far as 2003, show that Clinton has never, even among Democratic voters, enjoyed a reputation as a straight shooter. 52% is the highest proportion of Democrats who have ever considered her forthright; the lowest mark was 34%.
The doubts that Clinton says what she believes reflect a deeper problem: she comes across as an office-seeker who doesn’t really believe in anything, any political standard or policy goal, half as fiercely as she believes in her right and destiny to be president. Even grading on the curve appropriate for a profession that rewards flexibility of principle, Clinton always sounds like a politician who has the courage of her focus groups’ convictions.
This approach is especially harmful when a long political career unfolds in a country and party where views are changing, and at a time when Google and YouTube make yesterday’s firm declarations easily retrievable. As an aspiring U.S. senator in 2000, First Lady Clinton said, “I think a marriage is as a marriage has always been, between a man and a woman.” In the fourth year after she was elected, Clinton called marriage “a sacred bond between a man and a woman.” In 2013 she announced her support for same-sex marriage. By 2014 she was incensed when National Public Radio’s Terry Gross tried, repeatedly, to get Clinton to clarify whether her earlier opposition had been sincere, or a position she felt she had to voice, given the shape of public opinion at the time. Clinton never answered the question, but made clear that she felt Gross had no business posing it.
Clinton is especially vulnerable to Sanders when trying to simultaneously establish her authenticity and accommodate the Democratic party’s resurgent economic populism. In 2013, after leaving the State Department and before beginning her presidential campaign, Clinton gave three speeches to Goldman Sachs gatherings, receiving a fee of $225,000 for each talk. This appears to have been her standard rate, at least when speaking to big banks, since she received that amount four more times in 2013, after appearances before UBS, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, and Deutsche Bank. The latter company liked her well enough to pay Clinton $260,000 for a talk in 2014.
When CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked Clinton about getting $675,000 from Goldman Sachs for three days’ work, she had what Maureen Dowd of the New York Times called a “stupefyingly bad” response: “Well, I don’t know. That’s what they offered.” Sanders challenged her closeness to Wall Street in a debate, and Clinton attacked him for resorting to “innuendo” and “insinuation.” His real contention, she said, is that “anybody who ever took donations or speaking fees from any interest group has to be bought. And I just absolutely reject that….” The truth of the matter, she insisted, is that she had never “changed a view or a vote because of any donation I ever received.”
This argument, too, was badly received by critics one might have expected to be sympathetic. The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson called it an expression of “Clintonian exceptionalism,” the belief that “money has a baleful influence in politics generally but has left her, personally, unaffected.” Indeed, for those sympathetic to Occupy Wall Street, the official Hillary Clinton campaign website says all the right things. For example, it quotes a speech she gave in 2015:
We have to end the flood of secret, unaccountable money that is distorting our elections, corrupting our political system, and drowning out the voices of too many everyday Americans. Our democracy should be about expanding the franchise, not charging an entrance fee.
She promises, on the site, to overturn the Citizens United decision of 2010. (That is, to nominate Supreme Court justices who will do so.) But her rebuttal to Sanders—no quid, no quo, no problem—endorses the Citizens United logic. Arguing, “There is no such thing as too much speech,” Justice Anthony Kennedy insisted that independent expenditures to promote candidates or causes “do not lead to, or create the appearance of, quid pro quo corruption.”
Clinton could demolish Bernie Sanders’s insinuations by releasing the transcripts of her paid speeches, including those to banks. (“I will look into it,” she said with characteristic warmth during last week’s debate.) Perhaps it will turn out that leading financiers have a masochistic streak, and were thrilled when a famous Democratic politician berated them. Perhaps they’re smart about money in every other respect, but inexplicably stupid in this one, handing six-figure checks to a presidential prospect who plans to make their lives miserable.
Perhaps, however, her paid financial industry talks were not attempts to Occupy but to Mollify Wall Street. Without the speech transcripts, we have only second-hand reports, such as one from Politico suggesting that her chat with a Goldman Sachs audience was congenial in the extreme. “Clinton offered a message that the collected plutocrats found reassuring, according to accounts offered by several attendees, declaring that the banker-bashing so popular within both political parties was unproductive and indeed foolish.” The report went on: “What the bankers heard her to say was just what they would hope for from a prospective presidential candidate: Beating up the finance industry isn’t going to improve the economy—it needs to stop.”
One could see how a bitter, carping cynic like Bernie Sanders might use innuendo and insinuation to suggest that it’s almost as if Clinton was either dissembling to the bankers then, or is dissembling to the voters now. “Our banking system is still too complex and too risky,” her website declares, quoting another 2015 speech. “[T]oo often it has seemed that the human beings responsible [for financial transgressions] get off with limited consequences—or none at all, even when they’ve already pocketed the gains. This is wrong, and on my watch, it will change.”
In other words, perhaps Clinton wants to have everything every which way: to rake every buck she can; and to condemn mere politicians, journalists, and citizens who have the temerity to suggest her financial grasping is neither seemly nor democratic; and then to insist that the system must be cleaned up so that politicians without her matchless integrity and public-spiritedness aren’t tempted—in ways she will resist, but they won’t. Like so many stories about the Clintons, including the ongoing saga of her private email server when she was Secretary of State, the question of what Hillary said to the investment bankers resonates because it supports the idea that she and her husband share one foundational belief: rules are for other people. Owing to their own supreme talents and unresting idealism, however, the ends justify any means necessary.
The inauthenticity, entitlement, and self-serving that connects most directly to young women rejecting Hillary Clinton concern her husband’s controversial history with women, and her complicity in attacking them to protect his, and her own, political career. Bill Cosby’s protracted public humiliation shows that America has reconsidered the moral statute of limitations on past sexual transgressions. But if we’re going to apply today’s standards retroactively, we’re likely to apply them widely.
“’90s Scandals Threaten to Erode Hillary Clinton’s Strength With Women” was the headline on a New York Times story last month. A generation of younger voters is just now finding out about Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, and Juanita Broaddrick. “Even some Democrats who participated in the effort to discredit the women acknowledge,” the Times reports, that “such a campaign to attack the women’s character would be unacceptable” today.
Hillary Clinton does have apologists who want to absolve her of any blame for those long-ago scandals. It’s one thing, Michelle Goldberg argued in Slate, to make Bill Clinton a Cosby-like pariah, but another, sexist thing to make Hillary Clinton pay more heavily for her husband’s misdeeds than he ever did. Specifically, Goldberg says, it’s wrong to “conflate” Hillary’s expressions of support for her husband “with the actions of Clinton operatives like James Carville and Sid Blumenthal, who did indeed smear Bill’s mistresses.” Carville, for example, said, “If you drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find.”
One needn’t conflate Hillary’s actions with Carville’s, however, to want her to clarify how she regards them. She’s had 24 years, for example, to let the world know how she reacted to his trailer-park statement, one that would have been denounced around the world as sexist (and classist) if it had come from Karl Rove. Perhaps the transcript of her scathing rebuke is in a drawer next to the transcript of her tirade before Goldman Sachs. We do know that Sidney Blumenthal’s strenuous efforts to destroy Monica Lewinsky’s reputation in 1998 were so offensive to Clinton that she made him a close, informal advisor when she became Secretary of State in 2009.
Caitlin Flanagan explained in Time why she is a Democrat who’ll stay home in November rather than vote for Hillary Clinton. The key reason is that Hillary has had decades to make clear where she stood on the treatment of women whose allegations against Bill Clinton included not just consensual extramarital affairs, but sexual harassment and sexual assault…and we still have to ask, “What did Hillary know, and when did she know it?” And on this crucial point, even Goldberg’s attempts at exoneration are half-hearted. “Hillary was a betrayed woman who nevertheless fought to salvage a marriage and political project she believed in. Perhaps she shouldn’t have.”
For older voters, men and women, the scandals of 20 years ago are, as they say at Goldman Sachs, “priced in” to their views of Hillary Clinton. But it’s easy to understand why young women just learning all this are rejecting her candidacy in droves. Considered for the first time, this information makes the Woman Who Would Be President look like “a craven opportunist, and an apologist for a predator,” one feminist told the Times. Another, the 17-year-old founder of the blog Feminist Culture, said, “I heard he sexually harassed people and she worked to cover it up.” And young women who see the world as she does “don’t react well to that.” Unless, improbably, there are transcripts showing that the sliming of Bill Clinton’s accusers was carried out despite his wife’s strenuous objections, their marriage may go on, but the political project of each being elected president is in grave peril.