Over at Vox, Ezra Klein showers Hillary Clinton with praise for what he says are her “extraordinary,” and under-appreciated, political skills. She may not inspire much enthusiasm at the grassroots, she may not suck the oxygen out of a room, and she may not bring crowds to their feet, Klein says, but she is an expert practitioner of the art of elite coalition-building—of winning over Democratic interest groups, donors, and power brokers—and that, ultimately, is what matters:
There is a narrative that has emerged in the Democratic primary, and it goes something like this: Hillary Clinton locked up the Democratic establishment long before the primary began in earnest. She’s the wife of an ex-president. She was endorsed by virtually every elected official in the party and pretty much every major interest group. Her dominance of the inside game was unprecedented for a non-incumbent candidate. And she used this elite firewall to choke off Sanders’s revolution. […]
But another way to look at the primary is that Clinton employed a less masculine strategy to win. She won the Democratic primary by spending years slowly, assiduously, building relationships with the entire Democratic Party. She relied on a more traditionally female approach to leadership: creating coalitions, finding common ground, and winning over allies.
Put aside the questionable assertion that courting political elites is an inherently “feminine” quality, and that outsider-populism is “masculine.” That may or may not be true, but it is tangential to a more important point that Klein’s essay inadvertently highlights: Hillary Clinton is a machine politician. Her capture of the Democratic nomination depended on the extraordinary and unprecedented engine of influence-peddling—of “honest graft”—that she and her husband have labored to build and maintain ever since they left the White House in 2001. Walter Russell Mead outlined the contours of this far-reaching operation in his cover essay from last January, “The First Postmodern Political Machine”:
The Clintons stand where money, influence, and celebrity form a nexus. When Hillary Clinton was running the State Department and Bill Clinton was shaking down contributors to the Foundation, the donors knew, or thought they knew, what they were getting. Now that Hillary is running for President, the donors have an even better idea of what good things might come to them—or what problems and complications could develop if they cut the Clintons off. […]
The machine gathers the cash that provides perches and incomes to Clinton loyalists; the loyalists keep the publicity machine pumping, keep the networks of contacts and patronage refreshed throughout the vast Clinton network, and staff what amounts to a permanent campaign. This is what party machines used to do: provide incomes for the army of operatives who would jump into action to make sure the machine stayed in office.
The Clinton machine had enough reach to clear the field of credible establishment opposition before the race began, and keep anxious Democrats on the sidelines when the former First Lady started to face ethical questions (many of which, like her Goldman Sachs speaking fees, and the dubious Clinton Foundation-State Department connection, can be considered collateral damage of machine-style politics). Finally, the network of elite Democratic interest groups and kingmakers that the Clintons had carefully cultivated over the years was loyal enough to help put down the Sanders uprising. From the teachers’ unions to immigrant interest groups to LGBT and gender activist organizations, the machine’s clients delivered.
We don’t consider Clinton-style transactional politics to be quite as wonderful and pure as Klein does, but that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily evil or nefarious—at least when compared to the available alternatives. As WRM pointed out, machines headed by influential personalities are in some ways an inevitable byproduct of the decline of traditional party organizations (an unintended consequence of decades of campaign finance reforms). The dynastic Clinton operation was able to fill the void left by the decline of the institutional Democratic Party. The Republican Party had no equivalent organizational muscle—making it far more vulnerable to conquest and destruction.