At the end of The Candidate, Robert Redford, playing Senate hopeful Bill McKay, asks his campaign strategist after his improbable election victory, "What do we do now?" The film's denouement captures the essence of what it takes to succeed in modern electoral politics. Once idealistic, Redford's McKay has so compromised his principles in order to prevail that he has become unrecognizable to himself. He longer knows who he is and what he stands for. The movie inspires a question of another candidate running for high office: Does Hillary Clinton recognize herself?
Clinton says she's "battle tested," which in politician argot means that she's conveniently passed like a kidney stone convictions likely to offend. As Tom Hayden, himself no shrinking violet, points out, Hillary once championed progressive, even radical, causes. During one fiery oration as an undergraduate, she went so far as to indict capitalism. "Our social indictment has broadened. Where once we exposed the quality of life in the world of the South and the ghettos, now we condemn the quality of work in factories and corporations…How much longer can we let corporations run us?"
Hillary inveighed against the Vietnam War as a law student at Yale, and after graduating joined a Bay Area law firm specializing in defending Black Panthers and labor leaders prosecuted for communist leanings when blue chip firms promising generous salaries would have gladly reserved a corner office for her. She subsequently went to Washington as a 26-year-old congressional investigator with the House Judiciary Committee where she worked on the Nixon impeachment proceedings.
Bill Clinton's foray into elected politics initially did not temper his wife's pugnacity. As Arkansas' First Lady, Hillary at first refused to drop her maiden name, offending many socially conservative southerners. Later, during the 1992 presidential election, she responded acidly to a question about a possible conflict between her law practice and her husband's tenure as governor. "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas," she said sarcastically. Alas, her salty rhetoric is behind her. Thoroughly modern Hillary has no time for convictions.
Hillary now uses her husband's last name and even offers up recipes for chocolate chip cookies. Intent on being "tougher than any boy," she has taken a hawkish line in the Senate, voting in 2002 for the authorization to use force against Iraq and a resolution branding Iran’s 125,000-member Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization, potentially providing license to a trigger-happy Administration for military action against that country. Once an avid foe of the pharmaceutical industry, she now happily accepts its largesse. She’s even chummy with Rupert Murdoch!
Hillary has gotten far, but at what cost? Abandoning principle for political expediency is a high price to pay without a big payoff. Indeed, what does it profit a presidential candidate to gain political viability by shedding core values only to lose the nomination? Hillary might find out. But even if she wins, Hillary might find herself asking, “What do we do now?”