Is Hillary Clinton a Neocon?

July 11, 2007 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Financial Times on July 11, 2007.

“You know, when I ask people, ‘What do you think the goals of America are today?’ people don’t have any idea. We don’t know what we’re trying to achieve. And I think that in a life or in a country you’ve got to have some goals.” Senator Hillary Clinton, MSNBC, May 11, 2007

Senator Hillary Clinton’s worldview, as formulated above, is starkly at odds with that of America’s founders. The idea that the American nation had “goals”, just as individuals do, would have been wholly alien to them. For them the whole undertaking of government was to protect our “self–evident” rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This emphasis on the primacy of the individual is the essence of true American exceptionalism.

National goals are a euphemism for concentrated national political power. The “Old World” was full of nations with goals, almost all pernicious. The concept of national goals is not so much un–American as it is non–American. But Mrs. Clinton persists in promoting the concept, saying at a recent campaign speech in New Hampshire that rather than an “ownership society” she would “prefer a ‘we’re all in it together’ society”. She frequently invokes the notion that Americans want “to be part of something bigger than themselves”.

She has an unusual ally in this. The one other powerful political force in the US today that shares her frustration over the lack of national goals is neoconservatism. Neocons call it “national greatness”. Their theorists Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan called President George W. Bush’s willingness to “engage wherever necessary around the world” a recognition of “an essential part of national greatness”.

Perhaps its most articulate proponent, however, is David Brooks, the New York Times columnist. Mr. Brooks wrings his hands in a Weekly Standard article that “Americans have discarded their pursuit of national greatness in just about every particular”. And how would he describe that goal? “Individual ambition and willpower are channelled into the cause of national greatness. And by making the nation great, individuals are able to join their narrow concerns to a larger national project.” “Ultimately,” he continues, “American purpose can find its voice only in Washington.”

Mrs. Clinton would appear to have found a soulmate in Mr. Brooks, if not a future running mate.

Yet there is more to Mrs. Clinton’s neocon connections. Another characteristic she shares is the promiscuity with which both camps would use the federal government — as if there simply were no constitutional limits on federal power. Given the neocons’ high profile in pushing us into the Iraq war, it is often overlooked how far their domestic policies unfailingly call for vigorous federal initiatives.

The federal takeover of education, dubbed “No Child Left Behind”, is a neocon project. So, too, was the Faith–based Initiative that funded local religious organisations. Mr. Brooks recently called for presidential candidates to “create a flourishing families committee. Get economists, religious activists, and psychologists in one room to figure out how government can reduce stress on struggling families”. This would be the same government that took three days to discover that Hurricane Katrina had created a bit of a problem in New Orleans.

Not to be outdone, in It Takes a Village (the “village” being the federal government), Mrs. Clinton suggests the government should fund videos on baby care that “could be running continuously in doctors’ offices, clinics, hospitals, motor vehicle offices, or any other place where people gather and have to wait”. Shades of 1984.

Expansive government is always going to be a project of those who would subject individuals to collective, national goals. The founders were well aware of this danger, which is why they gave us a constitution of enumerated — and therefore limited — powers. As Thomas Jefferson put it: “I consider the foundations of the constitution as laid on this ground that ‘all powers not delegated to the US, by the constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states or to the people’. To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress is to take possession of a boundless field of power no longer susceptible of any definitions.”

Mrs. Clinton looks in danger of following the fateful path of the neocons, with her aim to take possession of that boundless field.

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