The earnest, incoherent moralism that characterized Clintonism at the outset remains its salient feature. In her recent acceptance speech, Hillary Clinton offered “the words of our Methodist faith” that she had learned as a girl: “Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.”
It’s quite impossible to disagree with this credo, which is both its appeal and its fatal flaw. The hard questions, the moral and practical ones that matter, are about how to do good, not whether. The pious tautology that it’s good to do good but bad to do bad tells us nothing about choosing between goods when there are trade-offs or conflicts, weighing costs against benefits, comparing short-term attainments with long-term risks, or reckoning second-order effects. It’s useless, in other words, for grappling with every problem that makes our moral and political lives so hard.
The Clintons, to be fair, are not the only Democrats who have resorted to expansive, empty statements of purpose. In the aftermath of Dallas, when Lyndon Johnson was first informed of the late President Kennedy’s desire for a federal anti-poverty initiative, he said, “That’s my kind of program. It will help people.”
In 1979, James Fallows recounted why he had left his job as President Jimmy Carter’s chief speechwriter: “Carter believes fifty things, but no one thing. He holds explicit, thorough positions on every issue under the sun, but he has no large view of the relations between them.” Because “Carter thinks in lists, not arguments,” Fallows wrote, “the only thing that finally gives coherence to the items of his creed is that he happens to believe them all.”