My Twitter feed and my email inbox are in tension. Conservatives have been passing around a story on Twitter from the Washington Free Beacon, which has been doing great work unearthing new items from Hillary Clinton’s past. The paper found a 1971 letter from Clinton to radical socialist organizer Saul Alinsky. The argument is that Clinton, who wrote her thesis on Alinsky’s methods and his approach to alleviating poverty, retains her college-era radicalism. But at the same time, the Republican National Committee is filling my inbox with emails plinking Clinton for her relationships with celebrities, fat cats, and financiers as part of her work with the Clinton Global Initiative, which holds its annual gathering this week in New York. The GOP committee asserts that Clinton’s coziness with the wealthy and powerful are going to cause her trouble with the liberal Elizabeth Warren wing of her party. The only way this tension could be reconciled is if Clinton appears at the Clinton Global Initiative and protests herself.
Despite the enthusiasm with which some conservatives greeted the Alinsky revelation, it’s unlikely to break out into the general political conversation. The letter, while an interesting artifact, doesn’t add much to the story of Clinton’s well-known liberal college days and is at odds with the reigning Republican critique of the moment.
Why does anyone care about a 43-year-old letter? Origin stories can be powerful in politics. They can contain easily digestible nuggets from which voters can form instinctual impressions about a candidate. Bill Clinton recast his image during his 1992 convention video by highlighting his humble upbringing, branding himself as the Man From Hope and connecting himself with Democratic icon John Kennedy through old footage of the two shaking hands. Democrats tried to use George W. Bush’s origin story against him, painting him as a callow youth besotted with drink. Obama’s complicated origin story offered his opponents a chance to characterize him as different. When former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was considering running for president, he offered an opinion about why there were so many rumors about President Obama and his upbringing. “There’s not much known about him, in college, or growing up. … We don’t know any of the childhood things,” he said, though Obama had written a book on the topic. By comparison, he said, we all knew that George Washington “chopped down a cherry tree.” (Which, of course, is the original apocryphal origin story.)
Clinton has used her origin story to tell people who she is now. Before she ran for the presidency in 2008, her first autobiography described growing up in the heartland as a Methodist helping poor families and her journey from Goldwater Girl to campus radical. At Sen. Tom Harkin’s steak fry in Iowa last weekend, she was doing it again, talking about the values her mother taught her about giving people a second chance. The message was that she was raised with a certain set of values that she retains even today, no matter how high she has risen in life.
Now conservatives are trying to make a similar case about the indelible markings of her youth. The Alinsky connection will no doubt start appearing in the speeches of Clinton’s possible GOP presidential rivals. Though she refers to their biennial conversations, the connection sounds more sinister than talking about her more protracted work for George McGovern in 1972 or any number of other liberal associations she’s had. But that’s about as far as it’s likely to go as a political weapon. No one outside of conservative circles or liberal organizations knows who Saul Alinsky is—in part because he died in 1972. If you try to explain why a more than four-decade-old letter is so important, regular voters are going to think you’re a little overheated. (And if they don’t, then they probably already believe far worse about Clinton.)
As a political matter, origin stories work when voters don’t know much about the candidate or when the past confirms a current caricature. Clinton is perhaps the most well-covered likely presidential candidate since Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. And the dominant Republican caricature of her is the direct opposite of this Alinsky-inspired one.
For the last several months, Clinton detractors have been working to convey the impression that her wealth has walled her off from regular people and that her attempts to claim solidarity with the middle class through tales of being “dead broke” were laughable. Alinsky writes in Rules for Radicals: “The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.” The Clintons are not the Have-Nots. That’s why on the Free Beacon website the story right above the story on the Alinsky letters is about how Clinton’s wealth reveals how she has broken so thoroughly with Alinsky’s teachings.
If the story of Clinton’s liberal past hadn’t appeared in a conservative outlet, someone might have accused Clinton of planting it to restore her liberal credibility among Democratic primary voters. Though it’s not likely to do much good, since liberals are familiar with Clinton’s past. A letter from Nixon’s first term isn’t going to convince them of much. Tell them who her economic advisers will be and they might change their opinion that she is a member of the Democratic Party’s Wall Street wing.
The burden of this discovery is not just to prove that Clinton is a limousine liberal, which she obviously is. The claim emanating from this old correspondence is that she is a closet Alinskyite—a sleeper cell of one prepping for radical redistribution. For more than 40 years, she has been biding her time, amassing a fortune, hanging out with the privileged that Alinsky despised, asking them repeatedly for money to fuel her campaigns, voting for foreign military intervention, and consistently infuriating the grassroots liberals most likely to join in an Alinskylike crusade all in furtherance of an Alinsky revolution that she will spring on the country once she’s elected.
That is nuts. What’s more plausible is that Hillary Clinton is a liberal with some lumpy mix of pragmatism and expedience gained through experience. Also, if she’s an acolyte of Saul Alinsky at the genetic level, she wouldn’t have been so thoroughly out-organized in the 2008 Democratic primary by a community organizer from Chicago trained in the Alinsky method.