In the early days of the Renaissance, the city-states of Italy waged frequent and byzantine wars with each other. Because most of the ruling families lacked formidable standing armies, they came to rely on the condottiere, a class of mercenaries wriggling in the Italian underbelly, willing to fight for a price and on the hunt for odd jobs during interbellum periods. Showtime fans will remember Sean Harris’ portrayal of Micheletto Corella on The Borgias—Micheletto was a condottiere.
The condottiere faded away in the 1500s as Italian armies became less dependent on freelancers, but here in Washington, something close to their revival has been afoot for almost 20 years now. They’re the Clintonian condottiere, a caste of political mercenaries who offer their services to progressive causes in the electoral off-season, and then come home to the Clintons whenever one of them runs for office. John Podesta is the most feared and recognizable of these hired guns, but there are many others. In fact, this vast array of well-compensated associates may be the most distinct feature of Clintonian politics.
If the Wikileaks emails are to be believed, the Clintonian coterie is less concerned with progressive ideology than with transactional politics—”the art of the deal,” one might even call it. Sure, they can muster up the usual anti-religious sneers and limousine liberal clichés from time to time, but they’re also the first to mortgage out their principles in the name of political expediency. This comes from the top: among other things, the Clintons have finessed their positions on gay marriage to align with popular opinion and pretended to oppose TPP despite their personal support.
All political candidates dip into Washington’s well of talent—you need pollsters and strategists to win campaigns for you, after all. The difference is that the Clintons have taken on so much weight, with such an abundance of sycophants and cronies waiting to take a whirl through the revolving door, that if America elects Hillary Clinton this November, we’ll be giving a clammy thumbs-up to the entire Clinton network. Imagine a level shot of Hillary and Bill Clinton about to walk through the White House door, and then the camera rises, revealing that the entire lawn is covered by a crowd eagerly seeking its entrance, waving its meal cards around.
That’s the Clintons for you.
Being a Clintonian condottiere often means being recruited for perverse missions, like when Bill Clinton’s national security advisor Sandy Berger was nabbed trying to smuggle documents damaging to the former president out of the National Archives. But succeed and you’re rewarded lavishly. You might even get a gig on cable news, though don’t think that precludes you from future service. You might be called upon to tip off the Clinton campaign to town hall questions in advance, for example. The condottiere counts among its members many journalists, including CNBC’s John Harwood and Politico‘s Glenn Thrush.
The one thing common to almost all of the condottiere is that they work in Washington, the Clinton company town. Mark Leibovich’s book This Town, which chronicles D.C. insiderism, begins at the funeral of Tim Russert, the lion of broadcast political media, when the doors suddenly open and the Clintons make their entrance. The room responds as though Pope Alexander himself has just glided into St. Peter’s, and one aspiring condottiere—remember, this is a memorial service—darts up to the Clintons and asks if Hillary will appear on an MSNBC show that evening. In fairness, Clinton answers with a firm no, but that little interaction is a perfect encapsulation of the people power they wield.
Washington is a town that runs on patronage rather than meritocracy, which makes it a chestnuts banquet of orgiastic networking and sucking up. The rest of the nation, needless to say, thinks all of this is repulsive, and here we run into a problem. If the condottiere return to the White House, they’ll end up running a clientelist government, the antithesis of what irate voters outside the DMV are looking for. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: Hillary Clinton is going to perpetuate Trumpian populism, not defeat it.