by Julie Boler
Clinton's current opponent is making an art form of creating such a workaround, but he isn’t the first. His version may be the worst ever in degree of malevolence, but the format has been there a long time. Clinton seems to be good at beating out this sort of sideways, ignoble challenge, and the last one to try it was unsuccessful. Here’s hoping that pattern holds.
While trading worst-election-ever woes recently with a friend of mine - a Bernie fan - he said he felt the low moments of this thing started in the primary, when - as he put it - "the DNC was doing its worst to keep that damned Democratic Socialist out of the top seat." That prompted me to reflect on the primaries through the prism of what we're seeing now, and two things have occurred to me.
One, it's clearer to me than ever that Bernie Sanders beat himself in that race. No matter how pushy and entrenched you consider the DNC to be, their maneuvering didn't keep Bernie Sanders from being a competitive primary contender. The proof? Sanders was a competitive primary contender. He just didn't win.
My second thought is that he didn't win because for whatever reason, when faced with running for office against Hillary Clinton, he chose to run against the idea of Hillary Clinton, rather than against her political views and objectives. I wonder if he was even conscious of doing this. Was he more confident running against her reputation than laying his views out next to hers and selling them? That was my suspicion during the primaries; that he hadn’t fleshed out his proposals enough to challenge hers, and was relying on emotional rhetoric to win support instead. The worst part was that Sanders’ idea of Hillary Clinton was in sync with the conservative idea of Hillary Clinton.
Interpersonally, Sanders and Clinton treated each other with mutual respect, often even apparent warmth. They both made note often of the places where their politics overlapped. But mentally scrolling back through the content of his case against Clinton, it's hard to find Sanders charging her with anything other than moral failure.
Sanders may have started out a seeming long shot, but he quickly blew past O'Malley and Chaffee and Webb and fired up what was for many millions a breathtakingly exciting movement. It should still cheer his supporters to note how he didn't allow money in politics and a powerful party structure to keep him out of the running. Sanders was an unexpectedly strong candidate - a powerful adversary to Clinton. He showed a dazzling ability to raise competitive funding through individual small donors.There is no case to make that he would have won with a big enough platform - he had one, and was able to stay in contention to the bitter end. If it was the intent of the DNC to use Establishment muscle to keep Sanders out of the running in the 2016 Democratic primary, they did a lousy job.
The only thing that kept him from being truly competitive against Clinton was that his strengths were more rhetorical than policy-based. That's it. He simply did not demonstrate a breadth and depth of knowledge in the areas pertinent to the responsibilities and opportunities of leading the executive branch. And in place of that knowledge, he ran on casting doubt about Clinton's character.
His expressed foreign policy ideas, especially regarding Syria and ISIL, consisted mostly of the proposition that "Muslim countries need to get more involved." He never said "more involved" than what: he didn’t offer assessments of what Jordan was doing compared to what Turkey was doing compared to what Lebanon was doing. He addressed the dynamics of the various competing factions inside Syria in this way during one debate: “...you have this side fighting with that side, that side fighting with this side..." While there are a number of groups with complex alliances, much reporting has been done about who they are and what their objectives are. Up to date, insightful information about the status of these conflicts is handy. Sanders appeared content describing the situation as “a mess”. Listening to him talk about foreign affairs, I frequently felt I knew more about things than he did. I'm a blogger. I don't want to know more about foreign affairs than the president.
Meanwhile, his responses on this topic, as shallow as they were, always managed to include a characterization of Hillary Clinton as a hawk. He didn’t challenge her by practice and plan. For example, he didn’t vocalize objections to her positions on drone use. He couldn’t; when forced to be specific, he granted that drones are a tool that we need to have. He said, like Clinton, that what needs addressing in that regard is policy and transparency. He didn’t describe alternative solutions for international crises which he said Hillary had approached with a heavy fist. For example, he would criticize Clinton as a regime-change enthusiast when referencing the air strikes she supported in Libya, but he wouldn’t say what he would have done in her position. He couldn’t; he has granted the complexity of weighing such a decision when a hostile foreign leader is imminently poised to commence genocide. But immediately coinciding with this acknowledgement of the lose-lose nature of the dilemma, he was unrestrained in casting Clinton as less committed to peace than himself.
In terms of financial sector reform, the real differences between Sanders and Clinton boiled down to some approachable disagreements on strategy, tactics, rules, terms of measurement and assessment, concentrations of authority, even language. Their values around these issues are shared. They both proposed ways to use the leverage of federal regulation and the courts to continue efforts to defang Wall Street. There are legitimate cases to be made for one regulatory tool over another. Instead of acknowledging their shared goals, and arguing over strategy, Sanders chose to question Clinton's integrity and motivation. Her proposals were consistent with her voting record in the Senate, and they were too detailed to be dismissed as lip service. So it is shocking to remember how, instead of comparing her ideas to his, and saying his would work better, Bernie said, in effect, “She’s trying to trick you. She has no intention of doing any of this. She’s lying when she says she wants to help you.”
When she was running against him though, he didn't say she was a trusted colleague with honest dedication to similar goals, with whom he disagreed on the nuts and bolts of certain proposals. He employed a “where there’s smoke” tone and proposed that as a presidential aspirant, Hillary Clinton was engaged in a mercenary bait-and-switch, pretending she cared about consumer issues and wealth inequality, just to get elected and have ever more access to personal wealth and power. So we see that this is what goes in some circles for making a political case against Hillary Clinton.
- "Break 'em up!" temporarily edged out “Dodd-Frank doesn’t go far enough because it doesn't touch hedge-fund management or insurance."
- "Free tuition for all!" garnered more excitement than "We need means-testing for tuition and student debt forgiveness so that everyone who wants to go to college can afford to."
- "Single payer!" was more of a draw than "Let's build on the ACA and fix its problems, with an eye toward ultimately making a successful sell of universal healthcare to the American people."
Now, politics matters, and there's a lot to be said for charisma. You have to inspire people. And it is legitimate to compare policies in terms of reach. But there was no reason for Sanders and his campaign to meld legitimate political challenges into dark questions about Clinton's idealism, her altruism - about her very motivation. It’s extraordinary, in retrospect.
Let’s hope that works for Trump about as well as it did for Sanders.