Tuesday, January 19, 2016
On Loving Bernie But Not Feeling The Bern
It has become something of a cliché to preface support for Hillary Clinton with a disclaimer about admiring Bernie Sanders while expressing wariness and weariness of the Clintons. But I really do love Bernie Sanders and have loved him ever since 1981, when I was a senior at the University of Vermont and he was first elected mayor of Burlington. I have been extolling Bernie Sanders as a consistent, tireless defender of social and economic justice on this blog since well before he became a presidential candidate. (See, e.g., Vermont's Finest) He is the real deal, a counterweight to so much that is wrong with our politics, and I have found myself in agreement with virtually all of his policy prescriptions for decades.
And I don't love Hillary Clinton. I probably don't have to repeat the litany of her flaws, but here are a few key ones: As a senator she not only voted for one of the worst foreign policy decisions in our nation's history, she repeatedly went in front of the cameras to cheerlead in the run up to it. Her coziness with Wall Street, and Goldman Sachs in particular, is deeply troubling and does not augur well for an aggressive approach to rein in the financial industry. The incessant scandals -- self-inflicted and manufactured -- are exhausting. Her husband is not the man I would choose to have the ear of the next president. And, most recently, her attacks on Bernie's positions, particularly on single payer health care, are offensive and disingenuous.
(Spoiler alert, here comes the "but")
But, particularly given the horrifying collection of Republicans who appear to exist in an alternate reality rooted in values from the '50s (1850s, that is), the critical issue for me is electability. You thought George W. Bush was a disastrous president? The current crop of GOP candidates all deny the existence of climate change, oppose abortion rights, LGBT rights, and gun control, reject any and all humane immigration reform, support gutting Wall Street oversight, and propose tax plans that would benefit the wealthy and greatly increase economic inequality. They appear gleefully willing to torture terrorist suspects, and disdain diplomacy in favor of a hyper-aggressive and interventionist military. Indeed, all of the GOP candidates' remarkably stupid, knee-jerk, and bellicose reactions to the release of U.S. sailors temporarily seized by Iran amply reveal their collective lack of qualifications to be commander-in-chief. And, perhaps most importantly, with four Supreme Court justices over the age of 75, the dire consequences of having a Republican president could not be more stark -- it would solidify an extremist right wing majority on the Court for a generation.
And while it is hard to take Donald Trump seriously and we like to refer to the GOP candidates as a bunch of clowns, there is really nothing funny about them. Trump and Cruz, in particular, have shown that they are capable of running formidable campaigns. They have skillfully tapped into the dark side of the American psyche, brilliantly stoking anger and fear, racism and xenophobia that appeals to a shockingly wide swath of voters. With the Republican Party becoming expert at suppressing the vote through so-called voter fraud initiatives; with the infinite amount of Supreme Court-sanctioned money available to blanket the country with dishonest ads; and with a compliant media wedded to false equivalence that renders it inherently incapable of calling out one side for its lies, fabrications and extremism without finding some nugget from the other side to balance the story, this is going to be a very tough election no matter what outrageously preposterous candidate the GOP puts out there.
Notwithstanding the enthusiastic crowds he is drawing and his rising poll numbers, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire, I just can't believe that Bernie is more electable than Hillary. Many others have noted that, like Howard Dean before him, Bernie's support stems largely from young, white, educated, mostly male, progressives, which is a critical demographic but only part of the electorate needed for the Democrats to win a national election. Even if he wins the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, states with populations uniquely favorable to him, serious questions remain whether Bernie can put together a broader coalition and draw to his campaign the remaining core constituencies of the Democratic Party -- African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and older voters -- groups that Hillary has shown to be very capable of drawing. (See, e.g., Ta-Nehisi Coates on Bernie's "class first" approach.) Another question is whether Bernie can raise the gobs of money, create the nationwide political infrastructure and garner the support of the Democratic establishment that Hillary can -- and has.
Moreover, as tired as I am of the myriad of Hillary-gates, one thing we do know is that she is remarkably resilient and can not only withstand the relentless attacks on her character, her career and her marriage but can fight back effectively. My great fear is that Bernie Sanders, a Democratic Socialist (not to mention a Jew) whose revolutionary aim is to shake up and take down the current economic and political structure is going to be red-baited and swift-boated in a way that will make the notorious attacks on Al Gore and John Kerry seem mild.
And is it worth the risk?
Once elected, could Bernie Sanders really be an effective president? Could he really make meaningful changes to what he believes is the single most important factor undermining democracy -- the influence of money in politics?
Particularly given the gerrymandered reality of the House of Representatives, with its entrenched Freedom Caucus, any Democratic president no matter how progressive is going to be hamstrung. Given how a relatively moderate Democrat like President Obama struggled to get anything through the Congress, it is hard to imagine how Bernie could actually enact policies that are any more progressive than Hillary's.
As a prime example, as much as I support a single payer health care plan, it is simply not realistic to think that a President Sanders could make it so, given that Republicans are still trying to repeal the compromised health care system on which President Obama expended so much political capital. Hillary's attacks on Bernie's health care plan are dishonest but the political reality is that the next president must build upon and improve Obamacare as Hillary proposes, rather than attempt to start from scratch, as Bernie's recently-released plan suggests.
I fully agree with Bernie that we need a “political revolution” that takes back a failing system now controlled by Wall Street and billionaires. But a revolution is not going to happen from the top down. To really effect change requires grassroots organizing, non-violent direct action, and electing as many progressives as possible at the local, state and federal level. We need to ensure a Democrat is elected president, ideally with a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and continue to fill the federal courts and particularly the Supreme Court with progressive-minded judges.
I am grateful that Bernie is running for president and challenging Hillary from the left. He is playing a critical role in the primaries by articulating populist, progressive ideas and raising essential issues about the crooked nature of our politics that would otherwise not make it into the national discourse. But the great irony is that Bernie Sanders could only be president -- and could only be a successful one -- if we already had in place a political system that was not corrupted by Big Money and Big Media -- a system for which he is so passionately fighting. In the meantime, I'm afraid, its time to get ready for Hillary.