Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Slog Ahead

We are tramping into battle with backpacks full of bricks - if not cinder blocks.

If Hillary Clinton is to win in the general election, she has to out-Sanders Bernie Sanders. Pick Elizabeth Warren for Vice President - or perhaps Bernie Sanders, as almost two thirds of Democrats think she should, according to the latest Reuters poll. This isn't a threat, it's a fact: You need to energize the base. 

This goes beyond unity or "healing the party." Here in Kentucky, there was no lefty or progressive animosity toward Jack Conway or Alison Lundergan Grimes - but no enthusiasm either. They were just boring, garden variety Kentucky Democrats. And that lack of enthusiasm is always fatal to a campaign.

Yes, they lost in an off-year election with dismal voter turn out. But a contest between two broadly unpopular candidates like Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is certain to depress turn out too. And, of course, both Trump and Clinton will appeal to fear - fear of immigrants on one side and fear of Trump on the other - thereby driving down voter turn out even more. I'm not totally opposed to negativity, but if you don't give people something to vote for as well as something to vote against, many will stay home. Fear and guilt trips wear thin after a bit. Of course, low voter turnout always advantages conservatives who paradoxically always vote despite their eternal contempt for democracy.

This explains why Republicans often perform far better in elections than their numbers would suggest - and Democrats perform worse than they should. It's because Republicans energize their base while the Democratic Party's establishment holds theirs at arms length. They see the base the same way they portray Bernie Sanders - as a cranky complainer to pat on the head and patronize. To them, the base is a crazy, vaguely embarrassing grandpa yammering about FDR's and JFK's legacy. And this contempt perpetuates a vicious cycle because our country's voter turn out is abysmal compared to most western democracies. And in a country with chronic low voter turn out, the game is all about getting your base to the polls.

And, make no mistake: The GOP base is pumped about Trump. The party establishment is protesting their own passing  - even as they are lining up to kiss the ring - but to conservative voters, the rank and file, their id is in bliss. Your genteel Republican friends may say they won't vote for him, but they ain't the base.

By contrast, centrist Democrats seem chronically determined to sabotage their party. Why?

I agree that money has poisoned our politics, but I am going to focus on another problem: The insidious conceit that this is a conservative country and that Democrats should campaign and govern accordingly. It isn't. A conservative country would not have elected a black man with the middle name Hussein. Twice. In landslides. His slogan was "YES WE CAN!" Hillary's is apparently "Maybe later." Joe Biden gets this:
I don't think any Democrat's ever won saying, "We can't think that big - we ought to really downsize here because it's not realistic," C'mon man, this is the Democratic Party! I'm not part of the party that says, "Well, we can't do it."
This is a problem for Clinton because she does not seem to think this way. Recall when she said single payer health care would never, ever happen. She opened with unconscionable scaremongering telling her audience that just discussing single payer would cost people their hard-won Obamacare:
I want you to understand why I am fighting so hard for the Affordable Care Act. I don’t want it repealed, I don’t want us to be thrown back into a terrible, terrible national debate. I don’t want us to end up in gridlock. People can’t wait! People who have health emergencies can’t wait for us to have a theoretical debate about some better idea that will never, ever come to pass.
Also please note that "never, ever" ain't "maybe later." That's not gradualism, that's defeatism.(1) She did tremendous damage to the claim that she was a "progressive who likes to get things done."(2)

What is additionally distressing is that so many Stockholm Syndrome-afflicted Democrats accept Clinton's deceptive reasoning arguing that it will give Republicans "permission" to repeal Obamacare.

Um, that's not how legislation works. Republicans have tried to repeal Obamacare over fifty times without asking anyone's permission.

Moreover, if you trade-in your old car when buying a new car, you are never without a car. You drive your old car to the lot and you drive away with a new, better car. In this instance, a "new car" that insures the millions of Americans that Obamacare left on the curb. But if single payer fails to pass, Obamacare remains in place. Period. You still have your old car.

The Washington Monthly is ordinarily a pretty centrist publication. But on single payer, they have been solid. I first learned about single-payer from them in the 1990s and have been pestering my friends about it ever since. In a more recent piece, they conceded that Clinton's argument was "a bit disingenous."

This timorous, dishonest nonsense has to stop if she expect to win the general election. It doesn't just alienate Sanders supporters, it is part of a cavalcade of gaffes that have plagued her primary campaign. Most are matters of faulty memory. For example, she ludicrously eulogized Nancy Reagan as a champion of AIDS awareness.(3) She also conspicuously forgot how grateful she was of Bernie Sanders' support in the 1993 health care fight. Her historically bogus rationalization for why her husband signed the Defense of Marriage Act was also profoundly troubling - particularly since he subsequently used it to pander to the religious right in radio spots. I don't think it helped him get their votes.

I want to be wrong about her - especially now that she is the nominee - but she keeps saying dispiriting things like this. Just recently, in a speech following the mass shooting in Orlando, she clumsily invoked the moment of togetherness "we" felt on "9-12," the day after 9-11. The problem was she was cribbing from Glenn Beck's rhetoric. Yes, it was only one line and she said few words against Islamophobia, but 9-12 is not a nostalgic touchstone for Muslim Americans. It was a period of fear.

Collectively, all these gaffes undermine her progressive credentials because they were scripted statements and apparently there were no progressive staffers in the room to say "Let's not phrase it that way." She desperately needs fact-checkers and progressive ombudspersons.

The avowed strategy of establishment Democrats is trying to appeal to centrist Independents; but as Bernie Sanders has proved, most Independents are pretty progressive. Therefore, the whole rationale for their electoral behavior has evaporated.(4)

Has Hillary Clinton recognized this reality and adapted accordingly? Some evidence suggests not. Clinton's 2016 digs against Sanders echo her 2008 assaults on Obama. In both cases, she and her surrogates painted her opponent's supporters as naive and unrealistic cultists - not a little hypocritical if you recall the Kennedy-referencing Hope ads of Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign. Then again, in fairness, she has changed her tune on the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement which she once called the "gold standard" on trade deals, so there is that. But her surrogates - many of the same people who kept braying that Bernie Sanders is "not a real Democrat"(5) - are already worrying that Hillary Clinton moving to the left may alienate Independents despite the fact that is where Sanders had enjoyed his greatest strength.

You may be wondering how I can lecture about building enthusiasm while simultaneously criticizing the party's apparent candidate. Isn't that insincere, passive-aggressive sabotage?

No, because what will make or break this election is Clinton's actions, not mine. Almost nobody reads my blog, but this post could do some good in the highly unlikely event that anyone with Hillary Clinton's ear stumbles upon it. The election is literally hers to lose and she better do better if she wants to hold on to it.

As I have said before, I will most probably hold my nose and vote for Hillary Clinton, but others wont unless she works hard to prove her skeptics wrong about her and distances herself from her husband's infamous declaration that "The era of big government is over." Progressives have good cause to be suspicious, so she needs to court them in a pretty spectacular fashion.

Because if Hillary Clinton is waiting for Donald Trump's campaign to implode, her hubris will doom us. Recall that in between Ted Kennedy and Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts sent Republican Scott Brown to Washington as their senator. Why? Because Brown's Democratic opponent took the seat for granted and barely campaigned. In 1980, nobody thought Ronald Reagan would get elected. He was dismissed as a total joke. Likewise, in 1988, the polls said that George Bush Sr. was toast.

Trump has been perpetually imploding this whole time and it has only helped him. This has been a bad week for Trump. This I know for the pundits tell me so. And keep telling me so - at least once a month. During the Iraq War, Thomas Friedman kept saying we should give George W. Bush's strategy another six months. Eventually, this became known as a Friedman Unit. If six months is a Friedman Unit, one week is a Trump Unit. In both cases, we've seen enough to know better.

EDIT:

Elizabeth Warren has been joining Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, fueling widespread speculation that she will be the VP pick. As for hubris, coat tails, and the top of the ticket, I still think we'd be doing better with Bernie Sanders than Hillary Clinton. Hopefully, Liz Warren can give some lift. I am cautiously optimistic about our prospects, but things are definitely going in the right direction.

____________

(1) This is a far, far cry from what she said in 1994: "If, for whatever reason, the Congress doesn't pass health care reform, I believe, and I may be to totally off base on this, but I believe that by the year 2000 we will have a single payer system. I don't even think it's a close call politically. I think the momentum for a single payer system will sweep the country ... It will be such a huge popular issue ... that even if it's not successful the first time, it will eventually be." We should have ran her instead of Bill in 1992. I would joyously vote for Hillary Clinton circa 1992. Power-up the time machine and let's make the swap.

(2) The dishonest Clintonista conceit that Sanders would not be able to get his ambitious agenda through Congress was conspicuously ridiculous. If the GOP holds Congress in November, neither Democratic candidate could do anything beyond making vetoes and issuing executive orders, as President Obama has been forced to do. What makes anyone think Hillary Clinton would fare any better - particularly given the decades of "Hillary hatred" her supporters reflexively invoke? The only way to avoid that scenario is to take back Congress and you do that with enthusiasm, not a campaign semi-animated with tepid resignation.

(3) Hillary Clinton is too quick to praise conservatives. Recall when she praised Fox News personality Megyn Kelly as a "superb journalist"? Megyn Kelly was taking Donald Trump to task on his sexism - which everyone should - but Kelly and Trump are both fact-challenged racist bloviators. Neither is the hero in this scenario. Now I realize that politicians hand out compliments like party favors and that it is considered good form to praise your opponents and critics. The charm offensive is a time honored tactic. But New Democrats push the envelope in this area even as they scorn their own party. In his 2012 DNC speech, Bill Clinton praised Ronald Reagan and snubbed Jimmy Carter. Jimmy was understandably miffed.

(4) Indeed, the fact that Independents now comprise the "largest party" in the U.S. is due in a large part to centrist "New Democrats" driving old Democrats away. Bill Clinton signed NAFTA. This betrayal of labor demoralized the party's foot soldiers. In the Republican Party, the grunt work of ringing doorbells and phoning voters is done by Evangelicals. In the Democratic Party, it is done by union members. Ideals and party identity aside, it was tactically suicidal and directly resulted in Newt Gingrich and the Republicans taking Congress in 1994. Clinton apologists like to claim that Newt made Bill do all that bad stuff like DOMA, DADT, welfare, the crime bill etc. But Newt did not make Bill sign NAFTA, nor did he make the Clintons join the DLC's campaign to turn the Democratic party into GOP Lite. Bill Clinton accomplished a lot - of conservative goals. Slick Willie finished the Gipper's to-do list. Hyperbole? Not quite. Here's a bit from Clinton's the aforementioned 2012 DNC speech: "When I was a governor, I worked with President Reagan in his White House on the first round of welfare reform." He was still proud of it at that point.

(5) Yes, Bernie Sanders has been a declared Independent for many years. But he has always tirelessly championed what the Democratic Party was supposed to stand for. When Hillary Clinton was supporting Barry Goldwater - who pioneered the Southern Strategy by campaigning against the 1964 Civil Rights Act - Bernie Sanders was getting arrested fighting against segregated housing. A friend of mine actually argued that it was okay to stack the deck against Sanders because he is "not a real Democrat." Well, if you think it is okay to hose outsiders, become a Republican. But given the choice between an Independent running as a Democrat and a Republican running as a Democrat, I'll go with the former. Unfortunately, that is not an option anymore. The best I can hope for is a "unity ticket" for a coalition government.