In any other presidential election cycle, Bernie Sanders would be the big story. He may yet be in this one.
Nobody, including Sanders I suspect, would have predicted that on Jan. 25, 2016, he would be in a position to win both Iowa and New Hampshire against the vaunted Clinton political machine. Yet according to the polls that’s exactly where we find ourselves, and it’s pretty obvious that he has Hillary Clinton worried, that the old familiar doubts have begun to creep in:
Is this really 2008 all over again? Will the nomination that once seemed Clinton’s for the asking be stripped away by another unlikely upstart, in this case a cantankerous 74-year-old upstart? I still say no.
Certainly, Sanders has succeeded in changing the terms of the debate on the Democratic side, and for the better. His relentness critique of the inequities of the economic system has struck home with a lot of people, and it has struck home because he’s right about something essential: Things have gotten screwed up. Economic security, opportunity and equity are shrinking, not expanding, and the American people have noticed. Change is required, and that change does not come in the form of tax cuts for the rich and a weakening of Medicare, Social Security and other strands in the social safety net.
“The reality is that for the last 40 years the great middle class of this country has been in decline and faith in our political system is now extremely low. The rich get much richer. Almost everyone else gets poorer. Super PACs funded by billionaires buy elections. Ordinary people don’t vote. We have an economic and political crisis in this country and the same old, same old establishment politics and economics will not effectively address it.
“If we are serious about transforming our country, if we are serious about rebuilding the middle class, if we are serious about reinvigorating our democracy, we need to develop a political movement which, once again, is prepared to take on and defeat a ruling class whose greed is destroying our nation. The billionaire class cannot have it all. Our government belongs to all of us, and not just the one percent.”
That’s a powerful, emotionally resonant message, not so different in a way from that of Donald Trump on the right. Sanders rejects the ugly nativism practiced by Trump, but both appeal to the sense of a country under siege from within, to the notion that the American people have become victims of their own institutions and establishment. And if people on both the left and right are responding to that same basic message, there’s probably something to it.
Personally, I’ve written extensively about the changing global economy and about the need for government to adjust its policies and programs to account for those changes. However, while I sympathize with much of Sanders’ message, I do not trust it in large part because it is much too simplistic. The narratives spun by Trump and Sanders both rely on villains to drive the plot, in Sanders’ case “a ruling class whose greed is destroying our nation.” And the truth is so much more complex than that. Life can rarely be reduced to a “good guy vs. bad guy” story, and if such narratives take hold they can lead us to dangerous places.
Clinton knows that, and because she knows that, there’s no way for her to match Sanders’ rhetoric or capture that anger. That’s not who she is, as a person or as a politician. She is by instinct and background a candidate of the middle. That can lead her astray, as it did in her vote in favor of the Iraq invasion. It is why she lost the 2008 nomination. But in 2016, it is also why she would make a much better nominee and president than any of her opponents.
Yes, Sanders offers a powerful critique on what ought to be the central domestic issue of the 2016 campaign. Yes, he has given it the prominence that it deserves. However, he does not offer politically plausible policies to address it. He also lacks the well-rounded approach to a range of other issues, including foreign policy, that voters ought to demand of a presidential candidate.
And frankly, he is not the person who ought to lead the Democratic Party into battle this fall. To bring the argument closer to home, ask Georgia Democrats whether they want to run for office later this year with a self-described socialist as their party’s standard bearer. They do not. You can quibble all you want about what Sanders really means with that label, but in the heat of a campaign such quibbles get you nowhere.
Now, about the campaign:
Conventional wisdom argues that Clinton losses in Iowa and New Hampshire would be troubling but not crippling. The campaign trail then moves South, where Democratic voters are more moderate and where Clinton’s strong relationships with minority voters would serve as a firewall. I think that analysis is correct, but I think a second, even more formidable firewall would come into play if necessary. His name is Barack Obama.
So far, President Obama is staying studiously neutral. In an interview published in Politico today, he speaks highly of both Sanders and Clinton as contenders for the nomination and makes clear his intent to stay out of the fight.
“To me, the relevant contrast is not between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton,” he says, “but … between Bernie and Hillary and Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and the vision that they’re portraying for the country and where they want to take us and how they think about everything from tax policy to immigration to foreign policy, and that gap is as wide as I’ve ever seen.”
However, if you read that interview more closely, it becomes pretty clear that Obama’s official neutrality is official only. He gives Sanders his due, but his admiration for Clinton, both personal and professional, comes through clearly:
“…. like any candidate, her strengths can be her weaknesses. Her strengths, which are the fact that she’s extraordinarily experienced – and, you know, wicked smart and knows every policy inside and out – sometimes could make her more cautious and her campaign more prose than poetry, but those are also her strengths. It means that she can govern and she can start here, [on] day one, more experienced than any non-vice president has ever been who aspires to this office.”