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With the Specter of Clinton Looming: Rethinking Bernie

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Do Bernie Sanders’ rising poll numbers and newfound willingness to take Hillary Clinton on change anything? They might.

The Clinton juggernaut is not invincible; it was stopped in its tracks before, eight years ago. But then Clinton was defeated by someone hard for people of good will not to have been rooting for, the first African American to become President of the United States.

That was not all that Barack Obama was in 2008: he was also someone upon whom voters could project their hopes for change. The pillars of the Democratic Party and their corporate backers knew better, of couse; and so did anyone paying close attention. But, the illusion had legs.

Then, Obama won, the dust cleared, and — well, there is no need to retell the sad tale that unfolded thereafter.

Could lightening strike twice? A few weeks ago, that seemed impossible; the future looked bleak. The only saving grace was that a President Hillary, the devil we know too well, would at least not shatter illusions.

Obama had a lot going for him; unlike Sanders, he was charismatic and young, and he was in the race, from Day One, to win. This was not so clear in Sanders’ case. Quite reasonably, in view of the circumstances confronting him, he evinced a healthy pessimism of the intellect that sometimes seemed to defeat his efforts to exhibit optimism of the will.

And because his campaign, unlike Obama’s, was about ideas, not chimeras, it was inevitable that people who care about ideas – most of them coming out of what remains of the Left – would find reasons to quibble. I know; I was — and still am — one of the quibblers.

My view, expressed frequently on this site and elsewhere, was – and maybe still is, I’m not quite sure — that, while the Sanders campaign was not an unmixed blessing, that it would probably do more good than harm, notwithstanding the virtual certainty that it didn’t have a chance of succeeding, and despite the fact that corporate media were – and still are — doing their best to pretend it isn’t happening.

On the minus side, I worried that Sanders’ run for the nomination would quash efforts to organize outside the duopoly party system. Needless to say, this concern would count for more, if those efforts were, more extensive and robust.

On the plus side, I thought that the Sanders campaign would boost efforts to keep egalitarian, anti-austerity politics on the agenda. Otherwise, with Hillary sucking up all the air, progressive politics would be eclipsed for as long as the election season lasted.

I also thought that Sanders’ campaign would sow seeds for a better politics someday – when conditions are more conducive. I was particularly hopeful that it might rehabilitate “socialism” – the word, if not the idea.

That his “socialism” has more to do with New Deal-Great Society liberalism than with the socialism of bona fide nineteenth and twentieth century socialists or even leftwing Social Democrats didn’t bother me. It mattered more that someone corporate media and “public” radio couldn’t entirely ignore was promoting progressive causes. This hadn’t happened since the eighties, with Jesse Jackson. Arguably, it hadn’t happened since long before that.

That Sanders’ views on foreign and military affairs are more or less those of mainstream Democrats bothered me more. But Sanders comes from the more thoughtful (less thoughtless), humane (less vicious) wing of that consensus. He is not a diehard imperialist, the way that Hillary is. With him, the problem is more that he is soft on imperialism.

Because this is an area in which even small differences can have major consequences, lesser evil considerations like this one can be germane.

In 2000, Al Gore and George W. Bush seemed to have no major foreign policy differences either. But Gore would not have gratuitously invaded Iraq. Bush did, with dire consequences that are still unfolding.

Hillary v. Bernie is a lot like Bush v. Gore. The two of them differ a lot, in small ways, especially on matters of war and peace. We will probably be OK with Bernie in charge; Commander-in-Chief Hillary is a catastrophe waiting to happen.

She is a bellicose humanitarian intervener with deeply rooted neoconservative (anti-Russian, anti-Chinese, Israel first) inclinations. And any honest assessment of her tenure as Secretary of State would demonstrate, beyond a reasonable doubt, that she is a dunce and an incompetent, notwithstanding the carefully cultivated and widely believed impression that she is a skilled diplomat and administrator with a deep understanding of world affairs.

Even on indulging Israel with diplomatic and military support, and vilifying proponents of the BDS movement, Sanders is better (less bad) than Hillary; more J-Street than AIPAC.

He is no Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the British Labor Party; Sanders’ progressivism stops at the border. But the Labor Party’s decline began from a higher plane than the Democrats’; there is therefore a constituency in it still for a genuinely anti-imperialist leader. In the Democratic Party, there is no like-minded constituency, and there is no one of national prominence with views even remotely like Corbyn’s.

Meanwhile, Sanders’ views on economic and social matters are as good as Corbyn’s, or nearly so; and, given the state of our bought and paid for political class, far better than we have any right to expect. In view of what is possible and what the alternatives are, this is more than good enough for me.

The problem I had, and maybe still have, with Bernie Sanders therefore had or has little to do with the merits or shortcomings of his views – and everything to do with his relation to the Clintons, their hangers-on, and the Democratic Party.

I thought that Sanders would, if not by now then in the near future, fold his campaign into Clinton’s. Part of me still thinks that. But I am no longer sure. Perhaps success has changed Bernie; perhaps I have been wrong all along. Or perhaps I was right, and the idea that Bernie is not what I was sure he was is only an illusion.

***

Everything I thought about the Sanders campaign, until now, was premised on a belief that I never seriously questioned: that, barring a miracle, the Democratic nomination would go to Hillary for sure; and that, running against a Republican two-thirds of the electorate would be unable to stomach – Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or any of the others — she would win handily in November.

Hillary seemed unstoppable for reasons that have little to do with identity issues or with her merits and résumé.

Conventional wisdom has it that her merits are great and her résumé stupendous; National Public Radio, the best source there is for conventional wisdom, tells us so. The truth, of course, is very different. Hillary was a lackluster Senator and a disaster as Secretary of State.

I don’t know how good or bad she was as a First Lady; just that, of all the women associated with Bill back then, it was Monica Lewinsky, not Hillary, who did the most good for her country. Had Bill not been caught having a dalliance with la belle Monica, he might have actually gotten somewhere in his efforts to privatize Social Security.

The identity issues, however, are more complicated.

There are Democrats, not all of them women of a certain age, for whom electing a woman trumps all (so to speak); unless, of course, the woman is a Republican like Carly Fiorina. I suspect that there were more people who felt that way in 2008 — though not as many as then thought that electing an African American was more important.

However that may be, my reasons for thinking that Sanders didn’t stand a chance had nothing to do with identity politics.

Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are on the same page politically. She is not a septuagenarian Jewish man with a Brooklyn accent, and there is no way that Clinton could “play the gender card” against her. But had she been the one to take up the cause, as she might well have been, I would have thought that her candidacy was hopeless too.

I would have been no less certain that the Clintonite dead center of the Democratic Party, the Debbie WTF Schultzes and others of that ilk, backed by corporate and Wall Street money, would quash the prospect of moving the Democratic Party leftward under her aegis just as surely as I was that they would force Sanders to acquiesce, on the off-chance that he would actually need to be forced (or “nudged” or even asked).

But Sanders has been doing so well – attracting people to his rallies and bringing in small contributions from working and middle class donors – that my formerly rock solid premise is looking shaky.

I still think that the most good that will come from this election is on the Republican side because if Trump doesn’t knock off the GOP, then the even more noxious Ted Cruz, or someone similarly ridiculous, will.

This is happening before our eyes right now; it may already be too late for the more retrograde wing of the American plutocracy to keep their Grand Old Party going except perhaps as a regional political force or skeletal relic of its former self.

But if “hope” and “change” – not the illusions, but the real deal – were to come back onto the agenda, that would be momentous too. Could the Sanders campaign be good for that? This is no longer out of the question.

For the past eight years, the words “hope” and “change” have stuck in the craw. They were good for something in 2008, though – they helped keep Hillary at bay.

Too bad that Obama then undid the good he had done; all he had to do to seal the deal was make someone else Secretary of State. But, again, this is not the time to dwell on his mistakes and misdeeds.

Eight years on, Sanders could be the one who slays the dragon.   This, however, is where the parallel with Obama stops.

Obama was a known quantity only to his corporate backers; for everyone else, he was a blank state upon which they could project their dreams. Sanders’ record, on the other hand, is well known; he has been around a long time. This is why, though his “socialism” falls short, it scares the bejesus out of the rich and heinous.

And although his foreign policy views, on the Middle East especially, leave a lot to be desired, at least he is a man of integrity, unlikely to let self-serving opportunistic concerns govern his actions. The contrast with Obama is plain; the contrast with the Clintons, either one, is breathtaking.

It would be better, of course, if he were more like Jeremy Corbyn; but if, running as a “democratic socialist,” he can stop Hillary in her tracks, then more power to him!

***

If Hillary falters, won’t somebody similarly awful and inept – Joe Biden, most likely – come to the rescue?

Let him try! Had Biden not opted out months ago, it would be different. But it is now probably too late; after Sanders beats Clinton in the early primaries and caucuses, it will be too late for sure.

Were Biden or anyone like him brought in to stop Bernie then, WTF Schultz will have a revolt on her hands that will make the plight of her Republican counterpart, Reince Priebus, seem trivial.

Of course, Sanders could still bow out – there has been a good chance of that all along. Indeed, this prospect was my main reason for not giving in to his campaign’s incessant requests for $3 contributions.

It looks extremely unlikely now, but Bernie might still throw in the towel for the good of the Party, as determined by Schultz, or, rather, because that is what the plutocrats behind the Democratic Party demand.   But if, after put those plutocrats in his crosshairs, Democrats force him out, Clinton will have a hard time holding on to anyone younger than Barbara Streisand or left of Rahm Emanuel.

There is Martin O’Malley, of course; running as Bernie Lite and hanging on by the skin of his teeth. Maybe his goal is to become Hillary’s VP, though even that is a long shot. In any case, it doesn’t matter; running against Sanders, he wouldn’t stand a chance.

George McGovern was the last Democrat to win the Democratic Party’s nomination over the dead bodies, so to speak, of its movers and shakers. This was at a time, 1972, when the dead center was less reactionary, in domestic matters anyway, than its counterpart today. Even so, the Party’s notables sat on their hands as Election Day approached, and McGovern lost every state except Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

Is this a cautionary tale worth worrying about? I don’t think so.   Here’s why:

McGovern was running against Richard Nixon, the incumbent President of a country at war. The anti-war movement, McGovern’s base, reviled Nixon for obvious reasons, but the general public did not yet perceive him in the way it soon would, as the Watergate scandal came to light.

Indeed, the condemnation that would later do Nixon in did not stem mainly from the war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against the peace that he committed. Nixon’s presidency became unviable only when people came to despise him for failing to respect the institutions of government, and running roughshod over the rule of law.

Nixon was a complicated and tormented man; they didn’t call him “tricky Dicky” for nothing. He was nasty and base. He was also, in many respects, our last liberal President.

For decades now, Democrats have taken it upon themselves to implement soft versions of policies Republicans promote but could never implement on their own, because Democratic constituencies would object too vehemently.

How much better off we would be today had Bill Clinton and Barack Obama latched onto Nixon’s “vision,” instead of Ronald Reagan’s! For all the evil he did, Nixon promoted more liberal causes than those two Democratic Presidents combined.

That the man was a vile racist is beyond dispute, but at least he didn’t flaunt his bigotry in public. And, even at the end, when the whole country despised him to such an extent that, had the election been held then, McGovern would have whupped his ass even with the Democratic Party lined up against him, he still didn’t openly derogate large swathes of the American population or advertise his disdain for American institutions.

Compare that to Trump or Cruz or any other imaginable Republican opponent! They are all like Nixon after Watergate, multiplied a hundred-fold.

For any Democrat, even one like Sanders who is unpalatable to America’s later-day “malefactors of great wealth,” running against a Republican this year will therefore be a cakewalk.

If Sanders gets the nod, the Party’s honchos won’t like it any better than their counterparts liked McGovern years ago. But what can they do about it? Work behind the scene for Trump or Cruz? They are not fools, and even they are not that churlish.

Chances are still that Sanders won’t get the nod. The Clintons have many arrows in their quiver: America’s deep state, the Democratic sector of it, is behind them, as are the media and all the pillars of the Party that the Clintons transformed.

This is why I am not quite ready yet to cast off my belief in Hillary’s inevitability and therefore my doubts about the Sanders campaign.

It is becoming a close call, however. I never thought I’d see the day.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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