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Resisting the Triangulation of the Democratic Party


New Democrats are on the offensive, declaring in no uncertain terms that progressives either support Hillary or they are unrealistic socialists.  Madeline Albright and Gloria Steinem argue that to not support Hillary is sexist, both Bill and Hillary Clinton attack a call for universal health care as utopian, and former Clinton White House staffers are enjoying nightly reunions of the faithful as commentators on the major news stations.  For while the campaign began nicely enough—who can forget Bernie Sanders defending Hillary Clinton against questions about her emails in the first debate—now that the results in Iowa and New Hampshire show that Bernie Sanders is a viable candidate, the gloves are off.  Faced with the possibility of a voter revolt, New Democrats are taking aim at New Deal Democrats and those hoping to progress beyond the defensive posture of the Democratic Party since Ronald Reagan became President.

But is that all that can be hoped for when it comes to the Democratic Party?  That it will block leftist politics that threaten the centrist positions that Democrats have staked out ever since President Clinton’s triangulation strategy “worked.”  Although described as a political strategy, triangulation in practice takes the form of abandoning ideals and selling out the vulnerable.  Rather than decrying Republican efforts to demonize the poor, President Clinton used welfare reform to show that he too believed in personal responsibility.  Rather than push for a single payer healthcare system, President Obama and now candidate Hillary Clinton seem satisfied with the progress that has been made because of Obamacare, despite the fact that our health care system will continue to be dramatically out of step with what is found in nearly all other developed countries.  Without a single-payer system, it will cost more and deliver less.  And rather than use existing laws to go after criminal activities and too big to fail banks, the Obama Administration has done little to challenge the status quo of private upside rewards and socialized downside risk.  The Sanders’ campaign raises the possibility that perhaps Democrats could expand the political dialogue and range of alternatives considered in the country instead of resting on the main cry of this election cycle: Democrats are reasonable.

If being reasonable, if keeping expectations low regarding change, is the mark of leadership, Hillary Clinton will be a great President.  As Robert Reich, Secretary of the Labor under President Clinton, observed, Hillary Clinton is “the most qualified candidate for president of the political system we now have.  But Bernie Sanders is the most qualified candidate to create the political system we should have, because he’s leading a political movement for change.”  As perhaps the most experienced presidential candidate of all time and poised to be the first female President should she win the primaries, Hillary Clinton makes sense from a practical perspective.  She would hit the ground running and the Democratic establishment would simply change a few photos.  Democrats, as well as comedians, are looking at the Republican candidates this cycle and salivating.  The fact that they are so obviously not presidential material—that electing another Bush looks like the best and quite improbable scenario—partly reflects Democrats having staked out the center and partly can be attributed to the Republican Party having abandoned all reason.

It is worth taking a step back and recognizing how dysfunctional the Republican Party has become: to take but one example, they actively resist science.  Not some areas of science or select controversial studies, but science in general.  The bogeymen—guns taken from people’s homes, all liberty suppressed, massive tax increases, an immigrant invasion, and the total demise of the family—imagined by Republican voters have gone from convenient tools used by politicians to rally the vote around election time to nearly the entire Republican agenda.  Republican politicians who venture outside of this narrowly defined space—a space also marked by subtle and not so subtle racism as well as Islamophobia—risk being toppled by their own gerrymandered districts of the faithful.  No wonder that the Democratic Party has embraced the reasonable center.

However attractive reasonableness has become, I want to suggest that the dysfunction on the right presents the Democrats a rare opportunity to expand the political discourse, to open the terms of the debate from the center-right talking points of a strong military and smaller government to include the nature of both the economy and the social contract.  For that discourse to stick, it has to come out of the mouth of the President.  As others have noted, Hillary Clinton in many ways is winning the Democratic debates but the nature of the conversation is being driven by the Sanders campaign.  Sanders’ greatest weakness, that he is a single issue candidate, is also his strength.  Sure, he comes across as less sophisticated that Hillary Clinton when it comes to foreign policy (though given the ever evolving crisis in the Middle East, it is probably fair to ask what sophistication has gotten the world recently) and his positions come across as much less informed that Clinton’s.  On the other hand, with Sanders there is much less risk that he will reverse himself between the Democratic convention and the general election.  Put differently, a Sanders’ pivot is likely to be negligible (his attacks on Wall Street will go on unabated), while immediately after the primaries Clinton is likely to make a hard right turn to reclaim the center position that she is tentatively moving away from in response to the pressure of the Sanders’ campaign.  Imagine, for a moment, the political space created for progressive ideas if Sanders is elected President.  Concern for the poor might be expressed openly, and framed as a matter of human decency instead of being narrowly concerned with personal responsibility.  More fundamentally, the background rules that are driving a wedge between the wealthy and the bottom ninety-nine percent would be acknowledged and, with Sanders leading the charge from the bully pulpit, could be debated.  For too long Democrats have felt comfortable with the narrowing of the political spectrum even as the Republicans have played the long game by constantly attacking government as bad.  Having Sanders, a self-avowed social democrat, as President would do more to expand our political spectrum than any of the reasonable policy proposals Hillary Clinton would likely offer.

Indeed, it is fairly remarkable that the Clinton campaign has succeed in positioning Hillary as the candidate more likely to actually accomplish anything.  To accept that proposition is to forget that Republicans sought to impeach Bill Clinton and continue to demonize Hillary Clinton.  Bernie Sanders’ proposals may seem utopian, but Republicans have an almost visceral hatred for the Clintons.  My own view is that the Republican Party, in the wake of both the Gingrich Revolution and the rise of the Tea Party, has gone so far off the skids that no Democrat, no matter how “reasonable” is going to be able to accomplish a lot with Congress.  Hillary may be the safe Democratic nominee—and I believe the business community is more likely to line up behind her than behind the Republican front runners—but one has to have a very active imagination to think that the next four years will be any different from the past six.  The Republicans chose not to work with the first African-American President, they probably would make the same choice with the first woman or, for that matter, first Jewish President.

Ultimately, neither candidate is perfect.  Bernie Sanders is a one-note politician trying to take on a job that involves countless issues besides inequality.  And he has yet to show that he has cross-racial appeal.  Hillary Clinton is weighed down by lots of baggage associated with her husband’s Presidency, especially the decision to shred the social safety net in the name of political expediency.  Even with their flaws, I will happily support whoever becomes the Democratic nominee and have nothing but respect for practically-minded Democrats who think Hillary Clinton is the better candidate.  Personally, I support Bernie Sanders, both because I think the note he is sounding is the most important note to sound right now and because I think his strong showing in the polls is finally pushing the party to recognize that triangulation is a strategy, not a value.  Bill Clinton and, to some extent, Barack Obama’s efforts to stake out the reasonable center may have helped push the Republican Party towards Tea Party extremism, but also perhaps lessened the political space for progressive imagination.  The Democratic Party needs to return to its core values, especially concern for the least among us and a less hawkish approach to foreign policy.  And I would be lying if I did not admit that I think Hillary Clinton is self-serving and out-of-touch with ordinary Americans.  Recently, Clinton supporters have argued that anyone with such concerns has merely swallowed the constant and sexist Republican attacks on her.  That is a fair argument but is also an attempt to deflect attention from some of her decisions.

The episode involving Hillary Clinton that bothers me the most is not her use of a private email server, her statements that she could understand the challenges of the working class because of the financial hardships she faced after Bill Clinton’s presidency, her time as a member of Wal-Mart’s board of directors, or her reliance on wealthy donors.  No, though it seems to have slipped through the cracks of the election process, I cannot get over the sketchy—there is no better word to describe it—quasi-public, quasi-private arrangement that Hillary Clinton set up for her principal aide, Huma Abedin, so that the aide could continue working at the State Department but make a ton of money from outside interests.  As the New York Times reported, by switching Huma Abedin’s position from “deputy chief of staff” to “consultant,” Abedin was able to cash in on her unparalleled access to Hillary Clinton.  Even if Abedin did not double-dip, a point now debatable in light of news regarding her work hours, it is hard to see why her clients should have special claim on American foreign policy and access to her boss.  Hillary Clinton, who signed off on the arrangement, was no doubt attempting to help a friend whose husband had recently lost his job.  No single episode should define a person but the episode screams a sense of entitlement and the idea that Hillary Clinton believes that ordinary rules do not apply to her or those in her circle.  At least with regard to the choice between Clinton and Sanders, I prefer the unreasonable vision of Bernie Sanders to the damped down hopes and insider politics of Hillary Clinton.

Ezra Rosser is a professor of law at American University’s Washington College of Law.

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