BY LET’S BE FRANK (ELI FRANK) —
I was asked last week if I “didn’t like Hillary or just liked Bernie better” and realized I’ve done a bad job of expressing my views on the 2016 race for president thus far, especially on the Democratic side. So here’s my attempt at answering that question, although it’s not one of likability:
I have an immense amount of respect for Hillary Clinton as a person, and for anyone who makes the brave and difficult decision to live their life in the public sphere. (So-called “Bernie Bros” should recognize this same fact, but let’s be clear: “rude supporters” is not a valid line of attack on a candidate; it was also the same one leveled against Barack Obama in 2008. Everyone on the Internet is rude. It is not unique to Sanders’ supporters and it distracts from the substantive conversations we should be having). Clinton has spent decades fighting off what really can only be described as a “vast right-wing conspiracy” to discredit her. These attacks have been and continue to be largely sexist and unfounded, and no man would ever have to deal with any of it.
That being said, I disagree with Clinton on a great number of issues and believe Bernie Sanders is the most capable candidate for beating whoever the Republican nominee is in November, and for creating, in Sanders’ words, “a future to believe in.”
The Democratic race for president has been framed as a “head versus heart” battle: Hillary, the “head,” whose pragmatism voters would eventually, inevitably, gravitate toward after they got over their foolish love affair with the insensible, but irresistible, idealism of the 74-year-old Bernie. This premise is erroneous.
Those supporting Clinton under the guise of “a progressive who gets things done” should take a serious look at her record. I’m not going to criticize the premise of the “progressive who gets things done” argument here, as a host of others already have, but I invite you to read one of the many examinations: a Huffington Post essay by Jeff Cohen titled, “Hillary Clinton Turns Stand-Up Comic: ‘I’m a Progressive Who Gets Things Done.’”
Voters should also take a look at the last eight years. If President Obama has taught us anything, it’s that holding back big ideas and moderating policy to work toward a compromise with the Republican majority in Congress does not work. The Republicans are not interested in compromise, and Obama has had the most success when he goes all out. What makes anyone think that is going to change?
As Rick Perlstein recently argued in the Washington Spectator, Democrats have lost their interest in big ideas. If they want to matter again, retake the House, the Senate, statehouses around the country and keep the White House, they need to get back to supporting transformational but controversial big ideas, like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The equivalent of those now, Perlstein argues, is the longtime Democratic goal of single-payer healthcare, which Hillary has seemingly abandoned, a $15 minimum wage (Clinton supports $12) and free college (Clinton supports “debt free college” with the ridiculous aphorism, “I don’t think taxpayers should be paying to send Donald Trump’s kids to college,” which makes no sense considering Trump would pay significantly higher taxes in a Sanders administration, more than covering the cost of paying for college). So why should voters settle for the watered-down policies of Hillary Clinton when Sanders’ big ideas are exactly what the Democratic Party needs to grow and expand again?
Further, the attack line that Sanders will be incapable of getting these ideas through Congress misses a number of key points. As Robert Reich notes, “[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.” His campaign’s idea of a “political revolution” is an entirely plausible theory of change. Bernie is right in saying that our political system as it exists now does not work for average Americans, Republican or Democrat, but rather special interests and wealthy campaign contributors. Sanders’ entire campaign focuses on getting millions of Americans to demand change and a political system that works for them and responds to the interests of average Americans by creating a strong grassroots movement, which so far has proved not only unprecedented, but hugely successful. He has received over five million individual campaign donations, has far surpassed fundraising records previously held by Barack Obama and has begun outraising Clinton in recent months. Imagine if this energy and fundraising ability was, in addition to electing a president wholeheartedly committed to campaign finance reform, also channeled into electing a slate of campaign finance-minded candidates to Congress. A lofty goal, yes, but certainly one worth fighting for, and a movement with the greatest chance for success with Bernie at its helm.
Let’s also keep in mind Sanders has been in the Senate for 10 years and the House for 16 prior to that. Before, he was the mayor of Burlington and named one of “America’s best mayors.” He didn’t come from nowhere. He knows how to lead and has consistently been on the right side of history. He has built relationships with colleagues in the House and Senate and knows how to work with others, as shown in his bipartisan veterans bill with John McCain. Democrats are also likely to retake the Senate and make inroads in the House. Sanders, too, is completely qualified and capable of working within the confines of the political system we have now. Hillary Clinton would have no easier a time. After all, can anyone think of a more polarizing political figure who draws more ire from conservatives than Clinton? (Donald Trump, perhaps?) Surely Republicans in Congress aren’t going to bow down if Clinton gets to the White House.
In terms of foreign policy, Bernie has been and continues to be the pragmatist whereas Clinton has been (and unbelievably continues to be!) the idealist — with far more damaging results. The Iraq War, which Sanders voted against and vehemently denounced and which Clinton supported, could have perhaps been forgiven as a mistake. A colossal mistake. One that was a major factor in the rise of ISIS, so clearly with far-reaching implications. But everyone makes mistakes, even elected officials. It would have continued to be a deeply concerning vote for me even if she had learned from it, but I could have looked past it Clinton had learned from it, as she claims she did. Unbelievably, she has not. There is no evidence to suggest she has learned anything from the Iraq vote. She has, time and time again, supported similarly hawkish foreign policy views that have promoted, in the lightest, most forgiving of terms, unrest around the globe, especially in the Middle East. She was a primary architect of the catastrophic Libya bombing, and while Obama has actually learned from that, claiming it showed him the limits of American military power, Clinton refuses to believe American intervention is the problem, claiming instead that American inaction is the problem. That should be a relief to neocons (as it seems it has, with many vowing to support a Clinton administration, rather than a Trump one), but deeply concerning to the rest of us looking to elect someone who claims to be a smart and capable commander in chief, looking to war as the last resort. Even now, Clinton is a proponent of a worrying plan for Syria. She advocates for a no-fly zone there, which while actually endangering those seeking humanitarian relief instead of its proposed goal of doing the exact opposite, would dangerously escalate tensions with not only the Syrian government, but Russia as well. It would also put her in line with the foreign policy views of many prominent Republicans, and set her in disagreement with not only Senator Sanders, but President Obama. I thought she loved Obama so much she couldn’t possibly embrace an idea he didn’t himself espouse? Or maybe it is, after all, okay to disagree with the president? Perhaps we do still live in a democracy where candidates for elected office are able to have real, concrete differences and disagreements with the man they hope to succeed (who, while undoubtedly doing a great amount to move this country forward, has not done everything perfectly) without being attacked?
All of this goes without mentioning her dangerously extreme views on Israel, where Clinton has pledged to strengthen our relationship with Israel (that’s possible?!), while refusing to denounce their illegal occupation and the oppression of Palestinians, or her views on Iran, another place where she is at odds with President Obama. In January, Clinton attacked Sanders for having “naïve and dangerous” foreign policy views for saying in a debate that we should move “aggressively to normalize relations with Iran.” Which, if anyone was paying attention, is the same attack she used on Obama in 2008. She also seemed to miss the part seconds later when Sanders continued, “So if your question is, do I want to see that relationship become more positive in the future? Yes. Can I tell that we should open an embassy in Tehran tomorrow? No, I don’t think we should.” Sanders’ views on Iran are identical to that of President Obama and most Democrats. This same policy also seems to have served us well. The Obama administration’s hard-fought, constructive relationship of diplomacy with Iran got us the nuclear deal, the safe return of five American hostages and the quick return of U.S. Navy boats. Despite reservations we may have with Iran, Sanders is absolutely right in advocating for more diplomacy and the eventual easing of tensions between Tehran and Washington. We can, and should, work toward a more open relationship. Perhaps Secretary Clinton, as her record suggests, is the one with the “dangerous” and “naïve” foreign policy, thinking we can bring freedom and democracy wherever we can bring our military.
In terms of the intersection between foreign policy and domestic policy, Clinton also has a problematic record. While Clinton voted for the Patriot Act and continues to refuse to denounce the NSA’s invasive and blatantly illegal mass surveillance programs, Sanders voted against the Patriot Act and continually speaks out against mass surveillance and in defense of civil liberties, pledging to shut down the NSA’s bulk collection program once in office.
If nothing is accomplished in a Sanders administration other than the termination of the NSA’s bulk collection program and we are spared dangerously hawkish, in some cases extremist, foreign policy, I’ll be satisfied. Those are two things I cannot say for a Clinton administration.
In addition to all of this, Sanders is also the best candidate to win in the general in November.
We’ve already seen proof that Sanders is expanding the Democratic Party and bringing it into the future by attracting masses of young people and independents into the Democratic Party. Contrast that with Clinton, who as Perlstein notes, is building “a bridge to the 20th century.”
Every single general election match-up poll I’ve seen shows Sanders beating Trump by far larger margins than Secretary Clinton. And when the nominee is someone other than Trump, although increasingly unlikely — Cruz or Rubio or Kasich — Sanders consistently beats all of them, while Clinton frequently loses. I agree that polls can be wrong, especially this far out from a general. So let’s apply basic logic instead: 2016 has been, if nothing else, the year of outsiders and populists. Does anyone believe Clinton, who is the very definition of “establishment,” would fare well against, arguably, the most anti-establishment candidate in history? No. But Sanders, who rails against the establishment and establishment politics, does and will.
Trump actually spouted a bit of truth (that’s a first!) in the Republican debate earlier this month when he said “millions of people have come to the Republican party in the last little while.” (If my memory is correct, this was right before he assured us as to the size of his penis. Let’s all take a moment to appreciate the cordiality and basic civility with which the Democrats have conducted themselves thus far. It’s reassuring to see a party that occasionally appears to be led by adults, or at least people with a higher level of maturity than a group of 12-year-old boys). While he went on to suggest these millions of new voters are all coming from the Democratic Party, which is not true, he is attracting many new voters and many who sit out the political process. Democrats need a candidate who can do the same — grow the Democratic Party and inspire turnout — while actively and effectively combatting Trump’s dangerous racism, demagoguery and fear mongering. Bernie has proven he is the candidate to do this, already with pointed attacks on Trump and his bigotry, and his message of respect, inclusion and tolerance trumps Trump’s (couldn’t resist) message of hate, while still appealing to the populist anger many voters loosely supporting Trump feel. Sanders has the easiest job persuading these voters to cross over. Young people and independents are also supporting Sanders to Clinton by unprecedented margins, and these people are more likely to stay home in November with Clinton as the Democratic nominee. While Clinton is attracting self-identified Democrats by larger margins, though not nearly close to Sanders’ margins with young people and independents, I find it hard to believe there are many lifelong Democrats who would sit out a general with Sanders as the nominee. He does, after all, have a near perfect voting record with Democrats and passionately supports every major Democratic policy. And while African American voters have supported Clinton by huge margins thus far, that is likely due in part to the Clinton’s longstanding ties with the black community and the fact that Sanders comes from a state that is 95% white. I don’t presume to tell African Americans, or anyone, who to vote for as it is certainly not my place, but I point you to Killer Mike’s impassioned speech, “Bernie Sanders is the Only Candidate for Black Voters,” Ta-Nehisi Coates’ (author of Between the World and Me) rationale for voting for Sanders or Michelle Alexander’s (author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness) recent essay in The Nation, “Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote.”
I’d prefer not to take my chances with the unimaginable horror that would ensue should Trump make it to the White House, and Sanders looks to have the best chance making sure that doesn’t happen.
And to the claims that Sanders could never win a general because Americans won’t elect a socialist: good thing Sanders is most definitely not a socialist. Social democrat, rather. As Sanders would say, “yuuuge difference.” Though, who knows? Maybe Republicans calling President Obama, who has impressively high approval numbers of above 50%, a socialist (so far from the truth) for eight years, has made the American electorate more open to the term.