Monthly Archives: September 2015

talking strategy with Hillary supporters

Dear friends who lean towards Hillary:

Now that Bernie has appeared on the cover of Time and is leading Hillary Clinton in the polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire, let’s talk some strategy. First, let’s agree that it’s not just about the personalities: maybe you find him annoyingly self-certain and monotone, but Hillary’s lifetime of poll-driven equivocation is also not particularly heartwarming. And they’re both smart and have records of getting things done — modest records in both cases. And the policy differences are real but there’s still more overlap than not: e.g., economically, his democratic socialism is not anti-capitalist (think Denmark) and she’s no market fundamentalist. The real question is strategic.

I do NOT think the answer is just about preventing a Republican president in 2016. If that’s the only question you ask, if you put all your eggs in that basket, your candidate gives off a smell of fear: not very attractive to the independents and swing voters that are necessary to win. I think that had a lot to do with why Gore, Kerry, and many others failed to follow in Bill Clinton’s footsteps down the path of triangulation and moving toward the center. And even under Bill Clinton, we got a lot of Republican policies and a Republican dominated house. Someone once said having the courage of one’s convictions is worth about 6 points in an election. That actually seems high to me, but most elections are won or lost on smaller margins. Having a vision and a broad movement, having something deeply positive to say, certainly was key to Obama in 2008. 

Back in July, Barney Frank, for whom I have a lot of respect, made the case for HIllary against Bernie. But I’m not persuaded: he exaggerates Hillary’s progressivism, and just takes for granted that she’s more likely than Sanders to defeat a Republican, without really explaining why. (Hillary certainly has broad name recognition, and her support is still wide, but I also suspect that much of her support is thin: for many, I think she’s least-worst, not someone that generates fire in the belly. That’s not a formula for certain victory.) And Frank doesn’t seem to understand that Sanders’ arguments are to a large degree strategic, not ideological. Bernie’s not looking for purity, he’s just looking to move the polity in a better, electorally more successful, direction. He’s long been a believer in the What’s the Matter with Kansas argument, which is not that Republican’s have pulled the wool over working people’s eyes with social issues, but that because Democrats have largely ignored working people and adopted policies that do little or nothing for them, working folks will go with social issues that seem to them better than nothing. The solution is to actually do something that matters for working people, listen to them, and explain how you will help them in plain language; that will get votes, Bernie believes, and his own electoral successes, past and present, lend some credence to his view.

Regarding the effect of an extended primary battle between Sanders and Clinton, as I said in my last post, “if Clinton is forced to get her head out of the NYTimes and the polls and start actually making clear arguments for specific positions to the general public, I think respect for her and for the Democratic Party among a significant number of independents would likely rise.”

One piece of puzzle is Congress: without more Democrats in Congress and across the country, neither a Sanders nor a Clinton presidency will be able to get much of value done. Bernie’s answer to the nationwide question is first, grass roots organizing to create a movement. What’s Hillary’s? How do we get to a better place? 

[this post is derived from a discussion on Facebook; I’m still trying to figure out where to best post stuff.]

left 3.0

NYC_Sept_2015If the first modern major wave of leftist activism in the U.S. was the progressive
movement of the turn of the 20th century, and the second was the 1960s counter-culturally inflected New Left, then perhaps we’re experiencing a third moment of left activism.  With Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Syriza, and more, the progressive left has now become a force in electoral politics in Europe and the Americas. When Forbes advises its wealthy readers on how to prepare their tax havens for the contingency of a Sanders Presidency, it’s safe to say the left is now something that non-leftists can no longer ignore. After decades of being invisible, of being dismissed or taken for granted by the powers that be, the left is back on the stage.

None of which is to say the left is on the verge of triumph, or the revolution is at hand. The left is now just one force among several. Nor is it to say that the left is monolithic. In the U.S., I think what’s going on is a loose coalition between old-new-lefties who’ve shouldered the burden of pragmatic electoral politics (e.g. Sanders, Todd Gitlin), and Democratic party activists who have grown disillusioned with the strategies of narrow Clintonian triangulation (e.g. Elizabeth Warren, Zephyr Teachout).

But if I look at the current situation with an eye beyond the U.S. Presidential contest towards the longer game of influencing the terms of the debate nationally and globally, I’m encouraged. My initial predictions about the MSM’s response to a Bernie campaign still hold. The attention he’s getting is due more to political journalists’ need for a horse race, rather than serious attention to his arguments. But Bernie is doing better than I expected, and I originally expected him to make much more of a splash than most people did.

That said, the strategic dilemmas are huge. I respectfully disagree with Barney Frank that a vigorous Democratic primary contest between Sanders and Clinton would hurt the Democrats’ chances in a final campaign against a Republican; if Clinton is forced to get her head out of the NYTimes and the polls and start actually making clear arguments for specific positions to the general public, I think respect for her and for the Democratic Party among a significant number of independents would likely rise. Yes money matters in campaigns, but so does the energy of having the courage of one’s convictions. That said, the question of who would be more likely to prevent another Republican President — especially given the current crop of candidates — is an important one, if the answer is not as obvious as the punditocracy makes it out to be. The Nation magazine recently framed the question as one of determining when pragmatism becomes complacency, or when recourse to being “practical” just becomes a claim that nothing can be done. Important questions; not easy to answer.

Bernie’s best hope right now is the effort to build a grass roots movement that reaches out to folks throughout the country who know little or nothing about him. He very astutely made the case to the DNC that, if they wanted to win back the Congress, “politics as usual,” i.e. Clintonism, would not do the job. And there are some signs that that message made an impression. The media are mostly incapable of understanding grass roots efforts — they tend to imagine it’s about social media and gadgetry, rather than the fine art of widespread, organized face-to-face contact, which may be facilitated by technology but can never be reduced to it. That’s just as well. Bernie no doubt knows that the moment the establishment understands him as a real threat, the forces brought to bear against him will be ferocious. (For Howard Dean in 2003, that moment was when Al Gore endorsed him in December, at which point the media turned on him with a kind of adolescent rage; the silly “scream” coverage was just a symptom of something that had been going on for weeks.)

Certainly, for those of us who’d like to see some fundamental progressive changes in the U.S., now is not the time to give up. But we have to think strategically, and probably work on many levels at once.