Monthly Archives: January 2016

Before the voting begins: lessons for progressives so far

I write this the day before the Iowa caucuses. Whoever wins, the post-Iowa reportage will make what’s come before it seem profound in comparison. We’ll be in for weeks or months of obsessed, breathless, and painfully shallow discussions of polls, candidate gaffs, quotes from campaign staffers, etc. So before all that noise begins, here are some things I think we’ve learned from Bernie’s campaign so far.

1) Much more is possible in electoral politics than almost anybody thought. Forget Hillary, just consider Bernie’s standing in the polls compared to Martin O’Malley, who at the start of the race was considered by every political insider to define the left-most edge of the electable political spectrum. The entire staff of the NYT and an overwhelming majority of sitting Democrats have been forced to admit they were wrong about Bernie’s chances. Hereafter, insider claims like “that will never happen” are mere astrology. Statements like “he can’t win” just can not be trusted. If Bernie goes down for defeat, there will be choruses of “I told you so” from all over the political spectrum; this is exactly the wrong conclusion to be drawn. He has already proven the common wisdom wrong on so many fronts — “democratic socialism,” refusal to triangulate, bad hair, age, and more.

2) Especially the common wisdom about big money: big money is still a huge force, of course, but Bernie has proven that it is not insurmountable. The math is simple: there are just many, many more people who can give $30 than there are that can give hundreds of thousands, so even in a post-Citizens United environment, all is not lost.

3) Also, you do not have to cower before the mainstream media to succeed nationally. Bernie has systematically treated shallow questions from reporters with clear refusals to play the game, and managed to make it clear to millions that he shares their distrust of most reporters while also offering something different and more substantive. His refusal to go negative on Hillary, to take seriously the email scandal or the behaviors of Bill, his dogged effort to stick to his core principles and goals — all this has worked positively for his campaign and his standing in the polls. There is a model to be followed there.

Even if Bernie goes on to victory, progressives still need to be thinking hard about electoral strategies, about down ballot races, about policy initiatives, about campaigns far into the future. Regardless of what happens in the coming weeks, I hope we can hang on to the lessons of the last year and put them to good use.

If Bernie wins the nomination, what then?

So what would a race between Democratic nominee Sanders and Republican candidate X look like? As a Vermonter, I’ve seen Bernie attacked by big(ish) Republican money a few times. He does have some tricks up his sleeve.

In 1990, when Bernie ran against a Republican incumbent for the U.S. House, the RNC threw some money at Vermont, running TV ads that not-so-subtly red baited Bernie: e.g., an “ordinary Vermont woman” establishing her plain-folks status while stacking wood in her yard, in the final seconds of the ad, turns to the camera and says, “Bernie scares me.” Bernie defeated the incumbent by a margin of 56% to 40%. In his first run for Senate in 2006, Bernie went up against a very popular moderate Republican businessman, Rich Tarrant, who used his own fortune to turn the contest into the most expensive political campaign in Vermont’s history. Tarrant, struggling to make headway in the polls throughout the campaign, towards the end listened to his consultants and went sleazy/negative, using Bernie’s House vote on a spending bill to claim that Bernie supported child molesters. Sanders won by an approximately 2-to-1 margin.

In each case, the dirty attacks and red-baiting failed, and probably boomeranged on the Republicans. Not all Vermonters are Birkenstock-wearing former hippies — we elected a popular Republican governor repeatedly 2002-2010 — but folks knew enough about Bernie (from, e.g., his efforts on behalf of veterans and the like) to know that the sleazy attack ads were just that. Bernie is not only scrupulously consistent and honest about his policies and principles, but he knows how to communicate them. In 2004, he got a higher percentage of the Vermont vote than John Kerry, which means there were a number of Vermonters voting simultaneously for Bernie and George W. Bush.

In the unusually substantive strategic discussions amongst liberals this past few weeks, one fear Bernie-skeptics have raised is that as the Democratic nominee he would be faced with a temporarily reunited Republican Party machine: a no-holds barred, massively funded, merciless attack replete with dog-whistle themes and other shameless techniques. Fox News would craft the nasty memes, and CNN would lap them up. Krugman and others have pointed out that Bernie has not faced that kind of attack yet on the national stage, and so polls showing him doing well in a head-to-head with various Republican candidates do not mean much. This is all true.

Bernie’s approach to campaigning is to stay away from spin, and with enormous sincerity repeat a handful of artfully crafted points, doggedly sticking to them in the face of constant efforts by opponents and journalists to get him to play the sound bite game. (Think of how he has consistently taken the high road with regards to HIllary’s emails and Bill’s peccadilloes, and how effectively that plays.) He is a control freak about this: Bernie is not going to do what Howard Dean did in 2002-03, and start taking his policy cues from his grass roots followers rather than the other way around. But we’ve seen already how Bernie can effectively disarm cynical journalists and politicians by just calling them out and sticking to his principles. “Idealism” in his hands is good strategy.

That said, whether they are going after Hillary or Bernie, the post-convention Republican machine is likely to be ferocious, perhaps like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Whoever the Democratic nominee, they are going to need our help.

Some light shines through — so now what? Pragmatic Progressivism Part 2

Dear Paul Krugman,

Thank you for having long been a powerful and effective critic of received wisdoms in economics and politics. I might not have survived the administration of George W. Bush without your columns. And thanks for recently calling for fellow progressives to engage in some “hardheaded realism” about how to achieve our goals. Yes, please, let’s do that.

But as we do that, let’s also admit that what has long counted as “realistic pragmatism” for many has been just plain wrong. Recently, inside the beltway and the halls of the New York Times, “realistic pragmatism” said Trump was nothing to worry about, Bernie was a sideshow, and Hillary was as good as already nominated. (There’s lots more if you go further back: the Republicans would never threaten a government shut down and the economy just to get their way, a legal challenge to the ACA would never get to the Supreme Court. And then there’s WMD’s . . . )

So when Bernie said in the last debate that healthcare was a human right and that he would “move forward” from Obamacare towards single payer healthcare, your retort that a “single-payer system just isn’t going to happen” worries me. Yes, I wish Bernie had added more details, perhaps saying we should work towards a medicare-for-all system by gradually lowering the age of medicare eligibility over a decade or two. But if it’s true, as you say, “perhaps most, health economists would recommend single-payer,” what does it do for the general public — who generally tell pollsters they think everyone should be legally guaranteed health care  — if we tell them that “it’s just not going to happen” because of the power of insurance companies and others who are for the moment quite comfortable? It’s true that insurance companies have power, that  the necessary tax increases would cause many to freak-out, and the “disruptions” to folks with good existing insurance would combine to make the political fight a hard one. That’s a reality. But “just isn’t going to happen”? That’s just a guess. I don’t know it’s wrong, and you don’t know it’s right. Bernie’s insistence on advocating single payer/medicare-for-all has given many liberals some pause, and its generating some interesting strategic discussion. But let’s not base that discussion on truisms, on “what everyone knows.”

Bernie knows that single payer isn’t happening any time soon, and he’s been quite explicit about the limits caused by the toxic opposition either he or Hillary would face as President. His question is: what’s the best strategy given those realities? Part of his answer is we need a movement, not just a president. And he’s not against compromise. But he’s against the wrong compromises, which he has long argued and in many ways demonstrated the Democratic party has been making for decades. Do you start the discussion by saying “what’s best isn’t going to work because big money won’t let us”? Or do you start by advocating what’s best, and by involving ordinary folks in the effort rather than throwing them under the bus in favor of big money, and then doing the best you can from there. The debate here isn’t pragmatism vs idealism. It’s about what’s really pragmatic, about what’s the truly strategic way forward.

Since my last post, a few cracks have appeared in the dull gray clouds of dominant assumptions: Hillary Clinton staffers and their friends amongst the political journalists at the New York Times have for the moment decided that they were wrong to dismiss Bernie as a mere side show, that he might be a threat after all in the primaries. And he performed not just well in the recent Democratic debate, but did well by sticking to core principles, by being consistent and clear rather than by by being merely clever. (For example, when Hillary accused him of being against Obama in 2011 — a cynical, sophistic move, given all she said against Obama in 2008 — he simply rolled his eyes. For most of my life, a silly attack like Hillary’s would have become fodder for endless discussion in the media, but for now, that kind of thing is not sticking.)

So for the past week or two, the tone of MSM coverage has changed a bit, and as a result a little sunshine is showing through, and folks on all sides are for better or worse given the opportunity to think of things in a slightly new light. In the New Yorker, John Cassidy has a somewhat more measured piece than Krugman’s speaking to the issue of “realism.” Brian Beutler has weighed in thoughtfully on the strategy question in The New Republic. In response to Krugman, Jedediah Purdy has written this and this excellent pieces about “how change happens,” making the case that bold ideas are a necessary if not sufficient part of the mix of any real change. Let’s take advantage of the moment, and let’s engage in hardheaded realism, but let’s not mistake our conventions for inevitable truths. Realism requires admitting what you don’t know, and the range of things we don’t know is vast.

Too clever by half

Nobody knows who will win the Democratic Primary. Why can’t we admit that and move on?

The New York Times thinks it does know, and seems so content in their certainty that Bernie can not possibly beat Hillary, that they have been ignoring rather than attacking him. Most of the rest of the mainstream media have followed suit. But those media outlets and their resident pundits have clearly lost some of their stranglehold over the construction of “electability”: viz, Trump. National polls have consistently shown Hillary with a vast lead, but those polls are much less significant than state-based polls conducted a few weeks before a primary, and Bernie’s lead in New Hampshire and neck-and-neck status in Iowa also have been pretty steady — and the outcome of those two primaries traditionally have more effect on subsequent primaries than anything that has come before. But that only tells me: we don’t know.

Real small-d democracy necessitates living with uncertainty, and in a way embracing that uncertainty. The insider baseball that has dominated political journalism for the past half century is politically enervating at best, anti-democratic at worst. It’s too clever by half, speaking with certainty about things that aren’t certain, while avoiding obvious, if difficult truths. (OK, if you accurately predicted in 2014 that Donald Trump would be the Republican front-runner going into the 2016 primaries, then I want to hear from you. Otherwise, please talk about something else.)

I’ve been enjoying some of the debates between Bernie supporters and Hillary supporters (though I think the more interesting ones are between women). Though I’m a Bernie supporter, I think it’s true that it would be a major breakthrough to have a committed feminist in the Whitehouse, and that a future political landscape in which the problem is pushing President Hillary to the left does not seem a whole lot worse than a landscape in which the problem is trying to get any of Bernie’s progressive policy proposals enacted against enormous resistance. We live in interesting times.

But there’s a tendency in Hillary’s camp, and to some extent in Bernie’s as well, where the debate devolves into insider baseball, where people, with much self-certainty, throw around poll results and anecdotes about how the world “really works.” For example, Katha Pollitt, who I like a lot, wrote “Bernie Sanders isn’t going to win the nomination… can we at least be honest about that? And if he did, he wouldn’t win the general election.” That’s a guess, not hard knowledge, and rhetorically it works to shut down discussion, not open it up. Sanders supporters, understandably annoyed at the MSM’s inevitability assumption, respond with equally thin lists of reasons why Bernie will win, such as not-very-meaningful head-to-head matchup polls. I’m all for being pragmatic and realistic, but the only thing the last decade and a half has taught me is that the world of politics is less predictable than we imagine.

As progressives, I think we have to get out of the habit of second-guessing democracy. There’s so much else to talk about, to ponder, to debate; let’s focus on that. Enough of the prognostication, already.