My party fears a debate: This same nervous centrism created the Tea Party

Another Wall Street Democrat is running for president. Once again we must choose between acquiescence and rebellion

Published April 19, 2015 9:58AM (EDT)

Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren             (AP/Carolyn Kaster/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Photo montage by Salon)
Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren (AP/Carolyn Kaster/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Photo montage by Salon)

The race for president is on. And imagine this: The Democrats may not have any debates.

What awful timing for a runaway front-runner. The last time the Democrats were in such dire need of a debate was in 1968, when the Vietnam War drove Lyndon Johnson from office and drew the caliber of Bobby Kennedy, Gene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey into the fray. But if the party doesn't want to have a real airing of issues, those who do have to figure out how to force one.

By ‘Democrats,’ I mean Hillary Clinton, with no others having joined the race. Clinton doesn’t want a real debate. Right now she’s trying not to repeat her 2008 campaign. She’d like to replicate Obama’s 2008 campaign. His secret sauce in both 2008 and 2012 was money, top-notch consultants, cutting-edge technology and a willingness to put ‘message’ before policy.

It looks like Hillary has the formula down pat. Her team is strong. She raises tons of money. She announced her candidacy via social media in a video meant to portray her as a warm, friendly grandma, too humble to hog the spotlight but fired up to fight for you. Her staff publishes her stage directions, which apparently works; the press treated the video like a play or a movie, praising it not because it convinced them she was humble but because they deemed it shrewd.

I found it surreal. I never saw a candidate skip her own announcement. She almost missed her video, coming in just at the end to say she’s running because the game is rigged against us and she wants to be our champion. Some pundits say it reminded them of Elizabeth Warren. Where have they been? All politicians talk that way now, even the Republicans. The mystery is what any of them means by it.

The van trip was even more bizarre. For the record, ‘everyday’ Americans don’t drive 1,000 miles unless they’re on a camping trip or have embezzled money from their boss. And whose idea was it for her to show up at a Chipotle sporting shades? From the surveillance video you couldn’t tell if she was placing an order or forcing some poor kid to empty the register.

It’s unlikely the ‘small’ Iowa events were any more real or substantive. I wasn’t there but I know the dynamic. Talk doesn’t come easy when power is so unequal.  Most people meeting mega-celebrities can barely get a sentence out, let alone press a point. It’s why nearly all such events are designed less for audio than optics.

Her campaign is always hyping social media. It has its use, but as a change agent it has been oversold or underutilized.  It works best for the political undead, people like Donald Trump or Sarah Palin who spew hate speech with impunity.  In 2008 Obama’s web mavens built the biggest netroots organization ever seen. Now it’s just another proprietary mailing list, a zombie movement. The same folks run Hillary’s operation.

Clinton’s people say she needs to seem ‘authentic.’ Here’s a hint: she can’t do it until they stop saying it. Here’s another: she’ll never do it by tweeting or texting or in staged meetings will ‘real people.’  Trying to rerun Obama’s race is a mistake. Soaring rhetoric and strong visuals won’t cut it now. Voters hunger for content. No candidate can seem authentic without concrete ideas, but Clinton’s campaign seems built to finesse policy, not engage it.


1968 was the last time Democrats fought over fundamental issues. The party has since grown stagnant and closed. President Obama has mostly governed from the party's right. When he backed the Bush bailout and ditched ethics reform, mortgage relief, the public option and the minimum wage, there was quiet grumbling but never open rebellion.

Liberals who bit their tongues then did him no favors. Absent the bailout there’d be no Tea Party. If he’d stuck to his guns on mortgage relief, health care and wages, he’d have reduced income inequality and the deficit and made a boatload of new friends. He opted instead for an insipid centrism, and here we are. Those who knew better should have tried harder to make him do the right thing.

Obama backed the Bush bailout weeks before the 2008 election. Despite tight polls he was widely assumed to be just three months away from being president. Most Democrats wanted no bill or one that rescued homeowners and placed stricter conditions on banks. Obama had the leverage to demand changes. He didn’t, and enough Democrats deferred to him to pass the bill as written.

The situation today is in many ways analogous to 2008. Once again a Wall Street Democrat is running for president. Once again Democrats must choose between acquiescence and rebellion. Depending on who does or doesn’t enter the race, rebellion may mean opposing Clinton or bringing public pressure to bear on her. As always there will be pressure on rebels to maintain a code of silence. Their party no longer welcomes debate, so that’s the first thing they have to change.

Like most Democrats, I fear a Republican victory in 2016. If they win the White House, they’ll perfect a partisan monopoly over the federal government unlike any we’ve ever seen. Another Republican Supreme Court appointment would be a catastrophe. I understand the risks of battle -- but also see the risk of inaction and know the price we paid the last time we chose silence.

Unlike many of her critics, I’ve great respect for Hillary Clinton. I’ve seen her up close and like nearly everyone who has, came away impressed. In 2008 many of her husband’s old hired hands abandoned her. No former member of her staff ever has. Even her harshest critics must concede that such loyalty isn’t easy to earn.

My differences with Clinton are entirely substantive. Today’s issues may not divide as deeply as those of 1968 but they’re just as important. Because Clinton’s history on them is problematic, real debate is indispensable. Let me sketch out four overarching issues.

The Economy: The great dispute between Democratic elites and the Democratic base is over the economy. For years the elites have cheered globalization. Like Tom Friedman they see it as a ‘golden straightjacket’; a thing we can’t escape but wouldn’t want to as it will soon answer all our prayers. They view unfettered growth, trade and markets and nearly all technology as benign. Most of us see that a rising tide no longer lifts all boats, or most boats, or hardly any boats at all. Not them. We see how our tools no longer seem to need us. We seek a more permanent and humane economy rooted in enterprises of smaller scale. They say fine but see no conflict between their agenda and ours. The next big fight in this war is the battle over the Trans Pacific Trade agreement. The Democratic base along with just about the entire middle class opposes it in its present form. The next leader of the Democratic Party should be on the same side as the base and the middle class.

The Government: How can 60 percent of the country agree with Democrats on taxes, Social Security, Medicare, same sex marriage, gun safety, every last plank of the President’s immigration plan, the Cuban embargo, the Iran nuclear weapons deal and the truth about global warming and still vote Republican?  The answer may be their identification of Democrats as the party of a government they despise. They care about frugality but what they hate most is corruption.  All across the world public anger over corruption now drives politics. Our politicians hardly mention it but our people care as much about it as anyone. The big problem isn’t the petty bribes. It’s what Anthony Kennedy foolishly calls ‘soft corruption.’ Suffice it to say the Clinton record on it is spotty.  The Democrats’ next leader must have a credible plan to curb public corruption. It won’t happen without robust debate.

National Security: Here the public’s views are less settled. There’s an uptick in fear due to ISIS and Republicans do all they can to fan its flames.  It isn’t enough to be for peace or against military interventions. We need to show people why our old military doctrines are defunct and that we have a better way to keep them safe. There may have been a time when America had to be the world’s policeman. God knows it needs one and for many years nobody else could afford to take the job. No more. It’s time to stop shooting our way into places we don’t belong. We can go on paying the price and taking all the blowback or we can fix the UN and honor the rule of law. I don’t think Clinton grasps the argument. In 2008 she ran as Xena, the Warrior Princess. In four years as Secretary of State she was Obama’s resident hawk.  For all her travels she has yet to wake up to the world we now live in.

Climate Change: Every Democrat has grown more attuned to climate change and Hillary’s no exception. Obama’s second term has been a vast improvement on his first. Any Democrat will continue the forward movement just as any Republican may wind up putting our species out of business. The question here isn’t about whether Hillary wants to the right thing it is whether anyone will do enough. If nearly all our scientists are right it is the overarching political and moral issue of our age. It isn’t enough just to beat the Republicans or improve on the past. We need to solve the problem. Anyone who knows anything about the issue knows this: we’re running out of time.

Democrats can no longer pretend these differences don’t exist. If they insist on doing so, progressives can’t let them.

By Bill Curry

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Bill Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut.

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