Bernie Sanders is not dead yet: Here's how he recovers from Hillary's charmed October

Yes, Hillary has had a great three weeks, but progressives still need a debate on issues. Here's how we force it

By Bill Curry

Published October 27, 2015 10:00AM (EDT)


The Republicans really outdid themselves last week. Their public waterboarding of Hillary Clinton affirms that when it comes to interrogation, their tactic of choice is still torture. In trying to paint her as a lazy, disloyal liar who cares only for politics and not at all for duty or even the lives of others, they got caught shirking their duty, corrupting Congress, exploiting fallen heroes and lying all day and far into the night.

The whole week was amazing: a sitting vice president and two lesser entities fled the Democratic presidential field; prostrate House Republicans begged Paul Ryan to lead them. Ryan demanded job security and paid family leave. Republicans hate giving workers stuff like that, but Ryan won’t be a worker -- he’ll be a boss, so it’s okay. Democrats were feeling good. Seeing John Boehner capped by his own party and then Kevin McCarthy cap himself lifted their spirits; when Harold “Trey” Gowdy and his thugs trained the high-intensity lamp on Clinton, things finally seemed to be going their way.

Clinton has had three very good weeks. It started with her "Saturday Night Live" cameo, continued at the debate and culminated in her fine showing at Thursday’s GOP-sponsored political bloodletting. In direct response to her boffo performances, Jim Webb, Lincoln Chafee and Joe Biden all bid their presidential dreams adieu. (Webb grumbled something about an independent run, but he’s through.) It’s worth asking how she did it.

Her people are always saying she has to be more authentic: funnier, warmer, less scripted, less evasive. But on "SNL" she read from a script. Her debate performance was a monument to preparation. And you can bet going into Thursday, no one said "just be yourself’." Somebody figured out that she needed not less scripting but better scripting -- and that in facing down the Benghazi Republicans she had to play a noncombatant: Stay above the fray and, save for an occasional grace note of grief or empathy, show no feeling.

It worked. She appeared as close to presidential as anyone could in such a setting, even as every Republican stooped to personal abuse so brutal and constant it amounted to an abuse of power. It wasn’t the first time in her life that circumstance made her a more sympathetic figure than she naturally appears, in this case not just to women but to anyone who was ever bullied.

It was, in short, a victory of style, not substance, and one to which the Republicans contributed almost as much as she did. They had five legitimate avenues of inquiry: whether Clinton violated any law; whether she lied about what she knew; whether departmental communications and security protocols were adequate; whether she in any way violated those protocols, and whether her Libya policy was a failure. Against all odds, they somehow managed to botch every one of them.

One of the few things we learned Thursday was that three years of Republican digging failed to unearth a single violation of law or policy. We know it because we know they are so desperate, so out of control and so bent on destroying Clinton that they’d have shown every card they had even if doing so put an FBI probe at risk. For a while I thought they had something on Sid Blumenthal beyond another bad case of gossipy indiscretion, but apparently not.

There was no proof Clinton lied about Benghazi, though she could have done a better job of making that point. Granted, her situation was delicate. She couldn’t very well say ‘I didn’t go on TV and lie my butt off, Susan Rice did,’ or ‘White House operatives have been spinning national security crises ever since Karl Rove used the Iraq War for a flight deck photo op.’ You had to parse a sentence or two to be sure, but Clinton never attributed the Benghazi attack to that inflammatory video. She only said others had. Had the committee been interested in anything other than smearing Clinton, a better line of inquiry would have been why she chose to disappear from the administration’s post-Benghazi messaging operation.

To all of the security questions, there is but one answer. It was bad. It’s why the review board and seven congressional committees addressed the matter so meticulously and why Clinton has on multiple occasions accepted the board’s recommendations. Gowdy’s sole aim was to conflate the system’s duties with Clinton’s; thus all the questions about who had her personal email address, when she left her office the night of the attack and, from the Madame Defarge-like Martha Roby, who she spent the night with. Here’s a safe bet: the committee’s final report won’t instruct future secretaries to give out their personal email addresses or home phone numbers to their ambassadors or to anyone else.

I don’t list Clinton’s emails among the committee’s valid concerns. There’s an issue there, of course, but it has little to do with the committee’s mandate. One reason Gowdy spent so much time making Sid Blumenthal famous is that he needed to connect the email controversy to his alleged mission of investigating Benghazi. Since he never cited a single policy point made in a Blumenthal email, we may safely assume there is no connection.

I doubt Clinton broke any law with her emails. Still, no one buys her lame story that she installed the system for personal business or mere convenience. On Thursday, we saw why she installed it: so that she’d never find herself sitting before Trey Gowdy having to listen to him distort and berate every decision she ever made. Let it be a lesson to her.

The real issue is secrecy. Clinton isn’t one of the “most transparent” people in politics; she’s one of the least transparent. It comes partly from being hectored and pursued all her political life -- but also from her bad habits and instincts. Congress may never investigate how we were tricked into invading Iraq, but we don’t need an investigation to know that secrets and lies led to the betrayal of our ideals and the worst foreign policy blunder in our history. It happens all the time, if not on such a scale. We must end the cult of national security secrecy and begin a new era of honesty and openness. It is highly unlikely that Clinton would ever lead or even allow such a reform but you wouldn’t know it from that hearing.

The most relevant issue was Libya policy, but Republicans barely touched on it. As with most foreign policy issues, their main interest was to leave an impression of Democratic malfeasance. To take the matter further they’d have to say what they’d do instead and they can’t. Republicans always clamor for military action but never take responsibility for it. The Constitution they profess to love gives Congress sole power to declare war. When we went after Qaddafi they controlled Congress, but took a pass. Full of patriotic gore, they aren’t brave enough to debate a war, let alone fight one. U.S. military interventions made the Middle East the transnational charnel house it is today. Clinton and the Republicans backed them all. A Benghazi hearing would be a fit place to ask how it all worked out but it’s hard to get a debate going when the two sides see eye to eye.

Gowdy kept saying the hearing wasn’t a prosecution, but of course it was. If it weren’t why would Boehner pick him, a career prosecutor with no background or experience in or out of Congress in either foreign affairs or defense policy to lead it? The answer is all too obvious and, under federal law and House rules governing the use of property or staff for partisan politics, also unethical. Maybe someday someone will investigate that. For now it serves to testify not only to the vile tone and blatant partisanship or our politics, but to its sheer, useless emptiness.


The week wasn’t just wild, it was a watershed. Most Democrats say that in a post-Benghazi, post-Biden world, Hillary romps to the nomination, but things aren’t always as they seem. A CNN poll had her winning the debate handily but Bernie closing the gap slightly. More important, he and Biden outperform her in nearly every general election poll against nearly every Republican candidate. I may have missed it, but I’ve yet to see a mainstream analyst tackle the question of how it is that a lefty challenger is outpacing the centrist favorite in the general election.

Both parties’ frontrunners do worse in general election matchups than their strongest intraparty competitors do. But while the GOP establishment sees Trump as a disaster akin to the end of the world and is doing all it can to avert it -- they don’t feel a whole lot better about Carson -- the Democratic establishment is jubilant about Clinton and does all it can to help her salt her nomination away, including, most notoriously, stifling debates.

I know. I’m comparing apples and oranges. Hillary’s a highly accomplished, well informed adult who has overcome some adversity to arrive at this moment; Trump is an ignorant, narcissistic child who fooled us into thinking he did more than he really did with all the money he inherited. Fair enough. But what if Republicans do him in or, more likely, he does himself in? What if a Rubio/Kasich ticket makes Florida hard and Ohio impossible to win? What if Hillary keeps performing like the ace student she is, but her numbers never move?  What then?

If it’s late October of 2016 we make all the phone calls we can and those of us who are so inclined pray. But it’s October of 2015 and we still have other options. I speak now to progressive activists and to those who might join them in this struggle. You alone have the power to change the course of Democratic politics in the next few months. We need a real debate and a real movement. If we insist on them, we’ll get them.

The Debate

By debate I don’t just mean the next official debate, but let’s start there. The last debate and the Benghazi hearing were oddly alike in that neither clarified any issues; the principle reason being that in each forum key players chose not to clarify them. At the hearing the Republicans’ whole strategy was to attack her and her whole strategy was never to take the bait. At the debate it seemed Sanders’ whole strategy was never to attack her. Every strategy helped Clinton. Debates are meant to be interactive and comparative. Somebody should tell Bernie Sanders.

Left out of the week’s coverage is the golden opportunity he has just been handed to interact and compare. The passing of Biden’s shadow and Webb’s and Chafee’s quick exits are great gifts to him. O’Malley has spent a year impersonating Bernie but if he thinks his future is now in Hillary’s hands, he’ll take up less space -- leaving Bernie all but alone with her on the stage. He must use his opportunity to do three things:

First, he must describe the overarching choice. She believes in pay to play politics and global finance capitalism, the twin political and economic models she helped build. He doesn’t. She thinks we can keep them and still save our democracy and our middle class. He thinks they’re the cause of the slow asphyxiation of each. It’s a big difference and voters agree with him. The only way he wins is by exploring it in full.

Second, he must get into the policy weeds. A single example: This week Hillary criticized two mergers announced by four health insurance giants: Aetna, Humana, Cigna and Anthem. But she didn’t actually oppose them; she just called for “close scrutiny” of them. She does this a lot. Parsing her sentences you find she hasn’t come out flatly against the TPP. Policy types close to her say that if elected she’ll work with big insurers to reform the market. It may not be the worst idea in the history of public policy but it’s a contender. A middle class person over 50 earning $47,000 a year may pay $800 a month for a plan with a $5000 deductible. That’s not health care, it’s a hoax. If Democrats can’t do better than what Hillary has on offer they’re doomed. Bernie would fix the system. It’s a debate we must have.

Third, he has to address the legitimate albeit tender point of whether or not and to what degree she means what she says. He shouldn’t and doesn’t want to attack her. Before the Benghazi lynch mob took the stage, O’Malley and Chafee showed the ineffectuality of even veiled character assassination. But no one will be offended if he questions how well she understands issues like fossil fuels and trade on which she recently corrected course or how deep her commitment is, or what her past positions on issues as critical as the Iraq War and same sex marriage say about her judgment and worldview.

Saturday night at the Iowa Democrats’ Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner---yes, they still call it that--- Sanders was fired up and for the first time did some of what he needs to do. He mostly addressed the stuff I mentioned last; the questions of her past judgment and current understanding and conviction. If he keeps it up, the race will change, but he must also define his fundamental philosophical difference with Clinton and address those policy differences that even she admits they still have.

The Movement

When I started this column back in January I wrote that America has never had positive social change without a strong, independent progressive movement to lead the way. I said then we should resist the lure of another cheap campaign high long enough to do the boring chores of movement building. The events of the last few weeks offer us a chance to do both. Let me describe a solid first step.

The most powerful and moving video coming out of Iowa this weekend was the clip of Bernie Sanders leading his followers on a march to that Democratic dinner. It was a reminder of all we once were and must be again. Sanders must make that moving image a reality. In this hour of his seeming peril, nothing would energize his troops more than a vow that, win or lose, the movement they’re building will be open, lasting and democratic and that it will be theirs.

In 2008 the biggest grass roots movement in our political history rose up to support Barack Obama for president. When he won he turned it into one more Washington mailing list run by pollsters and fundraisers to benefit insiders. The privatization of Obama for America was a tragedy. This time those who build the movement must own it. There’s a name for this idea: it’s called democratic socialism.

There are so many ways in which Sanders can turn the week’s event to his and our advantage. Biden, Chafee and Webb gave him the spotlight. Republican bungling enhanced Democratic prospects in the House and Senate which means thousands more small donor and grass roots volunteers to build a movement with. Hillary’s ascendancy may even help by setting the proper context for an insurgency.

Whether you’re for Bernie or Hillary, or just peace and justice ,you may see how much we need a strong progressive movement. I’ve no idea who will win this election; only that whoever wins, there will be another election after it. In between them, there will be a country to govern. I know it’s a crucial election but lately I think less about who I support than what I support. We’ll face more hard battles when it’s over. To win them, we must build our strength.

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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