It would be hard to overstate what Bernie Sanders has already achieved in his campaign for president, or the obstacles he’s had to surmount in order to achieve it. Not only has he turned a planned Hillary Clinton coronation into an exercise in grass-roots democracy, he’s reset the terms of the debate. We are edging closer to the national conversation we so desperately need to have. If we get there, all credit goes to Bernie.
Many of those obstacles were put in place by Democratic national party chair and Clinton apparatchik Deborah Wasserman Schultz. Without pretense of due process, Schultz slashed the number of 2016 debates to six, down from 26 in 2008, and scheduled as many as she could on weekends when she figured no one would be watching. To deprive would-be challengers of free exposure, Schultz robbed voters of free and open debate and ceded the spotlight to the dark vaudeville of the Republicans. That Sanders got this far in spite of her is a miracle in itself.
Sanders got bagged again in Iowa, this time by a state party chair, one Andrea McGuire. Like Schultz, McGuire’s specialty is high-dollar fundraising, and like Schultz she was deeply involved in Clinton’s 2008 campaign. Under the esoteric rules of the Iowa Democratic caucuses, and after a string of lucky coin tosses, Clinton eked out a 700.52 to 696.86 margin, not in votes cast but in a mysterious commodity known as "delegate equivalents."
We’re electing a president, not the senior warden of a Mason’s lodge. All evidence indicates Sanders won the popular vote. It isn’t a minor point. If the public knew he won the only vote anybody understands or cares about, Clinton wouldn’t be “breathing a sigh of relief,” she’d be hyperventilating. McGuire refuses to release vote totals. She says keeping them a secret is an Iowa tradition. So what if it is? As with debates, the stakes transcend the candidates’ interests. In an editorial headlined "Something Smells in the Democratic Party," the Des Moines Register, which endorsed Clinton prior to the caucuses, wrote:
What happened Monday night at the Democratic caucuses was a debacle, period… the refusal to undergo scrutiny or allow for an appeal reeks of autocracy.
Given that this entire election is a mass insurrection against a rigged system, one would think the national political press would share the Register’s concern, but it moved on to the next race with barely a backward glance. Throughout the campaign the press has been nearly as big an obstacle for Sanders as the party. Even jaded political junkies were startled when the Tyndall Report exposed the media blackout of Sanders. In 2015, ABC News devoted 261 minutes to the 2016 campaign. Donald Trump got 81 minutes. Bernie Sanders got 20 seconds. Nearly as harmful is the dismissive tone of the cable commentariat, and I don’t mean just Fox News.
CNN has larded up "the best political team on television" with partisans, including Bush acolyte Ana Navarro and Trump minion Jeffrey Lord. On the Democratic side, Paul Begala advises a Clinton super PAC; David Axelrod was Obama’s guru; Donna Brazile a DNC chair; Van Jones an Obama staffer; David Gergen a Clinton adviser. All are bright, honorable people, but it’s hard to report on a peasant revolt from inside the castle. (The network just added Sanders sympathizer Bill Press to the mix, but it’s far too little and too late.)
Things aren’t all that different over at MSNBC though to its credit it lets reporters do more of its analysis. One might expect its younger on-air personalities to be in sync with Sanders but our younger political journalists aren’t like our younger voters, being more attuned to the centrist politics of Clinton and Obama than to the reformist zeal now reshaping and reenergizing the Democrat left. The whole press corps still treats politics as theater or sport. No one ever explains policy on a post-debate show. Must all talk be of the horse race? It’s a democracy, not an off-track betting parlor. We must all think less like political consultants and more like citizens, and journalists should lead the way.
That they don’t is a gift to Clinton. Sanders wants to talk about the fallen state of our politics, the fallen state of our middle class, and how the first fall caused the second. Clinton can’t have that discussion. Exposing her differences with Sanders on such topics would sink her. So she says she and he are alike in every way except she’s practical and electable—"a progressive who likes to get things done"--and he’s a hopeless dreamer. It’s the kind of argument political reporters were born to buy, and despite being full of holes, it works even among some non-journalists.
The electability argument is all about money and polls, ground games and firewalls, though you hear less about money lately. Clinton’s campaign muddied the message of its launch by leaking a plan to raise $300 million for an "independent" super PAC. This was to be the year of the super PAC but it’s proving instead that even in politics, money isn’t everything. Among Republicans, Jeb Bush raised the most money, Trump the least. Trump rides high. Bush is on a respirator. As you may have heard, Bernie doesn’t have a super PAC. Backed by a record breaking 1.3 million small donors, he slashed 40 points off Clinton’s lead and rewrote the rules of presidential politics.
You hear even less about polls; or general election polls at least. What makes the media blackout of Sanders an even greater travesty is that it was imposed over a period of many months in which he led all 21 other candidates in both parties in nearly every general election poll. When a self-described socialist leads every poll, something historic is happening. Even horse-race reporters should have seen that a story so big, so confounding of conventional wisdom, demanded in depth coverage, but unless you read Salon or Rolling Stone, such coverage was hard to find.
In Thursday’s MSNBC debate, Rachel Maddow, having raised the specters of George McGovern and Barry Goldwater, briefly acknowledged Sanders’ general election lead (“I know you have good head to head polling numbers… right now”) before asking, “but do you have a general election strategy?” Sanders might have referred all Goldwater questions to Hillary, who after all worked on Barry’s famed '64 race, or asked Maddow why the guy leading every general election poll would need a new general election strategy, but he did neither.
There is no Clinton firewall. At most, 10 states are out of Sanders’ reach and public opinion is never static. Nor does she have a better "ground game." Real grass-roots organizations like the Working Families Party, MoveOn.org and Democracy for America let members guide endorsements. (Sanders’ support in each of those groups was at or above 85 percent) Such groups are building the movement Sanders speaks of in every speech. Building a movement is like wiring a house for electricity. You can buy the most expensive lamps in the store but with no electricity, when you hit the switch the lights don’t go on. It takes real conviction to fuel grass-roots politics. In Iowa, Sanders ran 5 points ahead of late polls. It won’t be the last time it happens.
If you strip away all the nonsense about polls, money, firewalls and ground games, Clinton’s left with two arguments, neither one pretty. One is that Sanders is too far left. Pundits dismiss his polls by repeating her "wait till the Republicans get ahold of him" line. And they’ll say what? That he’s old? Jewish? A socialist? Everybody already knows and anyone who’d even think of voting Democratic is already down with it or soon could be. The "socialist" tag needs explaining, but so do "corrupt" and "fascist." Both parties’ frontrunners carry baggage. For my money, Bernie’s is the lightest. As for the notion that voters can’t see that paying $1,000 in taxes beats paying $5,000 in health insurance premiums, it is an insult to the American people.
The core of Clinton’s realpolitik brief pertains not to electability but to governance. Her point is that Sanders is naïve. She says none of his proposals can get though a Republican Congress. She strongly implies that he’d roll back Obamacare, a charge that is false, cynical and so nonsensical she’ll have to stop making it soon. She says she has a plan to get to universal health care—she doesn’t—and that she’ll do it by working “in partnership” with the insurance and pharmaceutical industries.
Who’s being naïve here? A Republican Congress won’t pass any of her ideas either. The only way to get real change is to elect Democrats to Congress and have a grass-roots movement strong enough to keep the heat on them. Nor will insurers cough up a dime of profit without a fight. Vowing to spare us a “contentious debate” over single-payer care she ignores the admonition of Frederick Douglass; “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.” There has been a lot of talk lately about what a progressive is. Here’s a hint: if you think Douglass is wrong, you might not be one.
Clinton’s last argument concerns loyalty. Throughout 2015 she sniped at Obama from the right while relegating Bill to the sidelines. Last month, seeing her lead slip away, she wrapped herself in political and family connections, as if hoping to gain the White House as a legacy admission. Analysts say Sanders drove her to the left. It’s partly but only superficially true. Lately he has driven her to the status quo, a bad place to be in 2016.
Democrats are deeply loyal to Barack Obama and Bill Clinton who didn’t so much reconcile their party’s conflicts as engross them within their protean personalities. Hillary accuses Sanders of disloyalty to them and to the modern party they held together. When Sanders suggested that some progressive groups might be part of the establishment, she ripped into him, denying there even is such a thing. There is, of course. Its main components were once grass-roots movements that traded independence for access and are now Washington lobbies with grass-roots mailing lists. They were better off when they played harder to get.
The absence of an independent, progressive movement left a vacuum that groups like The Working Families Party and MoveOn.org have begun to fill not a moment too soon. Clinton seeks to cast Sanders as the "other" by calling into question his loyalty to the establishment. It gets her nothing. Democrats will always be loyal to Bill and Barack, but know in their hearts it’s time to move on. The debate now is over what comes next.
It’s not a debate Hillary wants. She’s a superb debater, whip smart, well prepared and a world-class verbal gymnast. I’m guessing Sanders goes a little lighter on debate prep, making him less concrete and specific. I wish he engaged more directly. But his quiet dignity serves him, and us, well. He’s the anti-Trump, doing nearly as much to elevate public discourse as Trump does to debase it.
One way to sum up the case he’s trying to make might be as follows. In the 1990s a near bipartisan consensus celebrated a new age of globalization and information technology in which technology and trade spur growth that in turn fosters a broad and inclusive prosperity. Government’s job is to deregulate finance and trade and work with business in ‘public private partnerships’ for progress.
Twenty years on, Hillary still sees the world through the rose-colored glasses of that '90s consensus. Not Bernie. He sees that in 2016 rising tides don’t even lift most boats, that growth comes at a steep price when it comes at all, and that new technology cost more jobs than it creates. He understands that when jobs flow to countries with weak governments and low wages, the American middle class can’t get a raise. He sees that public-private partnership meant pay-to-play politics, and that the whole system runs not on innovation but corruption. My guess is the middle class sees what he sees and wants what he wants: a revolution. If he can continue to drive the debate, they may get one.