Hillary's inevitability lie: Why the media and party elites are rushing to nominate the weakest candidate

For two years, media has swallowed and peddled the Clinton inevitability line. She's the one Dem even Trump beats

Published March 8, 2016 11:00AM (EST)

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders   (AP/Carolyn Kaster/Reuters/Jim Young/Photo montage by Salon)
Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders (AP/Carolyn Kaster/Reuters/Jim Young/Photo montage by Salon)

The nation may be divided but at least its pundits speak as one. They all say Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are killing the competition. Pundits love to issue death certificates. On Super Tuesday they sounded like the coroner of Munchkin Land. (He’s not only merely dead, but really most sincerely dead!)  They’re wrong. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich and especially Bernie Sanders are all alive and kicking. It ain’t over yet; not by a long shot.

If Clinton and Trump win their conventions, it’ll be the first time both parties nominated their weakest candidate. Trump is the one Republican almost any Democrat can beat; Hillary the one Democrat Trump can beat. The response of the party establishments is instructive. Republicans engage in a mad scramble to stop Trump while Democrats do all they can to help Hillary seal the deal.

Fear of Trump unites Republican elites as nothing but hatred for Obama ever did; Senate leadership with House rank and file; libertarians with militarists and supply siders; the Kochs with Karl Rove. A few of the phonier evangelicals defected to Trump but most, like the pope, know a fake Christian when they see one. All the factions now join the RNC, Fox News and every corporate lobbyist in town in a late, frantic effort to turn the tide. On Tuesday, Trump routed them all.

Democratic elites are just as united in opposing Bernie Sanders: members of Congress, gay and abortion rights lobbies, African-American leaders, most of labor and many of the same corporate lobbyists battling Trump. Sanders is a reformer and an honest, decent man. Trump is a louche, lying fascist with the impulse control of a hyperactive four-year-old. Yet Trump, not Sanders, is laying waste his party. Are Democrats simply more skilled in the art of suppression? If so, who knew?

But things aren’t as they seem. Sanders is doing better and Trump worse than the media thinks. Each race will now shift; whether enough to stop Clinton or Trump depends on strategy, execution, luck and other things impossible to poll. Elites may hold on for one last round but these insurgencies threaten their long term survival. Since their survival threatens ours, that’s great news.

Clinton owes some of her early success to the frontloading of Southern states. Super Tuesday is a scheme hatched in the '80s by a bunch of white, male, mostly Southern Democrats who thought a regional primary would help "centrists" like themselves get a leg up on liberals. But they forgot, not for the first or last time, about African-Americans, lots of whom live in the South and vote Democratic. In '88, Jessie Jackson and Al Gore split the region, thus allowing Northern social liberal Mike Dukakis to slip through the net.

This year Super Tuesday finally worked as planned; hindering a progressive, aiding an insider. There was a twist: African-Americans who now dominate the party in the South made it work. I doubt they prefer Clinton’s neoliberalism to Sanders’ democratic socialism. The win owed more to loyalty to Obama and other trusted leaders, and to Hillary’s skills and connections. By Saturday, eight of the 11 states of the old Confederacy had voted. In them she won 68 percent of the vote. Ten of 39 states outside the South had voted. In those states Sanders took 57 percent of the vote. On March 15, the Confederacy will be all done voting. The race begins then.

Clinton owes even more of her success to a party establishment she says doesn’t exist.  Democrats send 717 superdelegates to their convention; that's a third of the number needed to nominate. She has most of them. (Republican superdelegates are bound by popular votes because their base rose up and demanded it.) DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz slashed debates from 26 to six just to deny Sanders the airtime. Sanders surely won the popular vote in Iowa and maybe Nevada, but their state parties won’t release results. Sanders undercut the Des Moines Register’s demand to see the raw vote, saying it didn’t matter given the close delegate count. Trump, who brags incessantly on polls, has a deeper insight into the power of the bandwagon effect.

The election’s best news thus far is the evidence it offers that a campaign funded by small donors that stays true to its principles can beat big money. But we don’t know how much dark and super PAC money Clinton commands, or its impact on the race. Here’s hoping the next time she says Wall Street is spending money to defeat her, Bernie points out that it probably spends as much to elect her and that the whole reason he’s running is to make it harder for Wall Street to cover its bets.

Clinton began the race for the nomination 40 points up. Yet all these advantages -- money, superdelegates, calendar, shutting down debates and withholding election results — couldn’t save her. She needed yet more help and got it from liberal lobbies that are all that remains of the great grass-roots movements that once drove all our social progress. Most are led not by grass-roots leaders but by technicians who seek money, access and career advancement and rely on the same consultants advising Clinton, Obama and a long list of corporate clients.

It is no shock to see every GOP faction unite against Trump. He is plainly not a neoconservative, a libertarian, a free trader or even a Christian. Unencumbered by conscience or conviction, he is free to don any disguise he deems useful. Some in his party oppose him out of principle; others because they think he can’t win. But if he had the demeanor of an Anglican bishop and led every general election poll, many would still fight him, because his victory would mean their ultimate defeat.

Progressive groups who united against Bernie have a lot more explaining to do. There was a time when many progressives observed an unwritten law against wading into primaries against friends, even for a candidate who was better on their issues, let alone for one who was palpably worse. On choice Clinton may claim more personal involvement than Sanders but on every other progressive issue, including civil rights and gay rights, Bernie beats her by a mile.

On core labor issues like global trade and a living wage, he is steadfast while she is anything but. Still, unions representing 70percent  of all members backed her, often without members’ consent. Nevada’s culinary union told its members it would stay out, but leaders worked casinos hard, enabling Clinton to eke out the appearance of victory. Given Massachusetts’ liberal reputation, big student population and proximity to Vermont, Sanders needed a win. But labor poured it on. Without its help, Clinton’s 1.3 percent margin of victory would have been impossible.

Some who helped engineer Clinton endorsements did so for institutional access or personal gain. I like to think more did it because she looked like a winner. It would be good for all progressives if these leaders would reflect on where they get their political advice and how all their access really helps their causes.

We once left tactical thinking to politicians. Then issue advocates began hiring pollsters. Now voters are getting into the act. The effect is to turn the marketplace of ideas into a casino. It’s hard enough figuring out if a candidate represents your values without having to speculate about his appeal to others. You don’t go to a store to buy what you think someone else wants, yet primary voters do. One reason for all the tactical thinking is the paralysis of government; if you think nothing will get done, you focus less on policy. Polarization’s another; if you hate their party more than you love yours, what matters is picking a winner. The biggest culprit is the media.

Following politics on TV you learn nothing beyond the horse race. Pundits specialize in predicting the recent past. No poll can tell you what folks will say when they finally absorb the fact that one candidate is under criminal investigation or that 5,000 people are suing another for fraud, or that climate change will wipe out the east and west coasts of the United States within their children’s lifetimes.

Networks bring on experts angling for political jobs to say we’re the only country on earth that can’t have universal health care but don’t bother to explain Hillary’s or Bernie’s actual plans. Donald Trump’s resume is a hoax, but to find out about Trump University or the Trump Shuttle you have to wait eight months for Marco Rubio to mention it in a debate. Imagine what Upton Sinclair or Ida Tarbell would say to see such a sorry spectacle as this.

Clinton’s whole case is tactical. Sanders volunteers say every swing voter asks now about electability or if Congress would pass Bernie’s program. In the last CNN poll his favorability rating is higher than hers among Democrats. (She's at 78% favorable to 19% unfavorable; he's at 85% to 10%)  Democrats prefer his policies to hers by wide margins, forcing her to pretend to adopt his. She benefits from kindly MSNBC anchors and apparatchiks posing as analysts on CNN -- but what helps her most is every network’s obsession with tactics. The moment the race turns into a referendum on policy choices, she’s finished.

For two years the media has swallowed and peddled the Clinton inevitability line. For two weeks it has said Trump’s nomination is inevitable; this after eight months of saying it was impossible. It is so clueless on both counts because it is so much a part of the system that is under attack and because it relies so heavily on its useless tools and discredited methods. It’s hard to predict the future, it being chock full of stuff that hasn’t happened yet. Even if they get it right, they add nothing of value.

To see the race as it really is one must see the Democratic and Republicans parties as they really are. The story going round is that they’re far apart. It’s true of cultural issues: guns; same-sex marriage; abortion; immigration. But on matters of the distribution of political and economic power and opportunity they are as close as can be. By these I mean: global trade, fiscal austerity, deregulation, information technology; use of military force and most of all what they fight hardest to defend: pay to play politics. It is against this bipartisan consensus of pay to play politics and neoliberal economics that the country, including large chunks of each party’s base, now rises up. This is nearly as true of Trump’s fascist putsch as it is of Bernie’s progressive revolution.

Voters want political reform and economic justice. They know that without reform they’ll never get justice. Bernie Sanders is the only candidate who shares that opinion. The election is part of a broader revolt against a failed status quo. Clinton is an architect of that status quo; Trump, a big beneficiary. So she hides her transcripts and he hides his tax returns. Bernie is an open book. It’s why he has the highest favorability rating of any candidate in the race and Clinton has the lowest of any presidential candidate in the history of polling, except for Trump.

Trump and Clinton struggle to co-opt Bernie’s message; Trump even adopts his positions. (A fascist can do what he likes so long as he is racist, xenophobic and authoritarian.) Trump hates pay-to-play politics; or as he frames it, the venality of his opponents. He hates the Iraq War, the Libya strike, the Syria no fly zone, NAFTA and the TPP. He hates Obama’s deals with insurers and drug companies and any cut in Social Security or Medicare. In a debate with Hillary he’d own these priceless treasures. Some would say he stole them, but he can’t steal what she gives away.

It’s a debate we never have to see. Trump is a total fraud and a ticking time bomb.  Clinton helped build the system voters want to tear down. Her candidacy rests on the rickety edifice of a dying political establishment that, like Trump, could blow at any time. This is Bernie’s revolution, not Clinton's or Trump’s. If it’s anyone’s moment, it’s his not theirs. It ain’t over till it’s over.

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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