We must smash the Clinton machine: Democratic elites and the media sold out to Hillary this time, but change is coming

Neoliberals, D.C. careerists and the pundits lined up this time. They won't be able to rig contests moving forward

Published March 29, 2016 8:55PM (EDT)

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders   (Reuters/Brian Snyder/Photo montage by Salon)
Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders (Reuters/Brian Snyder/Photo montage by Salon)

The Democratic establishment is putting all the heat it can on Bernie Sanders to drop his weapons and put his hands where we can see them. This includes the media establishment. Last Monday Politico ran a piece headlined "Democrats to Sanders: Time to wind it down," quoting a bunch of senators who said Bernie could stay in so long as he talks just about stuff he and Hillary agree on. (Claire McCaskill: “If the contrast is about what separates us from Donald Trump, then I think it’s fine.”) If they can’t end the race, they’ll settle for ending the debate.

A Times story headlined "Obama Privately Tells Donors Time Is Coming to Unite Behind Hillary" had Obama telling DNC high rollers to “come together.” In it Obama “didn’t explicitly call on Sanders to quit” but a “White House official” confirmed his “unusually candid” words. It was a plant dressed up as a scoop. Obama spoke not privately but on background, and not to his donors but through them (and the paper) to his base. It was a different portrait of Obama as unifier: political, financial and media elites, all working as one to put down a revolt.

Obama’s neutrality is a polite scam. His "private" chat came before voters in 29 states even had their say. Presidents never let appointees make endorsements, but three Obama cabinet secretaries -- Agriculture’s Tom Vilsack, HUD’s Julian Castro and Labor’s Thomas Perez -- backed Clinton early, thus shepherding whole economic sectors into her camp. At Obama’s DNC, ethically challenged Debbie Wasserman Schultz brazenly violates party rules by daily rigging the game for Clinton.

Sanders often says he took on “the most powerful political machine in America,” by which he means the Clintons. He’s really fighting the whole Democratic Party: White House, Congress, DNC, elite media and, sad to say, national progressive groups. That includes organized labor but also nearly every liberal lobby in town. He’s been a more constant friend than Hillary Clinton to almost all of them -- but he must face and defeat them all. That he’s done so in 14 states — 15 counting Iowa-and fought four more to a draw is a miracle -- and a sign their days are truly numbered.

Donald Trump has accomplished little by comparison. Everything was easier for him. When he hit party elites, no one hit back. Democratic elites had a flawed but still formidable Clinton to carry their water. Republicans had Jeb Bush, and now Ted Cruz. Trump took the low road and then lowered it some more, yet could help himself to issues of broad populist appeal without an establishment type feigning agreement. The media that ignored or dismissed Sanders coddled and appeased Trump. Eight years of open GOP warfare prepared Trump’s way. Bernie’s in the first wave to hit the Democratic beach.

With each call to surrender, Sanders just gets stronger. The day the Politico story ran, he swept Democrats Abroad 69 percent to 30 percent. The next day Hillary took Arizona with 58 percent of the vote but Sanders blew her out in Idaho and Utah, polling an unheard-of 79 percent in caucuses that shattered turnout records. On Saturday he’d chalked up three more wins in Alaska, Hawaii and Washington with average margins of 76 perfent. In a Times/CBS poll out this week the man who started the race 60 points down closed the gap to five. In a Bloomberg poll released Saturday he took a 1 point lead.

It raises a question that the elites who rig rules, stifle debate and call on Sanders to withdraw must answer: Who do you think you are? It also raises a question for Washington-based organizations allegedly safeguarding progressive values: What have you done? With all her money, contacts and celebrity and full, albeit covert support of her president and party, Clinton needed every last liberal endorsement to survive Iowa, Nevada, Missouri, Illinois and Massachusetts. How did she get them? If those endorsements don’t strike you as at least counterintuitive, ponder the record:

Clinton backed NAFTA and the TPP, dithered on the minimum wage and still doesn’t support a living wage. Why would labor help her defeat a man who never once left its side on these and countless other vital issues?

She backed the Defense of Marriage Act in the '90s, opposed same-sex marriage till 2013 and recently recalled Nancy Reagan as a hero of the AIDS crisis. The Human Rights Campaign may be the bravest and most loyal of all liberal lobbies. Why abandon a stalwart ally like Sanders for one who dithered and dodged on every tough issue?

From Sister Souljah in 1992 to Barack Obama in 2008, the Clinton record on racial politics is highly mixed. She backed the Clinton/Gingrich welfare bill that left millions of African Americans in poverty and the Clinton crime bill that landed millions more in jail. Why did a PAC run in the name of the Congressional Black Caucus pick her over a guy who went to jail to protest segregated housing?

The answers are many and complicated. One is that some once great, grass roots movements pledged their troth to a political party and lost touch with their values and their members. Led by hired technicians and assorted other Washington lifers, many froze members out of their decisions. It’s a big part of the story but not the whole story. Another part pertains to ideology and the tyranny of tactical thinking.

Ideology is easy to spot in those we deem extremist; it's harder to see in those we deem "centrist."  All ideologues think their ideology is empirical -- Engels called his "scientific socialism" — but centrists get away with it. We call their shared ideology "neoliberalism." Its adherents include deficit hawks, military interventionists, market deregulators, free traders and, the key to it all, pay-to-play politicians.

This ideology is bipartisan. Without the full support of Democratic elites, NAFTA, the TPP, the Iraq war, Wall Street deregulation, every revolving door and no bid contract, every cut ever made to Social Security or Medicare, would be impossible. The culture wars we so loudly deplore are mostly a sideshow staged by political elites to hold onto their base while conducting their business. This election exposes the real divide in American politics, the one separating us from them.

Neoliberal politics is entirely tactical and tactical thinking is static. Most people oppose Wall Street crooks, Mideast ground wars and cuts to Social Security so they talk endlessly about what the Congress they’ve corrupted won’t pass and what other voters allegedly won’t support. Neoliberals love horse-race politics because it never favors reform. Polls favor known quantities. Endorsements go to people in power; money to those willing to reward the investment. Tacticians rely on marketing tools made to manipulate, not illuminate.

Since global finance capitalism runs on pay to play politics, neoliberals promise "change" but can never deliver reform. They can’t talk us out of wanting a living wage or universal health care so they argue tactics: change is impossible because someone else doesn’t want it; we can’t afford it, even though it saves us money.

The tyranny of tactical thinking surely led some progressives to Clinton despite knowing she’d likely let them down again. It even infects the minds of voters. In hopes of catching a Democratic ear or two, I’ll illustrate the point using polls.

Eight month ago Bernie was a stranger to Democrats. In a recent CNN poll his popularity among them surpassed Clinton’s. (85 percent /10 percent versus 76/19). The Times poll shows the gap widening. In it, 56 percent of Dems say if he’s the nominee they’ll support him “enthusiastically.” Just 40 percent say the same of her. On issues his lead is far greater; that's why she mimics him rather than the other way around.

Yet this is the same poll in which she beats him by 5 percent. Some Democrats who prefer him vote for her. I put it down to tactical thinking. In that same poll 72 percent of Democrats say regardless of how they feel she’ll be the nominee. Seventy-eight percent say her ideas are "realistic"; 56 percnt say his are. The case she makes is purely tactical; she can win; she can pass her program; she has more delegates. They’d be reasonable arguments if they were true, but all evidence says they aren’t. That so many smart people buy into them only proves my point: ideology makes you stupid.

Like all ideologues, neoliberals see themselves as fact driven free thinkers. Last fall polls started showing Bernie beating Republicans who beat Hillary. Clintonites said early polls mean nothing. In their best ‘pay no attention to the man behind the curtain’ voices, neoliberal pundits treated this baseless assertion like a law of physics. It’s not. We take early polls with big grains of salt but Clinton and Trump were very well known with high, hard negatives. That’s different.

Six months later he still beats her in every general election poll; her people still dismisses the polls. She says Republicans haven’t attacked him yet, but she sure has. The result: people like her less and him more. She says wait till voters find out he’s a socialist. They did and guess what: socialism got more popular. If they find out how honest and frugal his brand of socialism is they’ll like it even more.

Pundits tout Clinton’s foreign policy cred. As Secretary of State she no doubt took copious notes but she’s wrong on every issue she and Sanders dispute. She says her Iraq war vote was a long time ago and anyway she apologized but her theory of the case resembles Jeb Bush’s. (She blames W. Jeb blames the staff) As Secretary she applied her Iraq War logic to Libya and Syria. She promoted fracking, bugged the office of the U.N. Secretary General and meddled illegally in a Honduran coup. At what point is her experience cancelled out by her inability to learn from it?  And does Bernie ever get credit for being right?

She has vast political experience but may be the most gaffe-prone major candidate ever to run for president. Bernie on the other hand rarely misspeaks. Pundits who prize "message discipline" seem not to notice. They used to say independent voters decide elections, but independents abhor Hillary and adore Bernie so they say it less now. Hillary ranks worst of all the candidates on honesty and Bernie best.  He has the highest favorability rating of any candidate in the race. Save for Trump, she has the lowest of any major candidate in the history of polling. To fact driven, free thinking neoliberals none of it matters. Facts that contradict ideology never do.

Clintonites say Bernie should quit so she can focus on Trump. But Trump’s no more inevitable than Clinton. If he gets croaked in Cleveland, does anyone believe she has a better shot than Bernie of bringing some of his followers back into the Democratic fold? In any case it’s not Bernie but her response to him that kills her. Coming out against the TPP or the banks would help if she seemed at all sincere. Her clumsy smears—Bernie wants to repeal Medicare, Bernie opposed the auto bailout, Bernie loves the Minutemen etc., etc.—serve only to fuel doubts about her character. Her shameless surrogates accuse him of partisan disloyalty.  Could voters care less? Bernie won’t quit but even if he did it wouldn’t fix what ails her.

Both Clinton and Trump argue their inevitability. It’s an illusion propped up by rules meant to stifle dissent. (Superdelegates in her case, winner-take-all in his) She’d be the weakest candidate Democrats have nominated in half a century or more. He’d be the worst ever nominated by either party. Neither will finish strong. Both may crumble. Each will then say early wins in a rigged system entitle them to nominations. Will either party have the wisdom to say no?

Current rules of both parties are undemocratic All conventions are free to adopt their own rules. Victory may well go to whichever one has the courage to change. Hillary Clinton’s closing argument, other than her inevitability, is the impossibility of the middle class getting what it wants: a living wage, single payer health care, an end to pay-to-play politics. One thing’s for sure; we’ll never get them without new leader and new rules.

The range of possible outcomes includes a Clinton/Trump race but also a Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz or John Kasich-led ticket coming out of Cleveland 10 points ahead of Hillary Clinton or 5 points behind Bernie Sanders. It also includes a Sanders/Trump race in which Bernie beats Trump by more than FDR beat Alf Landon. It only sounds crazy if you’re wearing neoliberal blinders. Two polls in the last five days (Bloomberg and CNN) say that’s exactly what would happen.

For this to happen, lots of other stuff has to happen first. Republicans have to flinch and nominate Trump. Bernie has to pick all the low hanging fruit that’s left and win a couple of tougher races. The Democrats have to unstack the deck. I have a suggestion. Start with the superdelegates.

For a solid year the Democratic National Committee has broken its own rules. As Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard noted in resigning as a DNC vice chair to back Bernie, officers may not back candidates until a nominee emerges. Schultz and other Clintonites mock the rule. In slashing debates from 26 in 2008 to six in 2016 and repealing a ban on federal contractor donations, Schultz, a payday loan industry ally, acted with zero due process; no notice, minutes, meeting or vote. DNC members said not a word. 435 of them, all unelected, are superdelegates. They had no business voting to begin with. All their votes should be allotted to candidates in proportion to their performance in each state.

Bernie Sanders must stay in the race not only till the convention but till the end of whatever ballot nominates him or Hillary Clinton. He must do so because he and not she would make the stronger candidate and the better president. Regardless of how the next primaries, he should do it because his campaign isn’t just a revolution, it’s a movement that must outlast this election and many more to come. Blinded by ideology and self-interest, party elites say everything we want is impossible. The people in the movement know if we keep eyes on the prize we can do great things, even a thing as great as electing Bernie Sanders president.

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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