Donald Trump has made this election, like everything else, about Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton, happily skewering him as he blows up his campaign with ruinous attacks on fellow Republicans and myriad others, has zero problems with this. But critics on the left do, because by playing it safe Clinton is sending troubling if unsurprising signals about the agenda she will set as president, and also missing a historic opportunity to crush the Republican Party in a moment of acute vulnerability. Instead of aggressively making the case that Trump represents the worst of Republican greed and bigotry, she is inviting their leaders and donors to join her campaign en masse.
“He's taken the Republican Party a long way from ‘Morning in America’ to ‘Midnight in America,’” Clinton warned in her convention speech, praising Ronald Reagan. She went on to peddle the class equivalent of “All Lives Matter,” pledging to “be a President for Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. For the struggling, the striving the successful. For all those who vote for me and for those who don't. For all Americans together!”
It shouldn’t be a radical proposition to say that Henry Kissinger, Meg Whitman, Mark Cuban, Robert Kagan and Michael Bloomberg have no place in any political program seeking to make the United States a better place. But yesterday, the campaign launched Together for America to coordinate a mounting outreach effort to the very frightened legislators, national security hawks and rich people who have made this things so horrible for so many here and around the world. It’s a country-first campaign conveyed through a stunning display of elite unity, pining for the lost days of Washington consensus politics instead of putting forward a substantive transformational agenda.
The strategy, as Carl Beijer writes, poses a more immediate electoral risk as well. Trump’s historic weakness as a candidate, he writes, “should create an extraordinary opportunity for the American liberal-left. As the standard-bearer for the Democratic party, Clinton is in a position to press this advantage against her political opposition and make them pay as high a price as possible for nominating such an unpopular candidate.”
That, of course, is not what’s happening. DNC Communications Director Luis Miranda complained that the Clinton campaign has requested that they not tie Trump to down-ballot Republicans, according to a Wikileaked email attributed to him and dated May 16. Instead, of holding candidates responsible for nominating a monster that reflects the party’s worst, the campaign wanted to celebrate the fleeing Republicans and distinguish Trump as abnormal.
The Clinton campaign, Miranda charged, would force the DNC “to throw out our entire frame that the GOP made Trump through years of divisive and ugly politics. We would have to say that Republicans are reasonable and that the good ones will shun Trump.”
Clinton’s bid to forge an anti-Trump consensus is a reincarnation of what Sarah Palin dubbed “that hopey-changey stuff”: Obama’s rapturous promise that his charisma and the basic goodness of American people could transcend partisan rancor. Clinton, like Obama but minus the charisma, is running not so much as a Democrat but as a bipartisan tribune of democracy—this time against what’s perceived to be an unprecedented threat of authoritarianism and chaos. She’s running not against the billionaire class, as Bernie Sanders did, but against one outrageous individual who purports to be a billionaire. It’s a negative campaign but a bad one: instead of demonizing the Republican Party agenda, with its fealty to corporate America and scapegoating of racial, religious and sexual minorities, it attacks that party’s apotheosis, Donald Trump as an aberration who must be defeated for the sake of protecting democracy.
Obama set the tone at the convention, praising Ronald Reagan as an icon who Trump has defiled, and declaring that “America is already great.”
Positive economic indicators notwithstanding, this is tone deaf given the state of economic misery and xenophobic anger coursing through both parties this year. Obama, however, does know from his own experience that this message has beat out Republican intransigence at the ballot box—at least for the presidency. In 2008, Obama delivered the warm, therapeutic salve that many voters wanted after Bush. It has not, however, been much of a success down ballot: Democrats lost control of Congress and a huge number of state-level offices. This is in part thanks to Republican redistricting designs, and the non-proportional manner in which the country draws congressional and statehouse districts: more Americans voted for House Democrats in 2012 than Republicans yet Republicans nonetheless won a solid majority.
But Obama can still be faulted for not not broadly attacking the Republican agenda and for failing to articulate a coherent and transformational alternative. Democrats trotted out piecemeal reforms—and the disastrous capitulation of a proposed Social Security cut—to confront an expansive conservative blueprint drawn from religious and economic ideologues. Reaching their hand across the aisle, they were met time and again with the cold shoulder. After the 2010 Tea Party wave ushered in an overwhelmingly right-wing Congress it’s hard to know what Obama was thinking.
There is, of course, a Clintonian path to bipartisan cooperation, as is evidenced by some its key accomplishments in recent decades: NAFTA, financial deregulation and the Iraq War. Her current recruitment of disaffected Republicans is supposed to be pragmatic. In reality, it is the source of the very sort of policy disasters that have fomented the rise of Trump on the right and Sanders on the left.
“We are actually seeing a class solidarity of Washington careerists, policy wonks, the national security state and the media,” Olivier Jutel writes. “This open solidarity of the experts and elite is precisely what animates the fascist imaginary of the puppet masters undermining the American people’s natural order.”
There is a counterargument to be made: It’s possible that Clinton will best aid down-ticket candidates by driving up her margins by any means necessary. But this year, the strategy seems unwise: though ticket-splitting has withered in recent years, it is precisely what Republican down-ballot candidates are counting on for their salvation. And so far, most Republican incumbents are outperforming Trump in polls. Why toss Republican incumbents in Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Florida a lifeline?
What excited many people about Sanders campaign was that he articulated a big picture vision of what the United States should be like. This frustrated pundits to no end. But what Sanders understood is that successful negotiations are impossible without a clear idea of what one wants to achieve in the ideal. At present, the Clinton campaign is dreaming small and peddling in nightmares. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if Clinton ends up being a better president than I worry she will be, at least on the domestic side. The mass investments in infrastructure and free (if limited) public university tuition she supports would be huge. But promoting elite consensus politics, under the depoliticized guise of national unity, risks handing Clinton a mandate empty of anything substantive aside from “never Trump.”
Sanders would no doubt have approached a general election matchup with Trump rather differently, emphasizing not only his profound lack of human decency but also pillorying him as the cartoonish icon of avarice and hate that the Republican Party so richly deserves. You can imagine what Sanders would have told Whitman and Bloomberg to do with their money. Hell, the money never would have been offered. But Sanders lost. Clinton is now the candidate she was destined to become. Will it nudge up her margin of victory? Maybe. Will it deliver the political moment necessary for a transformative presidency? Unlikely. Clinton, with such a good chance of beating Trump, is highlighting the very limits of Clintonism by pulling her punches against conservatism.