observations and opinion
Hillary Clinton may have “won” the Democratic Iowa Caucuses, but Bernie Sanders was the winner.
In January 2000, in the days before the New Hampshire primary, I decided to go see Senator John McCain. Back then, McCain was the smart, honest, shoot from the hip firebrand whose low budget candidacy was roiling the Republican nomination contest. All the money and establishment had lined up behind George W. Bush. McCain was a pain in their collective backsides.
Checking his schedule, I tracked McCain to the east coast town of Exeter. So I got in the car and, along the highway, came right up behind the Senator’s campaign bus. Following them into the town, when the bus pulled over, I pulled over. When the Senator and the press climbed out for a photo op, I trailed in with them into a tiny historical house.
Moments later, I was standing in a cramped room with the Senator and a crowd of reporters, looking at what may have been a copy of the New Hampshire constitution. Whatever it was, McCain was happy to be posing with it – this was an unlikely rocket ride to glory – and he was clearly well-liked by his press retinue. Shortly thereafter, the room cleared, they all climbed back on the bus and I went to a coffee shop.
Sixteen years later, it is hard not to think of Senator McCain when watching the progress of the current unlikely challenger, Senator Bernie Sanders. White haired Senators with years of experience, yet on the margins of their parties, McCain then and Sanders now offered hope to voters bored or uncomfortable with the anointed favourite (George W. Bush in 2000, Hillary R. Clinton today). Both spoke to an instinct for candor, guts and adventure. Both lost the Iowa Caucus but went on to success in New Hampshire (barring surprises, Bernie has the Granite State in his grasp). After that of course, McCain was ultimately destroyed in South Carolina – unfriendly ground for Sanders, a Jewish lefty from Vermont.
The Democrats’ current parallels with the 2000 GOP don’t stop with Bernie. There is of course, the consensus nominee herself, Ms. Clinton. They are very different people (Hillary is miles deeper and a million times brighter than Dubya, make no mistake, while Bush is more charming) but their circumstances are similar: literally heirs to an earlier President, with all of the big money and all of the party leadership, everywhere, lined up behind them. Their nominations were guaranteed, and yet….by drawing out unlikely challengers (McCain and Sanders, respectively) the two demonstrate a popular hunger for a different kind of politics: less programmatic, more frank, less formal, more populist.
John McCain was easy to like back in 2000 (he made it much harder to like him later), and it is easy to like Bernie Sanders now, although not for the same reasons. McCain was funny and snarky; Bernie can be fun, but let’s face it, he’s a very serious guy who has pounded the same policy drum for decades. Bernie is a true conviction candidate, whereas McCain was entirely about himself.
It is there that Sanders poses a danger to Hillary Clinton, that McCain never meant to George W. Bush. Senator McCain in 2000 was an admirable, brave war hero with a dark personality but a bracing persona. Being only about himself, McCain had only himself to offer. Bush was the same (“the Product” as I called him then) but he had the money and the muscle. That meant Bush could ride out the storm.
Senator Sanders, on the other hand, is manifestly not about himself: he is about an idea. Sanders is a serious man, passionately and consistently committed to enacting policies which strip away the grotesque advantages accumulated by the American ruling class. Bernie Sanders as a person, as an individual candidate, wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in the Iowa Caucuses, never mind be the prohibitive favourite in the New Hampshire primary. Bernie is an avatar for something much bigger than himself.
Hillary thinks she can co-opt that sentiment, by tacking left and calling herself “a progressive.” Her message is “to be a progressive, you have to be able to actually make progress” and convince Democrats that she is not only electable, but also able to do the hard work of governing. Unlike Bernie. Yes, that’s what every wise political brain would advise Secretary Clinton to do, and she’s doing it.
The problem is, Ms. Clinton is campaigning like it’s 1992 or 1996. She is triangulating her way through this, ala Dick Morris. It’s not the 1990s. It’s not even 2008. The heady days of “Yes We Can!” and “not red states, blue states, but united states” are far away and almost forgotten. This is 2016, a time when the vast majority of people, particularly on the left are (a) unsettled by the status quo, (b) fed up with gridlock and (c) very sceptical about known politicians. Sure, Democrats want to win, but they also don’t want to be disappointed.
Sanders, despite his alleged electability issues (all that “socialist” stuff) may actually be the more electable candidate, because his message resonates far more broadly and authentically, with more people. Right or left, many Americans believe the game is rigged and that some kind of revolution is called for. That’s why, weirdly enough, many are attracted to Donald Trump – he appears to stand outside the political mainstream which has so deeply disappointed so many Americans. It may be hard for committed Democrats or Republicans to believe, but many people who today say they’re behind Trump could shift to Sanders. People still like that “hopey, changey” stuff.
For all her many merits, Ms. Clinton is an echo of the past, a time that young people did not experience. She’s not a robot, but Hillary’s super-human discipline and fixation on being President really do mark her out as something not, quite, the same as everyone else. “Likeable enough” but not all that likeable. Everyone knows that Hillary will say or do what is necessary to get elected. Right now, she’s a progressive. Once Bernie is gone, that word will evaporate from her lexicon. Everyone knows it, and it may be the smart move. But in this Age of Authenticity, Clinton’s political inclinations and abilities may actually be disadvantages. Disadvantages she is unable to erase, because they’re in her DNA.
That doesn’t mean Clinton loses the nomination race. In all likelihood, only the FBI can take it away from her and in all likelihood, they won’t. Ms. Clinton is formidable in all respects, including in her innate competency. But she can’t play defense the whole game and win. If Clinton continues to say “sure, it would be nice to do what Bernie wants, but we can’t manage it” she will be telling people to surrender their hopes for a half loaf (or less). Up against a shiny Republican character like Marco Rubio (his third place finish in Iowa was the true victory on the GOP side), intensely motivated to take back the White House, that’s a losing proposition. Does a Democratic candidate really want to run for President on a message of forlorn resignation?
It is hard to believe that Yes We Can’t will win in November. One way or the other, the Democrats – especially if their nominee is Hillary Clinton – must offer something better than that.