How Bernie Sanders Lost Me … and Hillary Clinton Won Me Over
by Laura Clawson –
The first presidential election I voted in was in 1996. I voted for a third-party candidate—I don’t remember more than that it was the one with “socialist” in the party name—because after welfare reform, I was not voting for Bill Clinton. The first time I voted for a Democrat in a presidential election was John Kerry in 2004—I had voted against him in the 2002 Massachusetts Senate election, voting for write-in candidate Randall Forsberg in protest over Iraq.
I’m not a natural Hillary Clinton supporter, is what I’m saying. When she looked like the only meaningful Democratic candidate in the 2016 presidential election, I was fine with that, committed to a Democratic win but also committed to the work of pushing from her left whenever and wherever possible. When Bernie Sanders got into the race, I was pleased to be able to support a candidate on Clinton’s left. I gave him a little money and assumed I’d give him more.
Then he lost me. Not all at once, but, by now, thoroughly. And along the way, Clinton impressed me more than she ever had.
Economic inequality is at the top of the list of issues I care about. I basically spend my life trying to work it into discussions of every other issue, because I usually think it belongs there. I had a lot of training on that front: When I once described having fled a shoe store after two salespeople began arguing, in front of me, over which of them had approached me first and should get my business, my father said “that’s what decades of stagnating wages will get you.” So a presidential candidate who wanted to talk seriously about inequality? Great!
Except … somehow Sanders has lost me on even that. I simultaneously want a more serious and nuanced class analysis—something deeper than the talking points, more flexibly targeted to specific questions rather than broad strokes—and more willingness to depart from the talking points, to acknowledge that sometimes you really can’t turn a question to your subject of choice. When the time is right to talk about inequality, try to fit the statistics to the moment. When the time is wrong, at least pretend to notice. Clearly Sanders’ talking points are working for lots of people, and I don’t doubt his commitment on these issues, but the repetition has failed to give me anything new or interesting to hang onto. And beyond inequality, the repetition is a problem with how he talks about—or avoids talking about—other major issues, which he so often dismisses. A president has to be willing to take on issues they don’t necessarily care the most about, able to become an expert on anything, able to pivot and start to care. I need more than “trust me,” and I don’t see Sanders failing to give me that, I see him refusing to do so. That’s not confidence-inspiring.
Sanders’ healthcare plan is also not confidence-inspiring. I’m not talking here about political possibilities of passing it under this Congress. It will be difficult-to-impossible to pass anything under a Republican Congress, but Democrats have to talk about what they want to do, anyway. I’m talking about the policy and the way it’s been sold. I think the first time I questioned Sanders’ honesty—one of the bedrocks of his campaign, of his entire political persona—was because his Medicare for All plan encourages voters to believe that there would be zero trade-offs, that somehow Medicare for All would provide more coverage than the Medicare we have now, that this single-payer plan would cover more than any other nation’s single-payer plan.
The reality is that we might not be fighting with insurance companies over what care would be covered, but we’d be fighting with the government if we wanted care that wasn’t covered. We wouldn’t just be strolling into doctors’ offices listing off what we wanted. There would be guidelines and limitations. Now, fighting with the government over whether care was medically necessary might well be better than fighting with an insurance company trying to protect its profits. At least the fight would be on the merits of the care. And a single-payer system in which we all had the same limits would be a massive improvement in equality over a system in which too many people still can’t afford to go to the doctor, while many other people increase waste in the system by getting more care than they need at higher prices than are reasonable just because they have good insurance. There should be limits on the care we get, and I fault Sanders for not saying so. In the end, I’m uncomfortable with a candidate and campaign that is so far from honest about what one of its biggest policy proposals would entail. Again, screw the politics—the policy is a false campaign promise. A big one, made under cover of enormous self-righteousness.
But about the politics of Sanders’ policy proposals. I believe in social movements as outside forces exerting force on political parties. The parties want to win, the movements have to create that self-interest, make the policies the path to victory. And I’ve long been frustrated by people who want the Democratic Party to be their social movement, or who think that strategy equals ideology. The Sanders campaign has become the latest embodiment of those frustrations. How will Sanders win not just the presidency but the ability to get a big agenda through Congress? The people will rise up. Except Bernie Sanders is not organizing the people to rise up. He’s running a fairly conventional presidential campaign. Sanders is a long-time member of Congress who has yet to create the kind of movement he’s now suggesting will simply rise up despite the absence of the kind of organizing effort that would take. This will be difficult, and he’s not fully owning that or explaining how we’ll get through the challenges, especially given below-2008 Democratic turnout in Iowa and New Hampshire. It’s a set of promises resting on a fundamental misdiagnosis of how movements and organizing work, and I don’t know whether Sanders believes his line or is selling a line, let alone which would be more damning.
The problem is, as Al Gore or John Kerry can tell you, once you start seeing a politician in a certain light, you start seeing it more and more. Things that would have been insignificant start to loom large. So once I’d first questioned Bernie Sanders’ honesty, I started seeing a lot more reasons to question it. What could be called little stuff—the campaign’s response to the NGPVAN data breach, the repeated strong implications that Sanders had endorsements he doesn’t have, the staffers posing as Culinary Union members—seems bigger than it might in isolation. But even in isolation, that’s quite a pattern of, at rock-bottom minimum, the kind of campaigning the authentic and honorable Bernie Sanders is supposed to stand against. Of course he didn’t make those decisions himself, but he hired Jeff Weaver and Jeff Weaver has built a campaign organization that did all those things. And his arguments about his progressivism vs. Hillary Clinton’s require us to ignore a lot of history:
So: Hillary is still accountable for the 1994 crime bill because she was FLOTUS. Bernie voted for it, but it’s ok because he didn’t mean it?
But, okay … HIllary Clinton? I don’t fall in love with candidates—Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown are the two politicians I’m closest to being in love with and I’m still not in love with either of them enough that I’d feel really betrayed by a disagreement. I’m certainly not in love with Hillary Clinton. I promise you, if she is the president, I will be loud and clear about my disagreements with her. But when people talk about trust in relation to Clinton, well, Sady Doyle speaks for me:
Hillary Clinton is the impossible woman. The pressures she lives under, every moment of her life, are all-encompassing. She doesn’t have an inch of leeway, a single safe option; there is no version of Hillary Clinton that won’t be attacked. So the version of Hillary Clinton we get—this conflicted, conflict-inspiring candidate, the woman who has a genius-level recall of global politics but has to assure the world she’ll spend her presidency picking out flowers and china, the lady who books a guest spot on Broad City but can’t pronounce “Beyoncé,” the woman who was decades ahead of the curve on women’s rights but somehow thinks it’s a good idea to throw in a Bush-esque 9/11 reference at a debate—is the inevitable product of these pressures.
Actually, Sady Doyle speaks for me repeatedly. It does feel like the pressures on Hillary Clinton to be 10 different things at once—for which she’ll then be attacked—say something important about women’s chances in our society, and that Clinton has to read in that light, always. That prompted me to reassess some, though not all, of my issues with her. Joan Walsh also speaks for me:
Just like my lefty friends who praise Sanders for loudly promoting the single-payer solution to healthcare because it’s important to raise the issue’s standing and profile, I praise Clinton for making repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which bars Medicaid from paying for abortion for poor women, a major public campaign issue. I acknowledge Sanders has voted the right way, and I’m grateful for it. But Clinton is leading on it, the same way she brought up the vile Planned Parenthood video hoax in the very first Democratic debate. That leadership matters to me. […]
I’m supporting Clinton, joyfully and without apologies. That’s not the same as without reservations; I continue to wonder whether she’ll be more hawkish on foreign policy than is advised in these dangerous times. I’m concerned that she’s too close to Wall Street; I really wish she hadn’t given those six-figure talks to Goldman Sachs. But I genuinely believe she’ll make the best president.
I believe that while Sanders supports things like paid family leave, Clinton would be a bigger step forward in those areas. Not just because she’s a woman, mind you, but because, as Walsh points out, Sanders “has more than a tin-ear on gender. He routinely talks about ‘mothers’ needing family leave.” That’s a problem, one that made me take a real step back in early Democratic debates. Also because, as Madeleine Kunin implicitly points out, some of the same ways Sanders is being dismissive of Clinton’s commitments on gender have a long history with the Vermont senator, and while Sanders has pushed back some against the raging sexism coming from a vocal bloc of his supporters, I wonder how much his incomplete vision on the realities of sexism bolster his appeal to some of his supporters to begin with.
Next, as we’ve seen since about the moment President Obama’s first six months were up, if the next president is a Democrat, she or he will have to rely substantially on executive action to get things done. Some of Clinton’s appointments would doubtless enrage me, but how to get the most out of federal agencies and executive action is something I suspect she’s put a lot more thought into than Sanders has. I believe she’d move more quickly and get more done on that front, and I believe that front is one of our best chances to see progress from 2017 to 2021.
The Supreme Court is a huge and scary issue in this election, given the number of appointments the next president is likely to get. And I do believe Hillary Clinton is more likely to win the general election. Not a lock by any means, but more likely than Bernie Sanders, who just hasn’t faced serious negative campaigning in his career. He’s had the luxury of largely defining himself so far, but that’s not going to last. We already know where Hillary Clinton’s floor is, because we’ve seen her knocked down to it repeatedly. It turns out she’s incredibly resilient. If she wasn’t, we wouldn’t be having this conversation to begin with. But talking about electability implies that I’m holding my nose or settling when I know there’s a better candidate out there. I’m really not. I would hold my nose and vote for a candidate I liked less if I believed there was a giant electability gap. But I’d admit it, not write 2,000 or so words about why I thought my choice was right on the rest of the merits.
Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos