If there is anything one should find repulsive in the spectator sport of American politics, it is the notion that one should take no thought for the morrow when obligatorily casting a vote for the so-called obvious choice for reasons of political expediency. Such a suggestion seems to confirm the perception, as observed by the famed commentator Noam Chomsky, that the Donkey and the Elephant merely symbolize “two factions of the Business Party” — or, as the late and great George Carlin more amusingly put it, that the only meaningful choice in the US are between paper or plastic.
While Democrats and Republicans alike downplay the similarities between the two parties to the extreme where both claim that none exist (a discussion which requires a post of its own), one side particularly likes to claim that giving voice to the more liberal faction will be nothing more than a distraction, even a liability, to more “moderate” actors who have more of a chance in a national election.
Among these phony pragmatists we have Politico columnist and former Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank, who on Wednesday penned a thinly-argued and at times incoherent babble in an attempt at making the case for progressives to abandon Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign.
To be clear, this is not the reaction to an attack on Sanders’s viability as a candidate per se; rather, it is a condemnation of Mr. Frank’s suggestion that Hillary Clinton’s current lead in the polls and her “threat” to the Republican Party should grant her the Democratic nomination ipso facto.
While one is certainly entitled to one’s biases, it should nevertheless be considered independent of one’s inclination toward democracy and choice, rather than the dance with the devil from which the existing political system has yet to be freed. That being said, it is in the best interest of anyone crying foul over my choice of words that I rebut (read: rebuke) Mr. Frank’s points one at a time.
Consider, for example, his first contention:
“I believe strongly that the most effective thing liberals and progressives can do to advance our public policy goals — on health care, immigration, financial regulation, reducing income inequality, completing the fight against anti-LGBT discrimination, protecting women’s autonomy in choices about reproduction and other critical matters on which the Democratic and Republican candidates for president will be sharply divided — is to help Clinton win our nomination early in the year. That way, she can focus on what we know will be a tough job: combating the flood of post-Citizens United right-wing money, in an atmosphere in which public skepticism about the effectiveness of public policy is high.”
Okay, so this is more of a thesis than an actual point, but it is nevertheless indicative of what I mentioned so colorfully earlier, so as to not be accused of misrepresenting the former congressman’s argument. He is explicitly calling on the powers that be to declare the winner of a race before the starter’s gun is fired. No other racers need apply. Debates will only, as Mr. Frank condescendingly puts it, make Ms. Clinton “spend most of her time and campaign funds proving her ideological purity in an intraparty fight,” otherwise known as partaking in the democratic process.
Right off the bat, he ignores that these so called intraparty fights are a common means to determine which candidate best represents their respective party. If one were to follow his logic, Mrs. Clinton should have been granted the nomination in 2008, given that she enjoyed a similar comfort in the court of public opinion before being routed by a formerly relatively unknown name. Take a moment and try to remember who that ex-nobody was.
“I realize that before explaining why I am convinced that a prolonged pre-nomination debate about the authenticity of Clinton’s support for progressive policy stances will do us more harm than good, that very point must be addressed. Without any substance, some argue that she has been insufficiently committed to economic and social reform — for example, that she is too close to Wall Street, and consequently soft on financial regulation, and unwilling to support higher taxation on the super-rich. This is wholly without basis.”
“Wholly without basis”? Other than Mrs. Clinton giving periodical speeches to Goldman Sachs and other financial characters, receiving millions of dollars in campaign funding from said characters, regarding the left’s criticism of the role the financial industry played in the most recent crisis (facilitated, in part, by deregulation under her husband’s administration) as “unproductive and foolish,” and her support for free-trade proposals championed by Wall Street and corporate groups 45 times before she more-or-less backtracked, how is it not wholly without basis?
On top of all that, Wall Street continues to support her candidacy in spite of her populist rhetoric, which, along with her propensity to not go too far to the left, suggests she is merely pandering to a growing base of ardent progressive activism while reassuring her usual allies of her pro-business bona fides behind closed doors.
To her credit, and perhaps one of Mr. Frank’s only intelligible points, the former first lady has come down in favor of greater regulation of derivatives trading, but there are greater issues regarding the financial industry that would need to be addressed, issues that, in her mind, would lead to the demonization of Wall Street should they be addressed.
On Mrs. Clinton’s record on defense spending and interventionism:
“While I wish that she, Joe Biden and John Kerry had not been spooked into believing that no one who voted no would have the national security merit badge required to win the presidency, I regard liberal senators’ support for the Iraq War as a response to a given fraught political situation rather than an indication of their basic policy stance — like Obama’s off-again, on-again support for same-sex marriage. (Yes, I am saying that in deciding whether or not to support a candidate with whom I have disagreed on a fundamental issue, I am more at ease if it was a one-time political accommodation rather than a genuine conviction.) Most relevantly for this discussion, she will clearly be for less military spending and intervention than the Republican nominee.”
That last sentence had me double-checking to make sure he and I are talking about the same Hillary Rodham Clinton. The Hillary Rodham Clinton who, according to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s recent memoir, admitted to opposing George W. Bush’s 2007 surge in Iraq for political gain ahead of the 2008 Democratic primaries? The Hillary Rodham Clinton who, as secretary of state, as written by Time‘s Michael Crowley, not only backed a bold surge in the war in Afghanistan but also”backed intervention in Libya, and her State Department helped enable Obama’s expansion of lethal drone strikes. In fact, Clinton may have been the administration’s most reliable advocate for military action. On at least three crucial issues—Afghanistan, Libya, and the bin Laden raid—Clinton took a more aggressive line than Gates, a Bush-appointed Republican”?
That Hillary Clinton?
It is no secret that Mrs. Clinton is a hawk on foreign policy, and not just as a “one-time political accommodation,” as her record clearly shows. In Syria as well, with whom the US confronted over a “red line” on its use of chemical weapons on civilians, she advocated for arming “moderate” anti-Assad militias and even suggested the use of airstrikes on key regime targets.
On Iran, the most pertinent diplomatic issue at hand, it seems rather unclear what she feels about the recent deal regarding the Islamic Republic’s nuclear capabilities. While she hailed the opportunity at diplomacy, people within her own circle are unsure of whether she actually supports it. Other reports, like the New York Post (for what it’s worth), give the impression that she is skeptical, saying she does not trust Iran to keep the end of the deal. At the State Department, while she was open yet skeptical of a diplomatic approach, she was by no means an advocate of a containment policy in the event diplomacy failed, presumably due to the threat to Israel posed by a nuclear Iran. Before that, during the 2008 primaries, she declared that the US could “obliterate” Iran in retaliation to a nuclear attack on Israel, a gaffe then-candidate Obama referred to as “language reflective of George Bush.”
Finally, on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mrs. Clinton has been vociferously on the side of the Jewish State and of its conservative prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. In an interview with the Atlantic, she sided with Israel over its response to the 2014 assault on Gaza, an illegally occupied territory along with the West Bank, in which over 2,000 Palestinians died in retaliation after a group of Jewish settlers were kidnapped and murdered, allegedly by members of groups loosely affiliated with Islamic militant group Hamas.
Even though the assault led to an inquiry by the International Criminal Court and a United Nations report concluding that Israel and Hamas may have committed war crimes, the Clinton camp has been more than happy to argue in favor of the so-called “right to self-defense” and even attacking the use of economic pressure by accusing dissidents of Israeli policy of anti-Semitism. To her benefit, this is the opinion of a majority of Americans; however, the broader point, that she is a proud hawk, not a dove predisposed to the occasional loss of conviction, is further evidenced in this instance.
On Mr. Sanders in the media:
“His very unwillingness to be confined by existing voter attitudes, as part of a long-term strategy to change them, is both a very valuable contribution to the democratic dialogue and an obvious bar to winning support from the majority of these very voters in the near term.
And as much as I wish it weren’t the case, we are still very much in that near term. As the intriguing challenger to Clinton, Sanders gets a pass in the current campaign. The media are very happy to have a race to cover where they feared — yes, feared — there would not be one. While Republican officeholders cannot be seen to be kind to a socialist, conservative commentators and media will be joining Kristol in touting Sanders’ heretofore unnoticed virtues. Meanwhile, Democrats — especially those who, like me, share most of Sanders’ policy views and do not have an allergic reaction to the word “socialism,” even if we disagree with it as an economic theory — are reluctant to be critical of someone who is an ally.”
This is what I meant when I referred to incoherent babble. While Mrs. Clinton has indeed been battered by the mainstream and conservative press for semi-scandals (her use of a personal e-mail server while Secretary of State) and non-scandals (Benghazi) alike, the coverage of Mr. Sanders’s campaign has been an unseemly mix of intrigue and outright pessimism. After all, it’s hard to fear a primary not taking place if a good amount of coverage suggests that the primary already has its victor.
As for the “reluctance” of Democrats to criticize one of their own, I again refer to every mainstream commentator who claims that Mr. Sanders’s passionate populism will turn off moderate voters. Sure, there are talks of him catching up to the Clinton machine and discussions on whether his ideas will force it to be less inclined to refer to talking points, but the media consensus is the same: Bernie Sanders has no chance at winning the primary, much less the general election. Mr. Frank is the only one suggesting out loud that a primary should not take place at all.
More babble, but this time about himself:
“I know from past experience I will be criticized for writing here about making such tactical and strategic arguments. Some of my liberal allies will object that precisely because Sanders will not win the nomination, it is unnecessary — even unseemly — for me to write as I just have.”
No, Mr. Frank. Your liberal allies will object because you are calling for the silencing of the vote. It is cynical to believe that hand-picking a candidate is preferable to allowing the people to choose, and egomaniacal to suggest that your allies will object to your truth simply because you had the audacity to speak it, even though there is next to no truth in your words. There is nothing tactical or strategic about it. The arguments are based on falsehood and speculation and protected behind the need for one such as myself to disagree, as if doing so will validate your nonsensical submission.
And so, we continue:
“But the critical point — that many of my fellow and sister Democrats understand but would rather not be caught saying — is that one clear result of a long Clinton-Sanders nomination contest would be that some of his vulnerabilities will accrue to her.
The attack on Clinton in the fall campaign will be more on her personally than on her views. Whoever the GOP nominee ends up being, he will publicly de-emphasize his commitments to undoing financial reform, appointing Supreme Court justices who will reverse the same-sex marriage decision, and totally repealing the Affordable Care Act. Instead, the Republicans will try to impugn Clinton’s integrity by regurgitating the old accusations from the ’90s, supplemented by distorting the facts about Benghazi and greatly exaggerating the horror of her email trail …
Her ability to point to the total absence of any evidence to validate these charges will help blunt their impact, and she in turn will stress her commitment to the reforms that respond to the public’s dissatisfaction with the economic status quo. Given the appeal of her specific policy proposals, the Republicans will use the Sanders candidacy to make a two-pronged attack on her call for fairer taxation, tougher rules governing the financial industry, re-establishment of the right of working people to join unions, raising the minimum wage, incentivizing profit sharing, and increasing the availability of healthcare and higher education.
Prong 1 of the attack will be that her advocacy of this package is further evidence that she cannot be trusted — that her platform does not represent her sincere commitment but rather her need to fend off the challenge from her left in the primaries. That last point will be the basis of prong 2: That for reasons of expediency she has moved not only to the left, but perilously close, if not entirely, to socialism. Rather than debate the merits of specific policies to diminish inequality, they will argue that she has let a proud, self-identified socialist shape her approach.”
For someone who is so profoundly persuaded by the Clintonian brand of liberalism, Mr. Frank is really afraid of letting someone who is supposed to be a progressive candidate talk about the issues from a progressive standpoint. With this point, he contradicts the notion that Mrs. Clinton is to the left of the current administration — and, by implication, Mr. Sanders — on domestic issues. Like he mentioned just a paragraph before he contradicts himself yet again, Republicans will go after the Clinton ticket on a personal level more so than on the substance of her ideas. They don’t need to attack her policy positions since they have a big bag of toys from the past to play with. Sure, a great many of these toys do not work as advertised, some may not even exist, but the conservative base will be entertained either way. This is nothing new to a public figure whose entire career has been marred by sticky situations, real, exaggerated, or just plain imaginary.
But even though primaries are meant for candidates to show off the credentials needed to represent their respective parties by being general hardliners, whereas the general election campaigns target the independents and the moderates across the aisle, let’s concede the point that Sanders’s candidacy moves Mrs. Clinton “perilously close to socialism.” Of course this will be used by the right, as it has been used in the last two presidential election cycles with little effect on the outcome of the election. While saying the word “socialism” is still enough to give Marco Rubio a hernia, it is not as strong a buzz word as it has been in the past. In a more likely scenario, should Mrs. Clinton’s newly-found left-leaning populism be enough to get the nomination, her past will be a greater burden.
To many progressives, the Clintons are notoriously associated with the status quo. As a result, much of the progressive bloc will not go to the polls or vote for a third party should Mrs. Clinton win the nomination. One reason why turnout in the US is so low in comparison to other democratic countries is that there is an air of disillusionment with a political system that advertises two parties that advocate one policy on very key issues pertaining to class, race, and military defense. Very few Republicans, if any, will vote Democrat by their own volition, much less so if the candidate bears that dreaded last name. However, while scandal-plagued, she could still win the general election, but not without attacks on her integrity, which would be made on both the right and left.
Finally, Mr. Frank’s last point:
“There is one more counter to the argument that serious competition for the nomination would be better for the eventual nominee: the historical record. There have been seven times in the past 40 years when an incumbent president was on the November ballot. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama won. Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush lost. The winning incumbents had no primary challenger. The losers all did — serious threats from Reagan and Ted Kennedy for Ford and Carter; a less plausible but nonetheless well-publicized and disruptive one from Pat Buchanan for Bush senior. There were several reasons why the three incumbents lost. But the criticisms leveled by intraparty challengers, and the political need to shape a message to appeal to their co-partisans before being able to focus on appealing to the broader electorate, were contributing factors to the defeat in every case.”
While Mr. Frank’s piece was poorly-supported and even more nonsensically argued, this takes home the prize for being his worst point, and for one good reason: Hillary Clinton is not an incumbent candidate! Even if we were to take it remotely serious, he downplays the key concession that intraparty challengers were “contributing factors” to the defeats he highlights by not mentioning that they were insignificant, almost meaningless, when compared to more compelling reasons behind them.
But a well-reasoned argument does not seem to be Mr. Frank’s goal from the beginning. It is more than obvious that he wants a Hillary Clinton presidency, and he will even advocate something as disgusting as a de facto suspension of democracy to remove any obstacles impeding that end. Given everything we know about Mrs. Clinton, of her baggage and lack of storied populist credentials, I shall close with a quote by journalist Amy Sullivan in a 2005 issue of the Washington Monthly.
“It’s too early for anyone to say with certainty that Hilary Clinton can’t win the White House. But it’s far too early — and dangerous — to conclude that she’s the best chance that Democrats have.”