The Democrats: Anger in a Different Key

low-angle black and white photograph of a startled-looking Hillary Clinton
For years, the Democratic Party has pursued a comfortably centrist agenda while relying on identity politics to sustain its popularity.  It has pursued social good without much regard for economy or efficiency, and, primarily for that reason, has alienated many business interests and ordinary, thrifty, business-like people.  In Illinois, the good that individual Democratic officeholders seek to do hardly makes up for the many instances of criminal corruption and abuse of trust that stain the reputation of the party.

Though Democrats purport to fight the scourge of poverty and ignorance, that goal has lost its urgency, the how of it suffocated under layers of bombast and bureaucracy.  Even health-care reform, which has given millions of Americans better access to medicine and stands as this era’s chief domestic initiative, has driven up premiums and supplied fresh evidence of federal ineptitude.

Whatever Hillary Clinton’s merits (and they are many), she personifies the compromised condition of the Democratic Party.  Like her party, she wants to be all things to all people.  That very characteristic disables her from accommodating and channeling the ire festering in the hearts of the Democratic electorate, the ire that is powering the “Feel the Bern” movement.

However worthy her intentions, Clinton cannot step out of her skin.  She can’t disavow her wealth and celebrity, can’t ditch her myriad A-list connections, can’t dis-entrench herself from the inner workings of her party.  She can’t re-imagine Democratic ideology for fear of upsetting the apple cart that’s carrying her along.  And she can’t set herself at odds with the past without diminishing the legacy of her husband, Bill.   Being so closely identified with the ex-president is proving a big liability.  All these factors prevent Hillary Clinton from being the change agent Democratic voters want and need.

Bernie Sanders represents this constituency, which amounts to approximately 43 percent of all Democrats voting in this primary season.  Sanders doesn’t want to please anyone, and he (like Trump) isn’t very concerned about the tenability of his program.  Sanders’ goal is to redefine the purposes of the Democratic Party.  Sanders’ voters will be lost unless someone else comes along who can do this well.

It’s a shame, because the Democratic Party is ripe for radical reform.  It could transform itself into a proponent of internal economic growth, with a focus on the intensive cultivation of the nation’s human and physical capital.  It could be a party of peace, a party of green.  Once upon a time, the Democratic Party stood for reform, retrenchment, and economy.  Could the right leader make the Democratic Party great again?

Image:  “First Lady Hillary Clinton, Speaker of the House Tom Foley,
and House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt speak at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol,”
1993 photograph by Laura Patterson, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
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Our Political Parties Are Behind the Times

REAL CLEAR POLITICS is offering a mind-bending set of survey results showing how respondents would vote in hypothetical general-election match-ups.  A number of organizations conduct these surveys, and at the moment the results of all of them are pretty consistent.

Clinton vs. Trump
Clinton would win

Clinton vs. Cruz
Clinton would win, but more narrowly

Clinton vs. Kasich
Kasich would win

Sanders vs. Trump
Sanders would win

Sanders vs. Kasich
Sanders would win

Sanders vs. Cruz
Sanders would win

These fascinating results help correct the myopia that sets in during the primary season, when passions within the parties control the focus.  On the Democratic side, Sanders is losing the delegate race to Clinton, yet in a general election he might fare better than she.  His positions, though untenable, might be more palatable than the kinds of ideas the Republicans are touting, for according to the polls, he would beat any of the remaining GOP candidates handily.

Interestingly, Clinton, though holding her own within her party, would fare less well than Sanders nationally.  She will be lucky if Donald Trump becomes the Republican nominee, because, of the three remaining GOP candidates, he is the only one she can probably beat.  She might be beaten by Cruz, and the lowly Kasich, according to these numbers, would defeat her easily.

Overall, these surveys highlight the blinkered condition of the parties.  Sanders, the candidate the Democratic establishment has refused to accept, points up the existence of a dominant voter base that Clinton’s candidacy isn’t capturing.  Clinton is electable, but Sanders is even more electable than she.  Old-style Democrats don’t want to see this.  They don’t want to abandon the comfortable centrist positions they’ve grown accustomed to.  They’re ignoring the reveille: new, more egalitarian policies are what the nation wants and needs.

On the Republican side, we see confirmation of what we knew from the start, that the Republican field was weak though large.  The two Democratic candidates are more in sync with national sentiment than are their counterparts in the GOP.  Overall, the Democrats are more likely to prevail.  Meanwhile, the GOP’s most viable candidates, Trump (on the basis of primary support) and Kasich (on the basis of electability), are those the party has been most unfriendly toward.  Cruz’s candidacy provides the sole hope for the staunchly conservative wing of the Republican party, a minority element that continues to jeopardize the health of a national mainstream Republicanism.

Neither political party has proved adept at accommodating the sentiments of the voters, who are demanding new leadership and significant ideological reform.

Bernie Sanders’ Strong Hand

Of the remaining presidential candidates in either party, Bernie Sanders has the most power to influence the outcome of the general election.  He will not become president but can determine who will.  He has a strong hand, which his ongoing campaign is only strengthening. In the end, he can play it a number of ways: he can support or sink Hillary’s bid for the presidency, he can use the moment to force change within the Democratic Party, or he can direct the popular energies he’s mustered into starting a new third party.

Let’s be honest about Bernie’s status within the Democracy.  The establishment hates him and only wants to minimize the threat, practical and ideological, that he embodies.

Until recently, Sanders had some chance of pulling even with Clinton in numbers of earned delegates won through the primaries.  The presidential nomination remained out of his reach, however, because the super-delegates, who express the will of the Democratic establishment, were never going to abandon Clinton in order to back him.  Why would the middle and upper tiers of the Democratic hierarchy anger and betray Clinton, diminishing their chance of retaining control of the White House, and further destabilize their party for the sake of an interloper generally viewed as having no chance of winning?  Yet Bernie Sanders continues to run.  The more delegates he amasses, the greater his independent power, the greater his influence and authority.

Already a one-man movement, Sanders could bolt and run as an independent, though he has said that he won’t.  His candidacy has exposed the bland decrepitude of the Democratic party, the public’s yearning for a bold alternative, and voters’ tepid support for the competent Hillary.  Bernie himself enjoys a surprisingly fervent following and has proved surprisingly good at raising money.  He can afford to compete in every remaining primary, which is giving him valuable information about the nature of the electorate and where support is strongest for his ideas.

The Democrats cannot allow Sanders to leave the Party, for he would draw off a huge number of disaffected voters whose support Hillary Clinton will desperately need.  Because Sanders is committed to keeping Cruz or Trump out of the White House, he has said he would ‘certainly support‘ Clinton if she is nominated.  As long as the Republicans run one of these candidates, Sanders will feel bound to support Clinton’s run.  Making this pledge was unfortunate, increasing the likelihood that, in the end, Sanders and his supporters will be co-opted by an establishment that, in its coldness toward him, has already shown its staunch resistance to change.

To see Bernie get behind Hillary would be disheartening.  It would represent a betrayal of his ideas, ideas the Party has no intention of adopting.  His identity as a change agent would vanish as quickly as it materialized.  So, when it comes to that moment, will Sanders, despite his strong hand, choose to fold?