Idealism vs. Defeatism
Iowans basically flipped a coin and gave former Secretary Clinton a photo-finish win over the socialist independent Senator Sanders. Their two campaigns, and their supporters, could not be more different. And I don’t have a dog in this fight.
In some ways, I should be a Sanders supporter – (mostly) liberal, under 35, and over-educated. In some ways, I should be a Clinton supporter – higher income, suburban. But neither campaign represents what I think the Democratic Party should be about.
Sanders is leading an idealistic campaign without any plan for ushering in the kind of Congress needed to get it done. In effect, he’s saying: “Let’s change course. I’ve got some really neat ideas for how America can be different. All you need is to elect me and we’ll get a revolution.” In effect, Sanders wants to create a Tea Party for the left, but unlike Republicans he wants to start by winning the White House. He is like the radical professor with one of the most popular seminars on campus, whose time in the political trenches has not been nearly as effective as he claims – just like the Tea Party over the last six years.
In talking about further healthcare reform, Clinton has actually said “that will never, ever happen.” In effect, she’s selling: “Our best ideas are behind us. We achieved everything we can or have set out to do. Nothing left to do but hold on to what we’ve got.” Clinton’s defeatist message makes perfect sense for someone who, at her age in a truly middle class family without politics on the brain, would have already started a well-earned retirement to spend more time with her granddaughter.
It also makes sense that Sanders has attracted the Millennials and Clinton has pulled in the Baby Boomers. Their platforms speak to the political goals of those generations. Millennials see an America going in the wrong direction and are looking to change it now before it’s too late. Baby Boomers, with careers winding down, want to protect the gains they’ve made and establish a legacy they are proud of as they ride into the sunset.
These are not mutually exclusive or contradictory impulses, but neither are realistic.
The Sanders push for huge tax increases, free college, and a single-payer healthcare system, is a sharp shift to the left of what we are used to seeing. The reason his platform might have merit is limited to the “Overton Window” theory of political thought – that to win a majority of the voters, a campaign has to have views that a majority will accept, but at the same time such a “window” of thought can be moved and expanded, and possibly dragged the median voter closer to a candidate’s own views. Sander’s platform is a huge bet that he can stretch the Overton window far enough left to make the more typical Democratic agenda more popular, which will in turn make his agenda more plausible, and the cycle repeats until he wins. But to get the process started, he has to assume that there’s enough people on his side of the Window that it is a credible position to begin with.
Clinton’s dismissing of this platform assumes that the Overton Window is fixed, cannot be moved, and there is no use trying to push the conversation in a direction that won’t yield results. Better instead to talk of proposals and micro-initiatives that test well within the existing Overton window, or abandon all ambition all together and spend the next 4 or 8 years protecting the Obama legacy from a hardline Republican Congress bent on undoing it all.
Neither of these is a grand, unifying theory of the Democratic Party in 2016. One speaks to ideals only a portion of the party actually holds, and the other is a snooze-fest rear-guard action that inspires no one. A better approach might be like this, “Look, I think this is a great approach, one that would make America a better place, but in the mean time, here’s a step in that direction that I think I can work with Congress to get done.” It takes the clear-eyed political reality Clinton sees and marries it with a Sanders-like vision to come up with an actual agenda for the next 4 or 8 years that is better than tinkering around the edges, blocking crazy Republican legislation, or trying to propose our own crazy legislation.
We can do better than an idealism about the future that cannot be delivered, or defeatism for protecting an imperfect present. We have to do better, or we may have a President Cruz or President Rubio until 2024. Perish the thought.