Monday, February 8, 2016

Can't get the Bern.

For the pro-choice party, we’re left with little of it in this primary season.  That’s troubling.  I so wish we had a broader array of contenders for the Democratic nomination.  I’m thinking, for example, of senators like Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and, of course, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.   Democrats do have a strong bench.  Its members deserve more sunlight than they’ve been given (or taken for themselves).  The last person I expected to run was Senator Bernie Sanders in part because, while voting with Democrats, he has never (as Paul Starr writes in the Atlantic) chosen to join the party.  In fact, as Starr points out, he “has long excoriated it in unsparing language.”   Now he wants its most coveted nomination.  If a Senator Warren were in the mix, it’s doubtful he would have gotten as far as he has.

As any reader of these posts knows, I agree with Bernie Sanders on many issues.  He’s right about income inequality and the unfettered power of big business.  Our political system is dominated and corrupted by money, magnified after Citizens United.   The ACA is a step in the right direction, and not an insignificant one, but it would be far better (and I think cost-effective) if we had Medicare for all.  We need a sustaining minimum wage.  These, along with a general dissatisfaction with the status quo, is why his message resonates with many Democratic voters, especially young people.  It has clearly found an enthusiastic following and has succeeded in pushing Hillary Clinton further to the left.  That’s a good thing.  The trouble is, no matter what happens in New Hampshire tomorrow, I just can’t get the “Bern”. 

While Bernie’s campaign is impressive and this seems to be a year of the unexpected candidates, it’s striking that not a single senate colleague supports him — not one.  In contrast, former Senator Hillary Clinton has been endorsed by 39 current and 8 former members of the chamber.  Even his fellow Vermonter, Howard Dean who also ran as an outsider, supports Hillary.  You may chalk that up to the “establishment”, which in part may be true.  But I’ve always thought what your peers and coworkers — the people who know you best — think of you speaks volumes.

But lack of colleague support is not why I can’t get the Bern.  I was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama, a similarly unlikely candidate in 2008.  I remain so.  His campaign, focused on change (albeit in a different context) brought an excitement and drew crowds that Americans rarely see and haven’t seen since.  He did this at a time when many of his natural followers, myself included, were deeply torn between the hope of having the first African American or first woman president.  In the end, Obama prevailed because he had something special.  He “fired” us up.  While other candidates and indeed presidents have been gifted orators, he stood out in our time with soaring and beautifully crafted rhetoric.  The combination filled his listeners with hope and anticipation — perhaps more than was warranted.  That definitely had a downside for his presidency.

I continue to believe that many Obama supporters read into his words what they wanted, perhaps needed, to hear.  What he actually said and what they were sure they heard didn’t always match.  That mismatch has had a profound impact on his popularity, especially so on the left.  Many liberals consider him a deep disappointment.  They fault him for not living up to what they expected — the words and promises they “heard” him make.  They complain that the ACA does not go far enough — it’s not the single payer plan they were sure it could have been.  Some feel that he was not tough enough on Republicans, didn’t assert himself.  They expected a roaring liberal; they got a left-of-centrist.  We are still at war in the Middle East and have not closed Guantanamo.  In short, Obama hasn’t delivered. 

I certainly share in some of these disappointments.  I also understand that Obama never promised universal Medicare or that it couldn’t have been enacted is beside the point.  That his central message, beginning with his ’06 convention speech and through the 2008 campaign, was breaking down the walls between “red” and “blue” America is no excuse.  That extricating America from foreign policies firmly in place long pre-dating George W Bush isn’t easy, or perhaps even possible in the short term, doesn’t matter.  Many Americans are rightly frustrated and angry.  The nature of that frustration and anger may be different but it’s what has brought Bernie and, yes, the likes of Trump to the fore.  I get it, understand it.  Much of that anger stems from the economic and other factors that I wrote about in my last post.  While focused on the presidency, some of it, and for many people much of it, comes from frustration with the unkept promises by candidates on all levels of government.  It results from loose of-the-moment campaign rhetoric aimed a winning office.

There remains a huge difference between blogging (not to mention around the dinner conversation) and having the responsibility for managing and getting things done.  I can afford to express hopes and disappointments unburdened by the limitations and difficulties of execution.  In relatively a similar way, there is a vast difference between pontificating on the senate floor and having to perform in the White House.  I know it’s wishful thinking, but that well known difference should inform those who embark upon the presidential campaign trail.  That's especially true for senators who, like their counterparts in the House, often stand in the way of presidents executing the ideal.  It isn’t a cliché to say that governing is far tougher than campaigning — Mario Cuomo’s “poetry verse prose”. 

In the end, that’s why I can’t get the Bern.  Sanders rightly rails against indisputable wrongs.  He speaks of revolution, but fails to give me any idea of how he might deliver.  As Frank Bruni writes, “little in his Senate career suggests that he’d be able to turn that oratory into remedy.”   I may be agree with much of what he says, but maddingly he is no more specific on how he would accomplish it all than is Donald Trump whose person and ideas I abhor.  You may find that harsh, and even be offended by the comparison, but sadly I think it’s true.  I don’t want to be given promises that have no chance of being kept.  Bernie talks of revolution, but Americans as a nation — even those who agree with the ideals to which he gives voice — don’t do “revolution”.  Sure, we had one back in 1776 but since then, if anything, we have been consistently resistant to change.  Look at the unpopularity (albeit fired up by distorted Republican hyperbole) of the ACA.  Whatever change we permit is incremental.  In my view, presidential candidates at the very least have to remind us of the realities of governance.  They need to be specific and realistic especially so in a challenging time like this where government is divided and is likely to stay so for years to come.  Rhetoric that merely inflames is not enough.

So what really gives with Bernie Sanders?  Why are crowds of young people gathering around him?  The answer may be simple: he isn’t Hillary.  More to the point, many Democrats still can’t get excited about her candidacy.  The fault for this sits squarely at her doorstep.  The New York Times supports her because she is highly competent, better prepared for office than anyone in the running.  So do I.  I wish with greater enthusiasm and passion.  I wish she was combining her display of readiness with some real vision.  Ironically, if she were promising what Bernie is, I’d have much more confidence that at least some of it might be accomplished.  She’s not and I hope his candidacy may push her to do so in the months ahead.

This is truly a strange presidential year.  I’ve been thinking about Bernie and Hillary as well as their Republican counterparts.  The fact is that somehow they all seem to be the wrong messengers.  There is the aging Sanders representing a generation of whom he is not a part and whose future he won’t share.  There is Hillary breaking ground for women, for a different kind of future while, as Frank Bruni pointed out in his piece, is essentially credentialed by, even mired in, the past. Objectively speaking, she’s even an odd messenger, of a transformed 21st century women's movement.  On the other side, think about the high living, personal plane chauffeured billionaire whose real estate manipulations have priced out his hometown’s middleclass.   He “speaks” for frustrated people who couldn’t afford to spend a night in one of his luxury hotels or play on his gilt edged namesake golf courses.  Think of Republicans as a group who gain the votes from exactly the people who are hurt most by their policies, ones that continue to favor the rich and keep wages low.  All strange messengers — all seem a mismatch for our time.

Alas, that’s where we are.   We can say that Hillary Clinton sucked all the air out of a potential contest in 2016 for other Democrats.  But they are all  grownups who made the decision not to run.  She is an imperfect candidate when many of us so long for perfection.  All candidates for public office carry some baggage — just like all of us.  Hillary Clinton carries more than we would like.  I’m not suggesting here that those who have “the Bern” lack real enthusiasm.  Far from it.  I, along with others who do support Hillary still suffer from an enthusiasm gap.  Going forward, I remain convinced that the Bern won’t carry Sanders to the nomination if for no other reason that, current crowds not withstanding, too few people really have it.  I can only hope that Secretary Clinton will give us reason to insure her victory in the fall.  The alternative is unthinkable.

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