How Clintonism Loses the White House
How Clintonism sabotaged Democrats, aided Republicans and tripped up Hillary Clinton herself.
February 21, 2016
The Clinton juggernaut is losing traction – and exposing a long-simmering fundamental split within the party.
Powered by the full weight of the Democratic Establishment, the juggernaut was designed to smoothly carry its idol across America and into the White House without a hitch.
It still may get there. But now it must traverse a far more treacherous and uncertain route than Secretary Clinton and her entourage ever imagined.
The course is lined with the pundits, operatives and analysts who will cover the spectacle with their usual attention to trivia and a faith in their own perspicacity matching that of the heroine herself.
This was all predictable. Fortunes could be made betting against the “Washington consensus” – in both the pundit class and the party establishments – whose singular talent for getting it wrong extends from the country’s endless skein of foreign misadventures to electoral politics.
They give the impression of all sipping out of each other’s double-lattes at Starbucks in Dupont Circle. On the Democratic side, the resulting damage done to the party’s traditional constituents, to the integrity of national discourse and to America’s interests in the world is incalculable – and may well be irreparable.
Still, it is worth recording the pathologies that this latest bruising encounter with reality reveal. Most obvious is the disconnect between Democratic Party elites and the country they presume to know or aspire to govern.
Where the party lost its way
The success of Bernie Sanders makes that disconnect transparent. His greatest asset is simply that he ran openly as a “Democrat” – that is, as representative of the party as forged in the mid-20th century and whose precepts conform to the socio-economic interests and philosophical truths typically held by most Americans today.
He is the first Presidential candidate to do so since Walter Mondale in 1984. Mondale’s defeat – in an economic upswing against a charismatic incumbent – convinced many pols that the future lay with the Reagan smorgasbord of discredited nostrums and myths repackaged by skillful political craftsmen as the new Revelation.
Market fundamentalist economic models, a cartoonish version of American individualism a la Ayn Rand, financial libertinism, muscle-flexing abroad in the mantle of democratic proselytizing and anti-government demagoguery were fashioned into an intoxicating cocktail.
It worked to the extent that the cheap high thereby produced tapped latent racism, jingoism, evangelical Christian passions, and a new-found greedy selfishness which was the mutant offspring of 1960s liberation.
Disoriented Democrats badly overestimated the danger, veering onto a new path after only three presidential losses, without regard for the cyclical nature of elections. In the process, they lost sight of who they were.
Most damaging, many found a comfortable niche in this new world of hallucination. Among them are the careerists, the trendy intellectuals, and the ambitious politicians who thought that they had discovered the one route to recouping power and glory.
Together, preaching triangulation and a third way, they reshaped the Democratic Party into a me-too auxiliary to a waxing conservative movement.
They did not save liberalism from itself. Today, it is radical reactionary Republicans who sweep elections at state and local levels, who hold an iron grip on the Congress, who have used their power to ruthlessly transform the judiciary into an active ally.
True, Democrats have won the White House twice. Bill Clinton did thanks either to Ross Perot or a brief recession and then retained it against feeble opposition, after co-opting and signing most of the opposition’s agenda items in the year or two leading to the election.
He moved steadily to the Right in policy and philosophy (“the era of Big Government is over”). Republican ascendancy followed that fleeting victory.
Only the Bush era collapse into disaster abroad and at home made possible Barack Obama. He presented himself not as the embodiment of Democratic values but explicitly as a transcendent bipartisan healer.
A prophet without message or mission, except inter-party cooperation at any cost. This took no account of how far the Republicans had moved rightward or how obstinate they might be in negotiations.
Whatever liberal ideas Senator Obama had sounded were swiftly abandoned as president, in what is surely the most shameless bait-and-switch in American political history.
The cause already was abandoned in his first months in office when the Democrats held majorities in both houses of Congress.
Indeed, President Obama’s embrace of the Wall Street barons was what allowed the Tea Party to channel popular anger and fear into a well-financed anti-government, know-nothing movement which nowadays dominates the political landscape.
This was predictable. After all, he had thrice cited Ronald Reagan as the man who most influenced his view of the Presidency.
His administrations arguably were oriented to the right of the last pre-Reagan Republican president – Richard Nixon – incredibly, on civil liberties as well as on economic and social programs.
His White House actually took delight in maligning “Progressives” – as made manifest in Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s cursing out of their representatives personally within its walls. That was the administration of which Hillary Clinton, the born-again “progressive,” was a mainstay.
President Obama drove the final nails into the coffin of the old Democratic Party.
This evolution of American politics in effect disenfranchised something like 20% of the electorate. They are Bernie Sanders’ constituency. It’s as simple as that. Personalities do play a role, but it is a secondary one.
True, Sanders as a person stands out for his integrity, his earnestness, for his truth-telling, for his transparent decency. It is the message, though, that counts above all.
The Sanders success is not about Sanders
An old Brooklyn Jew who advertises himself as a “socialist” is not a compelling figure on the political stage without a message that resonates so powerfully as to overcome that.
Intelligent and well-informed on domestic matters, Sanders is not a phrase-maker, not verbally nimble. He is an incurably respectful gentleman, but largely disengaged from foreign policy. He has effectively and needlessly ceded the ground where Hillary Clinton was custodian of ACT II in the pageant of American failure and fiasco in the Middle East.
In addition, Senator Sanders feels inhibited about attacking the misdeeds of the Obama years out of a concern for estranging black voters, or fear of turning the President – who remains personally popular with many Democrats – from Clinton’s tacit ally into an active ally.
Yet, Sanders has made history with unprecedented accomplishments in the teeth of implacable opposition from the entire political and media establishment.
At the moment, Sanders nearly has caught Clinton in the national polls and actually performs marginally better in hypothetical contests against the major Republican contenders.
What if Clinton had not run?
Clinton’s shortcomings and failures are aggravated by the widespread distrust that she engenders. That was evident a year ago. She has had higher “negatives” in polls than any serious (or successful) candidate ever.
So why was she crowned even before the contest began? Why were Democratic bigwigs so convinced she would be the author of an easy victory, not a fresh setback?
Why, moreover, did no other candidates present themselves?
One common answer is that there was nobody else (excluding Joe Biden, who brings his own problems as a candidate). Decimated at the state level, and lacking fresh blood in the Senate, they have a very thin squad.
Still, someone like Martin O’Malley could have been promoted as a credible candidate, had the party leaders the will to do so. Compare him to George W. Bush in 2000.
The Republicans molded that non-entity into a winner with relative ease. Democrats had much more to work with in O’Malley.
Or they could have rallied behind Elizabeth Warren. Admittedly, she wasn’t interested. She quickly would have eclipsed Clinton as the frontrunner. Razor sharp, personable, with a blue steel edge to her words and resolute – she likely would have delivered the Last Rites to Clinton by Super Tuesday.
She would have swept any of the Republican hopefuls, whose only chance of winning turns on Clinton’s negatives – and she likely would have launched a Democratic comeback across the board. That is utterly beyond Clinton’s capabilities.
A failed party establishment
The principal reason the Democratic Establishment lined up behind Secretary Clinton in lockstep is their lack of conviction and a political timidity that arises from 1) capture by the big donors, and 2) past failures that have sapped self-confidence.
Their uniform commitment to a flaccid orthodoxy has been evident for all to see these past few weeks as Clinton’s supporters hit the panic button. It has not been a pretty performance.
From the Editors of The New York Times and Paul Krugman (who now sees Clinton as the heir to Obama, whom he hagiographically refers to as “one of the most consequential and successful Presidents in American history”) to the feminist brigade headed by Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright, Democratic stalwarts have embarrassed themselves by their contrived and specious arguments for Secretary Clinton.
This is not to say that there isn’t a reasonable and logical case to be made for voting for her. The problem is the falsity of the presentation by those eminences, which reveals the hollowness at the party’s core.
Its leaders never miss an opportunity to display their political obtuseness and fearfulness about leaving their very narrow, personal comfort zone.
The blunt truth is that the Democratic leadership has been meek and fearful for decades. They can’t stand the sight of blood – especially if it’s their opponents. It took Newt Gingrich challenging Romney in 2012 to make an issue of predatory hedge funds and private equity.
Reluctantly picked up by President Obama, the critique resonated well – so well that a gaggle of Wall Street operatives led by Steven Ratner called the White House to express vehemently their displeasure. (The Obama campaign pulled the ads, according to Jane Mayer in the book Dark Money.)
Now it is Donald Trump who boldly steps forth to declare (correctly) that the intervention in Iraq was based on lies, and that it is the source of our current troubles in the region. No Democrat, including Sanders (who voted against it!), is ready to make that case with equal force. None has since 2008.
A loser’s mentality
One can go on and on. It’s a loser’s mentality, as Trump himself would say. And it is true that you don’t get to the White House by walking on eggshells and half-accepting the premise of baseless attacks on yourself and your ideas.
In the end, Hillary Clinton in all likelihood will be the nominee. If so, it will be because the Sanders surge came just too late to establish the national infrastructure necessary.
If the Republicans somehow get their act together, they will have about an even shot of defeating her as of being defeated.
For the Democrats, their big hope with Hillary Clinton as their standard-bearer is that the opposition continues on its suicidal track that runs parallel to their own. Such is the state of American politics after Clintonism.
Sanders makes obvious the disconnect between Democratic elites and the country they presume to know.
Disoriented Democrats badly overestimated the appeal of Reaganism and lost sight of who they are.
President Obama ceded liberal cred when he embraced Wall Street and Clintonites as he took office.
An old Brooklyn socialist Jew is not compelling without a message that resonates powerfully.
You don’t get to the White House by walking on eggshells as Clinton Democrats do.
Democrats’ big hope with Clinton as their candidate is the parallel Republican suicide track.
Michael J. Brenner
Professor Emeritus of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh [Texas, United States] Michael Brenner is Professor Emeritus of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh and a Fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS/Johns Hopkins. He was the Director of the International Relations & Global Studies Program at the University of Texas. Brenner is […]