By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, Americablog, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. This piece first appeared at Down With Tyranny. GP article archive here.
The increasing likelihood that Hillary Clinton may achieve the Democratic nomination for president without a serious challenge from the left has progressive discussion groups abuzz. There are, of course, a variety of opinions on whether this is good or bad. What I’d like to do here is define what “good” and “bad” mean in this context.
This puts a lot of issues under one umbrella — most of them economic — like student debt, banker fraud, abuse by the national security state, abuse by police, wage depression, wage theft, accelerating income and wealth inequality, immigration policy (which has a strong economic aspect, since illegal immigration is economically encouraged by the very forces that decry it), and the like. Call these the Warren Wing concerns, spotlighted by a Piketty awareness.
Notice that these “good” outcomes don’t equal each other; nor do they necessarily include each other. The first “good” is a progressive good, the second is a party good. Is the Democratic party a progressive party? There’s the source of the problem. Clearly it’s not, at least to date, in a great many of its policies, starting with the current push to pass TPP, the next NAFTA-style trade agreement. What Obama is doing to pass TPP is beyond extraordinary, and it will take both progressives and Republicans in the House and (perhaps) the Senate to keep it off his desk. (Read the link to see what I mean by “beyond extraordinary.”)
There’s a reason there’s a “Warren Wing” in the party, and a reason why it’s opposed and hated by most of the party’s leaders.
So your first bottom line is — Democrats are united in winning the White House. Progressives are divided in winning with Hillary Clinton. In a nutshell, that presents a problem for Democrats and for Hillary Clinton. It’s possible she could lose if progressives don’t support her in sufficient numbers.
What Do the Polls Say?
I’ll just summarize this and let you click through, since I want to get you to the next section. There have been a number of polls on Clinton’s popularity and electoral chances. The latest is from Gallup, an organization that does not “lean left.” Their bottom lines are three:
- Clinton’s favorable rating is 48%, her lowest since 2008
- 54% of Democrats prefer to have a competitive primary
- Still, 57% of Democrats want her as 2016 nominee
On the last point, if you drill down to “Democratic-leaning independents,” that 57% becomes 53%. This makes a nice story: “A majority wants her as the nominee.” Invert that, though, and it becomes: “Between 43% and 47% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents do not want her as the nominee.”
Click through for the underlying data if you like. I hope, though, you see the problem. This could be “bad” in both senses above, since it opens the door to any Republican nominee who seems sane. It’s a given that the Republican will be the most well-funded presidential candidate in the country’s history, an instant advantage in a campaign marketplace that resembles product-perception manipulation more than anything related to ideas — what I’m calling a Campbell’s Soup campaign.
How Upset Are the Most Upset Progressives?
In a word, very. I want to quote something I received via email from a respected progressive writer and thinker, reproduced with permission. It does not matter who wrote this. I can say personally that I’ve heard this view expressed a hundred times at and since the last Netroots Nation:
The economic left has no hope in this miserable process. HRC [Hillary Clinton] is a creature of Wall Street. It comes naturally to her, with her background in elite schools and her status in the political and wealth circles. It is utterly impossible to imagine that she will do anything for people past a tiny raise in the minimum wage. Her judicial appointments will be Stephen Breyer, not Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Her cabinet will be filled with people like Penny Pritzger and Larry Summers.
I simply won’t participate. I won’t vote and I won’t help her. She has no charisma for the left, and little for anyone else. The Republicans will put up the usual clownish excuse for a leader, but it really doesn’t matter. I expect more people than ever will just refuse to participate after a hate-filled campaign. The oligarchy will feed the serfs just enough to keep them from revolting, and enforce their will with the usual repressive police force. The recent publicity for murderous cops will die out, and soon they’ll be killing poor whites too. It’s going to be ugly everywhere….
“I simply won’t participate.” Read those paragraphs again, just to be sure you absorb what it says. It says quite a bit. You don’t have to agree with the writer or her/his ferocity. Just know that this thinking — and feeling — is far more widely held on the activist and intellectual left than even the “left” understands. Why? Because progressives tend not to say this to progressives inclined to disagree … or inclined to say back to them: “But … Republicans!” They had that conversation years ago, and they’re done with it.
It doesn’t matter what I think of Hillary Clinton, nor does it matter what you think of her. I know quite a few people who think quite highly of her. The problem is those polling numbers, and all those progressives who don’t think highly of her. They are going away and aren’t coming back.
Do Voters See Clinton the Way Disaffected Progressives Do?
If you look at the charges leveled by the writer above, you’ll see several that have almost entered the “mainstream” — the body of “what everyone knows to be true,” whether true or not. She’s:
- “A creature of Wall Street”
- An insider with a “background in elite schools”
- Someone with “status in the political and wealth circles”
- Likely to appoint the Robert Rubins and the wealthy, like “Penny Pritzker and Larry Summers”
Whether she is or isn’t, does or doesn’t do any of these things, that perception will likely stick, despite the attempt to swing her campaign — remember, this is nothing more than image manipulation — in a pro-populist (pro-Warren Wing) direction.
She can waffle on her policies, but that will confirm the concerns. She can state her policies explicitly — for example, would she veto TPP if it crosses her desk? — but even that may not be enough, because again, this is nothing more than an exercise in image manipulation, and you have to be believed to be successful.
And regardless of what she says or does, the Republican machine will find her most vulnerable positions (among other things), including those bulleted above, and hit the public with them constantly. If people are inclined to believe something, a manipulative ad campaign is halfway home, and Republicans are pros at this, masters with doctor’s degrees in crowd manipulation.
What’s the Answer?
The real answer, of course, is a primary in the Democratic party, with a candidate from the real (i.e., credible) left who will give voters a place to park an anti–neo-liberal, anti–Third Way protest vote. (I’ll have more on Clinton as a proponent of Third Way policies later.) This would replicate what Sen. Eugene McCarthy did in 1968 — he gave Lyndon Johnson a realistic “sense of the party” in a way that polling could never do.
If Hillary Clinton survives a process like that, she may not be the most progressive candidate, but she will know the degree of Democratic support she has among progressives and those less progressive. Without a process like that, she enters the main event never having done battle, never having tested the degree of her real support among Democratic voters.
A surprise there would be a “bad” on both counts listed above.