Tag Archives: Democrats

What Did Virginia Teach Us?

For weeks on this blog, I’d been fretting about the Virginia governor’s race. If we were really in the midst of a Democratic surge that might turn 2018 into a wave election, Virginia shouldn’t have been this tense. Hillary had won there last year (by 5%, aided by a Virginian VP) and Democrats already held the governorship (thanks to Terry McAuliffe’s 2.6% win in 2013). Maybe that didn’t point to a landslide, but surely we couldn’t lose.

Or maybe we could, or at least it looked that way for a while. Polls were averaging out to a 3% Northam advantage, with some showing Gillespie ahead. And Gillespie had been closing with a disturbingly Trumpish message: Northam was going to let Hispanic criminal gangs run wild in Virginia, while Gillespie would protect the monuments celebrating all those heroic Confederate defenders of slavery. And kneeling athletes were relevant somehow.

If he pulled off the upset, Gillespie’s campaign seemed likely to become a model for Republican candidates to keep on Trumping in 2018: Count on fear and race-baiting to bring the base out to vote, and hope Democrats stay home.

It didn’t work out that way. Northam won by 9%. That’s a big enough win to keep the 2018-wave narrative intact: Northam didn’t just repeat Hillary’s showing, he nearly doubled her margin, and more than tripled McAuliffe’s.

But beyond the horse-race aspect, what did we learn?

White identity politics isn’t enough. The clearest lesson is for Republicans: In 2016, Trumpism had two pieces, not just one. Yes, white Christian identity politics was a big chunk of it, but economic populism was another big chunk.

It wasn’t all just building a wall and banning Muslims and winking at the alt-Right. Trump was also going to bring factory and mining jobs back to America’s small towns. He had a healthcare plan that was going to “take care of everybody … the government’s going to pay for it”. He was going to protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. He would get tough with China and Mexico — not because the Chinese and Mexicans aren’t white, but because they had perpetrated “the greatest jobs theft in the history of the world“.

Trump voters who were attracted to his white Christian identity politics should still be happy with him. He put Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, he’s got ICE out terrorizing Hispanic immigrants, and he never misses a chance to stand up to ungrateful blacks, defend the Confederacy, or blame Muslims or immigrants (or best of all, Muslim immigrants) for America’s problems.

But the economic-populist side of Trumpism hasn’t been seen since the election.

Health care bills he endorsed would cut billions in Medicaid funding over the years, his tax plan is a bonanza for the wealthy, the budget the GOP passed to facilitate that tax plan cuts Medicare by billions, and Trump’s own budget proposal included billions in Social Security cuts.

Buy American, hire American” has proven to be an empty slogan, and the executive order that supposedly implements it has no real substance. (Not even Trump’s own companies live by it.) Tough on China? Not so much. In April he broke his promise to label China a currency manipulator, and when he went there this week.

Mr. Trump projected an air of deference to China that was almost unheard-of for a visiting American president. Far from attacking Mr. Xi on trade, Mr. Trump saluted him for leading a country that he said had left the United States “so far behind.” He said he could not blame the Chinese for taking advantage of weak American trade policy.

This is, in part, a consequence of his saber-rattling against North Korea: He needs China’s cooperation there, so he’ll have to give in to them on trade.

And Mexico? Let’s just say that they’re not paying for the Wall. Renegotiating NAFTA is proving to be a lot more difficult than just “getting tough” and making bigger demands. If the agreement winds up getting scrapped, the big loser will be American farmers and precisely those rural communities that were counting on Trump for help.

Given that Trump himself has abandoned economic populism, the only “Trumpism” left for Gillespie to adopt was the white Christian identity part. And while that stuff is really powerful for some Americans, those people aren’t a majority. Not in Virginia and not in America as a whole.

I’m not sure how Republicans running in 2018 can deal with this problem. What the Republican majority in Congress has been all about (with Trump’s blessing, for the most part) is traditional Republican trickle-down economics. 2016 Trumpism was unified by an I’m-going-to-protect-you theme, protecting his voters on the one hand from a future where white Christians are a minority, and on the other from a convergence of foreign competition, corporations who have no loyalty to their workers, and economic trends moving against them. A 2018 of message of “I protected you from Mexicans and Muslims and transgender people in your bathroom, but I tried to take away your health insurance and gave your boss a big tax cut” doesn’t hang together nearly as well.

Unity, calmness, confidence. On the Democratic side, the lesson is fuzzier, but I think there’s still something to learn.

The progressive/centrist split in the national party tried to project itself onto the primary, but it never really took. Superficially, the Bernie-backed progressive (Tom Perrillo) lost to the establishment candidate (Northam), but the divide between them was never that large, and Perrillo supported Northam in the general election seemingly without reservations. Northam, in turn, endorsed a number of progressive causes: $15 minimum wage, free community college, restoring voting rights to felons who have served their time, and Medicaid expansion.

Northam took advantage of his comforting image as a pediatrician, and talked calmly about jobs, healthcare, and education. He appealed to traditional Virginia gentility, saying of Trump “We’re not letting him bring his hate into Virginia.”, and (on just about every issue) talking about all Virginians working together to find solutions. That, of course, is a traditional political bromide, but it contrasts nicely with scare-mongering about immigrants.

In part, Northam did that because he had to — it’s hard to picture him shouting and rabble-rousing. But I wonder if that isn’t the right approach: progressive positions on issues, expressed calmly in terms of traditional American values like justice and fairness, rather than in a way that makes them sound radical. Northam’s manner projected confidence that our problems are solvable if we work together — and not solvable if we let people take advantage of our worst instincts and turn us against each other.

Whatever approach Democratic candidates take in 2018, it needs to take advantage of the hole in the Republican message: The vague economic populism of 2016 was a mirage. Republicans have been telling white Christians who to blame for their problems, but not offering viable solutions.

Where it shows up, and where it doesn’t. The exit polls can be sliced and diced all sorts of ways, but here’s what jumped out at me: Gillespie slightly exceeded Trump’s totals among low-income households (under $50K annually) and high-income households (over $100K), but Northam clobbered him among middle-income households. In the $50-$100K bracket, Trump edged Clinton 49%-47% in 2016, but Northam beat Gillespie 57%-41% Tuesday. That’s what turned an overall 5% Clinton margin into a 9% Northam margin.

So I went back and looked at the 2013 exit polls: The Republican candidate won the $50K-$99K households 51%-43%, almost the exact mirror image of the 2017 result. So maybe this is a trend.

I could imagine a lot of reasons: Maybe the middle-income people who changed their minds have health insurance, but aren’t sure they can keep it. They value education, but have to depend on the public schools. They plan to send their kids to college, but aren’t sure they’ll be able afford it. They’re not angry and looking for someone to blame, but they are worried and looking for a reason to hope.

I don’t have a good explanation for why the low-income households haven’t shifted. Clinton carried them 53%-41%, and Northam’s margin was about the same: 56%-43%. Maybe a more dramatic message would have helped Northam here; I don’t know.

RCP’s Ross Baird found another interesting way to look at the results: He examined Virginia’s five “pivot counties”, counties that went Obama-Obama-Trump in the last three presidential elections: They were dead heats Tuesday. What most pivot counties have in common, he says, is that “more businesses have died there than have been born … despite a net increase in entrepreneurial activity across the country since the end of the Great Recession.”

That suggests that Democrats still haven’t completed the sale. Trump may have lost his shine, but there are still Obama voters Democrats aren’t reaching.

Rigged?

The relationship between the Clinton campaign and the DNC was more incestuous than we thought. Does it follow that the primaries were rigged and the nomination was stolen?


Thursday, former Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile rocked the Democratic Party when an excerpt from her upcoming book was released by Politico. It begins shortly after the 2016 Convention, with Brazile taking the DNC’s acting chairmanship and promising Bernie Sanders that she’ll “get to the bottom of whether Hillary Clinton’s team had rigged the nomination process”. Though the excerpt never again uses the word rigged (and Brazile herself denied Sunday that the primaries were rigged), her strong implication is that the answer is Yes:

By September 7, the day I called Bernie, I had found my proof and it broke my heart.

The basic story she tells is that in 2015 the DNC was deep in debt, the Clinton campaign bailed it out, and in return it got control over many DNC decisions, like who the communications director would be, and veto power over a few other appointments. The memo outlining this agreement has since come out. As Brazile says, it outlines a surprising and ethically questionable degree of incest between the DNC and the Clinton campaign. However, it also includes this paragraph, which Brazile didn’t mention:

Nothing in this agreement shall be construed to violate the DNC’s obligation of impartiality and neutrality through the Nominating process. All activities performed under this agreement will be focused exclusively on preparations for the General Election and not the Democratic Primary.

So the big questions are: In spite of that paragraph, did the DNC violate its obligation of impartiality and neutrality? If so, did it do so in ways that made a material difference? And does this validate the claims Sanders supporters have been making all along, that the nomination was stolen away from Bernie?

How it looked at the time. During the campaign, claims from Sanders supporters that Clinton was rigging the primaries would periodically show up in my social-media feeds, and I’d check them out as well as an ordinary person with access to the internet reasonably could. I never found anything that held up, or that went beyond what I considered normal politics, where candidates are always jockeying for some kind of advantage.

It was clear to me that people at the DNC were rooting for Hillary to win, but I didn’t consider that shocking. If you’re in politics, you have political opinions; nobody is neutral in their hearts. Folks at the RNC were obviously rooting against Trump, too, and would have been much happier nominating Bush or Rubio. (I’m sure if you bugged the umpire’s locker room at a baseball stadium, you’d occasionally hear them talking about players they like and don’t like, because they were all baseball fans before they became umpires.) The question isn’t what DNC officials thought, or even the opinions that they traded with each other in emails they didn’t expect anyone else to see. The question what they did.

Brazile comments on that:

I had tried to search out any other evidence of internal corruption that would show that the DNC was rigging the system to throw the primary to Hillary, but I could not find any in party affairs or among the staff. I had gone department by department, investigating individual conduct for evidence of skewed decisions, and I was happy to see that I had found none.

Most of the theories I kept seeing went far beyond what the DNC would be able to do, even if it was completely suborned. Anything to do with polling places and vote-counting, for example, was way outside their capabilities. State and local election boards run primaries, not party national committees. But any voting irregularity in the Democratic primaries — even if it seemed just as likely to target Clinton voters — became part of the Clinton-is-stealing-Bernie’s-votes lore.

The mainstream press went through the same process I did, which is why only two specific DNC-related actions are getting mentioned in the articles about Brazile’s book:

  • the schedule of Democratic debates seemed tilted toward the candidate who didn’t need debates to get voters’ attention,
  • Hillary’s campaign pushed the legal limits of its DNC  joint-fund-raising agreement, while Bernie’s campaign ignored theirs.

What’s new? Apparently, the Clinton campaign had more control over the DNC’s side of the joint-fund-raising money than we previously knew. That money was supposed to benefit the eventual nominee and the Party’s general-election effort as a whole. For the Clinton campaign to be in control of it was not right, but there are two very different possible levels of not-rightness here.

One possibility, the less toxic one, is that Clinton wanted the general-election machinery (data collection, polling, etc.) set up in a particular way, and didn’t want to wait until September to start doing it. This would be presumptuous, treating the nomination process as a foregone conclusion. But it would not have compromised the primary campaign. If Bernie had won, he would have found general-election machinery in place, ready for his use, but designed according to Hillary’s specifications.

The more toxic possibility is that the DNC’s money got funneled back into Clinton’s primary campaign, and was used against Bernie. If that’s true, that’s a very serious thing and heads should roll. Investigators should start looking for broken laws and start prosecuting people if they find any.

However, there was no evidence at the time that the second possibility was happening, and as far as I know there still isn’t. Brazile does not make that claim, and the documents she points to would seem to ban that, if they were followed. Anyone who wants to investigate that claim should have at it, and I’m willing to be convinced if any actual evidence shows up. But so far I haven’t seen any.

A spark in the gunpowder factory. People who write books often lead with something provocative and maybe a little overstated. It gets people talking about the book and makes it a must-read for anybody who wants to stay on top of the controversy. What Brazile has done in this excerpt, then, is not that unusual. (She does something similar elsewhere, telling a very unlikely story about the possibility of replacing Clinton with Biden after the convention. Throughout, Brazile portrays herself as being uniquely prescient about the coming debacle, despite the times when Clinton had double-digit leads in the polls.)

The problem is that her book isn’t coming out in a vacuum. In addition to debate schedules and other relatively minor things that appear to have actually happened, the pro-Bernie silo on the internet is still passing around charges of pro-Clinton vote-rigging and voter suppression that the evidence just does not support. It is an article of faith in certain circles that Bernie was the true choice of the voters, who had Clinton imposed on them by nefarious means.

It’s worth remembering the official vote totals. In the Democratic primaries as a whole, Clinton got 16.9 million votes, more than 55%. Her margin over Sanders was 3.7 million votes. Claiming that Sanders actually won requires believing in a fraud of the same scale as Trump’s claim that he actually won the popular vote in the general election.

In this environment, using the word rigged tells the conspiracy theorists that they were right all along. The claims Brazile is actually making may be fairly narrow, but the conclusions that people with prior opinions will draw from it are much broader.

The Trump parallel. It’s useful to compare Sanders’ situation on the Democratic side with Trump’s on the Republican side. Both were outsider candidates running against the party establishment, harnessing grass-roots discontent and anger. In each case, the party establishment believed it would be suicidal to nominate the outsider.

Going into the 2016 cycle, I think most observers would have claimed that the Republican establishment had more power than the Democratic. Democrats had a history of previously little-known candidates sweeping in: McGovern, Carter, Dukakis, Obama. On the Republican side, nominations more typically went to the next guy in line. The power brokers of the GOP are more obvious and more powerful. No Democratic donor, for example, plays as large a role as the Koch brothers do on the Republican side.

And yet, Trump got nominated and Sanders didn’t. Trump’s path, I think, shows the overall weakness of party establishments in this era. Nobody at the RNC was able to marginalize Trump, or to force out minor candidates who were splitting the establishment vote. Throughout Trump’s rise, we kept hearing about the theory from The Party Decides, in which “invisible primaries” of insiders pick the nominee, and then insiders signal the voters, who ratify the insiders’ choice in primaries.

In 2016 that theory held on the Democratic side but not on the Republican, for the simple reason, I think, that Trump got the votes and Sanders didn’t. You may or may not like the fact that Democratic voters ratified Clinton as the nominee, but they did.

What should happen? To start with, Hillary Clinton has already told us that she’s not running for anything again, so unless laws were broken — and not even Brazile claims that — there’s really nothing to be done regarding her personally.

Obviously, the DNC will need to be extra transparent in the next cycle, and hopefully beyond. No one enters the 2020 cycle in the same commanding position Clinton had four years ago, though, so it’s hard to see how the same mistakes would be made anyway. But there needs to be some process by which we can all assure ourselves that no candidate is getting an unfair advantage from the Party.

Beyond that, there’s a bigger problem that affects the Republicans as well as the Democrats: Parties are open to being dominated by candidates like Clinton, or bullied by large donors like the Kochs, because they are inherently weak in this era. Bernie Sanders represents a different side of this problem: The Democratic Party isn’t something he belongs to (he doesn’t), it’s just a structure for seeking office.

Democrats suffer for this at the local level more than Republicans, because Republicans are more likely to be funded by state-level power brokers like North Carolina’s Art Pope, or by corporations who understand the power state government has to dole out favors. Democrats are more reliant on the star-power of national candidates like Obama or Clinton or Sanders, and the local parties correspondingly get short-changed.

It could be that we are in a transitional period, and parties will eventually go away, or come to mean something completely different. I wish I had something more to say about the coming structure, and whether it will be better or worse.

Single Payer Joins the Debate

The U.S. spends far more on healthcare than any other country.

Bernie Sanders’ Medicare-for-All bill gets a different response this time.


The most frustrating thing about the national discussion prior to passing the Affordable Care Act in 2010 was that single-payer was out of the picture from the beginning. Some Democrats (I remember hearing presidential candidate John Edwards make this case explicitly during the 2008 campaign; at the time he and Obama and Clinton had very similar healthcare proposals) held out the hope that a public option would out-compete all the private plans in the exchanges, and so would evolve into a de facto single-payer program. But then the final version of the ACA didn’t include a public option, so even that straw of hope was gone.

Leaving single-payer out of the debate is particularly bizarre when you consider that most of the rest of the industrialized world organizes its healthcare that way, and gets better results than we do (i.e., longer life expectancy at lower per-capita cost — it’s hard to make out, but that tall bar at the far left of the graph at the top of the page represents the U.S.). When you find yourself struggling to keep up with the Joneses, you ought to at least consider doing what the Joneses do. We didn’t.

The Sanders bill. For years, Bernie Sanders has been a voice-in-the-wilderness on single payer. He introduced a single-payer bill in the Senate in 2009, and it got zero cosponsors. Again in 2011, he got zero cosponsors in the Senate, but a companion bill in the House had 12 sponsors. Both of Sanders’ bills died in committee and never reached the Senate floor.

This time it’s different. The New Yorker‘s John Cassidy explains:

In the end, there were sixteen co-sponsors. They included Tammy Baldwin, of Wisconsin; Cory Booker, of New Jersey; Al Franken, of Minnesota; Kirsten Gillibrand, of New York; Kamala Harris, of California; Jeff Merkley, of Oregon; Brian Schatz, of Hawaii; and Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts.

One thing all these politicians have in common is that they have been mentioned, with varying degrees of plausibility, as possible Presidential candidates in 2020. (So has Sanders himself.)

Six years ago, single-payer was something an ambitious Democrat wouldn’t want to be associated with. Now, an ambitious Democrat can’t afford not to be associated with it. But Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer and House leader Nancy Pelosi have been more cautious, neither endorsing or opposing it. The WaPo’s Aaron Blake quotes Pelosi:

“I don’t think it’s a litmus test,” she said. “I think to support the idea that it captures is that we want to have as many people as possible, everybody, covered, and I think that’s something that we all embrace.” She said she’s focused on protecting the Affordable Care Act.

He also explains her motives: She wants to be Speaker again, not President. That focuses her on a different audience.

If Democrats are going to retake the House (or even the Senate), they need to win in red territory where government-funded health care is a much, much tougher sell than in a Democratic presidential primary.

Gerrymandering is a factor in Pelosi’s thinking. Democrats can’t win control of the House just by getting the most votes. (They did that in 2012, and it didn’t work.) House districts have been drawn so that the majority of them lean Republican. So if Democrats can’t win in red districts, Paul Ryan keeps the Speakership.

What the Medicare for All Act of 2017 does and doesn’t do. Over a four-year phase-in period, the bill would extend something resembling Medicare to everybody: Children would be covered immediately, and the eligibility age for Medicare would drop each year: from 65 to 55 to 45 to 35 and then 0. During the transition, the ineligible could buy into Medicare as a public option on the ObamaCare exchanges.

But the plan would be more than just Medicare as we currently know it: Premiums and co-pays would be gone, and its coverage would be far more complete. It would, for example, pay for dental care, glasses, and hearing aids. The Secretary of HHS would have the option of including whatever “alternative and complementary medicine” seemed appropriate.

How serious is it? That depends on what you mean by serious. It is a real bill, and if it somehow got through the Republican-controlled Congress and President Trump signed it, it would be a real law. Four years later, everyone would be covered by something sort of like Medicare.

At the same time, the bill leaves out a lot of essential details. How it slims down to 96 pages (compared to the thousands in the Affordable Care Act) is that vast numbers of decisions are delegated to the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Administrator of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid. The phrase “the Secretary” appears 88 times, in contexts like:

the Secretary shall establish a national health budget, which specifies the total expenditures to be made for covered health care services under this Act.

The Administrator (ten times) determines more-or-less everything about the buy-in provision, such as how much it costs.

The biggest hole, though, is how it would all be paid for. If you total up Medicare, Medicaid, the Veterans Administration, ObamaCare, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and health insurance for federal employees — all of which would be subsumed — the government already spends well over a trillion dollars each year on healthcare, maybe as much as a two trillion. But that’s still not nearly as much money as would be needed.

There would undoubtedly be some cost savings: Medicare already has far lower overhead than private insurance, the enlarged Medicare would have enormous leverage for negotiating drug prices, and so on. There are, after all, reasons that other countries can spend less than we do without compromising care. But one important cost difference is that doctors in the U.S. make far more money than doctors in other countries. Nobody is proposing a Physician Pay Cut Act of 2017, so that probably won’t change. Other savings would take years to kick in. (Countries with a universal healthcare system do a better job of preventive care, and public health in general. In the long run that pays off, but maybe not in the short run.)

But there would also be cost increases: more people covered for more procedures with no co-pays. Also: What happens to the money states currently spend on Medicaid? The federal government can’t automatically sweep it into the new program, but there will be no reason for states to keep spending it once the federal government takes responsibility for all healthcare.

So even if you’re optimistic, you still need to come up with a large amount of new federal revenue, which would happen in a separate bill. Sanders admitted as much to the WaPo’s David Weigel.

Rather than give a detailed proposal about how we’re going to raise $3 trillion a year, we’d rather give the American people options. The truth is, embarrassingly, that on this enormously important issue, there has not been the kind of research and study that we need. You’ve got think tanks, in many cases funded by the drug companies and the insurance companies, telling us how terribly expensive it’s going to be. We have economists looking at it who are coming up with different numbers.

So in that sense, Sanders’ bill isn’t serious: He doesn’t have a proposal to raise the money to pay for it, or even a precise estimate of how much needs to be raised. Democrats are actually counting on Republicans not to pass this, because they’re not actually ready to implement it.

Given that it won’t pass, it’s not clear how seriously Sanders’ cosponsors are taking the bill. Senator Franken of Minnesota described it like this:

Establishing a single-payer system would be one way to achieve universal coverage, and Senator Sanders’ “Medicare for All” bill lays down an important marker to help us reach that goal. This bill is aspirational, and I’m hopeful that it can serve as a starting point for where we need to go as a country.

That’s a long way from “This is what we’re going to do.”

Revenue options. What Sanders does have are some suggestions about revenue: an increased payroll tax, paid either by employers or employees; eliminating the now-obsolete business deduction for employee health insurance (which the bill makes illegal: “Beginning on the effective date described in section 106(a), it shall be unlawful for a private health insurer to sell health insurance coverage that duplicates the benefits provided under this Act.”); significantly higher tax rates for people making more than $250K per year; dividends and capital gains taxed at the same rate as other income; limited tax deductions in the upper-income brackets; a higher estate tax; a wealth tax on households worth more than $21 million; taxes on corporate profits held offshore; a fee charged to large financial institutions; and a few others.

Sanders presents this as a menu of choices. But if you add up his numbers, you get $16.192 trillion over ten years, so we might need to do all of them to come up with money needed. (During the primary campaign, the Urban Institute estimated that a similar Sanders proposal would require an additional $32 trillion over ten years, but Sanders’ supporters called that analysis “ridiculous“.)

I also don’t trust Sanders’ numbers. Not that he’s being dishonest, but when it comes to taxes, the rich are always a moving target. New proposals to tax them always inspire new methods of evasion. It’s not that plutocrats and multinational corporations are impossible to tax, but proposals seldom raise quite as much revenue as their authors expect.

Public opinion. Polling on Medicare for All is highly variable. The phrase itself is popular, but as you give people more details their support starts to waver. In particular, when you tell them that their own taxes will go up, they begin to have doubts. (Kaiser didn’t poll the objection that you’d have to give up the employer-based health insurance that more than half the country has now, but I’ll bet it changes minds also. If you’re satisfied with how your health insurance is working, you may look skeptically on a proposal to change it.)

Sanders’ counter-argument, which I believe, is that public health insurance is just more efficient than private health insurance, so most people would pay far less in new taxes than they currently pay to insurance companies. But that relies on trusting various experts to do some fairly sophisticated calculations. I’m skeptical that the public will maintain the needed level of trust when insurance and drug companies start funding massive doubt-raising advertising campaigns (like the one that killed HillaryCare in the 1990s), or Republicans start spreading outright lies (like the death panels supposedly established by the Affordable Care Act).

In general, I think many of us maintain a too-flattering image of swing voters: We picture them as judicious people who weigh their options and make up their minds slowly, rather than blindly following a party or an ideology. In reality, I believe most of them have no party or ideology because they just don’t think about politics or public issues very much or very deeply. Many are low-information voters whose choices can depend on a turn of phrase or who they talked to last. It’s not that hard for a slick campaign to scare them enough that they want to keep what they have rather than leap to something new.

The repeal-and-replace parallel. Several pundits (Josh Barro, for one) have noted the resemblance to Republican calls to repeal-and-replace ObamaCare. Like “Medicare for All”, the “repeal-and-replace” slogan is much more popular (especially within the base of one party) than any specific plan to carry it out. The Republican problem is that they let the phrase stay “aspirational”, to use Senator Franken’s word, for too long. When they suddenly had the power to implement it, they didn’t have an implementable plan.

Barro describes a more evolutionary approach to the goal of universal coverage, something closer to the public-option-wins-out vision of 2008: Medicare Available to All. Rather than one big change that asks Americans to pay higher taxes and trust that a big government program will meet their needs better than whatever they’re doing now, Barro pictures a more gradual change:

There is a version of “Medicare for All” that Democrats could operationalize effectively and popularly: opening a version of Medicare or Medicaid up to any individual who wants to buy coverage under it, and to any employer who wants to buy coverage for its employees under it.

Such a program could build on the existing system of subsidies and exchanges created by Obamacare, as well as the existing system of tax-preferred employer-provided health insurance. It could reduce costs for consumers by using the government’s bargaining power to bring down the prices paid for drugs and medical services.

… In practice, the cost advantage of the Medicare or Medicaid system might lead most individuals and most employers to decide they’d rather buy the public plan than a private one. But that would be a voluntary change — one that consumers would welcome because of the cost savings — not a mandatory one.

… The big political advantage of a public-option approach is it makes it possible to take on providers and drug companies directly, on the issue of costs, without simultaneously fighting on many other fronts. With a public option, you don’t need to simultaneously convince doctors to take a pay cut and convince workers and employers to accept a tax increase and convince consumers to give up their existing insurance plans.

In Barro’s vision, features like better subsidies to the less-well-off and a better benefit package could be added over time, ultimately resulting in a plan not that different from what Sanders pictures.

Complementarity. I think it would be a mistake if Democrats got into an either/or battle between better-coverage-for-more-people and great-coverage-for-everybody. It’s important to have goals well beyond the things that you know how to achieve today or tomorrow. But it’s also important to go into the battle you face today with a plan you can implement today. There is no inherent contradiction between those two ambitions.

Republicans seem to understand this. It’s totally within the Republican mainstream for a presidential candidate to announce that he’d like to eliminate the IRS or pay off the national debt, even if he has no credible plan to do so. In the meantime, just about everybody will be happy if he manages to cut taxes or propose a balanced budget. Republicans understand that having a big dream keeps you marching in the right direction, even if you don’t actually get wherever you say you’re going.

But Democrats responded to their landslide losses in 1972, 1980, 1984, and 1988 by cutting their dreams down to size. Smarting under the Reagan-era charge that they were too liberal, they played it cautious: I don’t want to turn America into Sweden, I just want to do this one little thing.

What the popularity of the Medicare-for-All slogan indicates is that it’s time for the one-little-thing era to be over. One-little-thing didn’t just limit Democrats’ horizons, it made us sound untrustworthy. If we wouldn’t say where we wanted to go in the long run, our enemies could say it for us.

A political party that actually means something has to want Big Things, things that might take decades to achieve, like racial justice, gender equality, an end to a constant state of war, the elimination of poverty, a sustainable relationship with the rest of the biosphere — and healthcare for everybody. At the same time, wanting Big Things someday can’t be enough. We need to be achieving something today that takes us closer to those Big Things.

There’s no contradiction between envisioning a journey of a thousand miles and taking a single step. They’re part of the same whole.

Why I’m Still Skeptical About the Progressive Revolution

My social media bubble has drifted well to the left of center, so I hear a lot of frustration with the Democratic Party — particularly with the centrist Clintonite wing that has dominated the DNC in recent years, during which the party has lost the White House, both houses of Congress, and vast numbers of seats in state legislatures. The solution is supposed to be for all those people to get out of the way and let the progressive Bernie-supporting wing of the party take over. Hillary Clinton in particular should just go away, and anybody involved in the DNC in 2016 should follow her. The Left is where the youth and energy of the party are, and it has the kind of bold proposals that might get disaffected voters to the polls. Look what Jeremy Corbyn just did in the UK.

I’m almost there. The critique — lost elections at all levels — is inarguable. And I long for a more visionary approach to the future. Take gun control as a neutral example that cuts across the Clinton/Sanders line: All Democrats — and most of the rest of the country — can agree that our current gun laws are stupid. The fact that we don’t even do universal background checks on gun purchasers is insane (and so are some of the people who exploit the loopholes in the system and buy guns). But in the Ideal Democratic Future, what is the relationship between American citizens and guns? Does anybody have an answer for that?

But I have to admit, on almost every other issue progressives have a clear advantage on the vision-of-the-future front. Again and again, the centrists get lost in the next-small-step argument and never get around to saying where they want to go. But conversely, while progressives are clear on the Big Idea, they’re often vague about what the next step is. (After Congress rejects his single-payer healthcare plan, does President Sanders have a Plan B, or does he just wait for the next Congress?)

So while I’m rooting for the progressives, let me tell you exactly where I get stuck. All my political life, the left wing of the Democratic Party (and the non-Democrats who reject the party for not being liberal enough) has been suffering from the delusion that it’s more popular than it actually is. Again and again, I have heard that somebody like Ralph Nader or Dennis Kucinich represented what the American people really want, and then seen them get something like 2% of the vote. And then, in the next election the same people would come back and tell me the same thing, as if the last election never happened.

Polls. Why do they think this? It’s not purely wishful thinking; there are polls that say the same thing. If you ask about specific issues, and phrase your questions right, you can get sizeable majorities of the American people to agree with liberal positions.

In early 2015, for example, 68% of Americans told pollsters that the rich don’t pay enough tax; only 11% thought the rich pay too much. This February, a 60%-38% majority said the government should “make sure that all Americans have healthcare coverage”. Last year, 63% described their response to “Medicare for all” as either “very positive” (36%) or “somewhat positive” (27%). In 2013, Gallup found 72% support for “a federal government program that would spend government money to put people to work on urgent infrastructure repairs”.

Early in 2015, the Progressive Change Institute polled a wide range of issues: 71% supported letting anyone buy in to Medicare. 70% were for a “Green New Deal” to create millions of clean-energy jobs. 63% favored free community college. 70% would expand Social Security benefits. 61% wanted a special prosecutor to investigate all police killings. And more.

However, you can also get different results if you ask different questions. In 2013, a WaPo/ABC poll found 61% support for an across-the-board 5% cut in federal spending. That’s a fairly consistent pattern: As an abstract concept, government spending is unpopular, even while spending on particular programs has broad support. And while majorities always think the rich should pay more tax, nobody thinks that they themselves are rich — and hardly anybody thinks people like them should pay more tax.

So it’s naive to think that you can get those 60% or 70% majorities by running on a progressive platform. You’d get those majorities if you ran on a progressive platform, and then managed to control the narrative of the campaign so that the eventual vote turned on the issues where you have large majorities behind you.

But that never happens. Just ask Hillary; I don’t think she expected to spend the last week of the campaign answering questions about the FBI. In 1988, Dukakis had Bush nailed on the issues — so the Bush campaign invented an issue out of nothing: They were for the pledge of allegiance and Dukakis (they claimed) was against it. They won.

The 2016 primaries. Bearing that history in mind, what did 2016 really tell us? On my social media feed, I often hear the story told this way: Bernie was the people’s choice, but the Democratic establishment pushed Hillary through in spite of her unpopularity.

And here’s my problem with that story: If the people had really wanted Bernie, they could have voted for him. That’s what happened where I live in New Hampshire (where I dithered, and then voted for Bernie myself). If the power of the establishment works anywhere, it should work in the early primaries, when the upstart candidate seems most unlikely. But Hillary’s initial advantages in name recognition and money and endorsements got her only a tiny victory margin in Iowa, and then got her clobbered in New Hampshire, where Bernie got 60% of the vote and won every county.

From that point on, the race was a free-for-all. And Bernie lost that free-for-all: His total primary vote was 13.2 million, compared to Clinton’s 16.9 million. That loss can’t be attributed to some fluke of the process: He also never caught Clinton in the national polls. For a couple weeks in mid-April he got within a point or two, but then Clinton started to pull away. The late-breaking trend was entirely towards Clinton, climaxing with her 7-point win in California, a state which fits the Sanders profile as well as any.

Sanders supporters who don’t go in for a DNC-stole-the-election conspiracy theory often blame the media: Sanders couldn’t get his message out. The articles about him didn’t focus on how great his proposals were, and instead drew too much attention to stereotypes like “Bernie bros”.

But a campaign never gets the media coverage it wants. Clinton certainly didn’t. The same Harvard study that pointed out how little serious media attention Sanders got in 2015 also showed that the attention to Clinton was almost entirely negative.

Whereas media coverage helped build up Trump, it helped tear down Clinton. Trump’s positive coverage was the equivalent of millions of dollars in ad-buys in his favor, whereas Clinton’s negative coverage can be equated to millions of dollars in attack ads, with her on the receiving end.

The 2016 general election. Yes, I often hear, but Clinton lost to Trump and Sanders would have won.

I don’t think that’s clear at all. Yes, Hillary would have beaten Trump if she’d gotten Jill Stein’s votes, which almost certainly would have gone to Bernie if he’d been the nominee.

But there’s another third-party possibility everybody forgets: When Bernie was surging after New Hampshire, Michael Bloomberg considered running, perhaps because he saw a big hole in the center if it came down to Trump vs. Sanders. But by early March, after the Southern primaries had given Clinton a significant delegate lead (and the day before Sanders’ surprise win in Michigan put him back in the race for a few weeks), Bloomberg backed out. So don’t compare Trump/Clinton/Stein to a Trump/Sanders race where Sanders gets all the Stein votes. Instead picture the Trump/Bloomberg/Sanders race. How many votes does Bernie lose in the center that Hillary got? More than Stein took, I’ll bet.

After a defeat, everyone sees what went wrong, so there have been a lot of articles about what a bad candidate Clinton was. But you also can’t forget this: Hillary was the only candidate in 2016 who beat Trump in a debate, and she did it all three times. That’s not a judgment call: She actually got a bump in the polls after each one. I don’t think we can just assume Sanders would have done as well.

The Tea Party parallel. When the Tea Party popped into existence in the spring of 2009, it was largely an astroturf phenomenon. Yes, there was public anger on the Right, animated by fear of what the new Obama administration might do (and also by some fairly thinly veiled racism). But the message was spread with Koch money and the early rallies given unlimited free publicity by Fox News.

But eventually it turned into a Frankenstein monster that got away from the people who hoped to control it. Rather than a simple Republican rebranding operation — it’s hard to remember now just how defeated the Republicans were after 2008 — it turned into a faction that took the Party away from its previous establishment. John Boehner rode the movement to the speakership, but then was forced out by it. Jeb Bush had all the same advantages going into 2016 that Clinton did, but got nowhere with them. The Trump presidency is the ultimate result: The Tea Party is his base.

So the Tea Party demonstrates the vulnerability of party establishments, and it also gives a road map for an insurgency to take control: win elections. In 2010, Marco Rubio was an insurgent candidate aligned with the Tea Party. He beat Florida’s sitting governor (Charlie Crist) in a primary for the Senate nomination, then won a three-way race in the fall against Crist and a Democrat. Ted Cruz had a similar path to the Senate in 2012, upsetting the sitting Republican Lieutenant Governor in a primary. In 2014, a Tea Party candidate beat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary.

In short, after their horrible 2008 defeat, the Republican establishment did not just step aside and surrender the party to the upstarts. The Bush dynasty, for example, did not just go away. Tea Party candidates had to win the GOP at the ballot box. Can progressives do something similar on the Democratic side?

Prove it to me. I keep hearing that the Democratic establishment is completely out of touch with the voters. It raises no enthusiasm. It has no vision for how to regain power. The progressive agenda, on the other hand — Medicare for everybody, free college, $15 minimum wage, taxing the rich, breaking up the big banks, and so forth — is where the people are. Bernie is the most popular politician in the country.* The progressives have all the energy and momentum.

If that’s all true, then it shouldn’t be hard for candidates to run on that progressive agenda, with the support of progressive heroes like Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and win elections. In particular, primary elections against those tired old DNC-supported candidates should be easy victories.

So far that’s not happening. Why not?

We just had a test in Virginia, a swing state that Clinton won in 2016 by a surprisingly large 5.3%. The two candidates in the Democratic primary for governor were probably not that far apart in reality, but the race got framed as a progressive-vs-establishment contest. Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam lined up the all the big-name Virginia Democratic endorsements, while former Congressman Tom Perriello ran as an outsider with a populist message. Sanders campaigned with Perriello, and Elizabeth Warren endorsed him.

It was supposed to be close, and then it wasn’t: Northam won by 14%.

I’m still waiting for a breakthrough progressive win. So far I’m getting claims of moral victory and excuses about establishment power. A progressive candidate for Congress lost the Montana special election — but he did well in a red district and the DNC should have done more for him. (Tomorrow we’ll see an opposite test: John Ossoff is running as a centrist in a red district outside Atlanta.)

Maybe revolution is the wrong metaphor. Northam won in Virginia by adopting a lot of the progressive platform and some of its rhetoric, as politicians will do when the national mood shifts. That’s an evolution, not a revolution.

The real test will be the 2018 primaries. I hope progressives give those primaries a real Tea Party effort: Don’t just stand on the sidelines and complain that the establishment didn’t give you good candidates. Run your own candidates, and put all that youth and energy behind them.

If you do that, you might win, but you also might lose, because the Left always believes it’s more popular than it actually is. If it turns out that’s still true, then the only way to get to a majority is to find allies that you can pull partway towards your agenda. That would be evolution rather than revolution. But it would still be change.


* Getting back to my control-the-narrative theme, I wonder how Bernie’s national popularity is holding up this week, when his name keeps getting mentioned in the context of the Scalise shooting. I think it’s completely unfair to blame Bernie for something done by an obscure volunteer for his campaign, and the Scalise shooting has nothing to do with the Sanders agenda, but political narratives are unfair.

All Democrats have some introspecting to do

No matter who you supported in the primaries, you have a lot to think about.


As soon as the 2016 election winners take office, Democrats will be wielding far less power than they have for a very long time. The Presidency and both houses of Congress are under Republican control. The Senate blockade of Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court has apparently succeeded, setting up a return to the 5-4 conservative majority the Court had before Justice Scalia’s death. If Justice Kennedy or any of the four liberal justices were to quit or die in the next four years — a real possibility considering that Kennedy is 80 and Justice Ginsburg is an 83-year-old cancer survivor — we could be looking at the most conservative Court since the New Deal.

It’s no better at the state level. When the 2016 victors take office, Democrats will hold only 16 of the 50 governorships, with even states as blue as Massachusetts, Vermont, and Illinois having Republican governors. In 32 states, Republicans control both houses of the legislature, in some cases by supermajorities of 2/3s or more.

Some liberals may not consider themselves Democrats — Bernie Sanders, for example, is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate — but so far they haven’t found a path to power that doesn’t include the Democratic Party. So liberalism as also out in the cold right now.

You might think this situation would cause some soul-searching, but so far it seems to have produced mainly finger-pointing. Having watched a lot of back-and-forth on social media and elsewhere about why Democrats lost in 2016, I’ve been struck by how self-serving it is, on both the pro- and anti-Clinton sides. Everyone seems to be saying, “If everybody had just listened to me, we’d be fine. So I just need to keep saying and doing what I’ve been saying and doing all along.”

I’m not finding that message convincing. Not from anybody.

The pro-Clinton case. Clinton apologists have a long list of she-could-have-won-if points, all of which have some limited amount of validity. She won the popular vote by 2%, almost three million votes, so she’d have won if not for the Electoral College. The Russian interference in the election seems real, and given how small Trump’s margin was in many key states, that probably made the difference. Jim Comey’s last-minute re-raising of the email issue, for what turned out to be no good reason, was another bit of dirty pool that helped put Trump over the top. If Clinton’s internal polling had recognized how she was slipping in the upper Midwest, campaign resources that turned out to be wasted in places like Arizona could have been brought to bear on Wisconsin and Michigan. If Jill Stein hadn’t run, if the national news media hadn’t created a false equivalence between Clinton’s integrity problems and Trump’s, if social media had the kind of anti-false-news provisions it’s trying to develop now …

There’s no end to it, and it’s all more-or-less true as far as it goes. I’m sure that in most parallel universes, it’s Clinton who is getting ready to take the oath of office. Too bad for us that we live in an unlucky one.

But let’s imagine we could look in on one of those other universes, say the one where Comey kept his mouth shut about ongoing investigations, as FBI directors are supposed to do. Let’s imagine Clinton wins the popular vote there by 3% or 4%, rather than the 2% she won by in our universe, and that’s enough to tip the Electoral College in her favor.

OK, now consider this question: Is the Democratic Party in good shape? Is liberalism on track?

We still don’t get the Senate back, because even though Pennsylvania’s seat might also flip, there isn’t a second Senate race that the Republicans won with a razor-thin margin. You could imagine that a House race flips here or there, but again, it’s not enough to give Nancy Pelosi the Speaker’s gavel. And how exactly did Comey (or Putin) influence the governors’ races, or the state legislatures?

In a practical sense, then, Clinton winds up where Obama has been since 2010: unable to push an agenda through Congress, and relying on the veto and other executive powers to keep Republicans from trashing things too badly. Maybe she makes a Supreme Court appointment, or maybe the Senate blockade continues. (I suspect she does, but again, that mostly just prevents disasters; a liberal Court majority doesn’t put us on a path to a new liberal awakening.)

So OK: Clinton beats the Orange Menace with 49% or 50% of the vote instead of 48%, ObamaCare survives another four years, and the country continues to muddle along. That’s better than the situation we’re in now, but my impression is that disaster has just been forestalled a little while, not that we’re on the path to turning things around.

Even under President Clinton, then, the Democratic Party would have some serious rethinking to do.

Anti-Clinton. Inside certain echo-chambers of Bernie Sanders’ supporters, it’s obvious that Democrats just nominated the wrong candidate. Bernie would have beaten Trump, and everything would be wonderful. Trump won because voters wanted an outsider and Clinton was an insider. Or they would have responded to an authentic liberal, but Clinton isn’t one. Or something.

The main evidence for this view is that during the primaries Bernie did better than Clinton in the head-to-head polling match-ups with Trump. A lot of polls showed him winning by double digits, sometimes as much as 15%. But of course, Clinton also had some double-digit leads in polls, some of them fairly late in the campaign. We saw how quickly such leads can evaporate. Since Sanders was less well known than Clinton, and since Republicans had largely treated him with kid gloves that would have come off in a general election campaign, I would expect opinions about him to be more volatile in a general election, not less. So a polling lead over Trump in April is not very convincing evidence.

But the real reason not to buy the liberal-victory or outsider-victory scenario is that as best I can tell, nobody made that message work in downballot elections. If the Bernie-wins theory were correct, I’d expect to see some state or congressional district where Trump beat Clinton, but some plucky liberal outsider candidate pulled an upset win over a Republican incumbent senator or governor or representative. I can’t think of any such example. (The most notable downballot candidate to win a Trump state was Roy Cooper in the North Carolina governor’s race. But he’s not an outsider and his positions on key issues seem pretty Clintonish to me.)

Take Iowa, for example. In past elections it has been a swing state leaning blue. Bush won it in 2004, but Gore won Iowa in 2000 and Obama carried it twice. Trump won it decisively, 51%-42%. So Iowans must really have been fed up with the status quo and ready to throw out all the insiders, right? Well, not exactly. Other than Mitch McConnell, probably nobody is a bigger Washington insider than Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, who has been in the Senate since 1980. He got re-elected by an even bigger margin, 60%-37%.

Or look at Wisconsin, which Clinton lost very narrowly, 47.2%-46.5%. Russ Feingold, a liberal hero who in 2001 was the sole dissenting vote in the Senate against the Patriot Act, lost by a bigger margin, 50%-47%.

It’s not a hard or unreasonable test: Find some electoral district where Trump won, but a downballot Democrat also won by running either as an anti-Establishment outsider or on a Bernie-like progressive agenda. I don’t believe there is one.

Another argument is that Bernie could have won just by not being Hillary Clinton. But the voters seemed to have no special distaste for Clinton in comparison to other Democrats. In Pennsylvania, a state that hadn’t gone Republican in a presidential election since 1988, and which Obama won 52%-47% in 2012, Clinton lost by 44,000 votes out of nearly 6 million. But in the senatorial election, Katie McGinity lost a close race by a slightly worse margin, 116,000. The story in New Hampshire was similar, but on the opposite side: Clinton won by 3,000 votes, and the Democratic senate candidate won by 1,000.

In other words, it was the party that lost, not just the candidate. Simply being not-Clinton didn’t gain Democrats anything.

So what should we be thinking about? First, I think we need to lose the Clinton and Sanders labels, because I don’t see the point in refighting that. It’s not like either of them is likely to run for president again, so there’s no need to keep your arguments against them sharp.

There will continue to be a struggle going forward, but let’s focus on ideas and approaches rather than personalities. On the one hand, there are the centrist, focus-on-what’s-possible-today, work-within-the-power-structure, gradual-change Democrats. On the other, the more radical, big-picture, go-for-it, overthrow-the-power-structure Democrats (or liberals who don’t call themselves Democrats because Democrats are too tame). Each group has some important introspecting to do.

The first group needs to answer questions like this: How are we going to inspire anyone? What’s my elevator speech, the simple statement that tells low-information voters what the Democratic Party is about and why they should support it? The half of the country that isn’t interested enough in politics to vote — what in my message will wake them up and get them involved? How can I explain to people that the small step I want to take right now is just the first step on a journey that goes someplace exciting? And — maybe most important of all — does it go someplace exciting? On an issue like climate change, for example, the clock is ticking. Does the gradualist approach deliver change fast enough to avoid global disaster?

Finally, the first group needs to stop waiting for something to happen. Stop waiting for the Republicans to cross some line that will finally make Americans realize that they’ve gone insane and look to us instead. Stop waiting for demographic change to create the electorate we want. Power will not come to us because it’s our turn; we have to earn it.

The second group needs to let go of a myth: There is no hidden liberal majority in America. The non-voters aren’t disillusioned left-wing radicals who are just waiting for a true believer to blow the battle horn. Bernie did that and he lost. [1] Even if he had won, he’d be one guy dealing with the same obstacles Obama has been facing. [2] The only way there ever will be a liberal majority in America is if we figure out how to make one.

I still believe the model I put forward last February in “Say – you want a revolution?“: The vast majority of non-voters are people who don’t have a political identity at all. If you ask the right poll questions, you can get them to express liberal ideas on specific issues. [3] You can sometimes get a number of them to show up in one election just by fielding an appealing candidate (i.e., Obama) or having a good slogan (“Yes We Can”), but that doesn’t change the long-term political balance of the country. Next time it might be the other guys who field an appealing (or energizingly appalling) candidate and have a good slogan (“Make America Great Again”).

Long-term political change involves people joining things that change their identities, the way that the blue-collar union workers of the 1960s became the evangelical church members of the 1980s. Where are we making that happen now? Do we have the vision, the stamina, and the local-organizing ability to facilitate that kind of change?

The turn-the-world-around movement won’t instantly coalesce around the right presidential candidate with the right message. It will start someplace small, with a new approach to very specific, very local concerns. Where are we running those experiments and giving lightning a chance to strike? [4]

So whether you think of yourself as belonging to the Democratic Party or the progressive movement, our power is at a low ebb right now. Nobody — I mean nobody — has cause to feel smug about this. It isn’t that she failed or they failed, but I’m all right. We’re where we are right now because I failed, you failed, we all failed. Each of us needs to be looking in a mirror and asking what we’re going to do differently.

Extra credit question. While researching an article I’ll probably post next week, I read the 1955 classic They Thought They Were Free by Milton Mayer, in which he relates his conversations with ten low-level small-town Nazi Party members after the war. I was struck by this comment from a high school teacher.

For the first time in my life I was really the peer of men who, in the Kaiser time and in the Weimar time, had always belonged to classes lower or higher than my own, men whom one had always looked down on or up to, but never at. In the [National Socialist] Labor Front— I represented the teachers’ association— I came to know such people at first hand, to know their lives and to have them know mine. Even in America— perhaps; I have never been there— I suspect that the teacher who talks about ‘the common people’ has never known one, really known one, not even if he himself came from among them, as I, with an Army officer as a father, did not. National Socialism broke down that separation, that class distinction. Democracy— such democracy as we had had— didn’t do it and is not doing it now.

In other words, in a cultural sense the Nazi regime felt more democratic to him than the Weimar Republic. As a Nazi, he felt that he was part of the German Volk, no better or worse than any other German. He believed this was a common perception among his acquaintances.

There’s a lesson here about how Trump won. It seems to me that Democrats have lost that sense of cultural democracy, and that this is why the stereotypic poorly-educated white working-class Trump voter resents us. Instead, our leaders (of all factions) seem to identify with the meritocracy, which is a fancy way of saying that some people are just better than others. Hal Walker explains why this is a problem:

Economic disenfranchisement becomes an issue of who did well at school and who didn’t, not structural forces acting on society. What should be a progressive politics becomes just another version of the bootstraps myth, with grades and scholarships standing in for sweat and prudent personal budgeting. … In the end, the snobs lost to the slobs, but true to the character of the well-educated, they simply will not hear criticism that does not come from the similarly credentialed.

Trump was able to nail Clinton — and would have been able to nail Bernie and most of the rest of us — as the kid who sat in the front of the classroom and always had her hand up. Every time we fact-checked him, his fans were identifying with him, not us. “I know. They think I’m stupid too.”

I’m really not sure what to do about this. It’s one of the things I’m introspecting about. The meritocracy says that people in the lower classes are just losers, particularly if they can’t point to some form of discrimination that has kept them down unfairly. Without turning our backs on facts and science, how do we establish and project a sense that all people have worth?


[1] Legitimately. In the primaries, Clinton got about 3.8 million more votes. Bernie-or-bust folks tried to de-legitimize that result in two ways, but in neither case does the quality of the logic rise above the conspiracy-theory level.

The more specific version was a direct election-rigging claim that foreshadowed Trump’s baseless claims in the Fall. For example, there was this report from Election Justice USA. Here’s one of the points from the executive summary:

Analyses in [this report] show that voter purges [in New York] also disproportionately affected Sanders’ vote totals: the percentage of purged voters for each precinct was a significant predictor of Clinton’s vote share.

Anybody who understands the first thing about statistics should see that the conclusion doesn’t follow. If you’re aiming at a group of people, you’ll hit more of them in places where they congregate. So if a voter purge were targeted at likely Sanders voters, you’d expect to see the exact opposite result: More voters would be purged in precincts that Sanders won. (And no, the rest of the report doesn’t explain or justify that backwards conclusion.)

The whole report is like that. If something looked off somewhere, it must have been part of the grand anti-Sanders conspiracy.

The more vague argument was that the all-powerful DNC somehow manipulated those 3.8 million people into voting for Clinton. The evidence for this is supposedly in those emails that Russia hacked and WikiLeaks released.

I can’t say I’ve gone through the whole trove, but I read the emails that made headlines, the ones Bernie supporters point to. You know what isn’t in them? References to some specific anti-Sanders action that they carried out. I am not shocked to learn that when they talked among themselves, DNC folks weren’t neutral. They’re professional politicians; they couldn’t possibly be neutral in their hearts. I’m also not shocked that they discussed anti-Sanders arguments or strategies. But did they do any of them? That’s what’s missing.

Here’s the parallel that rings true for me: I’ll bet that if you bugged the umpires’ dressing room in a major league baseball stadium, you’d hear lots of resentment against players who make the umps look bad and fantasies of things they could do to those players. And since umpires are baseball people, they’re probably also fans and have players they admire. But (absent other compelling evidence) I would not interpret those conversations as a plot to throw the game.

And even if they had wanted to throw the election, they couldn’t have done it. The DNC is not a masters-of-the-universe club. Primary elections are run by state election commissions, not the national parties.

The fact needs to be faced: Clinton beat Sanders by 3.8 million votes.

[2] On Day 1, President Sanders sends a Medicare-for-everybody plan to Congress. On Day 2, Speaker Ryan assigns it to a committee that decides not to hold hearings or have a vote. What happens on Day 3?

[3] You shouldn’t interpret polls on particular issues as expressions of the public’s political identity, because issue-polling has persistent paradoxes. For example, if you ask whether the government spends too much or too little, a solid majority will say “too much”. But if you then start asking about specific cuts — “Should we cut Social Security?”, “Should we cut defense?” — all the major spending lines have majority support. If you could balance the budget by ending foreign aid to countries that hate us, the public would be all over that. But the things we actually spend big money on are fairly popular.

In short: Public opinion on a list of issues does not typically cohere into a worldview. Interpreting it as if it did will cause you to make mistakes.

[4] I think that’s the message to take from Roy Cooper’s win in North Carolina. It’s not Cooper himself, it’s the Moral Mondays movement that is changing the conversation.

Why Bernie Backed Hillary

The path to an eventual progressive victory is to take over the Democratic Party, not break it.


Monday night at the Democratic Convention, Bernie Sanders came through for Hillary Clinton in a big way.

His speech contrasted sharply with much of what we heard at the Republican Convention from the candidates Donald Trump defeated, or with the unenthusiastic support for Trump from Republican office-holders like South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.

Bernie didn’t have to put his heart into it like that. He could have stayed home and watched the convention on TV, like John McCain and John Kasich. He could have made the minimum necessary party-unity statement, like Marco Rubio did by video. Or he could have left his party’s nominee out of the picture entirely, restated his own principles, and then urged his followers to “vote your conscience”, as Ted Cruz did. He could even have denounced Clinton by name, as Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney have denounced Trump.

Green Party candidate Jill Stein has been begging for Sanders to join her, and vigorously campaigning for the votes of his frustrated supporters. So even while keeping his word by tepidly supporting Clinton, he could have winked and nodded at Stein, giving his tacit blessing to Berners who decided to turn Green.

He did none of that. Instead he endorsed Clinton with enthusiasm in prime time.

This election is about which candidate understands the real problems facing this country and has offered real solutions – not just bombast, fear-mongering, name-calling and divisiveness.

We need leadership in this country which will improve the lives of working families, the children, the elderly, the sick and the poor. We need leadership which brings our people together and makes us stronger – not leadership which insults Latinos, Muslims, women, African-Americans and veterans – and divides us up.

By these measures, any objective observer will conclude that – based on her ideas and her leadership – Hillary Clinton must become the next president of the United States. The choice is not even close.

He reviewed in detail all the issues where a Clinton presidency would be far more progressive than a Trump presidency: the minimum wage, infrastructure, the Supreme Court, the cost of college and student debt, climate change, health care, and immigration reform. And just in case you thought he was making a lesser-of-two-evils argument, he closed with a clear positive statement:

Hillary Clinton will make an outstanding president and I am proud to stand with her here tonight.

He didn’t have to go that far. So why did he? If you find that decision mysterious, or think it requires some dark conspiracy-theory explanation, I have three responses:

  • Bernie was never as anti-Hillary as you might think.
  • Hillary has always been more progressive than you might think.
  • Long-term, Bernie wants to capture the Democratic Party, not break it.

Bernie was never as anti-Hillary as you might think. In the beginning of his campaign, Sanders was relentlessly positive, and refused to go negative on Clinton at all. Recall his line from their first debate:

Let me say — let me say something that may not be great politics. But I think the secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails.

In the MSNBC debate in March, he prefaced his response to her first comments with:

I have known Secretary Clinton for 25 years and respect her very much.

As the primary campaign got more contentious, there were three levels of criticism of Clinton: fairly mild criticism from Sanders himself, more aggressive statements from his campaign manager Jeff Weaver, and all-out Hillary-is-evil diatribes from Sanders supporters on social media. If you have feel-the-Bern friends on Facebook or Twitter, you know that everything Hillary did seemed sinister to them. Even if she put Elizabeth Warren on the ticket, it would only be to get Warren’s independent voice out of the Senate.

Memory has a way of mixing those criticisms together, so it may seem as if Sanders must be a complete hypocrite to support Clinton now. But Sanders was never running a stop-Clinton campaign. At the beginning, I doubt he thought he had any chance to deny her the nomination.

But he didn’t want a repeat of what happened in 2008, when none of the three candidates who emerged as serious contenders — Obama, Clinton, and John Edwards — proposed single-payer healthcare. As a result, when the ObamaCare discussion began in 2009, single-payer never got a hearing. It was a fringe idea that no “serious” person supported.

This year, if Clinton ran to keep Social Security as it is and the Republicans ran on cutting it, the logical eventual outcome would be to cut it a little less than the Republicans wanted. The idea that it ought to be expanded would be a fringe notion unworthy of discussion. And so on across the board.

Hillary has always been more progressive than you might think. A staple of the Bernie-or-Bust social-media posters is that Clinton is the enemy of progressive change: Whatever they want, she is opposed to, and every move she makes is part of a sinister plan to thwart their ambitions.

But again, if we return to the first debate, Clinton says this to Sanders about healthcare: “We agree on the goals, we just disagree on the means.”

That isn’t just rhetoric. All along, on a wide variety of issues, the debate between Sanders and Clinton has been more about how change happens than about where they want to go. Sanders believes you state your big idea and keep converting people to it until you have a majority, while Clinton believes change happens incrementally: You grab the small amount of progress you can get right now, and hope that its success sets the stage for the next small step. Sanders believes that you call out your opposition and take them on directly, while Clinton looks for proposals that will split the opposition.

If they were football coaches, Sanders’ team would throw deep and often, while Clinton’s team would have a bruising ground game that pushed the ball down the field 3-5 yards at a time. Sanders is always looking to the end zone, while Clinton is looking for the soft spot in the opponent’s line.

So on health care, Sanders has supported a Scandinavian-style single-payer system for as long as he’s been in politics, while Clinton’s 1993 plan was a more complicated public/private mix that she thought she could pass. When it failed, she looked for the opposition’s soft spot and found it: children. The Children’s Health Insurance Program got through Congress in 1997, moving the ball a little further towards universal coverage. And if you were surprised to hear her support putting a public option back into ObamaCare — it was taken out during the congressional debates in 2009 — you shouldn’t be: Her 2008 plan had a public option.

One reason Clinton hasn’t gotten credit for the progressive positions she’s been running on is that across the board Sanders has proposed something bigger and better. His $15 minimum wage trumped her $12 minimum wage — which in a different campaign would have been a bold increase over the current $7.25. Her quarter-trillion-dollar plan to create jobs by building infrastructure looks small next to Bernie’s trillion-dollar plan.

The units of change she calls for have always been smaller than Bernie’s units, but on the vast majority of issues the direction of change is the same.

Long-term, Bernie wants to capture the Democratic Party, not break it. At 74, Bernie is probably too old to run for president again himself. But he sees himself as part of a larger movement that will go on after he bows out of presidential politics. His hopes are not just that the movement will be a way for democracy-loving progressives to express their fine sentiments — the Greens have that covered already — but that it will someday take over the government and implement its policies.

If that’s the goal, the movement has two possible strategies: Take over one of the major parties, or break one (or both) of them and form something new out of the resulting chaos. Both strategies have worked in American history, but the last time the second strategy worked was in the 1850s, when the Whig Party ruptured on the slavery issue, and abolitionists and other slavery-restricting forces created the Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln was an anti-slavery Whig who became a Republican. He was elected president in 1860 in a bizarre four-candidate race that he won with 40% of the vote. If the Southern Democrats hadn’t walked out of the convention that was set to nominate Stephen Douglas, Republican success could have been delayed a lot longer.

The last 150 years have seen third-party challenges by candidates like Eugene Debs, Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, and Ross Perot, but none of them came close to winning the presidency. You can argue that they had their effect by changing the two major parties: Debs’ socialist campaign can be seen as a forerunner of the New Deal, while Thurmond and Wallace were part of the decades-long shift of white Southerners from the Democratic to the Republican Party. But none of them created a new party that outlived their candidacies and replaced either the Republicans or the Democrats.

However, the rise of the primary system in the 1970s created a new possibility: If you can win primaries, you can take over a major party from the inside. Ronald Reagan was the first person to pull that off. At the time, many conservatives thought the Nixon/Ford Republican Party was a lost cause and urged Reagan to lead a Conservative Party. But Reagan ran as a Republican in 1976, narrowly lost the nomination, again resisted the temptation of a third party, and came back to win the Republican nomination and the presidency in 1980. The Republican Party has been the Reagan Party ever since, with the moderate-to-liberal Republicans of the mid-70s going extinct.

In recent years, the Tea Party has been a second wave of conservative revolution within the Republican Party. Despite calling itself a party, it has all along been a faction within the GOP, and has picked up a number of seats in both houses of Congress. Through primaries, it has deposed even members of the Republican congressional leadership like Eric Cantor, and has struck fear into the hearts of non-Tea-Party leaders like John Boehner and Paul Ryan.

Bernie clearly has decided — I believe correctly — that under the current rules the Reagan model is a more viable path to reform than the Lincoln model. The Lincoln Whigs had to spend 1852 and 1856 in the wilderness, and watch a Supreme Court dominated by slavery-supporting appointees produce the Dred Scott decision. By contrast, Tea Partiers have been able to maintain and make use of Republican control of Congress, while building their own revolutionary caucus inside that majority.

A Sanders/Stein Party might or might not outpoll the Democrats in some far-future election. But in the meantime the split center/left vote would virtually guarantee right-wing dominance of the government, and a far-right Supreme Court that would stymie any progressive who might eventually manage to win the presidency.

But the prospect of winning primaries at all levels — producing a strong Progressive Caucus within a Democratic Party that could reasonably aspire to a majority in Congress, and capturing the Democratic presidential nomination for a strong progressive in 2020 or 2024 — seems like a far more promising and less risky path to victory.

That vision explains not just Bernie’s endorsement of Hillary, but also its fervor and his plea for his supporters not to disrupt the Convention with protests: He foresees the day when some future Bernie will be the Democratic nominee seeking party unity. The enemies that he avoids making today may be the friends that candidate will need, if that transformed Democratic Party is going to succeed in winning elections and governing the country.

Fears of Democratic Disunity: talking myself down

What if the Nevada fracas is a preview of the national convention?


For months, I’ve been reassuring other Democrats that party unity wasn’t going to be a problem. Sure, the Bernie/Hillary rhetoric might sound bad sometimes, but that’s how these things go. When we got to the convention this summer and Hillary proved that she really did have the delegates, Bernie would do the right thing, just like Hillary did in 2008.

It’s easy: Hillary agrees to put some Bernie-like language in the platform (which won’t be that hard for her, since most of his proposals are just more ambitious and optimistic versions of something she’s proposing anyway), maybe some rule changes make things easier for the next insurgent candidate, the VP appeals to people in both camps (Elizabeth Warren would be ideal, but if she wants to stay in the Senate it shouldn’t be that hard to find somebody else), and everybody is happy. In a prime-time speech, Bernie gives his supporters a chance to congratulate themselves on a hard-fought campaign and yell really loud for him one last time, and then he lays out all the common values that make it essential that Clinton become president next January rather than Donald Trump. Everybody winds up on the podium waving their arms and smiling into the national-network cameras as the credits roll.

That could still happen. If I had to bet, I think I’d still say that most of it will happen. But this week for the first time I started to have some real doubts and some real fears. So I started looking into it.

Talking myself down. I’d don’t think she’s done it for years now, but Rachel Maddow’s show used to have a regular “Talk Me Down” feature. For one segment, Rachel would put aside her calm and collected persona and let her fears about something run wild. Then she’d bring on an expert guest to explain to her why that level of panic wasn’t warranted yet.

Sadly, I don’t have a rolodex full of experts I can call to talk me down. So (with some help from publicly available sources) I’m going to have to play both roles. But I think the basic format works for this topic. So I’ll start by letting my fears run.

The Sanders progression. For months now I’ve been watching the Sanders campaign shift its focus. In the beginning, it was a purely positive campaign about the kinds of goals Democrats ought never to lose sight of, whether they seem politically feasible right now or not: health care as a right, protecting democracy against the rule of big money, government infrastructure projects to create full employment, union rights, voting rights, a livable wage for all workers, and affordable education for everyone.

That was the message I was attracted to and ultimately voted for in the New Hampshire primary.

That positive message is still at the Sanders campaign’s core, but little by little it has been joined by an anti-Hillary-Clinton message: She is corrupt and untrustworthy. She is a Republican posing as a Democrat. She is a weak candidate who will lose to Donald Trump. She has taken money from the wrong people, so no matter what she is saying now, ultimately she will do their bidding.

Last summer I went on a Hillary research project, and I didn’t find much support for that vision of her. I came out liking Hillary. I think it’s important to keep pressuring her from the Left, but I expect to be mostly content with a Hillary presidency.

And more recently, a persecution narrative has become a third part of the Sanders campaign: The Democratic Establishment will stop at nothing to give the nomination to Clinton, no matter what the People want.

To a degree, that narrative was justified. For example, the original debate schedule — since adjusted to include more debates — seemed crafted to give unknown candidates as little room as possible to break out. But as the campaign has worn on, everything that didn’t benefit Sanders has become part of the persecution narrative. Sanders did better in open primaries where Independents could vote, so closed primaries — which have existed since the beginning of the primary process many decades ago — were part of the Establishment’s conspiracy. (Caucuses, which are even less democratic than closed primaries, benefited Sanders, so they were not a problem.) Any election-day glitch — even the ones caused by Republican officials, and even if the effect on the Clinton/Sanders race was unclear — was part of the Democratic Establishment’s plot to steal the election for Hillary.

Sometimes rationales flipped overnight, with no apparent soul-searching or justification. Initially, it was a horror that superdelegates might reverse the will of the People (as expressed in the primaries) and give the nomination to Clinton because they thought she was more electable. Then, as it because clear that the People were actually voting for Clinton in larger numbers than Sanders, the Sanders campaign embraced the opposite argument: Superdelegates should reverse the will of the People and give the nomination to Sanders because he is more electable.

Esquire‘s Charles Pierce expresses his opinion on the persecution narrative harshly, but he’s not wrong.

I voted for Bernie Sanders. I even wrote about why I did here at this very shebeen. But if anybody thinks that, somehow, he is having the nomination “stolen” from him, they are idiots.

Nevada. So now we come to Nevada. In the caucuses in February, the voters went for Clinton 53%-47%. But that wasn’t the end of the story, because in Nevada’s arcane process the statewide caucuses just lead to the county conventions, which then lead to the state convention where the delegates to national convention are supposed to be chosen.

The county conventions happened in April, and a combination of lackadaisical organizing by the Clinton campaign and Sanders backers finding an exploitable hole in the rules turned the tables: Now it looked like Sanders would have an advantage going into the May state convention. February’s apparent 20-15 national-convention delegate split for Clinton appeared likely to shrink to 18-17. (Imagine the outcry if everything had been reversed: if Sanders had won in February, but then Clinton supporters found a backdoor way to take some of those delegates away.)

But again, it’s an arcane process. Sanders supporters were entitled to more state-convention delegates than Clinton supporters, but there are rules about credentials. Those rules are available to both campaigns, and it’s a campaign-organizer’s job to make sure than your delegates jump through all the appropriate hoops. At this stage, the Clinton people did a better job than the Sanders people, so at the May 14 state convention, Clinton narrowly had more credentialed delegates than Sanders. The ultimate result was a return to Square One: Clinton will get the 20 national convention delegates it looked like she had won back in February.

There’s been a lot of charge and counter-charge about exactly what went down at the state convention, but the accounts that have the ring of truth to my ear are the ones from Politifact and TPM’s Tierney Sneed. (I also found this on-the-floor view from a Clinton delegate to be enlightening.)

Here’s how it looks to me: After the Sanders campaign leaders in Nevada realized they’d been out-organized by the Clinton people, they decided to bury that fact inside the persecution narrative: The Evil Democratic Establishment had stolen the convention for Clinton. The Sanders campaign had been seeding that ground for months, so their delegates accepted that explanation without question and reacted with an understandable amount of anger. (The insults and threats that expressed that anger were still over the top, though.)

Bernie’s reaction to Nevada didn’t increase my confidence in him. His condemnation of his supporters’ bad behavior seemed perfunctory. (“It goes without saying that I condemn any and all forms of violence, including the personal harassment of individuals.”) The stronger message was that the process is corrupt and his people’s reaction had been justified. Josh Marshall’s response was harsh, but not too different from what I was feeling:

This, as I said earlier, is the problem with lying to your supporters. Sanders is telling his supporters that he can still win, which he can’t. He’s suggesting that the win is being stolen by a corrupt establishment, an impression which will be validated when his phony prediction turns out not to be true. Lying like this sets you up for stuff like happened over the weekend in Nevada.

Or maybe it sets you up for an even bigger mess this summer in Philadelphia.

My fear. Most primary campaigns end the way the Republicans’ just did: As candidates get to a point where they have no credible winning scenario, they drop out. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz … they all got to a point where they couldn’t predict victory with a straight face, so they quit.

Not everybody does that. In 2008, Clinton herself hung on until the last primary before dropping out and endorsing Obama (though that race was considerably closer than this one). Sometimes losing candidates go all the way to the convention, like Ron Paul did in 2012 or Gene McCarthy did in 1968.

When you take a campaign to a convention that is not going to nominate you, you do it for some other reason. Maybe you want to register your protest over an important issue, like the Vietnam War in 1968. Or you might be looking ahead to future elections. (The 1968 Democratic Convention started a process to change the rules that had allowed Humphrey to win the nomination without competing in the primaries. McGovern’s 1972 nomination couldn’t have happened otherwise.) Or maybe you want to use the convention battle as part of your narrative for the next cycle. (Hillary in some sense did that in 2008; her motion to nominate Obama by acclamation, her prime-time speech, and the way she and Bill campaigned for Obama in the fall impressed some Obama supporters — me, for instance — and set her up well for this year’s campaign.)

What I want to believe — and do, most of the time — is that Bernie Sanders is going to the convention looking for the kinds of things Hillary can offer: platform concessions on progressive issues, rules changes that will make the next insurgent candidate more viable, a prime time speech to inspire his supporters to become a long-term movement, and so on.

But after Nevada, I started worrying about something else: What if the thing Bernie wants out of the convention isn’t a concession? What if it’s a fight? What if the culmination he sees for his “political revolution” rhetoric and his narrative of persecution by the Democratic establishment is to have his supporters dragged out of the convention hall by force? That would probably hand the White House to Trump, but it might also rupture the Democratic Party in some way that leads to an overall realignment of the two-party system.

What if that’s the goal?

It’s always like this. Naturally, I’m not the only person to have this worry, or at least this area of worry, so I went looking for how others were dealing with it, in hopes that they might talk me down. Appropriately, one of the people I found was Rachel Maddow, who discussed it on her show Wednesday.

At this point in the primary process, it’s always like this. There is always acrimony and upset between remaining candidates at this part of the race. Parties just do this. It is to be expected. It’s very, very, very rarely fatal.

Making a similar point, Matt Yglesias pulled up video of an extremely harsh exchange between candidates Jerry Brown and Bill Clinton in 1992.

[The Clinton/Sanders contest] feels unusually intense and vicious to many heavy consumers of internet news. Thanks to social media, lots of supporters of both candidates are now spending their free time acting as amateur advocates for their preferred campaign. This makes the race more intense and immediate than many past campaigns, and there has certainly been a lot of name-calling on Twitter.

But the actual campaign has been, by the standards of campaigns, remarkably issue-oriented and low-key compared to past races.

I sort of knew that, but it was helpful to be reminded of just how ugly things got in, say, 2008, before they got better. It turns out that parties don’t just forgive their internal spats, we very often literally forget. So the next time it happens, it’s always like “It’s never been this bad before.”

Once I started remembering, I remembered all the way back to the first year I watched conventions on TV: 1968, when I was 11. Even that year, after Mayor Daley’s “police riot” and the chaos on the streets in Chicago, nearly all of the McCarthy Democrats eventually came home. (The Wallace Southern conservative white Democrats had begun their trek to the Republican Party and weren’t ever coming back, but that was a whole different story, which I’ve told before.) After falling ridiculously far behind in September, Humphrey came back almost all the way, making 1968 one of the closest presidential elections ever.

Both sides have the same scenario in mind. Those recovered memories helped a little, but I didn’t really regain my optimism until I started chasing the links that my Sanders-supporting Facebook friends were posting.

Yes, of course there were some Bernie-or-bust type posts, and some that put the worst possible construction on anything having to do with Clinton or with anybody who isn’t 100% for Sanders. But a lot of the voices are simply asking for “respect”. Sanders’ only supporter in the Senate, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, says:

If you want to bring people together, they have to feel heard and they have to feel respected and well-treated.

And then he sounds remarkably conciliatory:

I believe that once a candidate has a majority of pledged delegates — so not superdelegates, but the pledged delegates — (and) has a majority of the votes cast, that the party will have made its decision and we need to do the hard work of coming together,” he said. “Should Secretary Clinton win these key categories, I think the conversation will begin about how to bring the sides together so we can go into the convention united, go out of the convention even more united, and make sure that this charlatan, this self-promoting charlatan, Donald Trump, does not become president.

A lot of the other Sanders-supporters are mainly just saying that it’s up to Clinton to make the first move. Jason Linkins, for example:

the responsibility of unifying the party falls to the winner of the primary, not the loser. To anyone who thinks otherwise: Come on, now. This is literally the job of the person who becomes the presidential candidate, not the person who is going to be pursuing politics in some other office. An election is not a contest between warring factions, where the winner gets to spend the next four years stunting on the losers. The electoral process will decide which candidate will serve all Americans. And all Americans are owed something, no matter how the votes were cast.

This is how magnanimity works.

The more I read, the more I came to the conclusion that the majority on both sides have the same ideal scenario, the one I talked about in the first section. That seems like a long time ago now, so let me repeat it:

Hillary agrees to put some Bernie-like language in the platform, maybe some rule changes make things easier for the next insurgent candidate, the VP appeals to people in both camps, and everybody is happy. In a prime-time speech, Bernie gives his supporters a chance to congratulate themselves on a hard-fought campaign and yell really loud for him one last time, and then he lays out all the common values that make it essential that Clinton become president next January rather than Donald Trump. Everybody winds up on the podium waving their arms and smiling into the national-network cameras as the credits roll.

But — and here’s the real sticking point right now — large numbers of people on both sides are worried that the other side won’t play its role. Bernie’s supporters are worried that Clinton won’t reach out to them and Clinton’s supporters are worried that Bernie will spurn all offers so that he can stomp away mad.

My reading of this is that we’re all victims of one side or the other of the polarizing propaganda. Hillary won’t reach out because she’s a bought-and-paid-for tool of Wall Street, and Bernie will spit on her attempts to reach out because he’s a neo-Leninist bomb-thrower. The media is fanning both of those flames, because conflict draws eyeballs. (In reading all these stories, it’s important not just to read the selected quotes from campaign spokespeople, but to consider what they were asked, and whether there was any way to answer that question differently.)

But when I forget all that nonsense and re-anchor myself in reality, I wind up where Matt Yglesias is:

The differences between Clinton and Sanders are real and important, but they amount to an argument about whether to try to shift the country a little bit to the left or a lot to the left. Under the circumstances, it would be very odd for it to produce a lasting, unbridgeable divide if earlier elections have not.

Let’s flesh out that analysis by using the minimum wage as a proxy for a long list of issues. Sanders wants a $15 federal minimum wage. Clinton wants a $12 federal minimum wage with higher minimums established by state or local laws in areas with high costs of living. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25. Trump wants no federal minimum wage at all. (“Let the states decide,” he says.)

Is it really going to be that hard for Democrats to come together?

I have no way of knowing what’s going on in the minds of the two candidates right now. Maybe they really are mad at each other, or maybe not. But ultimately, I find it hard to believe that either is going to go against the general will of his or her supporters. And among Hillary supporters right now, I find very little desire to show Bernie who’s boss. Among Bernie supporters, the number who want to burn down the Democratic Party seems pretty small.

We’re due for another two weeks or so of ugliness. But after the last major primaries on June 7, the pressure on both candidates — pressure from their own supporters — to work something out is going to be enormous. So I still think we’re going to get that scene everybody wants: Clinton and Sanders standing together in Philadelphia as the credits roll.

Do We Still Have to Worry About the McGovern Problem?

In the 1990s, Clintonism was all about avoiding the fate of McGovern, Mondale, and Dukakis. Two decades later, is that still an issue?


If you google “Sanders McGovern”, you’ll find a fairly large number of articles debating whether Bernie Sanders is or isn’t the second coming of George McGovern, the anti-establishment, left-leaning Democrat who suffered a historic landslide loss to Richard Nixon in 1972.

Some writers think he is, and Democrats will be setting themselves up for another historic loss if they nominate Bernie. Others think McGovern is such ancient history that bringing him up just shows how stuck in the past the Democratic establishment is. And a few claim that Sanders is McGovern in a good way: A Sanders victory could at long last vindicate McGovern, the way Reagan’s victory vindicated Goldwater.

Reading those articles, I keep recalling a quote from the 19th-century mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss: “I have had my solutions for a long time, but I do not yet know how I am to arrive at them.” In every case, it looks to me like the author started with a desired conclusion, then looked for ways to justify it.

I think the question deserves something better than that, so I’m going to do the exact opposite: I’m going to write down everything I know about this issue and leave you with a cliffhanger at the end. I’ve thought about this and done some research. In the end, though, I have hopes and I have fears, but certainty escapes me. I can’t promise you that a gamble on Bernie Sanders would win or lose in November. All I can do is draw a clearer picture of what we’d be betting on.

Where I start. I’m a somewhat left-leaning Democrat who also really wants to win in November. If I could snap my fingers and install single-payer health care or a carbon tax, I absolutely would. But I also think ObamaCare is a huge improvement on the health care system we had in 2009, I’m glad we’re finally starting to do something (though not nearly enough) about climate change, and I’m afraid of losing all that under President Trump or Cruz.

I went to one of the early Bernie rallies (in Portsmouth in May) and I definitely felt the Bern when he talked not just about health care and the environment, but also about tough regulations for Wall Street, creating jobs with a big push to rebuild our infrastructure, investing in college for our young people, and reducing the influence that big-money donors have on our political system. The growing inequality of wealth looks to me like a problem that isn’t going to fix itself, and will destroy the American way of life if it goes much further.

But I’m also not willing to sign up for a Charge of the Light Brigade. If asking for the moon means that the voters will give us nothing, and that instead the gradual progress we’ve made under President Obama will be undone, then count me out. If that’s the choice, then more gradual progress under another President Clinton sounds fine to me. On the other hand, if that’s not the choice, if we really could have the kind of revolutionary change Sanders calls for, then I don’t want to leave those possibilities on the table. So I voted for Bernie in the New Hampshire primary, but with similar uncertainty to what TPM’s John Judis is feeling as the Maryland primary approaches.

For me it’s a real question: Is another McGovern-type loss really something to worry about, or is it a Boogie Man we’ve been afraid of for far too long already?

Ultimately, we can’t be certain about the answers unless we run the experiment: nominate Bernie and see what happens. But it ought to at least be possible to sharpen our understanding of the questions, and to know what we’re counting on if we decide to take the chance.

What the McGovern Problem isn’t. Often the McGovern Problem gets stated too simplistically, which makes it easy to shoot down: Democrats can’t run a candidate who’s too liberal. It’s as if the White House were a roller coaster, with a sign outside saying: “You must be at least this conservative to enter.”

If that’s the problem, then liberals are right to refuse it any consideration, because otherwise we give the game away before it starts. Important issues like single-payer or a less belligerent foreign policy are off the table by definition; we’re not even allowed to make our case to the country.

Republicans didn’t accept that lesson from their Goldwater loss in 1964. They continued making their case, and by 1980 the Goldwater wing of the GOP was electing President Reagan.

History shows that American political sensibilities change. Ideas that are “too radical” in one era — even liberal ideas like Social Security or child labor laws or the 40-hour week — can become common sense in the next. Who’s to say that free college or converting the economy to sustainable energy won’t join that list?

Plus, if Democrats can’t talk about what we believe in, the public will quite correctly perceive that we’re hiding something, and even a centrist Democratic ticket will face a suspicious electorate: What aren’t they telling us? What secret socialist agenda are Democrats planning to spring on the country after Inauguration Day?

What the McGovern Problem is. The problem I have in mind is much more specific than just being “too liberal”: Republicans have a tried-and-true game plan for running against liberal Democrats. A bunch of negative stereotypes sit in the public mind waiting to be activated, and they seem to work really well to cut our candidates off at the knees.

So the problem isn’t just that McGovern lost and then Mondale lost and then Dukakis lost. It’s that they lost in almost exactly the same way. There’s a buzzsaw attack waiting in the fall campaign, one that our candidates don’t face in the primaries, because it doesn’t work on a purely Democratic electorate. But we know it’s coming.

The issue that confronts every potential Democratic nominee, the one that gets labeled electability, isn’t “Are you too liberal?” but “Are you marching straight into the buzzsaw?” When the predictable attack comes — the attack you haven’t had to deal with at all in the primaries — will your candidacy survive it?

But even as we consider this question, we need to remember that the Dukakis wipeout was 28 years ago. If you’re one of the young voters whose energy is fueling the Sanders campaign, there hasn’t been a real test of the McGovern Problem — or a Republican presidential landslide — in your lifetime. Maybe the old dragon has lost its teeth by now, and all those gray-haired Hillary voters are quivering in front of shadows on the wall.

How can we know if that’s the case? I think we need to tell the story from the beginning. Then we’ll be in a better position to judge whether it’s ancient history or history that’s about to repeat itself.

It starts with LBJ. If we’re going to decide how relevant McGovern is in 2016, we need to go back a little further, to the last big push for progressive change in America: Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

When LBJ assumed the presidency late in 1963, he was riding a wave of national grief over President Kennedy’s assassination. The Democrats already controlled Congress, and then in 1964 the Republicans played into Johnson’s hands by nominating their most polarizing candidate, Barry Goldwater. After a huge landslide with long coattails, LBJ began 1965 with a national mandate and 2-1 majorities in both houses.

He got a lot done. The accomplishments of 1964-1966 make a stunning list, especially from the gridlocked perspective of 2016. The Social Security Act of 1965 created both Medicare and Medicaid in one fell swoop. By itself that was a bigger change than anything that has happened under Obama, but Congress just passed it and moved on. The bill got bipartisan support, wasn’t filibustered, and Johnson didn’t have to spend the rest of his term fighting back attempts to repeal it or block it in the courts.

Jim Crow finally ended: Congress passed the 24th Amendment (that banned poll taxes), the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act. Johnson began affirmative action for government jobs by executive order.

He declared War on Poverty: In addition to Medicaid, Johnson created food stamps, and funded urban renewal programs to clean out the slums. When Bill Clinton “ended welfare as we know it” in the 1990s, what we knew was LBJ’s version of welfare.

The backlash. The Vietnam War is usually remembered as Johnson’s undoing, but the backlash against the Great Society would have been a thing regardless. The race riots of the 1960s led to a narrative that blacks were “ungrateful” for Johnson’s anti-poverty programs and the advances in civil rights. The riots combined with rising crime and the Supreme Court’s focus on the rights of defendants to create the impression that criminals were being coddled and government lacked the will to defend public order. The phrase bleeding heart liberal referred to someone who had less sympathy for you than for the ghetto-raised black teen-ager who was mugging you.

School desegregation was finally hitting the North in a big way, leading professional-class whites to flee to the suburbs, and leaving the white working class behind to deal with urban racial conflict. Affirmative action led to the claim that restless blacks were being bought off by giving away the opportunities of working-class whites. (After all, a black kid who got into Harvard through affirmative action wasn’t acing out some legacy admission like a Kennedy.) The phrase limousine liberal referred to well-to-do Democrats who could afford to be idealistic about race and poverty, because they were insulated from the social impact of their programs.

Tax-and-spend liberal didn’t catch on until the Reagan years, but that stereotype also comes from the Great Society backlash: If there was a problem, LBJ was likely to throw money at it. The logic — that we were a rich country with way too many poor people, so we could fix things by moving money around — may seem a little simplistic now, given the complex social dynamics of poverty. (In hindsight, urban renewal  looks especially naive. Its high-rise housing projects quickly became worse than the slums they replaced.) But that’s the kind of thing you can’t know until you’ve tried it.

By 1968, the Democratic Party was badly divided. The only possible unifying figure, Bobby Kennedy, was assassinated. The Chicago convention turned violent. A third-party run by George Wallace split off what in FDR’s day had been “the solid South”. Even in the North, Wallace appealed to the kind of working-class whites who also had once been reliable Democrats (the kind who support Trump now). LBJ’s VP, Hubert Humphrey, split the rest of the vote almost down the middle with Richard Nixon, but Nixon got a slight plurality and an electoral college win.

McGovern/Nixon. George McGovern came to national attention at the 1968 convention as the leader of Bobby Kennedy’s orphaned delegates. By 1972, he was the first candidate to understand the new rules that made the primaries decisive. (Humphrey had gotten the 1968 nomination without ever entering the primaries. 1968 was the last hurrah of the smoke-filled-room era, when party leadership could do pretty much whatever it wanted.) He ran an insurgent campaign that portrayed the existing Democratic establishment as corrupt. That culminated at the 1972 convention, when the McGovern delegates disqualified Mayor Daley’s Illinois delegation in favor of a rebel slate led by Jesse Jackson. (Without the backing of the Daley machine, McGovern managed only 41% of the vote in Illinois in the fall. He won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.)

In terms of policy, McGovern wanted to push the Great Society social programs further, while rejecting the militaristic Kennedy/Johnson foreign policy that had led to Vietnam. With Wallace out of the picture (after being wounded in an assassination attempt), Nixon knew that a two-party race depended on capturing the Democrats who had defected to Wallace in 1968. So the key arguments in the campaign came from an organization called Democrats for Nixon.

DfN attacked McGovern on two fronts. First, his defense plan would leave the country dangerously weak.

And second, his social programs would tax working people (pictured as a white male construction worker) and give money to undeserving people (who aren’t pictured, but are easily imagined to be blacks or young white hippies).

Less explicitly, Nixon’s campaign associated McGovern with the counterculture: people who took drugs and despised soldiers and got involved in violent protests. Nixon himself claimed support from the “great silent majority“, people who did their jobs and raised their kids and lived by the old-fashioned American values that the counterculture rejected. The flag and patriotism belonged to conservatives; they were weapons to wield against liberals (literally, in this Pulitzer-winning photo), who should “love it or leave it“.

The anti-liberal formula. By 1976, the Republican Party had been stained by Watergate, and Jimmy Carter, a born-again Navy veteran from Georgia, won by projecting an image very different from McGovern. But Reagan unseated Carter in 1980, and in 1984, Walter Mondale challenged him. Mondale was the candidate of the Democratic establishment, which by this point was the Great Society playing defense. Reagan successfully attacked him as a liberal, and in 1988 Reagan’s VP, George H. W. Bush, ran a similar — and similarly successful — campaign against Mike Dukakis.

By now the anti-liberal attack was a formula based on a few well-defined stereotypes:

  • Liberals won’t protect us from foreign enemies. This is usually phrased in terms of naivety: Liberals want to cut defense spending and avoid military intervention because they foolishly trust treaties and organizations like the UN. They believe our enemies are like us and want to come to mutually beneficial agreements. They don’t understand that our enemies are truly evil and can only be controlled through strength.

For example, Reagan ran this commercial against Mondale. It starts “There’s a bear in the woods. For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don’t see it at all. Some people say the bear is tame.”

  • Liberals won’t protect us from criminals at home. Again, they are naive about evil. They believe crime is a social problem they can solve with more welfare spending, rather than a moral problem that requires police and jails.

That led to the revolving-door ad Bush used against Dukakis.

  • Liberals don’t believe in America. They’re not patriotic, and they want to retell American history to make us the bad guys. They have no faith in the economic individualism that made this country rich, and keep telling us we should be more like France or Sweden.

Bush painted Dukakis as against the Pledge of Allegiance, and somehow a false rumor circulated that Dukakis’ wife had once burned an American flag.

  •  Liberals want to weaken moral values. The exact content of this attack varies from era to era, depending on what the moral problem of the day is. Abortion is a constant, but there’s also pornography, video games, rock music, drugs, homosexuality, promiscuity, and transgenderism. Usually, this is related somehow to religion, with the implication that whatever religion a liberal claims to practice is actually just a smoke screen that hides an underlying atheism, relativism, nihilism, or hedonism.
  • Liberals think they’re smarter than you are and want to make your decisions for you. Liberals are book-smart but don’t have common sense. They want to tell you who you can hire, which customers you have to serve, what you can drive, what you can eat or drink, how to discipline your children, what words you are allowed to say, and so on. Rhetoric about “the liberal elite” or “political correctness” invokes this stereotype.
  • Liberals want to raise taxes on working people to buy votes from lazy people. Nixon’s construction-worker ad became a paradigm. Mitt Romney’s “47%” hurt him only because it was too explicit. We still hear about “free stuff“, “dependence on government“, and “makers and takers“.

Bill Clinton and the New Democrats. If you didn’t live through it, it’s hard to communicate just how depressing the Dukakis debacle was. Entering the fall campaign, Democrats hadn’t thought of Dukakis as a McGovern-style left-winger. (Jesse Jackson had been the candidate of the party’s left wing, and Dukakis had resisted pressure to pick him as VP.) On the national scene, Dukakis was a fresh face who should have been able to slough off past stereotypes. He didn’t have a big spending program, wasn’t pushing a tax increase, and his Greek-immigrant-pride thing should have shielded him from the patriotism issue. One post-convention poll had Dukakis ahead of Bush 55%-38%.

But when the Republicans unleashed the formulaic anti-liberal attack, Dukakis proved just as vulnerable as McGovern and Mondale. His poll numbers quickly collapsed, and Bush (who had never seemed like a particularly strong candidate) didn’t just win, he romped his way to 426 electoral votes.

After 1988, Democrats had a sense of “What do we have to do?” The answer came from Bill Clinton. You can’t understand Clintonism without grasping that post-Dukakis despair.

Clinton recognized that the problem was as much image as substance: It wasn’t liberalism itself, it was getting tagged with the liberal stereotypes. You had to compromise somewhat, but you could still have broadly progressive values. You couldn’t stop Republicans from throwing the McGovern/Mondale/Dukakis attacks at you, but (like Jimmy Carter in 1976) you could still win if you maintained an image that the stereotypes wouldn’t stick to. Far-right conservatives might still believe them, but the swing voters wouldn’t.

Clinton wasn’t a “Massachusetts liberal” like Dukakis: He was a Southern Baptist with a drawl who easily projected a good-old-boy sensibility. He declared himself to be “a new kind of Democrat”, and he shifted Democratic rhetoric across the board. He “felt our pain”, but always justified his programs as fairness rather than appealing to compassion, and he rooted his case in respect for traditional American values like hard work.

We’ll think of the faith of our parents that was instilled in us here in America, the idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll be rewarded with a good life for yourself and a better chance for your children. Filled with that faith, generations of Americans have worked long hours on their jobs and passed along powerful dreams to their sons and daughters. Many of us can remember our own parents working long hours on their jobs and then coming home and helping us with our homework. The American dream has always been a better life for people who are willing to work for it.

He also regularly did something infuriating if you found yourself on the wrong end of it. Like the kid who escapes bullying by finding the mob some weaker kid to bully, Clinton escaped the liberal stereotype by projecting it onto other people. A Sister Souljah moment (also sometimes known as hippie punching) is when a center-left politician repudiates someone further to the left as a way of establishing his non-scariness. (The phrase comes from Clinton’s denunciation of a black hip-hop artist.)

Clinton made a career out of stealing Republican issues and putting his own spin on them: Balance the budget? Reform welfare? He’d do it, and if Republicans wanted to oppose him they’d have to move even further to the right. In retrospect, some of Clinton’s “accomplishments” — Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the Defense of Marriage Act, and his crime bill — can only be defended by observing that something even worse probably would have happened if he hadn’t gotten out in front of a popular movement that was gaining momentum.

He compromised, but he won, and it mattered that he won. That’s why Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer are on the Supreme Court rather than two more Clarence Thomases. While Clinton sometimes rattled his saber and kept defense spending relatively high, America managed to go eight years without launching a major ground war. He left office with low unemployment, low inflation, a budget surplus — and a 66% approval rating.

Every Democratic presidential nominee since has in one way or another learned from Clinton’s example, and has maneuvered to project a centrist image. (I believe that’s why Obama drops his g’s.) In that time, the Democratic candidate has lost the popular vote only in 2004, and even that election was close.

One measure of the success of the Clinton strategy is that each recent Democratic nominee has been attacked in some way that was uniquely personal, rather than just being fed to the generic liberal-killing buzzsaw. Bill Clinton was “Slick Willy”, Al Gore was so wooden you wouldn’t want to have a beer with him, John Kerry didn’t deserve his medals, and Barack Obama was a shallow celebrity who palled around with terrorists. The too-liberal case was still there, but it didn’t stick for a majority of voters, so Republicans had to try other attacks.

The downside of Clintonism. As George Lakoff and others have often pointed out, there is no centrist worldview. So while stealing Republican issues and hippie-punching figures to your left may put you in a position to rein in something really bad — to turn, say, a constitutional amendment defining marriage into DOMA, which the Supreme Court (with Breyer and Ginsburg in the majority) could later find unconstitutional — along the way you reinforce the overall conservative frame, and marginalize anyone who promotes a liberal frame. That may win elections in the short term, but makes it hard to build a movement.

For example, Obama’s attempt in 2011 to strike a “grand bargain” with John Boehner to cut the long-term deficit was a Clintonian move that backfired: Not only did the bargain not happen, but treating the manufactured 2011 budget crisis as a negotiating opportunity set up the much scarier 2013 game of chicken over the debt ceiling. Obama’s grand-bargain offer legitimized the deficit as a more important concern than creating jobs, as well as the idea that long-term cuts in Social Security and Medicare might be the solution.

Even if you take a Clintonesque incremental view of change, the Democratic Party needs its idealists to produce the long-term vision that gives the party substance. Maybe we will only make progress in small steps, but somebody still needs to provide a clear vision of where we’re trying to go.

So what about Bernie? Remember: whether or not Sanders “is McGovern” isn’t about whether he can be tied to a label like liberal or even socialist. Of course he can. Everybody knows he’s challenging Clinton from the left and has called himself a socialist; that’s baked into his public image already. It hasn’t hurt him yet in those national polls that show him beating Trump and Cruz by margins far larger than Hillary’s. (One recent poll has Sanders beating Trump by 20%.)

The more important questions are first, when Republicans begin attacking him with the tried-and-true formula, will the anti-liberal stereotypes stick? And second, does that still matter the way it did in 1972, 1984, or 1988?

I think several of the stereotypes could stick to Bernie, sometimes fairly and sometimes unfairly.

  • Foreign enemies. So far, Sanders’ entire defense-and-foreign-policy focus has been on what he hasn’t done, wouldn’t do or wouldn’t have done: He wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. He wouldn’t give the NSA such a free hand to gather intelligence on Americans. He wouldn’t torture. He wouldn’t keep Guantanamo open. He doesn’t support defense spending at the current levels, and opposes certain specific weapons systems.

And none of that by itself is a problem. (In fact, I agree with him, and Hillary agrees with a lot of it.) But the majority of Americans are not ready to stop being a superpower. So in a general-election campaign, Sanders will at some point have to pivot back to what he would do: What level of defense spending does he support? What weapons does that buy? What Sanders Doctrine describes the situations where is he willing to use those weapons to defend our country, our allies, or our interests? (Example: Putin decides to conquer the rest of Ukraine. What do you do?)

When he does have to state a positive position on defense, is he then open to a Nixonian attack where a hand sweeps forces off the table? Is he convincing as a possible Commander in Chief, or does he look like Mike Dukakis in a tank?

  • Crime. The problem is similar: So far we’ve heard about the things Sanders wants to undo: He wants to put fewer people in jail. He wants to stop police brutality. And that’s all good: We went overboard both on the War on Drugs and on the scary-black-people image. We’ve been way too eager to interpret dark skin as a predictor of criminality, and to see prison as the solution to our fears, especially the irrational ones.

But crime is also real and has real victims. Americans want to hear that their president is serious about protecting them. Can Bernie provide that assurance? There are two Willie-Hortonish avenues of attack here: violence connected (at least in the public mind) with Black Lives Matter, like the Baltimore riots; and crimes committed by undocumented immigrants (which do exist, even though in general the undocumented are not a big crime risk).

Again, there are answers to such attacks, but (as the Reagan-era adage has it) “If you’re explaining you’re losing.” When somebody shows you a real woman who has been raped by an immigrant, quoting the statistics on immigrant crime is not a compelling response.

  • Tax and spend. Sanders admits that his Medicare-for-all plan would raise middle-class taxes. To be fair, middle-class families would still benefit from his plan, because their healthcare costs should go down by more than their taxes go up. But voters are quicker to believe in taxes than in the benefits they fund. (That’s why ObamaCare was so vulnerable in the 2010 midterm elections.) Plus, not even Sanders’ supporters are comfortable with their taxes going up. And again, if you’re explaining, you’re losing. Look for an ad in which layabouts of various races endorse Bernie and look forward to the benefits they expect from him, while somebody else works thanklessly to clean up after them.
  • Moral values. The problem here is religion. Sanders admits that he is “not particularly religious” and, though a Jew by ethnicity and culture, does not belong to any congregation or synagogue and does not regularly attend services of any type.

That doesn’t kill you in a Democratic primary, and at various times Bernie has spoken about his beliefs in a heartfelt way that works fairly well for a liberal audience: “I think everyone believes in God in their own ways. To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.” But to a lot of the country, that Spinoza-like position is just a fancy kind of atheism, and polls consistently show that atheism (moreso than even Islam) is a deal-breaker for many voters.

I picture one of those man-in-the-street interview ads, where somebody says, “He claims to be Jewish, but he sounds like an atheist to me.” That’s a two-fer: Not only does it use the A-word, but it dog-whistles to anti-Semites by reminding them that at best Sanders is a Jew.

  • Thinks he’s smarter than you. Smart is good, if you handle it right. Bill Clinton is a Rhodes scholar. Barack Obama was president of the law review at Harvard. But both of them know how to use their considerable personal charm so as not to seem too smart or too stuck-up about it. Both have that good-teacher ability to answer a question confidently without making the questioner feel stupid.

I don’t see that in Bernie. When challenged, he has a tendency to raise his voice and wag his finger. If I were debating Sanders, I’d be trying to bring out the side of his personality that talked down to Vermont voters in this Q&A event. (“Have you heard of ISIS?” he demands.)

Smarter-than-you is a quality that unlocks other parts of the liberal stereotype. The root Republican message is that they want you to be free to make your own choices in the marketplace, while Democrats want government to choose for you. (Unfortunately, the unregulated marketplace Republicans champion often leaves you with no good choices. What good is a menu of dozens of healthcare plans, if none of the ones you can afford will keep you from going bankrupt if you get sick?) Democrats need to communicate that they appreciate the awesome presumption that regulation involves, and that they will use that power with humility. But when Bernie Sanders thinks he knows the right answer, humility seems far from his mind.

  • Believing in America. A big piece of the Clinton/New Democrat thing was being able to invoke patriotism without sounding fake or hokey. Can Sanders do that? Bernie often compares the U.S. unfavorably to more socialistic European countries like Denmark or France, and if  you dip into the archives, he’s also said good things about Cuba and Nicaragua (when the Sandinistas were in power and the U.S. was funding the opposition). Again, a man-in-the-street ad could be effective: “I wonder why he doesn’t run for president of France?”

Does it still matter? The most convincing point in the Sanders-is-not-McGovern articles is that times have changed. Thom Hartman writes:

Comparing Sanders to McGovern assumes that the country is in a similar state now as it was 44 years ago, and that’s just not true. … [In 1972] the middle class was much larger, and it was doing much better than it is today. And so the older generation voted for Nixon, they voted to keep things on track, because they simply didn’t feel as screwed over as we did in the younger generation.

And Dave Johnson says that the old manipulative tricks won’t work in the Twitter era:

Sanders’ mass appeal, big crowds and enthusiasm in spite of a virtual media blackout shows that America has grown up a lot since 1972. Thanks to the Internet, we are able to communicate past media manipulation and organize. Many people are now well aware of how Republicans use racial and other divisions to misdirect and manipulate people from seeing what is being done to us.

There’s also a demographic argument: The electorate that responded to George Bush’s racist dog whistles in 1988 was much whiter than America is in 2016. When Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority was organizing against Mondale in 1984, the percentage of Christians was far higher and “Nones” far lower than it is today.

So their argument boils down to this: In a less white, more secular America, where the sufferings of the middle class and the planet are far more apparent, and citizens have better ways to figure out who to vote for than watching 30-second TV ads, the progressive message is more compelling than the old liberal stereotypes. Healthcare as a right, free college, the threat of global warming, and the rest of the Sanders message will overpower the false image of wimpy, naive, America-hating, too-smart-for-their-own-good liberals.

And here, I think we reach the point where the evidence in inconclusive: America is different now, but is it different enough? Quantitative questions — questions that center on “how much” rather than yes or no — are hard to answer without running the experiment. There’s a risk and there’s a reward. How to weigh them against each other is something we all have to decide for ourselves.

Undecided With 8 Days To Go

In a normal New Hampshire primary, undecided Democrats get courted and pandered to. But this year everyone just seems annoyed with us.


Tonight, this election cycle starts to get real: Actual voters will caucus in Iowa and we’ll get the first commitments that actually mean something. A week from tomorrow, I’ll be voting in New Hampshire.

And I’m still not sure what I’m going to do.

I know a lot of you will suspect my honesty when I say this — that in itself strikes me as a symptom of the general situation — but I have genuinely not decided whether I’m voting for Clinton or Sanders. I’m not pretending so that I can sneak my pro-Bernie or pro-Hillary propaganda past your defenses. I really don’t know what I’m going to do.

In a nutshell, the dilemma comes down to this:

  • I like the issues that Sanders has been highlighting: single-payer health care, a big public works program to build infrastructure and create jobs, breaking up the big banks, offering tuition-free college, and so on.
  • I see a huge difference between any Democratic candidate and any Republican candidate, and I have much more confidence of a Democratic victory in November if Clinton is the nominee.

I know the objections to both of those points: The Sanders proposals are all things that would never get through Congress anyway, so what difference do they make? And polls show Bernie running well against the most likely Republican nominees — better than Hillary in most cases — so why can’t I just accept that he’d be the better nominee? And besides, isn’t the lesser evil, well, evil?

I’ve considered all that. I really have. Honestly. And I have worries about both candidates.

My worries about Sanders. To me, the Sanders candidacy only makes sense when you think about how it started: Elizabeth Warren finally convinced everybody that she was serious when she said she wasn’t running, so somebody else had to represent the progressive wing of the Party. Otherwise, Clinton would run unchallenged and could take liberal votes for granted. So Bernie stood up to carry the liberal banner, to be the un-Hillary and make sure progressive issues weren’t ignored.

It isn’t clear to me that Bernie has ever had a serious intention of becoming President of the United States.

How can I say that? Well, I’ve listened to his speeches. The typical Sanders speech boils down to a list of statistics that leads to a list of proposals. [1] You know what’s not in there? Who he is.

For example, here’s a bunch of stuff I never knew until a few minutes ago when I looked it up on Wikipedia: His wife’s name is Jane. It’s a second marriage for both of them. They have no children together, but Jane had three children from her first marriage, and Bernie has a son from a non-marital relationship in the late 1960s. Bernie’s older brother lives in England, where he’s involved in politics with the Green Party.

Is that kind of stuff important? Well, if he just wants to take the liberal message to the Democratic Convention, no. In that case, the message is important and the messenger doesn’t matter.

But if we’re talking about actually becoming president, family and other personal information does matter. Americans expect to have a relationship with their president. We don’t vote for a set of policies, we vote for a person.

The President, after all, is going to come into our living rooms the next time something like 9-11 happens. He or she is going to mourn with us, acknowledge that this is really awful, and reassure us that we’ll get through it if we work together. If we have to go to war, the President is going to tell us why. If the economy starts collapsing, the President will tell us not to panic, and will outline all the things the government will do to keep the situation from getting out of hand.

We want to feel like we know that person.

Sanders has told us that he wants to do good things, but he hasn’t told us why. That may seem like a silly question to you, but Americans get suspicious of people who offer to do good things for them for no obvious reason. (Ronald Reagan used to make fun of the guy who says, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” His audiences loved it.)

Bernie has said that he’s “not particularly religious“. For some people, that’s a deal-breaker right there. But even the people who are OK with it are going to want to know what deep values motivate him and where those values come from. Abstractions won’t do; they’ll want stories. (John McCain wasn’t particularly religious either. But he could point to a family tradition of military service, leading up to his POW story.)

If he doesn’t tell those stories and answer those questions, the Republicans will do it for him. Last week, I talked about the kind of smears we’re likely to see if the opposition starts taking him seriously. I don’t think Bernie has set himself up well to respond.

The way you undo a smear is that you tell a more convincing story about yourself than the one your enemies are telling. You look straight into the camera, straight into America’s living rooms, and say, “You know me. You know what I’m really like.”

When voters were being horrified by videos of Barack Obama’s radical black pastor, Jeremiah Wright, Obama went on TV and told the story of his relationship with Wright, and his lifelong relationship with blackness. When Jimmy Carter tried to scare the country with Ronald Reagan’s extremism, Reagan just said, “There you go again.” With his delivery, with that face and voice Americans had been seeing and hearing for decades, it was devastating.

I have  a hard time picturing Bernie Sanders doing anything like that. He’s not building the kind of personal connection to the voters that could see him through a crisis. His poll numbers may look good now, but in the fall campaign he’ll be vulnerable.

My worries about Clinton. To understand Hillary Clinton, you have to know about two formative political experiences.

The first time Bill was elected governor, he came to office with an ambitious agenda that was quite liberal for Arkansas. And Hillary also was breaking the mold. She dressed more like a college student than a Southern lady — not to mention a governor’s wife — and she kept her own name, Hillary Rodham.

That first term, Bill ran into huge opposition, accomplished very little, and got tossed out of office in the next election. The NYT summarized in 1991:

In his first term, in 1978, he offered a far-ranging package of liberal proposals. Since then, he has painstakingly picked his issues, built his coalitions and chosen his fights. To admirers, that has shown a shrewd ability to use his political capital where it could achieve results. Critics have seen it as timidity in taking on powerful interests.

Hillary learned a lesson too: For Bill’s comeback campaign, she became a Clinton. They won.

But that was Arkansas, not Washington. So when Bill was elected president in 1992, he again came in with a sweeping liberal agenda, and Hillary was right in the middle of it: She would lead the effort to achieve Harry Truman’s dream of national health care.

It was a re-run on a larger scale: huge opposition, massive legislative defeat, and a backlash at the polls. The midterm elections of 1994 were a Republican sweep that ended decades of Democratic control of the House. Hillary was blamed for the disaster, and for the rest of his presidency, Bill Clinton could only accomplish anything — or even keep the government open — by making deals with Newt Gingrich. Once again, he had to pick his issues and choose his fights.

If I had that history, I’d probably be cautious too. So it’s no wonder that Hillary doesn’t cut loose and propose idealistic stuff any more.

But there’s a problem with constraining your imagination to what is currently possible: Once you do that, the range of possibility can only shrink. As David Atkins wrote in Washington Monthly:

Politics isn’t just the art of the possible today. It’s also about shaping the realm of the possible tomorrow. When the opposition is willing to compromise, pushing the envelope might come at the expense of real gains in the moment. But when the opposition is intransigent, advocating for the impossible might just be the most productive thing a president can do to lay the groundwork for gains in the future.

Maybe this year you can only afford to vacation within driving distance of home, so fantasizing about Paris is completely impractical. But if you don’t maintain a Paris fantasy at all, the year when it’s finally just barely possible, you might not notice.

The Republicans never make that mistake. Their primary campaigns are always full of ideas like abolishing the EPA, replacing the income tax with a flat tax, privatizing Medicare, banning Muslims from coming into the country, ending abortion, and all sorts of other things that I doubt the next Republican president could make happen. The conservative imagination stays fertile, and if circumstances unexpectedly give them their chance, their plans will be ready to go.

Which way from here? So that’s where I am: I like Bernie’s issues, and I like him in the messenger role, carrying the progressive flag to the convention, reminding the public that Clinton and Obama aren’t the far left wing of American politics, and making sure Hillary knows that her left flank can’t be taken for granted. But the thought of him as the nominee sets me worrying about the Trump administration. [2]

So who am I voting for in eight days? I’m still not sure, and whatever I’m thinking right now might flip after I see what happens tonight in Iowa.

No man’s land. That indecision puts me in a strange position as I peruse my Facebook news feed or wander the blogosphere. Sanders and Clinton themselves are doing a fairly good job controlling their rhetoric, but that’s not true of their supporters. On social media, things go ad hominem in a hurry: If you defend Sanders, you don’t grasp how the world works, but if you criticize him, you’re part of the evil Clinton establishment. If you try to stand in the middle and keep both sides honest, you’re both clueless and corrupt.

So on behalf of all the Democrats who are still undecided and really can see it both ways, I’ll put this plea out there: Between now and the time the nomination is decided, please work on imagining that some people might honestly and intelligently size up the situation differently than you do. Not everybody who disagrees is evil or stupid.

More similar than different. This rancor is a bit ridiculous, because what we’re mainly arguing about is whether you accomplish more by moving step-by-step or by thinking big. As Rebecca (@Geaux_RC) commented last week on my post “Smearing Bernie, a preview“:

[Clinton and Sanders] agree on the following:

Climate change is real and should be addressed. Women deserve to have control over their bodies. The wealthy should pay more than they currently are in taxes. Voting rights need to be protected and expanded, not undermined and limited. Education is an important priority and should be funded appropriately. The minimum wage needs to be raised. Health care is a fundamental human right. The criminal justice system needs reform.

The Republican candidates disagree with all of that. (OK, Rand Paul supports some kind of criminal justice reform. Any other examples?)

So Bernie wants a $15 federal minimum wage while Hillary wants $12, with state and local action to increase that wage in places with a higher cost of living. (Republicans argue about whether the current $7.25 is too high, while some are against the principle of any government-set minimum wage.)

Bernie calls for a $1 trillion infrastructure program, while Hillary’s is only $275 billion.

Bernie wants public colleges and universities to be tuition-free. Hillary wants community colleges to be tuition-free, and has a more complicated plan for making other higher education affordable.

I could go on, but trust me, the pattern is true across the board: Bernie’s proposals are simpler and bigger, while Hillary’s are wonkier and more cautious. But I can’t find an issue where they have fundamentally different goals.

Conversely, compare either of them to Republican candidates: Bernie and Hillary want the rich to pay higher taxes, while the Republicans want the rich to pay lower taxes. Bernie and Hillary want the government to do more about global warming, while the Republicans want to undo the things President Obama has done. Bernie and Hillary want to protect a woman’s right to choose an abortion, while the Republicans want to chip away at it or eliminate it entirely. And so on.

Given all that, can’t we all figure out some way to get along until the Convention? And then march united into the fall elections? I know it will be frustrating to watch your candidate lose, whichever one it is. And eating your words and voting for other one in November; that’s going to be a challenge. But none of it is going to be as frustrating or as challenging as listening to the Ted Cruz inaugural address.


[1] I’m putting this in a footnote because it’s an aside that interrupts the flow of what I’m saying, but would it kill the guy to tell a story once in a while? Not everybody thinks in statistics. All the way back to Lincoln, the great American politicians have been storytellers.

[2] One more concern: Sanders’ I-have-never-run-a-negative-ad high principles. Particularly against Trump or Cruz, I think the Democrats’ fall campaign needs to be scorched earth.

Smearing Bernie, a preview

A Murdoch paper shows us how Republicans will go after Sanders, once they start taking him seriously.


Soviet propaganda poster.

Bernie Sanders, as seen by the New York Post

So far, Republican presidential candidates have been positioning themselves to run against Hillary Clinton.

In the transcript of the most recent Republican debate, I found only five mentions of Bernie Sanders.  Two occurred when John Kasich was asked about the possibility of running against Sanders, and brushed it off:

We’re going to win every state if Bernie Sanders is the nominee. That’s not even an issue.

In the other three, Sanders’ name was invoked to tar somebody else. Marco Rubio said Ted Cruz typically joined with Sanders to vote against defense bills in the Senate. Twice, Sanders and Clinton were yoked together, so that Clinton could be associated with a position Bernie has taken more explicitly: Ben Carson said Clinton and Sanders blame everything on “those evil rich people”, and Chris Christie said both would raise Social Security taxes.

Clinton, on the other hand, seemed to come up in every answer. She was described as “a national security disaster”, “someone who lies to the families of those four victims in Benghazi”, “an enabler of sexual misconduct”, who wants “to take rights away from law-abiding citizens”, and whose weakness “will lead to greater war in the world”. In other settings, Donald Trump has speculated that Hillary is running “to stay out of jail“, and Chris Christie has promised to prosecute her.

In short, the Right’s barrage against Hillary targets far more than her vision of America’s future or her proposals for getting there. It’s personal, and has been since Bill’s candidacy first drew their attention a quarter century ago.

At times, Republicans even appear to consider Sanders an ally in the anti-Clinton struggle. Karl Rove’s American Crossroads PAC is running an anti-Hillary ad in Iowa, echoing a Sanders-campaign charge about contributions from Wall Street. Bloomberg reports:

During Sunday night’s Democratic debate, the Republican National Committee made the unusual move of sending no fewer than four real-time e-mails to reporters defending the self-described democratic socialist from attacks by Hillary Clinton or echoing his message against her.

It’s not a complete love-fest, though. Republican leaders or Fox News or other conservative outlets occasionally trash the whole idea of socialism or a socialist president. But so far their criticisms of Sanders have mostly stayed philosophical: Bernie’s a good guy, he just has bad ideas.

You know that won’t last, if a Sanders presidency starts to look like a serious possibility. I suppose an optimist could imagine a Sanders/Trump, Sanders/Cruz, or Sanders/Rubio race becoming a national debate about Bernie’s issues: universal health care, an increased minimum wage, creating jobs by rebuilding America’s public infrastructure, making college free, breaking up the big banks, and so on. The GOP’s candidate could explain why he opposes Bernie’s agenda and try to convince the American people to agree with him.

But I suspect the Republicans will take a different approach, because they always do. In a general-election campaign, they won’t be satisfied to say that Sanders is wrong; instead, they’ll want to argue that there is something wrong with him. A campaign that is already centered on hatred and fear won’t change its character for Bernie. Once he is seen as a serious challenger, there will have to be reasons to hate and fear Bernie Sanders.

What reasons? Let’s assume for the moment that there is no legitimate scandal in Bernie’s past, nothing that would give pause to an objective, well-informed voter. Let’s go further and assume that he hasn’t had allies or acquaintances who can be demonized, like Jeremiah Wright or Bill Ayers.

Does that put him in the clear? I don’t think it does. Even if Sanders and everyone he has ever associated with are paragons of saintly virtue, “scandals” can always be manufactured out of nothing.

The Obama-birther issue is a classic example: Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. The State of Hawaii says so, local newspapers published birth announcements at the time, and there was never any reason (beyond the wishful thinking of people who didn’t like him) to doubt his birth or citizenship or eligibility for the presidency. But that didn’t keep the “controversy” from raging for years. (Trump voters still don’t believe Obama was born in America.)

Going back a little further, John Kerry served admirably in Vietnam, was wounded three times, and received both a bronze and a silver star for heroism. But all that was turned against him in the campaign that gave swift-boating its name. Mike Dukakis was accused of being against the Pledge of Allegiance, and responded too slowly because he just couldn’t believe anyone would take the charge seriously. (They did.)  The suicide of Clinton aide Vince Foster was hyped as a murder, supposedly to cover up an affair with Hillary. (But according to a contradictory rumor, Hillary is lesbian.) Al Gore said several true things that got exaggerated, and then the blame for being a “serial exaggerator” got pinned back on him. Howard Dean yelled at the wrong time, so he was clearly unhinged.

No matter how much you admire Bernie Sanders, nobody is so perfect that they can’t be lied about or ridiculed for some blameless statement or action. If Sanders becomes a threat, the Right will go after him — personally. Not his policies or political philosophy, him.

How will they do it?

We got a preview in the January 16 edition of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. In a column the Post categorized as News (not Opinion), Paul Sperry wrote “Don’t be fooled by Bernie Sanders — he’s a diehard Communist.

The article is long and full of details, but even so, the evidence Sperry assembles for his claim is … well, sketchy would be a compliment.

  • As a student in 1964, Sanders belonged to the Young Socialists League. (The article gives no evidence that YSL was all that sinister. And besides, a lot can happen in half a century. At about the same time, Hillary Clinton was a Goldwater girl.)
  • He worked for a union that was investigated by the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee. (That’s the one Joe McCarthy used for his witchhunts. If everyone HUAC investigated had actually conspired with the Soviets, the Republic would have fallen a long time ago.)
  • In the 1970s, he “headed the American People’s History Society, an organ for Marxist propaganda”. (No evidence is given for the Marxist-propaganda claim, other than a documentary favorable to the early-20th-century American socialist and labor crusader Eugene Debs. Elsewhere, a University of Vermont librarian elaborates: “In the brochure’s ‘Dear Educator’ section, Sanders announced that Debs was the first documentary in a new series called ‘The Other Side of American History,’ which would ‘deal with people and ideas that the major profit oriented manufacturers of audio-visual material will not cover because of economic and political reasons’.”)
  • Bernie’s Senate office displays a portrait of Debs, who like a lot of people at that time — George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells come to mind — was slow to recognize the dark side of the Russian Revolution. (Saying nice things about the Bolsheviks was far from the center of Debs’ political identity, which was more about organizing unions, trying to keep the U.S. out of World War I, and popularizing then-radical notions like unemployment insurance and Social Security.)
  • In the 1970s, Sanders belonged to the Liberty Union Party, which wanted banks and utilities to be publicly owned. (Contrary to the “diehard Communist” claim, the leader of that party says they parted ways because “Sanders was moving right”.)
  • As Mayor of Burlington, he supported rent control and land trusts. (In hindsight, it worked out pretty well.)
  • While he was mayor, Burlington’s minor-league team was called the Vermont Reds (possibly because it was a farm team of the Cincinnati Reds. Life imitates art here: In the 1970s conspiracy-theory romp Illuminatus!, a right-wing rabble-rouser warns an Ohio crowd that the time to thwart Communist world domination is now: “Are we going to wait until the godless Reds are right here in Cincinnati?”)
  • In the 1980s, he didn’t support President Reagan’s attempt to overthrow the elected government of Nicaragua by force, and instead attempted to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. (The Sandinistas eventually lost an election and left office voluntarily, so maybe they weren’t such Stalinist monsters after all.)
  • Burlington has a sister city in Russia (as part of a program established by President Eisenhower). As Mayor, Sanders and his new wife went on a group trip to that sister city not long after they got married, creating the sort-of-true claim that he “honeymooned in the Soviet Union“.

There’s more, but you get the idea. For decades, Sanders has been on the left side of the American political spectrum. He’s been suspicious of what unregulated capitalists might do and in favor of workers organizing unions to counter their power. Like the late Howard Zinn, he believes (correctly, I think) that the left side of American political history got misrepresented during the Cold War, and still isn’t told accurately. He’s been skeptical of the perpetual-warfare state, and its efforts to focus our attention on external enemies rather than internal injustice.

If that’s diehard Communism, then there are a lot more diehard Communists than I thought — including me, I guess.

Looking at the weakness of the case, you might be tempted to laugh it off. But swift-boating John Kerry was absurd too, and it worked. With money, media power, and a significant slice of the population ready to repeat whatever nonsense they’re told, the Right can go places with a narrative like this — especially against a candidate most of the country doesn’t know.

So if you were a Republican candidate running against Sanders next fall, why would you risk discussing single-payer health care on its merits (and defending the health insurance companies nobody likes) when you could instead turn the question to whether Bernie Sanders is a loyal American? I mean, Stalin supported single-payer health care, and Castro — so why are we even discussing how it works and who it benefits? The GOP candidate will favor American healthcare, not Soviet healthcare like Comrade Sanders.

Why bother disputing the moral and economic virtues of a higher minimum wage, when you could say: “I believe in wages that you earn fairly in the free market, while Comrade Sanders believes the government should set your wages”? Why defend the too-big-to-fail enormity of Citibank and Bank of America when you could instead rail against Comrade Sanders’ plan for a government takeover of the banking system? (If ObamaCare could be labeled a “government takeover of the healthcare system“, why not do the same to Sanders’ bank-break-up plan?) You could point out that strong American presidents of both parties, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, won the Cold War. So why are we giving in to Communism now?

And since Sanders has declared his independence from all special interests, the Republican nominee will have much more money to use setting the terms of the general-election debate. He’ll be able to launch five attacks for every Sanders defense. Even when Sanders gets free media attention, he’ll find himself confronted with questions about Soviet healthcare and government takeovers and giving in to Communism. When you talk to your crazy uncle who lives inside the Fox News bubble, those phrases will form a buzzword-wall that you’ll never get past.

That is why the decision to vote for Sanders in the primaries — here in New Hampshire, my decision is coming up faster than most — is more complicated than it seems. Because Sanders has yet to face the full force of the right-wing bullshit machine, I put no stock at all in the polls showing him running better against Republican candidates than Hillary does, or picking up Trump voters in a race against some other Republican. And while I want to see a full public debate of the issues Bernie is raising, I’m not at all sure that will happen if we nominate him.

That may sound crazy, but the campaign you get is often not the one you thought you were signing up for. Mike Dukakis knew he’d have to defend his ideas about creating jobs, but he never expected to become the Guy Who Hates the Pledge of Allegiance or the Pro Black Rapist Candidate. (Looking back, he said: “I made a decision we weren’t going to respond. That was it. About two months later I woke up and realized I was getting killed with this stuff.”) Elizabeth Warren anticipated criticism of her banking proposals, but not how much time she would have to spend denying that she invented Native American ancestors to cash in on affirmative action.

Being in the right only helps up to a point. If the other side can launch a series of attacks that have just enough surface plausibility to demand a response, the public’s attention may never turn to the issues you’re trying to run on. The voters may never listen to all those wonderful points you want to make.

So if he’s nominated, I have to wonder how much of Bernie’s message will make it out to the voters, and how much will be swamped by bullshit issues. How much time will he spend establishing that he’s not a Bolshevik (or worse, refusing to establish that he’s not a Bolshevik, on the high principle that he shouldn’t have to), or defending some easily misrepresented Burlington city ordinance from thirty years ago? Having seen how completely the Right can re-invent a recent historical figure like Saul Alinsky, I can barely imagine what they’ll do with Eugene Debs.

Dealing with bullshit issues patiently but firmly (and occasionally managing to turn them to your advantage) requires its own kind of political skill, the kind John Kennedy demonstrated when he defused fears of his Catholicism, or Obama showed when he spoke about race and Jeremiah Wright. (That speech was the moment I realized I wanted Obama to be president.) No one believes Hillary Clinton has the oratorical gifts of JFK or Obama, but she’s been facing right-wing smears for more than two decades, and has gotten pretty good at fending them off, as she showed when she stared down the House Benghazi Committee for 11 hours in October.

Does Bernie Sanders have that in him? I don’t know. So far, nothing in his career has required it. I worry that when Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones put him in the crosshairs, he’ll get testy and defensive. Baseless attacks might raise his preachy side, leading him to lecture reporters rather than answer their questions or artfully deflect them or humorously turn them around. His idealism might lead him to insist that because bullshit issues shouldn’t matter, they don’t.

They do. In election after election, we’ve seen that they do. We need a candidate who can deal with them.

Is Bernie Sanders that candidate? I don’t know. That — maybe even more than how I feel about the policy differences between Clinton and Sanders — is the thing I have to decide in the next two weeks.