Tuesday, March 29, 2016


The first time I voted in a presidential primary was for Jesse Jackson in 1984. I voted as a “Democrat Abroad” because I was doing a junior year abroad in England at the time. My reasoning, as best as I can remember it, was that we always vote for the lesser of two evils, so this time I wanted to vote for someone who holds policy positions I agree with. This vote, by the way, led to me being called a “self-hating Jew” for the very first time, by the rabbi of my parents' synagogue.

Since that time there haven't been many Democratic candidates, even in primaries, as progressive as Jackson. One of the few is running this year – Bernie Sanders. His policy positions surely hew closer to mine than do Hillary Clinton's, yet I am mostly staying neutral in the primaries, determined to vote for whoever the winner is. I have many friends who are fervently “feeling the Bern”, yet I am not.

Why? A few reasons:

First, I live in Kansas, which has as much impact on a presidential election as a flea has on an elephant. It's a blood red state, and will go for Donald Trump if he's the nominee. Unless I want to travel to another state (or make a lot of phone calls) getting all worked up about it would have almost zero impact even in the primaries. Meanwhile, our state is a political Superfund site, with a governor and legislative supermajority seemingly determined to seek out and snuff any hint of a Good Thing that might happen in this state. I'd rather focus my energies on that.

Second, I have serious doubts about Sanders' electability in a national campaign. His fans are always touting the polls showing him beating Trump by 20 points, but Hillary has run a rather passive campaign against him, and I'm not at all sure those numbers will hold up after the Republicans throw slime at him for six months. I don't think the word “socialist” will be seen positively in a fall election. By the time the slimers are done with him, I'm afraid, Bernie Sanders will be indistinguishable in wide swaths of the public mind from Hugo Chavez.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, for all her negatives, is by resume the most qualified presidential candidate in my lifetime. What she loses in enthusiasm from the millennial left she will regain from moderate Republicans who can't bring themselves to vote for Trump but consider Clinton moderate enough. Sanders won't get those votes.

And in this election, where the alternative isn't Bob Dole or George Bush Sr. but Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, we can't afford to lose. I have thought all along, and I still think, that Hillary will win in a landslide against either. I'm not at all sure of that with Sanders.

But the main reason is that I see the Bernienauts making the same mistake that we all made with Obama in 2008 – the myth of the miracle worker, or putting all our eggs in the candidate's basket. There is only so much a president can do in the absence of a left infrastructure that hasn't existed in this country for a long time. Even if Bernie won, he would still have a recalcitrant House that would oppose his every move. Clinton will have that too, but I just feel that she could maneuver that better than he could. She's used to making policy, while he's used to being a ideologically pure backbencher; the skills are very different.

Obama has done a lot of good things. He's done some bad things too. But let's not forget that his strong action on climate in the second term coincides with (I would argue, results from) a strong climate movement. Clinton has shown over the past couple of years that she is open to pressure from the grassroots. I don't assume she will have the same positions that she had in 1994, because this isn't 1994. Then, we were coming out of 12 years of Reaganism. Now, we've had 8 years of Obama after 8 years of the disastrous W. The situations are very different, and she will adjust. 

I think Bernie's role is to pull Hillary to the left, which he's done, and to mobilize the left grassroots, which he's also done.

But this whole “if Bernie isn't the candidate I won't vote” bullshit is what I'm afraid of. What kind of “revolution” is it if you disengage as soon as you don't get what you want?

We have a lot of infrastructure to build in this country, a left that's independent of any particular candidate and can both turn out voters for elections and pressure incumbents in between. (What Van Jones called the "inside and outside games.") The right has this, paid for by the Kochs et all; the left does not. An full auditorium, no matter how enthusiastic, is no substitute. If anything lasting is going to come out of Bernie's campaign, it has to be that.

We're going to need it, if we're to expect the left to be stronger during and after Hillary Clinton's presidency than it has been before it.