If you’re a Democrat, chances are you appreciate both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
The more time you spend online, the harder this may be to believe. But it’s a poll-tested fact, even in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the Vermont senator’s appeal presents the biggest challenge to the former Secretary of State.
Both candidates have fervent, occasionally raving supporters who oppose the other, although the fanatics are a minority. Both candidates are historic in their own right. And even though Sanders is new to the Democratic Party, both candidates have found record support and represent the kind of energy necessary to grow the Obama Coalition and restore the New Deal consensus.
That doesn’t mean this campaign hasn’t been contentious and won’t get worse. It will, especially if the contest gets even closer. But there are several reasons to be proud, which is something you can rarely say in politics.
- Sanders is speaking to the great crises of our time. Our economy is eating itself: “In 1980, the top 1 percent had about 8 percent of national income. Today it’s closing in 24 percent. The bottom 50 percent of Americans in 1980 shared about 18 percent of national income. Today it’s down to 11 percent, down a third…” billionaire-turned-wealth-inequality-activist Nick Hanauer explained last year. “All you have to do is put that data in an Excel spreadsheet and just run the extrapolation out 30 years. The numbers are scary, right? Because the top 1 percent will control in the mid 30s — 35, 36, 37 percent of national income — and the bottom 50 percent of Americans will share 5 or 6 percent of national income. At that point you don’t have a capitalist democracy anymore. You have some kind of feudal system.” Few Americans speak to this crisis — and its twin environmental crisis of climate change — as well as Bernie Sanders. He recognizes that we need a “political revolution” to change the dynamic. Some say that’s unrealistic, but it makes perfect sense in two ways. For Sanders to win even the nomination would require a remarkable upheaval, greater even that what Barack Obama pulled off when he barely beat Clinton in 2008. To implement his agenda, he would need Democratic majorities even larger than those swept in with Obama in 2008. If this doesn’t happen now, it needs to happen someday soon. Stopping the tide of conservative economics isn’t enough — it must be reversed. Our Republic depends on it.
- Clinton is speaking to the most immediate disasters we face. For Hillary Clinton to champion repealing the Hyde Amendment — which denies access to reproductive rights to poor people who get government health care — is in many ways as idealistic (and difficult to imagine becoming real) as Sanders’ Medicare for All plan. By campaigning on promises for which Democrats don’t have the votes in Congress, the left risks aping the right’s empty promises to the base. But just as Sanders is making a larger case for a new role for government, Clinton is staking a claim for defending reproductive rights, which are definitely on the ballot in 2016. The next president could be the first since Nixon to appoint four justices to the Supreme Court, possibly in one term. Both Clinton and Sanders would appoint justices who would defend reproductive rights, voting rights, civil rights, and labor rights. But who can put the immediacy of this issue before voters most effectively? While Sanders wants a political revolution, Clinton wants to build on the 90 percent of Americans who now have health insurance instead of letting Republicans immediately chip away at that number. More than any other single American, Clinton helped push forward the notion of universal healthcare in America — and we are closer than ever to that reality. But more than anyone, she knows the costs of that effort and the fury of right wing attacks on the people who fight for progress. Her argument is not as radical as Sanders’, but it is as essential: Help me keep and build on Barack Obama’s progress, or watch much of it waste away as quickly as the progress of the 90s faded under George W. Bush.
- Both candidates rise when challenged to present fresh policy ideas. The Democratic Party has moved left in the last decade, but only to keep up with the American public. On issues like mass incarceration, the drug war, LGBTQ rights, and background checks on gun purchases, the vast majority of Americans have embraced more progressive positions. When Sanders and Clinton were challenged by activists like #BlackLivesMatter, they produced policies to reflect this changing reality. These visions don’t please everyone, but they reflect a party that’s not trafficking in failed perspectives of the past. On Wall Street regulation, Clinton constantly had her credibility challenged due to her husband’s second-term embrace of deregulation, her own votes, and her affinity with donors from the financial sector, many of whom were her constituents in New York. Still, her policies to regulate shadow banks have been praised by Paul Krugman and reflect the reality that Dodd-Frank has been more effective than many critics will admit. Still, we face a Securities and Exchange Commission captured by industry and a revolving door between government and the banks that barely even squeaks, as lobbyists try to undo reform. Pushing Clinton on this issue just makes sense. Sanders’ vote to give gunmakers broad legal immunity reveals a rare instance where he sought to empower corporations. Given that Congress has largely blocked even basic efforts to study gun violence, pushing Sanders on this issue also makes sense. And when the candidates have been pushed, they’ve generally stepped up.
- Both candidates have avoided the personal mudslinging endemic to tight races (so far). The 2016 Republican primary race is a cesspool, with the frontrunner wielding a giant firehose that spews sewage. Racism, sexism, and personal attacks are the primary currency of that contest, and the biggest spender of that currency is winning. Sanders has refused to indulge right wing attacks on Clinton’s email use as Secretary of State. He has sidestepped personal attacks on Bill Clinton’s personal life, while his criticisms of Clinton’s integrity have been hazy and glancing. His supporters have been vicious toward Clinton, but generally peddle in fact not innuendo. Clinton’s surrogates have often matched or outdone Sanders’ backers vitriol. Primary elections are about flooding an opponent’s hull to learn whether there are any leaks. Going too easy on a candidate leaves him or her exposed in a general election, while indulging unfair attacks can inflict lasting damage. Thus far, this primary has tested both candidates’ weaknesses without weighing them down for the general election.
- The Democratic candidates aren’t damaging their party the way Republicans are.
In a recent NBC/ Wall Street Journal poll, a substantial plurality of respondents said the GOP primary has damaged the party’s image by featuring its worst hucksters and clowns, as these polarizing figures gain more and more prominence. “In the poll, 42 percent of registered voters said the primary race has made them feel less favorable about the GOP, compared to just 19 percent who said they feel more favorable,” NBC’s Carrie Dann reported. “Thirty-eight percent said the brawl for the Republican nomination hasn’t changed their view of the party as a whole.” In the same poll, a majority of 54 percent said the Democratic primary hasn’t changed their view of the party at all.