by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders may not be a real family, but they’ve certainly got good at playing one on TV. In the Democratic Presidential debates, especially now that the field of candidates is down to just the two of them, Hillary comes off as the nasty, controlling mother, setting strict limits on what the kids can hope for or even dream about. No matter how much you want that new toy, piece of candy, guaranteed access to health care, or free public-college tuition, you can’t have it! In fact, says Hillary in every inflection of her voice, every nod of her head, every stern, unsmiling facial expression, you wouldn’t really want it even if you could have it — which you can’t, so stop even thinking about it!
Bernie, in this little situation drama — and it’s indicative of how “familial” the debate has become that just about everybody calls the candidates by their first names — is the super-indulgent dad. What do you mean, you can’t have it? he tells the kids. Look at the neighbors’ kids, he says; they have it, and their parents make less than we do! It shouldn’t be surprising that in the Democratic primaries thus far — this is being written four days after Bernie’s spectacular, if narrow, victory in Michigan — Bernie has overwhelmed Hillary among young voters by unbelievable margins of 30, 40 or even 50 percent.
It’s not just because Bernie has promised them a free college education if they do well in school — though I’m sure a lot of his appeal to younger voters is that if he wins and gets that proposal through Congress, they’ll have access to a quality education and have the ability to donate whatever skills they acquire to positive social change instead of being burdened their entire adult lives with crushing six-figure student loan debt. It’s because Bernie, the cool dad, has not only retained the idealism of his own youth (remember that he went to a free public college in New York and got the kind of education on the terms he’d like to offer anyone else) but is openly seeking to rekindle a sense of hope and imagination in America’s modern young.
Hillary, by contrast, seems to be doing everything she can to squash any hint of idealism in the electorate in general and the Democratic electorate in particular. In one debate, she tried to squash Bernie’s plan for universal health care by reminding her audience that they couldn’t even get the so-called “public option” into the Affordable Care Act — and that was when the Democrats still had a majority in both houses of Congress. The world is the way it is, and you can’t even think of making anything more than just incremental changes, Hillary says, raising her voice to its maximum level of schoolmarmish seriousness and looking like she’s about to crack a ruler over the knuckles of any kid in her presence daring to dream of anything more than that.
I’ve somehow got on the e-mail sucker lists for both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. (Full disclosure: the day after Bernie’s win in Michigan I logged on to his Web site and donated $27 — his much-proclaimed figure of his average donation — to the Sanders campaign.) Hillary and her supporters keep sending me e-mails saying that she’s the only hope we have of keeping Donald Trump from becoming Barack Obama’s successor as President in 2017. I couldn’t disagree more. I’ve become convinced over the past few months that if the Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton and the Republicans nominate Donald Trump, Trump will not only win, it will be a landslide. Why?
Hillary Clinton is a lousy politician. She’s even admitted it herself. In the last Democratic debate she said, “I’m not a natural politician, like my husband or President Obama.” The thing that should scare every Democratic activist and voter about a Hillary Clinton nomination is her utter and repeated inability to connect with ordinary people — especially ordinary white people. While her inexplicable popularity among voters of color (she carried Michigan’s African-American community by 62 to 35 percent) continues, Hillary’s standing among white working-class voters is so weak that in Michigan, in just two weeks of campaigning, she was able to convert an 18- to 25-percent margin in the polls to a 2-percent defeat at the ballot box.
In just about every public appearance, Hillary’s disgust with the whole process of campaigning is almost too palpable. She’s one of those frustrating political figures who, given the limits of her pro-corporate “Third Way” moderate world view (every time she introduces herself as a “progressive” in one of the debates, I want to yell at the TV, “You are not! You’re a moderate! You said so yourself!”), would probably make a quite good President. But her visceral hatred of the process you have to follow to get there — especially once you’re out of the cozy back rooms where you can quietly talk to big donors, party leaders and the so-called “superdelegates” (essentially party bosses and hacks who, in the so-called Democratic Party, constitute about one-eighth of the delegates and were put there in the mid-1970’s to make sure no genuinely progressive outsider — no George McGovern or Jesse Jackson or Howard Dean or Bernie Sanders — could ever get the nomination) and have to talk to real flesh-and-blood voters — helped do her in in 2008 when she ran in the primaries against Barack Obama, and it’s working against her this year as well.
Hillary Clinton comes into the campaign with an extraordinary set of negatives. Polls reveal 51 percent of respondents have a negative view of her. She says that’s the result of a quarter-century’s worth of attacks on her from the Right-wing axis of the Republican Party and its media outlets, talk radio and Fox News. She’s got a point, but she’d be better able to answer those attacks if she were stronger at getting people to like her, the way “natural politicians” like her husband and Obama have done. A lot of people ridiculed Bill Clinton when he said, “I feel your pain,” but he managed to convince many Americans that he had some emotional connection with their problems and he would do his best as President to help solve them. It’s impossible to imagine anyone — with the possible exception of other married women whose husbands can’t or won’t keep their dicks in their pants — who would ever believe Hillary Clinton felt their pain.
That’s one reason why only 37 percent of respondents in those polls say that Hillary Clinton is honest and trustworthy. Unlike her husband, she didn’t have a hardscrabble upbringing. She didn’t rise from a town called Hope (actually Bill was born in the neighboring town of Hot Springs, but the mythology his P.R. people built around the “man from Hope” has stuck); she was born to wealth and privilege in Illinois. Maybe not anywhere near as much wealth or privilege as Donald Trump — who’s been able to sell himself to America as a “self-made” multibillionaire even though he got a major leg up from his dad’s fortune — but wealth and privilege nonetheless.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that “the rich are different from you and me,” by which he meant not only that they had more money but they’d been trained from birth to consider themselves an elite, entitled not only to money but power as well in whatever field they chose to go after it. Hillary Clinton wears that sense of entitlement like the ill-tailored but intimidating pantsuits she puts on for all her public appearances. It’s been her whole defense against the ridiculous controversy the Republicans and their media lackeys keep trying to gin up about her e-mails. Regarding her use of private servers for official business and her refusal to disclose — until the FBI and the courts forced her to — what was in those e-mails, she complains, “Colin Powell did it before me!” — as if that made it right.
It’s also why she thinks she can take speakers’ fees totaling $675,000 for three speeches to the elite financial firm of Goldman Sachs — who have supplied Secretaries of the Treasury to the last three Presidents, Democrats and Republicans, including Hillary’s husband — and not have to tell the American people just what was in those speeches. And it’s what gives her the sheer gall to take Goldman’s money — almost three-quarters of a million dollars of it in speaking fees as well as whatever their executives have given to her campaign — and then pose as a progressive who has a plan that will rein in the excesses of financial firms like Goldman Sachs.
Hillary’s only chance in a two-person race against Trump will be to get people to vote for her because, as much as they can’t stand her, they can’t stand him more. The same polls that put Hillary’s negatives at 51 percent put Trump’s at 64.
The white working class. Once upon a time — basically from 1932 to 1964 — the white working class was a bulwark of the Democratic Party’s governing coalition. Then the 1960’s happened. The Democratic and Republican parties flipped their historic positions on civil rights in general and African-American rights in particular. The party of racism, reaction and the Ku Klux Klan pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, while the “party of Lincoln” became the party of Strom Thurmond, the “Southern Strategy” and white reaction in general. Also, the counterculture happened — and the Republicans, led by Ronald Reagan when he was governor of California in the late 1960’s, saw another opening to the hearts of so-called “Middle America” by coming out against rioting college students and spaced-out hippies.
Richard Nixon won the Presidency in 1968 by tapping the fears of whites that the advances of Blacks and the counterculture directly threatened both their own well-being and the social stability of the entire country. It’s an appeal that still works for Republicans. Not only has the “Solid South” shifed from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican — right-wing pundit Ann Coulter has pointed out the uncomfortable truth (if you’re a Hillary supporter) that all those Southern states like South Carolina, Mississippi and Arkansas that gave her lopsided margins in Democratic primaries are virtually sure bets for the Republicans in November — so has the white working class elsewhere in the country.
Working-class whites form the bulk of the audience for Right-wing talk radio (is there any other kind anymore?) and Fox News. Since 1968 they have voted overwhelmingly Republican even when Republicans have pursued anti-labor policies targeting unions, rewarding corporations who relocate jobs overseas, encouraging the de-industrialization of the U.S. and pushing so-called “free trade” agreements whose real effect is to push town American workers’ wages by forcing them to compete with ultra-cheap labor in countries like Mexico, China, Viet Nam and Bangladesh. Along with evangelical Christians and gun-rights advocates, they’ve provided the votes that elected Nixon, Ronald Reagan and both George Bushes to the Presidency.
And they’re even more enthusiastic about Donald Trump — which is one big reason why Hillary Clinton would have a reasonable chance against an ordinary cookie-cutter Right-wing Republican but will be totally crushed by Trump. Though he’s a multi-billionaire, he’s mastered the art of playing the super-rich populist pioneered by Nelson Rockefeller and also done by H. Ross Perot — “I’ve already got more money than God, so I can’t be corrupted or bribed.” What’s more — unlike fellow 0.01-percenter Mitt Romney, with his unashamed disdain for the estimated 47 percent of Americans “who just want the government to give them stuff” — Trump knows how to connect with the white working class.
It’s not only the racism — though white working-class racism has been a potent political force ever since George Wallace “primaried” Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and won in Wisconsin on the basis of working-class whites who feared their jobs would go to Blacks. It’s not only the sneering sexism and religious bigotry, which Trump wears proudly as a sign of his willingness to be “politically incorrect” and say the things white working-class voters think but have been told they should be ashamed of and shouldn’t say in public. It’s that Trump, alone of the Republican candidates this year, is saying the things white working-class voters yearn desperately to hear and haven’t been hearing from the candidates of either major party in quite some time.
In his article “Donald Trump Is Dangerous” (The Nation, March 14, 2016) John Nichols quotes Trump at one of the Republican debates saying, “This country is dying. And our workers are losing their jobs.” He lamented the decision of the Carrier air conditioner company to move their production from Indianapolis to Mexico and said the departure of American jobs to lower-paying foreign shores was directly due to “trade pacts that are no good for us and no good for our workers.” Trump ended that particular comment by threatening to enact a retaliatory tax on companies who “offshore” good American jobs.
No other Presidential candidate in 2016 is talking like that — except one: Bernie Sanders. Trump’s Republican opponents are still locked into the party’s libertarian economic orthodoxy that whatever “The Market” decides is good — if the U.S. loses its once-vaunted position as the world’s industrial manufacturing powerhouse, a status which was key to its victory in World War II, so be it. If that means most Americans are consigned to low-paid employment — when they can get jobs at all — while the rich get ever richer, so be it. The growing disconnect between the Republicans’ ability to get working-class whites to vote for them by using the “dog-whistle words” of racism and hatred of the counterculture (which, in 2016, translates as hatred of Queers) and the actual effects of their policies on working people is a vulnerability that would seem ready-made for the Democrats to exploit.
But not for Hillary Clinton. Not when it was her husband who pushed an initially reluctant Congress to approve the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the first of these horrendously one-sided “trade” agreements that benefit wealthy individuals and corporations and harm everyone else in every country that’s a party to them. Not when it was her husband who pushed for the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act from the 1930’s, which drew a wall between commercial banking and investment banking and thus prevented the kinds of financial manipulations that destroyed the economy in 1929 and again in 2008. Not when, after opposing a bill making it harder to declare bankruptcy when she was First Lady, she voted for the same bill when she was a U.S. Senator from New York and George W. Bush signed it into law (to his credit, Bill Clinton had vetoed it) — and she rationalized her vote by saying that as a Senator from New York, Wall Street’s home state, she was obliged to represent its interests.
It won’t be easy for Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” from Vermont (even though he was born in New York City and his roots are with its socially aware Jewish-American community) with a long record of supporting Leftist causes both here and abroad, to connect with an increasingly racist and xenophobic white working class. But at least he has what Hillary Clinton does not: a track record. Sanders can boast that he opposed every one of those damned “trade” agreements, from NAFTA to the currently pending Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — while Hillary Clinton has supported them all until very recently. Two years ago she called TPP a “gold standard” for trade agreements; now, with a Sanders-inspired pivot to the Left that only reinforces the public image of Hillary as someone who will say or do anything to get elected, and is therefore not to be trusted, she opposed it. In a general election between Clinton and Trump, Trump will wrap every one of those God-awful “trade” agreements and every American job that’s been “offshored” as a result of them around Hillary’s neck and drown her with them.
The historical factors. The 2016 Presidential election was going to be a hard sell for the Democrats from the get-go. Since the passage of the 22nd Amendment, limiting the President to two terms, in 1947, only once has a party won three Presidential elections in a row: the Republicans, with Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and George H. W. Bush winning largely on Reagan’s coattails in 1988. (When he had to run four years later on his own record, he lost.) Obama not only doesn’t have the kind of coattails Reagan had; if anything, he has negative coattails.
Obama took office in 2009 with a substantial Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and close to the magic 60-vote supermajority needed to accomplish virtually anything in the Senate. But the much-vaunted “Obama Coalition” has proven itself able to elect only one person: Obama himself. Otherwise, the Obama years have been one political disaster for the Democrats after another. They lost the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014. The Democrats now have fewer House members than they’ve ever had since 1928.
Even worse, the Democrats have fallen far behind the Republicans in the numbers of governorships and state legislatures they control. In at least 25 states Republicans hold the governorship and both houses of the legislature. Democrats control the governorship and both houses of the legislature in just seven states — and aside from California (where governor Jerry Brown rules more like a moderate Republican anyway), they’re all small. This is important because it’s state governments that control how the district lines for House members are drawn — and Republican legislatures and governors have moved aggressively to gerrymander those lines to keep Republicans in control of the House even if more voters support the Democrats than the Republicans in House races.
State governments also set the rules for who can vote, when they can vote, when they can register, what the qualifications are for registering (including whether they have to show I.D. and what forms of I.D. are acceptable), how late the polls stay open, where the polls are and all other laws regarding elections. Here the Republicans have moved to limit access to the polls as much as possible so that people likely to vote against them — particularly young people, poor people and people of color — won’t be able to vote at all. That’s why the Republicans are unafraid of the much talked-about “demographic shifts” in the U.S. population that are supposedly turning the country more Democratic long-term. And it’s why they’re so dead set against any comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship: more Latino citizens means more Latino voters, and likely more Democratic voters.
The “intensity gap.” One reason the Obama years have been such a political disaster for the Democrats is that his Republican opponents have done so much better a job than his Democratic supporters in getting their people not only to vote but to care about politics and be activists. The Tea Party movement started almost as soon as Obama took office; its closest Left equivalent, Occupy, didn’t begin until September 2011, after Obama had been President for 2 ½ years. Republicans have been fired up since Obama took office, when Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said at the start of 2009 that his goal was to “make Obama a one-term President.” He didn’t succeed, but he achieved the next best thing from a Republican point of view: he made it virtually impossible for Obama to do anything.
Since regaining control of the House in 2010, the Republicans in Congress have repeatedly served notice on Obama that they will not permit him to govern except on their terms. They have shut down the government in an effort to force him to defund his own health-care program. Former House speaker John Boehner refused even to let the house vote on the proposed immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013. Most recently, the Republicans in Congress are not only refusing to consider anyone Obama appoints to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the U.S. Supreme Court — continuing a pattern of resistance to Obama’s judicial appointments that has led to an unprecedented number of vacancies in the federal courts — now they won’t even consider Obama’s latest proposal for a federal budget.
And as they’ve done all this, the rabid Republican voters don’t think they’ve gone far enough. The Affordable Care Act is still receiving government money. So is Planned Parenthood. Abortion is still more or less legal, even though the Right’s anti-choice crusade has left 85 percent of all U.S. counties without a single abortion provider. Marriage equality for same-sex couples is the law of the land. Trade unions and the Environmental Protection Agency still exist. The U.S. government still owns an awful lot of land in the western and southwestern states. And the private sector still hasn’t been “unleashed” from the shackles of government regulation. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is going to be the Republican Presidential nominee this year if it isn’t Donald Trump, damned Chief Justice John Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee and ordinarily a thorough-going Right-winger, as insufficiently “pure” because he voted to uphold the Affordable Care Act twice.
If anything, the Republican electorate — especially that section of it that votes in primaries — is even more rabidly Right-wing than the Republican party leadership. People who’ve interviewed audience members at Trump rallies and led focus groups of Trump supporters say that they start out criticizing Obama but then aim even more of their vitriol against the Republicans in Congress who are letting Obama get away with running the country. The much-touted “anger” of Republican primary voters this year has to do with the fact that, even after ham-stringing Obama with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, they haven’t got him to cave and let the Right run the country their way.
Therefore, according to the conspiratorial thinking that drives a lot of the American Right, they must be part of the problem, part of a corrupt bipartisan political establishment that is blocking the Right-wing revolution they think this country needs. Trump’s supporters believe only a powerful outsider with a proven track record of business success (actually Trump’s business record is considerably spottier than he likes to pretend, but the image he’s sold to America is of one unstoppable success after another) can come in and clean house from the mess both major parties have made.
And, as I noted in my first article about the Trump candidacy, that’s the same promise would-be dictators of both the Right and Left — Napoleon, Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, Mao, Juan Perón, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez — have made to the people to gain power. One need only look at the climate of thug-like violence around the Trump rallies — not only the audience members who beat up protesters on the floor but the encouragement Trump himself shouts at them from the podium — to see Trump as the neo-fascist he is, not only copying Hitler’s tactics of riling up his nation’s people to support him but using quite similar arguments: if it weren’t for the Jews, Mexicans, Muslims or whoever the scapegoat de jour is, the rest of us would have great jobs and everything would be “fantastic.”
The Sanders voters. One of the biggest — and least-discussed — factors that will affect the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election will be what Bernie Sanders’ supporters will do if Hillary Clinton gets the Democratic nomination. What Sanders himself does will have an effect on that, of course — and he’s already signaled his willingness to support her when he said in one of the debates that Clinton on her worst days would be a better President than any of the Republicans at their best. It’s likely Sanders will not only endorse Hillary Clinton but will aggressively campaign for her — unlike Eugene McCarthy in 1968, who after he lost the Democratic nomination hemmed and hawed about whether he’d support the winner, Hubert Humphrey, and finally gave him a lukewarm endorsement just three days before the election.
But my analysis is that there are basically three types of Sanders voters, and they will react quite differently if Clinton beats him for the nomination. They are:
The Sanders Democrats. They are progressive but also pragmatic enough to realize what a disaster a Republican President — any Republican President, and especially Trump or Cruz — would be for progressive ideals and values. They may do it with some degree of reluctance, but they’ll vote for Hillary Clinton.
The Sanders progressives. Many of these are Leftists who long ago gave up on the two major parties and only came back to the Democrats because Sanders was running. Indeed, a lot of Sanders’ supporters are people who ordinarily regard electoral politics as useless and don’t vote at all. If Sanders loses the Democratic nomination, these people either won’t vote for President or will vote for a minor-party candidate like Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party — which, in America’s abominable system of winner-take-all politics, is unfortunately the same thing as not voting at all.
The Sanders independents. These are non-ideological people basically disgusted with the American political system as it stands. They see both the Democrats and the Republicans as hopelessly corrupt and in thrall to the 1 percent. They want to see an “outsider” President who isn’t beholden either to the grandees of Wall Street or the bosses of the big parties — and if Sanders doesn’t get the Democratic nomination and Trump wins the Republican one, a lot of these people will vote for Trump over the consummate “insider,” Establishment candidate Hillary Clinton.
My analysis is that Hillary Clinton will have a great deal of trouble winning Sanders’ voters over in a two-person race between her and Donald Trump. She’ll have an easier general election if Ted Cruz, who has most of Trump’s weaknesses and few of his strengths, is the Republican nominee.
It’s true that at least some Republicans have threatened to boycott the party in November if Trump is the nominee. Peter Weiner, who served in the administrations of Reagan and both Bushes, has an article called “The Party’s Over” in the current (March 21) Time magazine lamenting the Republicans’ transformation from the party of Reagan to the party of Trump — though his quarrel with Trump seems more about style than substance. “Many of us who are children of the Reagan revolution will not go gently into that good night,” Weiner writes. “We will not vote for Trump under any circumstances, even if he is the nominee; what’s more, we will do everything in our power to reclaim the Republican Party from this demagogic and authoritarian figure.”
But I suspect very few Republicans will share Weiner’s fastidious quibbles over Trump. Even if they don’t like him — even if he wasn’t their first, second or even third choice for the nomination — they’ll vote for him anyway. After all, what will the major-party alternative be? Either a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” or a woman whom Republicans have been taught to regard as the virtual Antichrist of politics for the quarter-century she’s been in the public eye. (The Right-wing American Spectator magazine used to send out subscription solicitations adorned with a crude drawing of Hillary Clinton as a witch.) The Democrats will lose far more potential voters if they don’t nominate Bernie Sanders than the Republicans will if they nominate Donald Trump.
Say what you will about Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — and this article has turned out a lot more negative towards Clinton than I thought it would when I started writing it — at least they are serious, intelligent people with a genuine desire not merely to be President but to use the Presidency to make ordinary Americans’ lives better. Among the four remaining Republican candidates — Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich — only Kasich fits that description. The others, Trump and Cruz in particular, are bellicose thugs whose level of immaturity and utter unfitness for national power is all too apparent every time they “debate.”
But just because people aspiring to rule countries are immature, obnoxious and even evil doesn’t mean they don’t succeed. Even the most blatant rabble-rouser all too often finds a rabble to be roused. If you think it can’t happen here, remember that there were an awful lot of Germans in the early 1930’s who didn’t think it could happen there either!