The Need For a Progressive Challenger in the Democratic Primaries – posted 9/21/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor 9/27/2014
This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 9/27/2014 under the title “Here’s Hoping a True Progressive Challenges Clinton”. Jon
For many people, it is a foregone conclusion that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic Party presidential nominee in 2016. There is genuine excitement at the prospect of a woman president. Plus, Hillary’s unparalleled name recognition, her wide experience as a politician and a campaigner and her access to big money all give her legitimate frontrunner status.
Things like her recent trip to Iowa and the many Ready for Hillary emails I continually receive do make me think she is serious about a 2016 run. That stuff is hardly accidental.
Still I have to express a degree of skepticism. As a progressive, I am not sure where she stands on a number of critical issues. In writing this piece, I offer no endorsements of any candidate. I think there is an increasing gap between proliferating problems and the meagre solutions offered by both political parties.
Without getting too dystopian, our political system is stuck in quicksand as the challenges grow. Political stalemate translates into a form of dysfunctionality. Politicians focus more on image and strategies for how to spin difficult divisive issues. Real action for change often seems like a fading hope.
I will highlight three major issues of concern – economic inequality, war and militarism, and campaign finance reform. Without a strong progressive challenger, I have a bad feeling about where Hillary and the centrists in the Democratic Party leadership will land on these issues. I would guess perceptions of how the issue affects her electability would trump other concerns.
I think a vigorous primary would be good for the Party and democracy. The base of the Democrats needs to shake the party leadership and try to exert influence. We do not need two Republican parties or a second party that is Republican-lite. I fear that a play-it-safe, bland, centrist approach will shrink enthusiasm and turnout. That could be a killer for the party even having a candidate with the positives Hillary does bring.
Economic inequality is our 800 pound gorilla issue. We live in a new Gilded Age. To say the rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer is a gross understatement. The top 10% of the richest 1% have gotten astronomically richer. 16,000 families, the ultra-rich, possess $6 trillion in assets – equal to the total wealth of the bottom two-thirds of American families.
Meanwhile, middle class, working class, and poor people face a bleak landscape. Good paying jobs with benefits are like a dying species relative to the need. Students come out of college with cripplingly large student loan debts. Inequality is associated with lower life expectancy, higher rates of infant mortality and poorer health outcomes. And I have barely scratched the surface of the negatives of extreme inequality.
Hillary embodies the dilemma at the core of the Democratic Party. Is it a pro-corporate party or is it a Labor party? It has tried to be both. Hillary has maintained cozy ties with Wall Street fatcats. Last year she gave two paid speeches to Goldman Sachs audiences. Her speaking fee: $200,000 a speech.
So I will ask: how does one challenge robber barons while being financially dependent on the same robber barons? I mentioned the Goldman Sachs speeches but since Hillary left the State Department she has given more than 90 speeches, many to powerful corporate interests, raking in over $5 million. This is the person who is going to lead a populist crusade? Everybody has contradictions but it strains credulity to see Hillary as a working class hero.
On the matter of war and militarism, progressives do have cause for concern about Hillary’s positions especially in light of her recent criticism of the Obama foreign policy. She has been positioning herself to the right of Obama , criticizing his reluctance to support moderate Syrian rebels. As she famously said in reference to Obama’s foreign policy, “Don’t do stupid stuff is not an organizing principle.”
This comes from a person who supported George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. We seem to forget so fast. It is like that absurd war never happened. It has cost America enormously. President Obama’s caution, in light of our history, has been very appropriate. We should not lose our minds because demented Islamic State terrorists have beheaded two Americans.
Instead of being world policeman, the United States needs far more restraint in the use of our military. Military intervention should only be a last resort – not a first resort. We also need to rein in the size of our military-industrial complex. I see no indication that Hillary sees things that way. She is far more prone to play the hawk card.
As for campaign finance reform, Hillary has spoken in favor of public financing of some campaigns. However, like Obama, she opted out of the public financing scheme for presidential elections. It is hard to see any fix coming from an insider like Hillary who preaches campaign finance reform but practices private financing. I do not diminish the likely difficulty for anyone who unilaterally accepts public financing. It is hard to compete against the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson and right wing money. The billionaires try aggressively to buy the win.
The problem is that elections are now about collecting money from billionaires. Economic elites exert very disproportionate influence. The voice of the people is utterly drowned out by the avalanche of big money from the 1%. The U.S. Supreme Court, in some of the worst decisions in its history, in Citizens United and McCutcheon v FEC, have compounded the problem. The Court has fought all efforts to limit the ability of big money to buy elections.
Again, accepting millions from corporate donors does not provide credibility for leadership on campaign finance reform. We need leaders who are not compromised and who can offer a bolder reform agenda. For example, elections need to be shorter and cheaper. We need to guarantee the right of every citizen 18 or older to vote. We need to provide protection against attempts to disenfranchise individual voters. We also need to ensure all votes are correctly counted.
Probably we also need a constitutional amendment that states corporations are not persons with constitutional rights equal to real people. I question whether corporations should be allowed to make campaign contributions at all. States should have the power to regulate campaign finances. I expect Hillary’s efforts would probably be tepid at best in this area because she is ultimately beholden to corporations like most conventional politicians.
I have no idea whether a progressive challenger will emerge. I know both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have been mentioned as possibilities. For the sake of our democracy and our collective future, I hope a passionate credible challenger runs.