There’s a conversation I’m having with my husband that goes like this. He’ll say, “There’s no way Donald Trump will ever get elected.” I roll my eyes. He continues: “He’s going to destroy the Republican brand. He’s not a threat, and in the end he’ll help the Democrats.” Then, as my youth flashes before me, I’ll say, “Yeah, but — Reagan.”
At this point, we look at each other and say, “you don’t even have to go back that far.” George W was elected — twice, if you count 2000, which I don’t.
The American electorate is quite capable of electing someone like Donald Trump. We’ve seen the White House occupied by dumb, mean, loud and dangerous types for most of our lives. There’s no magical force is keeping us safe from the know-nothings.
What’s so infuriating about Trump, is that regardless of his chances of winning, he’s getting traction with a segment of voters that should be ours. These folks are attracted to Trump because he talks about the tax code and how he’ll address wealth inequality.
These voters imagine that a predator CEO will govern on their side. That’s a leap of reason the Dems should be able to counter in robust, empowering tones. Imagine if we had matched both their debates to enlarge this narrative and start a national discussion around wages and tax fairness, to push back on attacks on Planned Parenthood, and let scientists compare our positions on climate. We might have reaped the benefits of an American public who could see the Democratic brand shine, while the Republicans make asses of themselves.
Instead, the American public senses we have something to hide.
That’s why I was glad this week when the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida called for Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the DNC to expand the presidential primary debate schedule. “Chair Wasserman Schultz not only made the decision to limit debate among our candidates, she scheduled the debates during weekends and holidays when television viewership is known to be low,” said DPCF President Susan Smith in a statement. “What was she thinking?”
Of course, many people believe they know what Debbie Wasserman Schultz is thinking, which is that the party has its thumb on the scales for Hillary Clinton. She’s not a graceful debater. Her style is that of a corporate lawyer whose instinct is to set up the prey, and then go in for the kill. She seeks to delegitimize and disqualify her opponents. In 2008 she suggested that Obama smoked weed, and that he might be a Muslim (you’ll have to ask him). How will this approach look on stage in 2016?
We’ve already seen some ideas road tested on Sanders, with Clinton surrogates using his ideological roots as a movement progressive and democratic socialist, as well as his Jewish faith as a disqualifications (see the old canard of the “dual-loyalty Jew”). Diane Rehm of NPR fell for this, saying she had his name “on a list.” These are ugly rhetorical strategies that divide the party and make enemies of those who she’ll presumably need to win back after the Primaries are over.
Regardless of Wasserman Schultz’ motives, though, back-benching the entire Democratic party during the Primaries for any reason is a scorched-earth strategy that hurts everyone.
Limiting debates makes Clinton appear afraid to debate Sanders. It also makes the DNC and party establishment appear unwilling to provide all Democrats an equal stage to be heard with the DNC’s favored nominee which, we’ll recall, they’re not supposed to have. Rank-and-file Democrats see this lack of equity with their own two eyes, and it’s hurting the candidate it’s meant to help.
In the current environment it becomes necessary to avoid the appearance of being an “insider.” That’s why Hillary gave herself a makeover on Face The Nation last weekend, when she claimed that she was the real outsider in the race.
It’s an understandable tactic. Right now the American public wants an outsider so bad they’re willing to take it in the form of a mugging Donald Trump, who Frank Rich astutely points out, casually ripped the mask off the Clinton Foundation’s wink-wink/nudge-nudge quid pro quo, by claiming his donations obligated Hillary to come to his wedding.
As Secretary of State, First Lady, and the recipient of massive amounts of PAC money, Hillary is without question an apex insider; the top of the pyramid. What sets her and Trump apart with regard to outsider status is that she takes PAC money and he self-funds. Trump is making the case that that cozy relationships among the monied elite amounts to bribery no matter how you slice it, and the American public is nodding, “Yeah. We know.”
On a deeper level, I think there’s another issue driving the DNC’s bizarre stinginess with debates in this cycle. In 2008 all the candidates sang the same neoliberal tune. But this field of candidates features a real contender who questions the entire neoliberal political frame. Sanders stakes his political brand on being a movement progressive rather than an establishment neoliberal, and backs it up by shunning PAC money.
Sanders is not just a threat to Clinton, but a threat to the entire current approach of the Democratic Party. He’s even questioning what what it means to be governed, and how involved we need to be in order to see the change we demand. ‘We have to fight for these things together,’ is a standard Bernie stump theme, and he makes a convincing case that a national coalition he develops won’t eventually be veal-penned.
In an email sent out yesterday Sanders quoted the Pope, whose own anti-establishment leanings have been the hallmark of his papacy:
“If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance.”
This is just the opposite of the kind quid pro quo, establishment neoliberalism from which Clinton draws her power. Many in the Hillary camp are likely contemplating the uphill battle they face trying to sell her DLC, Third Way, New Democrats style of politics in the new environment of the “disruptive electorate” that’s full of pissed off independent voters not beholden to either party.
Meanwhile, there’s a chance that if the Democrats get anyone to tune in to their debates, Bernie Sanders could become the anti-Trump. I think this is what keeps Wasserman Schultz awake at night. If she were truly concerned with countering the Republican narrative, she’d make sure Democratic candidates had equal, prime time with Republicans rather than competing with weekend sports or holiday family gatherings. But as it stands, the American public will see about twice as much of the Republicans than the Democrats before voting. This is not to the party’s advantage.
It’s frustrating because the Democrats have a clear opportunity to make hay of a shockingly weak Republican field. But to do so we must present a credible counter-narrative. A return to the NAFTA, dot-com bubble, Glass-Steagall-repealing politics of the 90s will be a hard sell in the present environment. If Clinton does get the nomination, she’ll likely need more than a few whacks at it to get her feet under her. So even if we believe that Clinton is our only hope for the general election in 2016, we still need more than a handful of debates on weekends and holidays.
Since 2008 many voters have seen the American Dream completely evaporate. We need real solutions, and real fighters who aren’t afraid to stand in front of us and compete for our votes at least as hard as the Republicans are competing. To do any less is bad strategy, bad faith, and we have to be mindful of how hubris could very easily hand the general election over the other side.
Brook Hines is a writer, photographer, activist and former alt-weekly publisher, as well as an award-winning advertising creative with more than 20 years’ experience crafting strategy in “words + pictures” for clients ranging from banking and financial services to radical nuns. She’s the Senior Political Correspondent for Progressive News Network, the Communications Chair for the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida, Outreach Chair for the Orange County Democratic Party, and the 2015-2016 Co-Chair of New Leaders Council, Orlando Chapter.
All opinions offered here are her own, delivered from the perspective of social theory and cultural criticism.
You can easily find Brook Hines on Facebook and Flickr. Read all of Brook’s articles here.
These are her Italian Greyhounds, Trouble and Daphne. Trouble is a rescue and according to some new information, he might be a Whippet. Having raised him as an Italian Greyhound I hope this doesn’t cause a schism within the community 🙂
(He claims he’s not a Whippet.)