Wayne O'Leary

Be Careful What You Wish For

As the 2016 primary season slowly winds down, Democrats are literally salivating over the prospect of taking on the all-but-official GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump in November. They’re beside themselves with anticipation. It can’t come soon enough. Thank you, Jesus!

The house organs of the Democratic establishment, MSNBC and the New York Times, can hardly restrain their enthusiasm either. They’ve toned down the incessant Bernie bashing somewhat (except for the ritualized insistence that he get out of the race — and soon), and have substituted, in tandem with the Clinton campaign, round-the-clock attacks on Trump, their eagerly awaited opponent of choice.

The euphoric response to the Donald’s presumptive triumph has left me with an uncomfortable feeling of déjà vu. As someone old enough to remember the mood surrounding the election year 1980, I recall an equally giddy Democratic reaction to the prospect of facing a Ronald Reagan candidacy for the White House. Conditions in 2016 are not exactly the same, but there are striking parallels with 35 years ago.

The country is in an ornery state of mind, as it was then. In 1980, the sources of dissatisfaction were the endless Iranian hostage crisis and so-called economic stagflation. Today, it’s the continuing Mideast quagmire inherited from George W. Bush, along with looming deflation arising from a disjointed global economy on the cusp of another worldwide downturn.

We have a domestic economy that’s no longer in technical recession, but it’s sluggish and lackluster. The Obama administration accurately touts its job-creation successes relative to the recent past, but what the public sees are new dead-end jobs that pay less than the old, include fewer benefits, and offer minimal future prospects or upward mobility — the same sort of employment recovery as from the last several recessions. The president’s popularity is up slightly (any job is better than no job), but it’s up from an exceedingly low starting point.

The Democratic answer to the prevailing conditions (assuming the inspiring Sanders insurgency falls short in the end) will, it appears, be a reversion to type. Now a technocratic, upper-middle-class party representing new-economy entrepreneurs and educated, affluent professionals — author Thomas Frank has written brilliantly on this subject — it seems fated to stay with what has worked periodically in recent presidential contests (though certainly not in congressional off-year elections); namely, a bland, liberal-leaning centrism emphasizing social inclusiveness and an abstract concern for the underprivileged, but circumscribed by a firm adherence to market values and a dependence on big money.

As refined over the past 20 or so years, the noblesse-oblige, meritocratic approach to politics of this centrist Democratic party may best be symbolized by its consensus view, expressed by both the current president and his designated successor, that the “middle class” (whose taxes should never be raised) includes those with incomes in the $250,000 range. Reflecting the bias of the tax-phobic party elites, the middle-class ceiling keeps getting raised — to the point that it now includes all but roughly the top 3% of taxpayers.

The exclusive nature of the Democratic party that will meet in Philadelphia this summer, a barely recognizable version of the pre-Reagan party Bill Clinton remade in his own image, is the reason why Bernie Sanders is unlikely to pry loose any of those 541 unelected superdelegates verbally committed to the latest Clinton enterprise. No matter what the polls may say about the strongest candidate to put against the Republican nominee, party leaders would rather risk losing with insider Hillary than winning with outsider Bernie; never a member of the club, he’s simply beyond the pale in their eyes, as scary an ogre as Jeremy Corbyn is to the centrist Blairites of the UK’s Labour party.

All of which is why Democrats could very well lose in November. They will go into the election as the party of the status quo in an anti-status quo year, continuity advocates in a country that rarely cottons to three consecutive presidential terms for one party. In addition, they will enter the lists with an unpopular candidate at the top of the ticket, one whose dreadfully poor stump skills — the description “mechanical” is kind — are the reason Donald Trump, weighed down by his own flawed campaign persona, could actually win. Conversely, it’s the Donald’s well-advertised negatives that give the Democratic establishment hope — perhaps false hope.

This brings us full circle back to Trump 2016 and the Reagan 1980 comparison. In 1980, Democrats wanted “the Gipper” so badly they could taste it. Americans, they reasoned, would never elect a third-rate actor of limited policy knowledge, an extremist in language and belief, no matter how unhappy they were. But Reagan was a change agent in a change year, and when Democrats rejected their own change agent, Ted Kennedy, the actor was home free. Democrats got their fondest wish, and it cost them.

In 2016, Trump will play the Reagan role. He’s an actor in his own right, and he shares some of Reagan’s Teflon coating, if not his personal charisma. Democrats remain confident. The public, they’re convinced, will not want a bombastic, ill-informed chameleon with a penchant for lowering the political discourse; he’s eminently beatable, they think, even by an unpopular opponent.

I’m not so sure. Trump will move to Hillary’s left on several issues (trade, for instance), co-opting traditional Democratic concerns. He’ll speak to the alienated working class, as Sanders has done. He’ll pose as antiestablishment challenger to her establishmentarianism. He’ll imply a businessman, however checkered his past, can make capitalism work. And he’ll sound surprisingly progressive for a Republican.

The danger, of course, is that Trump wins, then matriculates at the Paul Ryan School of GOP Conservatism, shedding whatever liberal instincts he may possess. (Ideologically, he’s an empty vessel, tailor-made for Ryan’s blandishments.) It’s a nightmare scenario that could come to pass, but there is still an escape route: Democratic superdelegates could come to their senses, abandon their knee-jerk support for the Clintons, and acquiesce to the public mood — in other words, nominate Sanders.

Such a rational outcome is unlikely, but stranger things have happened in politics. That long-shot possibility is why Bernie should ignore the media herd, stay in the race, and chase Hillary all the way to Philadelphia.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2016


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