Wayne O'Leary

Same Old, Same Old in Clinton-Land

In the political game as the Clintons play it, the more things change, the more they remain the same. This could be 2008 or 1996 or 1992; it makes no difference. To the anointed royal family of Democratic politics, winning is not the most important thing; it’s the only thing.

The well-worn strategy, going back a quarter-century, of constantly attacking, never giving an inch, and misrepresenting the opponent at every turn has been on full display in this year’s early primaries. It’s been classic Clinton: try for the sympathy vote by suggesting the other side is unfairly indulging in negative campaigning by highlighting your record, while hammering home negative attacks yourself — that Bernie Sanders is insensitive to racism and gun violence, that he’ll destroy peoples’ health coverage, that he’s not a real Democrat, despite caucusing with Senate Democrats for years and running in the Democratic primaries.

The petty tribalism implicit in the charge that Sanders is the second coming of Ralph Nader, potentially spoiling things for Hillary Clinton, is part of the mindset at the Democratic National Committee, which signed up for the Clinton restoration early on and has been rigging the nomination process where possible, most notably through a bizarre scheduling of debates.

Less remarked upon has been the DNC’s continued reluctance to even consider revising an obviously undemocratic “superdelegate” system, whereby party officials, elected and otherwise, are automatically awarded a fifth of the delegate seats at the national convention — a procedure developed in the 1980s to prevent another outsider candidate like George McGovern from ever again becoming the party’s standard bearer. This year, the superdelegates are virtually all pledged to insider Hillary Clinton, in part out of fear of future political repercussions from failing to accept the inevitability of a Clinton presidency.

Unfortunately for the party pooh-bahs, their inevitable nominee has been looking anything but inevitable so far in the primary season. She’s been running a dreary, uninspired campaign premised on careful, cautious calculation devoid of spontaneity. While Bernie Sanders has offered soaring rhetoric and overarching themes — “just words” in the Clinton lexicon from 2008 — Hillary has made do with extended laundry lists of routine proposals along with limited policy goals, standard liberal boilerplate wrapped in the language of lowered expectations.

The Clinton program is not only derivative, it’s derived from cribbing off her rival. Clinton will do what Sanders will do, but less imaginatively, less dramatically, less extensively, and less disruptively. If he offers a $15 an hour minimum wage, she counters with $12 an hour. If he proposes single-payer health insurance, she responds with upgrading and improving Obamacare. If he crusades for a modern-day Glass-Steagall Act, she suggests some technical financial fixes. If he demands free college tuition, she proposes adjusted debt-repayment schedules. If he calls for removing the contribution cap on Social Security, she says it’s just one of many possible solutions to solvency.

And so on ad infinitum. It’s a choreographed tap dance around the issues designed to show concern and sympathy, while at the same time avoiding anything threatening to vested economic interests or anything likely to generate political controversy.

The approach is directly out of the Bill Clinton-Dick Morris playbook from 1996, when the Clintons played it safe, campaigned on small, inoffensive initiatives — longer jail sentences for criminals, more police on the streets, mandatory school uniforms as education policy — and cultivated popular prejudices by, for example, dismantling the federal AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) program in the name of ending “welfare as we know it,” which reduced public-assistance rolls, increased poverty, and helped reelect Bill.

Hand in hand with a focus on mini-incrementalism went a withdrawal from the federal responsibility for regulating the economy, a hands-off-Wall-Street policy that led in the short run to rising stock prices and the dot-com bubble, followed by a recession in 2001 and a near-depression in 2008.

Fortunately for the Clinton campaign, public memories are short, and so we have a new example of Clintonian mini-incrementalism released just in time for the Super Tuesday primaries, this one a deceptive answer to Sanders’ big-program, single-payer health reform. Hillary, it seems, has come out in favor of the “public option,” which spokespersons claim she’s favored since 2008 and tried to incorporate into Obamacare (very quietly, it would appear).

Before progressives get too enthused, here’s the catch: the Clinton public option would not be a federal add-on to Obamacare, but an already existing choice available to the various states under the same waiver Vermont tried unsuccessfully to use to establish a state single-payer system. Starting in 2017, Hillary would encourage (not require) state governors to make a public option part of semi-independent, state-run Obamacare programs. It’s obvious where this bit of flimflammery would end: a handful of deep-blue states might set up public options; the majority of red and purple states would not — a case in point of what’s meant by “a progressive who gets things done.”

In the last analysis, it probably doesn’t matter. The Clinton campaign is not so much an independent operation relying on self-generated energy and ideas as it is a cooperative effort coordinated by the DNC and funded by Wall Street. Party officeholders are ex officio members of the team, and they’re already on the job. Senator Harry Reid dragged the Goldman Sachs girl across the finish line in Nevada, stalling the Sanders momentum, and Congressman James Clyburn helped pile up the margin in conservative enclave South Carolina.

As this is written, the Democratic old-boys and old-girls network is gearing up for an encore in the unrepresentative Confederate primaries of March 1, whose overwhelmingly red, Deep-South states will vote Republican in November. The missing ingredient is what every campaign really needs, genuine excitement and broad-based enthusiasm; it doesn’t exist for the creaking Clinton machine, a bad omen for the fall, should the establishment’s choice ascend to the nomination.

But the centrist Democrats are oblivious. Their candidate’s caravan rolls on, baggage in tow, bound for Clinton-land, where the past is never past, as echoes resound from a fateful admission never recanted: “I am an advocate of Clinton economics. ... We were on the right track in the 1990s.” And looking on, the drama’s Greek chorus mockingly chants in unison, “outsourcing, offshoring, financialization, securitization, mergers, derivatives ...”

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, April 15, 2016


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