A year ago political insiders expected Hillary Clinton to waltz to the Democratic nomination. Last July, Five Thirty Eight’s Nate Silver opined Clinton might well win every primary except the first two. Things didn’t turn out quite that way.
Clinton had to weather a surprisingly strong primary challenge from a self-described democratic socialist. Weather it she did thanks to overwhelming support from both “strong” and “weak” Democrats. Anxious moments came courtesy of “independent Democrats,” among whom Bernie Sanders has a 10 point edge, and independents who prefer Sanders by a 5 to 1 margin. Young voters, those least likely to register with either major party, have mostly abandoned Clinton. The under-30 cohort favors Sanders by more than 3 to 1.
Nevertheless, after sweeping the south and with big wins in the rust belt and New York, among other states, Clinton has all but sewn up the Democratic nomination. Now she must decide how best to pivot towards her likely Republican opponent Donald Trump. Should she reach out to centrists by embracing her “moderate and center” inner self or would it make more sense to offer an olive branch to progressives by dialing back on hawkish rhetoric and promising to support a populist agenda?
Very recent history as well as articles in the New York Times and the Hill suggest Clinton has little patience for the left and has already moved forcibly back to the middle – assuming she ever left it in the first place. If this is indeed her strategy, she is risking Democratic control of the White House.
By late March, after big wins in Ohio and Illinois, Clinton’s ultimate triumph this summer in Philadelphia seemed extremely likely but not quite certain. Throwing aside any concerns, however, that she might turn off pro-peace progressive independents, Clinton delivered a bellicose speech at AIPAC on March 22 fulsomely detailing Israeli deaths at the hands of Palestinians with nary a comment on the various ways Israel oppresses the nearly two million Palestinian Gazans every day. She mentioned the ongoing settlement program on Jordan’s West Bank once in passing. In the end, Clinton called on the United States to take our relationship with Israel “to the next level.”
Clinton’s AIPAC speech suggests she is unafraid of alienating anti-war millennials whose support for Israel is “far less fervent” than that of previous generations. Still, her campaign has not abandoned all hope of winning over young voters. Clinton’s “secret weapon” is New Jersey’s heroic Senator Cory Booker just 47 years old.
His millennial cred is impeccable. He’s a techie with 1.6 million twitter followers and and an iPhone playlist heavily weighted to Prince?? and Selena Gomez!! There’s just one problem. The guy’s on the side of the big banks and Silicon Valley as much as (if not more than) he is on the side of the little guy and gal.
Salon’s Alex Pareene wrote an aggressive takedown back in 2013 urging Garden Staters to vote against this “avatar of the wealthy elite.” To be fair, Pareene’s piece is probably somewhat unfair and just this month Booker championed a new fiduciary rule requiring financial advisors to put their clients’ interests first when recommending retirement plans.
Nevertheless, Booker seared into voters’ minds the suspicion that his first allegiance is to big banks and corporate America in 2012 when speaking as an Obama surrogate. On Meet the Press, the President’s surrogate defended the actions of firms like Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital and called attacks on private equity “nauseating“.
Booker’s support for the financial industry may be explained by the fact that his major funders include Goldman Sachs, Prudential Financial, and Time Warner. The biggest contributor to his campaigns though is NorPAC which describes its primary purpose as supporting Senators and Representatives “who demonstrate a genuine commitment to the strength, security, and survival of Israel.”
Clinton is relying on Booker to appeal to millennials on the most superficial grounds – his twitter feed and music preferences. At the same time, she is hoping they will ignore or overlook his close relationship to the corporatists who eviscerated our economy and the lobbyists funneling billions of dollars to the Israeli Defense Force. In so doing, she is showing contempt for the millions of twenty-somethings confronting a bleak future due to Wall Street’s greed and recklessness and hoping for peace in the Middle East.
If she hopes to win over millennials, Clinton did herself no favors with her speech to AIPAC. Likewise, Cory Booker is more likely to flop than fly when courting the youth vote. But neither necessarily reflects an overarching failure to read the electorate’s mood.
The AIPAC speech came in advance of the New York primary where the Jewish vote is very important and Jews there are more conservative – though still overwhelmingly Democratic – than in the rest of the country. Clinton won the closed contest very handily putting to rest any lingering doubts that she would be the Democratic nominee. Cory Booker may not be the millennial magnet Clinton is hoping for. But she needs to get every possible African-American vote in the general election as much as, if not more than, she wants millennials. Even if Booker can’t attract the latter, he should help with the former.
Against a widely despised Donald Trump, Clinton should be able to survive AIPAC and especially Booker with little or no trouble. Her campaign’s perhaps fatal mistake is believing it needs to disavow Sanders-style populism to attract independents. Clinton supporter Emanuel Cleaver told the Hill Clinton can’t move left to appease Sanders supporters since the conversation has already gone “farther . . . than most moderate Democrats would like to see.” He added, “[s]ome would say it even endangers a victory in November because the further you go to the left or right, the further you frustrate independents.”
The Hill also reports:
Another ally bluntly said it will not be possible for Clinton to compromise with Sanders on some policy demands. “We can’t do it,” the ally said. “But there’s going to be a place for him to weigh in on the campaign and at the convention and he should have the satisfaction that he raised some issues that have been a part of the conversation.”
These comments reflect a dangerous misunderstanding of independent voters. Conventional wisdom has it that independents or non-affiliated voters are centrists who view both major parties as too extreme. When Clinton fessed up last summer to being “kind of moderate and center”, she was doubtless thinking of her husband’s success in reaching these voters through triangulation and by cherry-picking issues.
But many of today’s independent voters don’t view themselves as torn between two extreme parties. They view themselves as apart from or to the left or right of both parties which they perceive as tools of big government and business elites. Sanders independents are slightly more liberal than Democrats but much more suspicious that the party sold its soul to corporate backers, the military, and other establishment types.
Donald Trump’s voters span the conservative spectrum. But given his rhetoric at campaign rallies and the responses of attendees, what appears to unite his supporters is a belief that government has betrayed them by failing to deport immigrants and through free trade deals. He also frequently says the government needs to ensure broader health care coverage and to spend more on infrastructure.
Under these circumstances, the last thing Clinton should do is hew to a cautious centrist approach. Such a course will estrange potential young voters who feel little or no allegiance to the Democratic party. It will also do nothing to stanch the flow of more conservative independents to Trump since his populist rhetoric is in tune with their belief that both parties are conspiring against them.
Clinton would be much better served emphasizing her support for broad-based social programs and to call for a massive jobs bill. She could avoid being labeled a Sanders copy cat by emphasizing her preference for building on Obamacare with a focus on specific easily understood improvements that will lead to more widespread and cheaper coverage. For example, she could argue in favor of a public option and allowing the government to negotiate directly with drug companies.
When it comes to employment, Clinton needs to outline how government can best help create millions of good middle-class jobs. Again, she must eschew nuance and speak plainly and emphatically. She has said she opposes the TPP because it won’t protect American workers. That’s a good start but not enough. She must also convince us she doesn’t believe in a “level playing field” if that means American workers must compete against foreign laborers paid $1/hour or less.
Clinton is rightly calling for more infrastructure spending. She needs to tell us how many jobs her plan will create and how it will maximize employment and worker’s pay.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, Clinton needs to embrace a true progressive as a running mate. Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown, along with Bernie Sanders, stand out as the two most pro-worker Senators. The problem with both Warren and Brown is their respective states have a Republican governor. Losing a Democrat from the upper house is a very high price to pay to solidify the progressive base.
There are other options. For a number of reasons, Bernie Sanders would not be an ideal choice. Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin offers help in an important swing state and she has serious pro-worker credentials voicing early opposition to the TPP and in support of authorizing unions by card-check rather than secret ballot. Like Warren and Brown though, her governor is a Republican. Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley fits the progressive bill nicely but doesn’t help in a swing state.
In the end, Pennsylvania Senator Robert Casey might be the best choice to run as Clinton’s running mate. The Keystone State has a Democratic governor and although it is probably safely blue Casey would definitely offer help in neighboring Ohio. He voted against Trade Promotion Authority and in favor of card check. He is a strong pro-social security voice as well as a reasonably strong proponent of green energy.
Bottom-line: Casey is progressive on economic issues but more conservative socially and therefore complements Clinton well. His pro-life stance is decidedly problematic – and for many (but not necessarily millennials) would be a deal-breaker. But since the biggest threats to national well-being are economic injustice and ecological collapse, he may be the best choice at the current time.