What Matters Is What Happens Next, Not ‘What Happened’

Can the Democratic Party reject the mistakes of the past and look to the future?
09/12/2017 10:31 am ET Updated Sep 12, 2017
Brendan McDermid / Reuters

Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.

As most people know, Bill Clinton used that Fleetwood Mac tune as a theme song for his 1992 campaign. But today, as Hillary Clinton’s campaign memoir goes on sale, the party that Bill and his fellow “centrists” remade in their image seems unable to stop thinking about yesterday.

Can the Democratic Party reject the mistakes of the past and look to the future?

Don’t Look Back

The past shouldn’t be off limits. We’re supposed to learn from our mistakes. Nevertheless, Democratic Party operative Paul Begala tweeted, “New rule: Nobody is allowed to comment on Hillary’s book until... they have read the book.”

Why does it seem like Democratic insiders are always trying to police the discourse? Politics is public property. People can talk about whatever they want. Still, when it comes to political debate it’s wise to follow Fleetwood Mac’s dictum: don’t stop thinking about you-know-what.

Are arguments about Hillary Clinton’s campaign memoir useful or time-wasters? It can go either way. Clinton says she’s done running for political office. If that’s true, arguing about her personal merits is unproductive. But published excerpts from Clinton’s book contain contentious and inaccurate statements that seemed designed to influence the future of the party. Those statements should be challenged, in a forward-looking way.

Begala’s comment was a response to twitter comments by MSNBC host Chris Hayes, who called the book “compelling and candid and written with a pretty remarkable intimacy” and said that “the ‘juicy’ newsy tidbits give the impression it’s some kind score-settling rant, which it is not.”

Let’s hope so. Our media loves to amplify personality conflicts, but that’s bad for the political process. Still, calling the book “compelling,” “candid” and “intimate” is not the same as saying it is “reflective,” “courageous,” “brave,” or “insightful.” The excerpts already released have already given us some bold statements – for example, that Clinton’s disappointed that her campaign didn’t channel the kind of energy and enthusiasm that the Women’s March engendered, and that she is blames both Bernie Sanders and his followers for contributing to her defeat.

Those aren’t just personal beefs. They speak to the future of the progressive movement. They deserve a response.

Mistakes Were Made

“I couldn’t help but ask,” Clinton reportedly writes of the Women’s March, “where those feelings of solidarity, outrage, and passion had been during the election.” That question should inspire some self-reflection on her part. The Democratic Party’s leaders need to ask itself how a spontaneously organized demonstration generated worldwide enthusiasm and support as their party continues to decline at all electoral levels.

Republican cheating has a lot to do with it. So does the corrupting effect of money in politics, which elevates Republicans while weakening Democrats – perhaps most of all when they are its recipients. A Democratic Party dependent on big-donor money will always struggle to craft a coherent message. Clinton’s campaign was merely the latest example of that.

The party faces a turning point. It can devote itself to economic populism and find new sources of both funding and energy, as the Sanders campaign did. Or, it can rededicate itself to the Wall Street centrism of its last three decades and continue to fail.

That makes the bashing of Bernie and his supporters unwise and unfair. In a CBS News interview publicizing the book, Clinton mischaracterized both Sanders’ campaign and his supporters’ behavior. Clinton was much divisive toward Obama in 2008 than Sanders was toward her in 2016, and it showed in the results: Only 12 percent of Sanders supporters voted for Trump, while more than twice as many Clinton supporters voted for McCain.

Politically, the bashing is also suicidal for the party. Bernie Sanders remains the most popular politician in the country. In fact, he’s the only politician most voters actually like. Meanwhile, Clinton’s popularity has fallen below even Trump’s. Demographically, Sanders enjoys his strongest support among African Americans and the younger voters who will shape the political future. It’s madness to alienate them.

It’s even worse to stigmatize them. Clinton repeats the falsehood that Sanders supporters were overwhelmingly young males (millennial Bernie supporters were mostly female). She also repeats the unfounded slur that Bernie supporters were unusually vicious online. A 2016 survey showed that, compared to Sanders backers, nearly twice as many people considered Clinton supporters “aggressive and/or threatening” in social media interactions.

Scores and Struggles

Clinton isn’t just settling scores. She’s trying to marginalize her opponents in order to weaken their influence. She’s amplifying that effort by supporting one of her most hyperbolic online supporters, Peter Daou, in a clumsy and bellicose online propaganda venture called “Verrit” (a blog, essentially) that he founded with his wife Leela.

More importantly, Clinton has formed a PAC to raise money for candidates she finds ideologically suitable. Clinton’s PAC is structured as a so-called “social welfare nonprofit.” These entities, as the New York Times notes, “are often cited for a rise in dark money in politics because of their ability to protect donor anonymity.”

She must not succeed. Clinton, together with her allies and supporters, represents both an outmoded ideology and a troubling set of values. That ideology, while economically progressive in some ways, clings to an outmoded faith in free markets and corporations while seeking to manipulate them to good ends. ”“I want to really marry the public and the private sector,” Clinton has said.

A Matter of Values

Clinton’s values are on display in the segment of the book where she dismisses the Sanders agenda as a “pony” and “no-minute abs.” These awkward attempts at humor trivialize programs like Medicare For All, which could save an estimated 320,000 lives over ten years. The contemptuous dismissal of vital and potentially life-saving programs speaks volumes. So does the idea that they are unattainable “ponies,” when they are commonplace in other developed countries.

Clinton’s value system is shared by an entire cohort of Democratic politicians, consultants, and followers. This value system thinks it’s perfectly fine to form a dark-money PAC. It celebrates being part of the governing elite, so much so that Clinton could declare that the execrable Henry Kissinger was a “friend.”

This value system says this country can’t do big things like Medicare anymore, and shouldn’t bother trying. It says you can take six-figure speaking fees from Goldman Sachs and still believe you haver answers for the public’s “anger” toward Wall Street. (Clinton opposed a 21st century Glass-Steagall Act, and attempting to deflect the debate over big banks with a false “either/or” approach toward shadow banking, as if it were impossible to address both problems.)

Those aren’t my values. I doubt they’re yours.

Don’t Stop, It’ll Soon Be Here

The Democratic Party has been dominated by this ideology and these values for decades. And it has been failing for years. If it doesn’t change, it will fail again. Economic inequality has skyrocketed under both Democratic and Republican governments, and voters know that. Runaway fossil-fuel consumption has ravaged the planet. Mass incarceration has become a social plague. Each of these problems is approaching an irreversible tipping point. To solve them, we’ll need braver and bolder solutions than their ideology permits.

Fighting about Hillary Clinton’s personality is a waste of time. But it’s important to resist the ideology she represents, with both words and actions. Case in point: As these words are being written, Bernie Sanders is about to introduce a Medicare For All bill in the Senate, with the support of Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and other leading Democrats.

“People don’t really know what we stand for,” historian Michael Kazin said recently of his fellow Democrats. That’s clearly true. But the real problem is that Democrats don’t know what Democrats stand for. They need to choose, once and for all.

It’s no wonder some Democrats want to police the discourse. That’s part of a larger goal: policing the limits of the possible. But the old ideas of the politically possible aren’t just wrong. They’re disastrous. If we don’t do big things there’s a good chance we won’t make it as a civilization.

I’ll read Clinton’s book. I’ll argue about it too, if that helps shape the future in some small way. Otherwise I’ll let it pass. This is a time of emergency. There’s no point fighting about the failures of the past unless it paves the way for the successes of the future.

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