Images courtesy of CNN

Clinton Versus Sanders:

Shoring Up the Progressive Flank

| published March 7, 2016 |

By Keith H. Roberts, Thursday Review contributor

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton would like to put the primary and caucus process to rest so that she can make her strategic pivot, turning her firepower toward presumed GOP nominee Donald Trump.

But Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders hasn’t received the memo.

Though he trails Clinton in the all-important delegate count, Sanders comes off what was regarded as a good weekend for his campaign—racking up wins in the Saturday caucus states of Nebraska and Kansas, and then pulling off a substantial win in Maine, where he won a whopping 64.4% of the vote, and now walks away with an additional 15 delegates. Sanders won Kansas by an even more lopsided margin, taking nearly 68% of the votes to Clinton’s 32.3%.

All told, Sanders netted another 50 delegates over the course of the long weekend known as Super Saturday, which also included Republican contests in several states (Trump won two of those, Ted Cruz two others, and Marco Rubio won in Puerto Rico).

For Sanders, it was a big boost to his campaign as he entered a CNN Democratic Debate in Flint, Michigan, where he faced a room in which the majority of participants were African-American, and where unemployment runs at one of the highest rates in the country. Sanders badly needed those wins in Maine, Nebraska and Kansas, not just to bolster his delegate count, but also to prove that his message remains relevant in a race in which Clinton may continue to open up a widening lead over the Vermont Senator. He also needed a way to head off the same question which he knew, undoubtedly, would be raised by CNN moderators Don Lemon and Anderson Cooper.

Clinton maintains a substantial lead in the delegate math: according to NBC News, she has so far netted roughly 1090 delegates—from caucuses, primaries, or from among party super delegates—on her path toward the convention. She needs 2,383 to win outright, which means she is rapidly approaching the halfway mark. Sanders has only half of Clinton’s total, and some political observers and Democratic Party insiders question whether the Vermont Senator has the ability to lure super delegates toward his cause, especially as Clinton begins to amass what looks like an insurmountable lead.

But over the weekend, during at least two rallies, Sanders insisted that he is in the race for the long haul, and says he intends to continue to campaign all the way to the start of the convention this summer. Sanders makes no concessions to the math, nor does he seem ready to talk pragmatism or moderation—an infuriating situation for Clinton who desperately wants to get on with her national campaign. He points to the “yuuuge” crowds that attend his rallies, some of them swollen to twice the size of anything Clinton operatives can materialize in any venue or location.

Clinton would also like for the debates to come to an end. According to campaign insiders, even as Clinton racks up a lead in the delegate count and draws media exposure as the primary and caucus fight proceeds, the prevailing view from inside Camp Clinton is that her daily and weekly battles with Sanders have become a drain on resources, cash and manpower. Each debate sets up another few days of media discussion and conversation, and each debate sparks more donations to the Sanders campaign—supplying him with more fuel to carry his fight deeper into the spring.

Still, sober and unsentimental analysts suggest that Sanders—despite his tenacity and the enthusiasm of his loyal following—is now operating on borrowed time and money. Under the proportional delegate math used by the DNC, Clinton will continue to march close to the magic number, even as Sanders remains a distant second.

The debate in Flint proved problematic for both candidates right out of the starting gate. Clinton and Sanders each saw their tempers flare early on, after a discussion about the multi-billion dollar bailout of automakers at the start of the Great Recession prompted each candidate to interrupt the other, and spurred a visibly angry Sanders to raise his voice—which even under normal circumstances could hail a New York cab from a distance of 200 feet—to bellow at Clinton, his arms waving in agitation.

“Excuse me,” he shouted, “but I’m talking!”

“If you’re gonna talk, tell the whole story,” Clinton retorted.

The two also tangled over the value of trade deals, crime, the rising costs of education, and even the true legacy of the 1990s: was it a period of sustained jobs growth, rising wages and rising investments?; or a period marked by NAFTA, dangerous banking deregulation, and Wall Street regulators who slept through the decade? Sanders wanted to talk about the 90s when it was injurious to Clinton; the former Secretary of State wanted to spin the era as one of great political success thanks in part to her participation on the watchtower.
Bernie Sanders
Clearly, Sanders is playing a very targeted game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, assigning blame where he sees fit to the long Clinton legacy of what is—sometimes, at least—perceived as a coziness to Wall Street and a warm embrace of the financial sectors, as well as approval of (or acquiescence in) decades of trade deals gone bad for American workers. Though Sanders doesn’t blame Clinton solely for the what he sees are the parallel issues of a “rigged” economy and a vast chasm in the way wealth is distributed across the map, he just as clearly sees her ready embrace of fat fees and massive donations—from Wall Street to pharmaceutical companies, from health care giants to insurance firms, from mega banks to energy companies—as prima face evidence of her malleability in the face a truck loads of cash.

Sanders also regularly dismisses Clinton’s explanations that her strength and resolve makes her immune from the usual political temptations such lucre invites: these companies wouldn’t be handing out duffle bags full of cash if they did not expect something reliable in return. The cash includes huge sums given to Clinton’s Super PAC, and $675,000 paid to Clinton for her three 20- minute speeches delivered to the top brass of Goldman Sachs (if you are doing the math, that’s roughly $675,000 per hour, not counting the complimentary chicken and potato dinners, the glass of iced tea, and the approximately one hour of hobnob time, 30 minutes before and after each speech).

Sanders’ people have also begun to raise the sometimes prickly issue of the Clinton Foundation (full name: The Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Foundation) which, as investigations have disclosed, received large cash donations from government agencies, government officials and companies or firms representing a score of foreign countries. All fine and good and legal, sort of—except that the donations came as a direct violation of guidelines and rules mandated by the Obama administration prior to Clinton’s arrival at her job as U.S. Secretary of State, a position which she held from early 2009 to late 2013.

Among the nations which decided they had a vested interest in the good works of the Clinton Foundation were Algeria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman, five countries which also happened at the time to have complex, even byzantine, business and military relationships with the United States. Other countries on the big donor list include Norway, Australia, the Dominican Republic, and the United Arab Emirates. Sanders has so far treaded lightly on the subject of these donations, but some with inside knowledge of his campaign suggest he may begin to hit Clinton harder on the foreign donations as more examples of how easily her political leverage can be bought merely by waving some cash.

The Clinton campaign and Clinton spokespersons have defended the foreign donations as not only legal, but also within the latitude granted under the terms of her agreement with the White House at the time. They point to the fine print which allowed for certain exceptions regarding foreign cash, in particular specific dollar limits—carefully-worded guidelines which Clinton’s spokespersons say the Foundation adhered to scrupulously.

But Sanders cares little for the legal niceties and lawyerly yoga required to make such interpretations of the fine print work to Clinton’s advantage, and as the primaries and caucuses proceed he may challenge her convolutions regarding that foreign cash, which—after all—she can rightfully say was donated to the foundation and not to her personally, and since none of those countries exceeded their dollar limit—what’s the point of rehashing this old news anyway?

For those reasons, the Clinton Camp seems to have little to worry. Sanders has made it clear for months that he won’t attack her on the email and server questions, though he and his wife sometimes still engage in random potshots, if for no other reason than to keep the media asking him if he’ll attack on the email issue. It’s an old political trick: I’ve never once joined-in by accusing my opponent of beating his wife, and I won’t accuse him of beating his wife even now!

Sanders and Clinton have also sparred on the financial sector bailouts, and the auto industry and its costly bailouts, two of which helped General Motors and Chrysler stay upright in the darkest days of the recession. Sanders has been critical of Clinton on these issues for some months, but Clinton decided to hit back hard during the debate, insisting that if Sanders’ narrow view had prevailed at the start of the Great Recession, banks and financial institutions in the U.S. may have collapsed, and GM and Chrysler may have vanished overnight, “taking four million jobs” out of the economy at its worst moment.

But Sanders retort to this is often the same rhetorical challenge: what do we have to show, as a nation even now, for the $720 billion poured into banks and lending institutions, and what did we really gain from handing U.S. carmakers another $82 billion?

Sanders’ top people are fond of pointing out that Clinton is a chameleon—routinely shifting and morphing in an effort to co-opt just as much of the populist rage spurred by Sanders to make her look as angry as all the rest of the angry candidates (anger being the designer mood in this election cycle), without slipping her leash and becoming a full-on, card-carrying socialist. Sanders’ people point to Flint, Michigan, where eventually Clinton appropriated the same footprint of righteous outrage as had Sanders regarding the expanding scandal involving a city’s lead-infused water supply.

Clinton, like Sanders, is calling for the resignation of Michigan’s Republican governor amid accusations that he and his staff deliberately stonewalled or ignored complaints and emails about the tainted water. Sanders’ people say the only reason Clinton signed on to that position after weeks of waffling is simple: she needed assurances she could burnish her strength and support among African-Americans in the urban centers of Michigan; a loss of even 10-to-15% of this key Democratic constituency could tip the scales in Bernie’s favor, and give him the ability to show he can win outside of the boutique, nearly-all-white progressive and New Left enclaves of Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire.

But Clinton’s shift on the issue is one of many examples of her constant need to try to co-opt, for maximum effect, positions more naturally suited to Sanders’ “revolution” than to Clinton’s pragmatism. In this sense, Clinton is battling a Democratic base which is moving demonstrably leftward with Sanders as its popular piper.

It may seem obsolete to some political analysts, but there will eventually be a time when Clinton regrets at least some of her shifts leftward this season; in theory candidates of both political parties eventually have to find a place closer to the middle, and Clinton would very much like to stake her claim on the center ground long before Trump decides to also claim to be a unifier.

Both Clinton and Trump are noticeably antsy to make the pivot. Trump cannot until he once and for all clears the deck of Kasich, Rubio and most importantly Ted Cruz. Clinton must quickly make her closing arguments as well: that she alone is suited to actually get things done in Washington, not the quasi-socialist Senate Independent from Vermont.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Clinton's Huge S.C. Win May be Reliable Predictor of Super Tuesday; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 29, 2016.

Rubio Wants Floridians to Vote for a Floridian; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; March 5, 2016.