How the Democratic Party Got Lost

Though the political odds still favor Hillary Clinton, her stumbling candidacy and dependence on vast sums of special-interest money reflect the weaknesses of the Democratic Party, which lost its way in the 1980s and 1990s, forgetting its historic role as defender of the little guy, as Michael Brenner explains.

By Michael Brenner

The Clinton juggernaut is losing traction. Powered by the full weight of the Democratic Establishment, it was designed to smoothly carry its idol across America and into the White House. It still may get there. But now it must traverse a far more treacherous and uncertain route than Hillary Clinton and her entourage ever imagined.

The course is lined with the pundits, operatives and analysts who will cover the spectacle with their usual attention to trivia and a faith in their own perspicacity which matches that of the heroine herself.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

This was all predictable. For it conforms to the parochialism and inbreeding that for so long has infirmed the Democratic Party’s leadership as well as the punditocracy. Fortunes could be made betting against the “Washington consensus” whose singular talent for getting it wrong extends from the country’s endless skein of foreign misadventures to electoral politics.

They give the impression of all sipping out of each other’s double-lattes at Starbucks in Dupont Circle. The resulting damage done to the party’s traditional constituents, to the integrity of national discourse and to America’s interests in the world is incalculable and may well be irreparable.

Still, it is worth recording the pathologies that this latest bruising encounter with reality reveal. Most obvious is the disconnect between political elites and the country they presume to know or aspire to govern. The success of Bernie Sanders makes that transparently clear. His greatest asset is simply that (even though he has served in the Senate as an Independent) he ran as a “Democrat” – that is, as representative of the party as forged in the mid-Twentieth Century and whose precepts conform to the socio-economic interests and philosophical truths typically held by most Americans today.

Sanders is the first presidential candidate to do so since Walter Mondale in 1984. Mondale’s defeat convinced many pols that the future lay with the Reagan smorgasbord of discredited nostrums and myths repackaged by skillful political craftsmen as the new Revelation. Market fundamentalist economic models, a cartoonish version of American individualism a la Ayn Rand, financial libertinism, muscle-flexing abroad in the mantle of democratic proselytizing, and anti-government demagoguery were fashioned into an intoxicating cocktail.

It worked to the extent that the cheap high that it produced tapped latent racism, jingoism, evangelical Christian passions, and a new-found greedy selfishness which was the mutant offspring of 1960s liberation.

Disoriented Democrats badly miscalculated the danger, and in the process lost sight of who they were. Most damaging, many found a comfortable niche in this new world of hallucination. Among them are the careerists, the trendy intellectuals*, and the ambitious politicians who thought that they had discovered the one route to recouping power and glory.

Together, they reshaped the Democratic Party into a me-too auxiliary to a waxing conservative movement. Today, it is radical reactionary Republicans who sweep elections at state and local levels, who hold an iron grip on the Congress, who have used their power to ruthlessly transform the judiciary into an active ally.

True, Democrats have won the White House twice. Bill Clinton did thanks to Ross Perot and then retained it against feeble opposition. In the process, he moved progressively to the Right in policy and philosophy (“the era of Big Government is over”). Republican ascendancy followed.

Only the Bush era collapse into disaster abroad and at home made possible Barack Obama who presented himself not as the embodiment of Democratic values but as a transcendent bipartisan healer — with just a few vermilion strokes. A prophet without message or mission. Whatever liberal ideas he had sounded were swiftly abandoned in what is surely the most shameless bait-and-switch in American political history.

This was predictable. After all, he thrice cited Ronald Reagan as the man who most influenced his view of the Presidency. His administrations arguably were oriented to the Right of Richard Nixon on civil liberties as well as on economic and social programs. Look it up.

His White House actually took delight in maligning “Progressives” as made manifest in Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s cursing out of their representatives personally within its walls.  That was the administration of which Hillary Clinton, the born-again “progressive,” was a mainstay.

The cause already was abandoned in his first months in office when the Democrats held majorities in both houses of Congress. Indeed, Obama’s embrace of the Wall Street barons was what allowed the Tea Party to channel popular anger and fear into a well-financed anti-government, know-nothing movement which nowadays dominates the political landscape. Hence, Obama drove the final nails into the coffin of the old Democratic Party.

This evolution of American politics in effect disenfranchised something like 20 percent of the electorate. They are Bernie Sanders’s constituency. It’s as simple as that. Personalities do play a role, but it is a secondary one. Sanders as a person stands out for his integrity, his earnestness, for his truth-telling, for his transparent decency. It is the message, though, that counts above all.

An old Brooklyn Jew who advertises himself as a “Socialist” is not a compelling figure on the political stage. Intelligent and well-informed on domestic matters, he is not a phrase-maker, not verbally nimble, an incurably respectful gentleman, and largely disengaged from foreign policy where Hillary was custodian of ACT II in the pageant of American failure and fiasco in the Middle East.

In addition, Sanders feels inhibited about attacking the misdeeds of the Obama years out of a concern for estranging black voters, and turning the President from Hillary’s tacit ally into an active ally. Yet, he has made history with unprecedented accomplishments in the teeth of implacable opposition from the entire political and media establishment. At the moment, Sanders nearly has caught Hillary in the national polls and actually performs marginally better in hypothetical contests against the major Republican contenders.

Clinton’s shortcomings and failures are aggravated by the widespread distrust that she engenders. That was evident a year ago. She has had higher “negatives” in polls that any serious candidate ever. So why was she crowned even before the contest began? Why did no other candidates present themselves? Why did Democratic bigwigs feel so complacent at the prospect of another electoral setback?

One common answer is that there was nobody else. Decimated at the state level, and lacking fresh blood in the Senate, they have a very thin squad. For the better part of a decade, Harry Reid has been the face of the Democratic Party outside of the White House and during Obama’s romantic non-partisanship phases, its face country-wide.

Still, someone like former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley could have been promoted as a credible candidate had the party leaders the will to do so. Compare him to George W. Bush in 2000. The Republicans molded that non-entity into a winner with relative ease. Democrats had much more to work with in O’Malley.

Or, they could have rallied behind Elizabeth Warren. Admittedly, she wasn’t interested. Just think, though, of what could have happened had she been persuaded to run. For one thing, she quickly would have eclipsed Hillary as the frontrunner. Razor sharp, personable, with a blue-steel edge to her words, and resolute she likely would have delivered the Last Rites to Clinton by Super Tuesday.

And then imagine her against any of the Republicans hopefuls whose only chance of winning turns on Clinton’s negatives. A Warren Republican X contest, moreover, would have raised the prospect of a Democratic comeback across the board that is utterly beyond Clinton’s capabilities.

The principal reason the Democratic Establishment lined up behind Hillary Clinton in lockstep is their lack of conviction and a political timidity that arises from 1) capture by the big donors, and 2) past failures that have sapped self-confidence. Their uniform commitment to a flaccid orthodoxy has been evident for all to see these past few weeks as Hillary Clinton’s supporters hit the panic button. It has not been a pretty performance.

From the Editors of The New York Times and Paul Krugman (who now sees Hillary Clinton as the heir to Obama whom he hagiographically refers to as “one of the most consequential and successful Presidents in American history”) to the feminist brigade headed by Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright, Democratic stalwarts have embarrassed themselves by their contrived and specious arguments for Clinton.

This is not to say that there isn’t a reasonable and logical case to be made for voting for her. It is the falsity of the presentation by those eminences that reveals the hollowness at the party’s core. Its leaders never miss an opportunity to display their political obtuseness and fearfulness about leaving their very narrow, personal comfort zone.

The blunt truth is that the Democratic leadership has been meek and fearful for decades. They can’t stand the sight of blood especially if it’s their opponents. It took Newt Gingrich in 2012 to make an issue of predatory hedge funds and private equity. Reluctantly picked up by Obama, it resonated well so well that a gaggle of Wall Street operatives led by Steven Ratner called the White House to express vehemently their displeasure. Obama pulled the ads. (Jane Meyer Dark Money).

Now it is Donald Trump who boldly steps forth to declare that the intervention in Iraq was based on lies, and that it is the source of our current troubles in the region. No Democrat, including Sanders, is ready to make that case with equal force. None has since 2008. One can go on and on. It’s a loser’s mentality. You don’t get to the White House by walking on eggshells.

In the end, Hillary Clinton in all likelihood will be the nominee. Equally true, she will arrive at the convention in Philadelphia D.O.A. That is to say, D.O.A. if the Republicans somehow free themselves from their adrenalin-soaked tantrum to nominate a sensible candidate. For the Democrats’ one hope is that the opposition continue on its suicidal track that runs parallel to their own. Such is the state of American politics.

Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

14 comments for “How the Democratic Party Got Lost

  1. William Mee
    February 23, 2016 at 20:02

    Dr. Mike you are wrong on one point: At one of the Town halls both candidates Hillary & Bernie stated the Iraq War destabilized the region and did it with much more intelligence than Trump has ever shouted out to Jeb.

    • Thirdeye
      February 23, 2016 at 22:32

      Hillary the War Queen might be able to dodge Iraq, but she cant dodge Iraq, Libya, and Syria. I don’t know if Sanders has the balls or Trump has the awareness to confront her on all three.

  2. Brad Benson
    February 20, 2016 at 15:34

    If the nomination is stolen for Hillary, as it will be, I will vote for Trump. If Trump doesn’t get the nomination, I will stay home.

    The author has provided an excellent service by diagnosing this problem for the Democrats. I would hope that some will read it in time, but they won’t, and if they do they still won’t do anything to stop the next march to electoral failure..

    • Thirdeye
      February 23, 2016 at 22:35

      I would vote for the Republican candidate for the first time in my life under a Trump vs. Hillary scenario.

  3. James Tartari
    February 20, 2016 at 12:41

    Sadly, the Democratic Party have been the enablers of the Republicans since the 1972 election when the “adults” as Cokie Roberts would describe them took over the party to keep the “kids” in their place. It began emulating Nixon’s stranglehold on big money contributors and looking for support in the professional class suburbs, turning their backs (not their outstretched palms) on workers and urban voters. I recall reading a NY Times piece after the election of 1974 which brought huge Democratic majorities to both Houses of Congress after Watergate. It featured lobbyists self-satisfied that there would be business as usual with this Congress in terms of money and influence. Then came Carter, the bailout of Chrysler and abandonment of Youngstown Steel, the lowering of the marginal tax rate from 73% to 50%, the elimination of usury laws, the enabling of mergers and acquisitions (where was Anti-Trust?), deregulation of Ma Bell and the Airlines, massive increases in Defense spending, and Paul Volcker’s appointment to the Fed. It was all pre-Reagan with Democratic Congressional majorities and a Democratic President. After Reagan, it was hand-wringing and “me-tooism” and the Clinton New Democrats.

    • Eddie
      February 20, 2016 at 14:10

      @ JT – Good points. For those of us who in 1972 voted for peace-candidate McGovern(D) running against the execrable Nixon(R), only to see Nixon win in a landslide (taking 49 of 50 states & 61% of vote total), it was a telling time. The majority of the US voters demanded bellicose foreign policy, suppression of minorities, increased inequality, corporation-coddling, etc, etc. which pretty much continues to through this day, with some exceptions. I know that these things didn’t start in 1972, but it was clear that a large majority of voters now favored those things in 1972, no matter what benevolent, face-saving/ego-enhancing answers they gave (and continue to give) to pollsters. As I see it, the Democratic leaders have yielded to this ugly majority, especially after losing big in POTUS races in 72, 80, 84, 88, and 2004.

      • Thirdeye
        February 23, 2016 at 22:21

        Nixon was re-elected on the premise that he was getting the US out of Vietnam, detente with the Soviet Union and China had been achieved, and that the economy was good. The Justice Department under Nixon was pushing for interpretations of Civil Rights laws that included affirmative action. The Nixon Administration fully funded the Great Society programs of the Johnson Administration. A majority of the black vote went to Nixon. That fit the historical pattern of blacks voting Republican that was soon to change. Nixon also supported the Equal Rights Amendment for women. McGovern voluntarily carried the baggage of the student New Left, which had alienated most people regardless of where they stood on the war, or racial and gender equality. They had marched off a cliff and McGovern followed them. Democrats retained large majorities in the House and Senate. The large margin for Nixon was a response to the excesses of the New Left embraced by McGovern. It did not represent a swing to the right of the American electorate. That started a few years after.

    • Robert Sayers
      February 20, 2016 at 22:35

      Once again you’ve nailed it, Bubba !! Excellent summary on the hapless “wanna be” demo/repugnants. Keep up the outstanding commentary

  4. Bob Van Noy
    February 20, 2016 at 08:42

    Thank you Michael Brenner for probably the best summation I’ve read of our current political environment. I agree. I think however, that America’s actual split occurred in or before the nineteen sixties with the political assassinations of President Kennedy, that cover-up by president Johnson, his political failure, with the assistance of the near totally corrupt president Nixon; Nixon’s assemblage of brilliant criminals,and a corrupt FBI and security apparatus. All of that yielded Professor Brenner’s brief history written here. Our current government is the extension of those aberrations that cannot continue indefinitely without collapse because it consists of a false narrative which is everyday becoming more apparent. If I’m correct then no matter the political actions of the near future, nothing will alter our American predicament until a total corrective is applied. Bernie would be a good start.

  5. Abe
    February 20, 2016 at 02:48

    Anyone who praises Hillary Clinton’s accomplishments and abilities, her understanding of world affairs, and her diplomatic acumen is right up there with the fools, dupes and suckers who take Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or any of the less colorful bozos in the Republican goon show seriously.

    There may indeed be plausible reasons for preferring Clinton to Bernie Sanders – though, apart from their anatomical differences, I cannot imagine what they might be. But there is no doubt that Hillary supporters who believe what they say about her judgment and abilities and “progressive” values are fools on stilts.

    Thanks to the Internet – the reporting of Dan Froomkin, Lee Fang and others at Intercept comes immediately to mind, though there are scores of other excellent sources – the word on Hillary is finally getting out on an almost daily basis. Much of it is reported here at CounterPunch. There are also plenty of sustained, analytical studies documenting her cluelessness and ineptitude. Diana Johnstone’s Queen of Chaos is an outstanding example but not the only one.

    However, we Americans are bombarded relentlessly with mind numbing pro-regime, pro-status quo propaganda.

    Team Clinton: Fools, Damn Fools and Democrats
    By Andrew Levine

  6. Joe Tedesky
    February 20, 2016 at 02:42

    On a recent MSNBC Town Hall, Hillary made reference to how Sanders isn’t even a Democrate. He’s a Independent. Although as Professor Brenner points out how Bernie by the old standard Democrate definition is more a Democrate than Bill’ Desperate Housewife is. Some say that Bernie Sanders is pushing Hillary to the left. Okay, but we are talking Clinton here. Hillary will say what ever the polls tell her to say, but once voted in she will forget her rhetorical promises. It will be business as usual. It is time for all registered Democrates to decide, is their party a Clinton party or a People’s party?

  7. Abbybwood
    February 19, 2016 at 23:07

    Here are the CIA dominated “regime changes” over the decades:

    How many of these did either Bill or Hillary Clinton champion?

    And I believe the author forgot all about the “regime change” in Honduras that Hillary Clinton championed/”ignored”.

  8. Cal
    February 19, 2016 at 21:33

    Both parties are corrupt and beyond reform.
    Our so called democracy is nothing but a dual monarchy that plays musical chairs every
    4 years to see who will get to sit on the throne.
    And in the incest tank of US politics the biggest turds float to the top.
    What a freak show.

  9. Joe L.
    February 19, 2016 at 18:09

    One thing I would say is that I believe that the United States, including both major political parties, has been lost since its’ inception considering the US has been at war for something like 91% of its’ history. I believe that “all men are created equal” is a wonderful thing but certainly the US has not put this into practice since it has had almost constant wars, coups, and just outright deception. If the US truly followed the Constitution, along with international law, then it would be a wonderful thing indeed – not just for the US but the world in general.

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