Eager to hold the political “center,” Hillary Clinton has budged little on Bernie Sanders’s policy proposals beyond nice-sounding platitudes, a strategy that could lead to clashes at the Democratic convention, says Lawrence Davidson.
By Lawrence Davidson
There has been close coordination between the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, and those representing her on the committee shaping the party’s platform. It is here that a battle was waged with reformers representing Bernie Sanders over party positions on a large number of important issues. The positions and behavior of those acting as Clinton proxies can therefore provide a window into her attitude toward the movement Sanders has launched.
The platform committee sessions quickly became confrontations with the supporters of Bernie Sanders, and resulted in a successful effort to stymie his reform agenda for the Democratic Party. This was done despite the political danger such a tactic of frustration represents – dangerous because Sanders has some 12 million supporters, many of whom are not yet convinced that Hillary Clinton deserves their vote. Thus, what may turn out to be a politically self-destructive game plan on her part requires some explanation. Here is one possible way of understanding her actions.
Hillary Clinton has pursued the presidency for almost a decade with a tenacious determination. She almost achieved the nomination in 2008 only to lose to Barack Obama. That led to an eight-year stifling of this ambition.
Finally, in the long run-up to the 2016 election, she was convinced the nomination was hers. She had lined up her own party’s leadership, the Chuck Schumers and Nancy Pelosis, and found it relatively easy to match her own policy preferences with theirs. Ahead of her, she believed, was a relatively easy road to the White House through the defeat of a fractionalized Republican Party led by an opposition candidate who, it would seem, had limited appeal.
Then along came Bernie Sanders, whose energetic and timely social democratic approach to long-standing U.S. problems threatened to steal the Democratic Party show. His positions were not hers, nor did they conform to the tastes of the party leadership. This latest complication must have exasperated Clinton. Even after she won enough delegates to assure her nomination, she still could not get rid of Sanders. And, his persistence, combined with just enough popularity to demand her and the party leadership’s attention, threatens even now to compromise her upcoming contest with the Republicans.
Clinton’s response to all of this is in part shaped by her bedrock alliance with party leaders. They certainly oppose Sanders’s reformist aims. However, more than any of these intra-party considerations, her response is shaped by her own personality, which causes her to be determined to make the presidential run, and play out the subsequent White House tenure, on her own terms.
So, what is to be said about Hillary Clinton’s personality? In an essay by Audrey Immelman, published in 2001 by the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics of St. Johns University in Minnesota, a discussion of Clinton’s dominant traits is taken up. Here are some of the conclusions: Hillary Clinton is an aggressive and controlling personality; when she makes up her mind about something, she loses interest in other people’s points of view; she is often impatient; she lacks empathy and can act harshly to those seen as standing in her way; she has boundary problems due to her excessive level of self-confidence – that is, when she “knows” she is right, she doesn’t like the idea that there are limits that she has to abide by.
Given these traits, one can imagine what she thinks of Bernie Sanders and his challenge to her ambitions. She is, of course, forced to deal with him, but she will seek the cheapest price necessary to buy him and his supporters off. Her Democratic Party allies seem to agree with this strategy, and this means that Sanders will get little more than words from both Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party leaders.
Thinking That Words Will Suffice
And indeed, that is what is happening. To see a run-down on how Clinton’s strategy plays out, plank by plank of the proposed party platform, go to William Boardman’s June 28 essay “Platform for Deception – Democrats at Work.” Boardman clearly shows that Clinton and her allies are playing a smoke-and-mirrors game with the party platform. They pay lip service to almost all of Sanders demands, but in almost every case refuse to commit to any policy programs for change.
It is as if Clinton and her allies are saying to Sanders and his supporters, “You can make us pronounce platitudes, but when it comes to practice, you cannot make us do anything. Policy formulation is not your business.” Having drawn this line in the sand, the Democratic spin doctors have started calling the resulting vacuous platform a progressive triumph. For instance, according to the Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the result is “a platform draft that advances our party’s progressive ideals and is worthy of our great country.”
The probability that this will satisfy either Bernie Sanders or his roughly 12 million supporters is close to zero. Sanders himself has pledged to take the fight for a progressive and reformist platform on to the floor of the Democratic convention. “Whether they like it or not, we’re going to open the doors of the Democratic Party,” he announced. This pledge may lead to the most raucous Democratic Party convention since 1968.
Playing “Hard Ball”
So how are Hillary Clinton and her Democratic Party allies, people like Schumer and Pelosi, likely to react to a convention floor challenge? Keep in mind that these are not people who are used to being confronted or defied. And they certainly aren’t fellow reformers.
All of them, including Hillary Clinton, who sold her soul to the Democratic Party when she became a senator from New York in 2001, are “systems people.” That is, they are creatures of the very system that Sanders wants radically overhauled. You don’t usually get leaders bred to a particular organizational environment ready and willing to cooperate in its deconstruction. Rather, they will fight, sometimes ruthlessly, to maintain the status quo from whence they draw their power and influence.
Here is how this confrontation may play out: Sanders will indeed make a stand at the Democratic Convention at the end of July 2016. Here there is likely to be a replay, this time in public, of the frustrating sessions of the platform committee. Issues will be briefly debated (Clinton’s people will control the gavel), this time in front of a national audience. There may be some further concessions on wording coming from Clinton, but no commitments to specific policies. In other words, the Sanders delegates will be defeated and yet another notable effort at reform will probably pass into history.
Throughout this process, Clinton and her allies will repeatedly insist that the real concern is not progressive reforms (they will claim that their smoke-and-mirrors platform already has addressed those concerns) but rather the danger of party disunity in the face of the challenge offered by Donald Trump.
This will paint the Sanders people as possible spoilers and, ultimately, force Sanders to choose between pushing his progressive program and defending the country against the Republican right wing. Since Sanders is already publicly committed to the latter objective, all Clinton and the Democratic leaders believe they have to do is go through the convention practicing damage control. Then they turn to Sanders and say, “Are you going to back us or do you want to help Trump win?”
Sanders’s Tough Spot
Bernie Sanders is indeed in a tough spot. In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post appearing on June 23, he spelled out his penultimate aim this way: “What do we want? We want to end the rapid movement that we are currently experiencing toward oligarchic control of our economic and political life.”
What the Clinton and the Democratic leadership are forcing Sanders to do is chose between oligarchies – the Democratic Party one or the Republican Party one – which is exactly the unsatisfactory choice voters have had all along. For Sanders, this is going to be a very bitter pill to swallow. He is 74 years old and this is likely his final battle for meaningful change.
Why all this to-do over a non-binding platform document? Perhaps because, for a short but critical time, you have 12 million voters taking it seriously – seriously in a way that may cause damage to Clinton’s presidential ambitions. Yet her blinding self-confidence won’t let her consider this possibility, and that myopia is why she refuses to make substantive compromises to Sanders.
She is sure she can co-opt his followers with promises and high-sounding declarations. She also probably sees her Republican opponent as such a loud-mouthed fool that she “knows” that, if she holds Sanders at bay, moderate Republicans will turn to her rather than simply staying home on voting day. Maybe. However, though she fails to see the point, her ultimate victory is not at all a sure thing.
Clinton’s weakness is just that which she considers her great strength – her self-assured conviction, her certainty that she “knows” what she is doing. She “knows” that her opportunity for success is at hand and she “knows” how to grasp it. There is a word for this sort of over-confidence, this overweening sense of power that prevents meaningful compromise – it is hubris – the pride that goes before a fall.
So we have a fair idea of what Hillary and her political allies will do. We know that Sanders has pledged to help “badly” defeat Trump. The only unknown is what the 12 million supporters of the Sanders movement for reform will do.
In theory, if a sufficient number of these people can find new leaders and hold themselves together, hitting the streets in a coordinated and continuous way right through the November election, they have a chance of scaring at least some of the Democratic leaders into a progressive path. But that is theory, and practice is always a more difficult endeavor.
Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.