Sunday, February 07, 2016

236.4 - A rare (and potentially my only) commentary on the Democratic primaries

A rare (and potentially my only) commentary on the Democratic primaries

In the wake of the Iowa caucuses (and written before the New Hampshire primary), treasure this: It surely will be one of the few, and may well be the only, comments you will hear me make on the primaries. That is, the Democratic primaries; I won't even bother with the GOPper ones.

And a lot of what I have to say will be about the media, not so much about the candidates, although their differences to a good extent drive the differing media coverage.

But I'll start by confessing my biases. Not my political biases, which I expect will come as no surprise and are likely well known to anyone who has watched my show or followed this blog. But this is about purely personal biases.

Okay, first off, I have to admit that I personally don't like Hillary Clinton. I don't dislike her, I just can't take to her. This a pure, unreasoned, visceral reaction. She feels too staged, too constructed, to me. Those moments when in interviews or on the stump when she's being cheerful or chipper or a "good sport," as when in that last Iowa forum she was shown Bernie Sanders' closing ad and called it "great" and "poetry," at times like that it feels posed, it feels like she's playing a role, as if this is a character she wears in the same way Stephen Colbert wore his right-wing character. I feel that she would rather come off like a serious policy wonk like Sanders does but has learned to put on this facade because it's better politically.

If that's not true, if she really is by nature the cheerful extrovert she presents herself as, if she really is, ala Hubert Humphrey, the "happy warrior," then I'm sorry for misreading her.

I will also say that I don't think I misread her and I'm aware that the reason she does it is because there is still more than enough sexism that if she as a woman didn't come off as cheerful and a good sport that she would face a backlash that would have a serious impact on her support. Which means that she does it out of necessity. And even though I understand that, I still find she puts me off. Which is why I called it an "unreasoned, visceral reaction."

That said, I don't particularly like Bernie Sanders, either, not on a personal level. But it's for a very different reason.

I have friends in Vermont who know or at least knew Bernie Sanders. They worked closely on some of his early campaigns in Burlington and for Congress. They told me that the way he comes off in interviews and on the stumps is really him, he really is like that. It's not posed.

Hillary Clinton
Bernie Sanders
They also said he has a good sense of humor but that for him everything comes back to policy, that he really is a real policy wonk and he comes off that way.

Here's the thing: they also told me he loves to argue. In fact, he loves to argue so much that sometimes he would argue a point - just for the sake of arguing a point. He would argue things just to argue things.

I don't like people like that. I find them irritating and it feels like they are forever trying to prove to you that they are cleverer than you are.

I suppose now some people will be saying I'm too particular about who I like. Which is perhaps true, but the point here is that my preference between Clinton and Sanders is based on policy, not personality. I don't particularly want to get to know either of them.

With that out of the way, let's get to the subject. Right at the top, I have to say that it's absurd to say anyone "won" Iowa. Iowa is not an election, it is caucuses to choose delegates to the Democratic national convention. You can say so-and-so got more delegates, but to say they "won" as if it were a winner-take-all election is nonsense.*

What's more, this was about as close to a draw as you could get. Clinton and Sanders were separated by 0.2 percent and the delegate division was, by latest report as I do this, 23 for Clinton to 21 for Sanders. And six of those delegates were chosen by flipping a coin, with Clinton winning all six, which means her margin was the result of random chance.**

The only way anyone "wins" or "loses" Iowa is in the purely political sense of doing much better or much worse than expected. You could claim on that basis that Iowa was a "win" for Sanders because just a few months ago he was over 30 points behind, but for the past couple of weeks the polls had been calling it a tossup so that argument won't fly, either. This was a tie or as close as you could expect to come to one.

But the media kept going on about how Clinton "won" Iowa. Her campaign even called it an "historic" win; I'm not sure of the basis for that but I figure it for standard campaign hyperbole, so leave it be. Sanders' campaign did much the same thing, suggesting it was a "win" for him by emphasizing the size of the gap he closed.

But it was the media that set the tone of "Clinton wins!" It was just another example of the media closing ranks about the preferred candidate of the political and economic establishment, a media that first tried to ignore Sanders, then to dismiss him, then to mock him, and now, as I predicted to my wife it would, to set the bar impossibly high:

Remember first that before Sanders announced his candidacy and even after, Clinton was the "presumptive" nominee, the "of course she's going to win" candidate. Remember next that a poll done of Iowa caucus-goers the last week of October showed Clinton with a 65-24 lead over Sanders: a 41 percentage point lead. And remember third that when the caucuses were held, that advantage had shrunk to, again, one-fifth of a percentage point.

So how did this New York Time's "Upshot" blog analyze the results?
But in the end, a virtual tie in Iowa is an acceptable, if not ideal, result for Mrs. Clinton and an ominous one for Mr. Sanders.
Why? Because "He failed to win a state tailor made to his strengths." Exactly why Iowa is "tailor made" for a New England democratic socialist with a Brooklyn accent went unexplained beyond noting that Iowa is white and rural - Just like Vermont! - which I suppose would make, say, Idaho or Montana also "tailor made" for Bernie Sanders.

The point is, the standard went from "he can't win" to "he must win or else."

Just how bad did the coverage get? Consider this:

A couple of days before the caucuses, Buzzfeed reported that the Clinton campaign was actively training its Iowa volunteers in a maneuver that could take delegates away from Sanders by making Martin O'Malley a "viable" candidate in certain precincts. This was confirmed to Buzzfeed by a Clinton precinct captain.

The rules in the Iowa caucuses are rather complex, but here is a very oversimplified example of how that would work, as I understand it. Suppose there is a precinct with four delegates up for grabs (I'm not even going to try to get into "delegate equivalents," which is how the choices are actually counted). Clinton's people know that Sanders has 60% support, they have 30%, and O'Malley has 10%, and as a result the delegates are going to go three for Sanders and one for Clinton. If you have 15% support, you are a "viable candidate" and have to get at least one delegate. So enough Clinton people caucus with O'Malley supporters to bring him up to 15%. The result is that now the delegates go two for Sanders, one for Clinton, and one for O'Malley - and Sanders has lost a delegate.

It's sneaky - but it's entirely within the rules.

Okay. In response to the Buzzfeed report, a site called put out an article headlined "Sanders supporters advocate using O'Malley as spoiler in Iowa" and subtitled "Bernie Sanders' campaign slammed Hillary Clinton's planned use of a political tactic, but his supporters are advocating the same strategy."

But if you get to the third paragraph, you discover that what Vocativ's "deep web analysts" - and yes that's that the article called them - what its "deep web analysts" had found was someone on a subreddit of Sanders fans suggesting it. Not Sanders, not the campaign, not any official, not anyone actually connected to the campaign, some individual supporters. With no indication that the campaign supported it or even less, trained people in how to do it.

By the time that that got to the splash screen of, the headline had become "Sanders accused of dirty trick against Clinton" with the subhead that it "has emerged that Bernie Sanders' camp may be trying to rob Hillary Clinton of supporters with a sneaky move."

So what began as a confirmed report that the Clinton campaign was training its volunteers in a sneaky but legal tactic had morphed into a claim that Sanders was using a "dirty trick" to "rob" Clinton of delegates.

While that is perhaps an egregious example, it's far from the only one demonstrating a mass media bias that having failed to kill the Sanders campaign with silence would now attempt to kill it by setting impossibly high standards of achievement and political purity.

Let's be clear: I'm not talking about secret media cabals or grand conspiracies here, I'm talking about the natural outgrowth of a shared worldview, a common way of looking at the world, a commonality of perspective that leads to a commonality of conclusion and a commonality of action. I'll say it again: The media is closing ranks about the preferred candidate of the political and economic establishment, the candidate that even though they might not be great fans of all their proposals is still the one which that establishment feels comfortable with, the one that establishment has confidence might rearrange the apples on the cart but will not upset it. And that candidate, clearly, is Hillary Clinton.

Because Hillary Clinton, bluntly, is not nearly as progressive as she has been painting herself recently with her sudden and much too convenient commitment to populism, a commitment that has increased in direct proportion to the shrinkage in the polling gap between her and Sanders.

Not as progressive as claimed
In fact, it's not hard to make a case for why anyone who considers themselves progressive should not vote for Hillary Clinton even beyond that fact that her recent conversion to populism can't be trusted: The last day of the Iowa campaign, she was insistently declaring "I'm a progressive" only to say the very next day during a disturbingly fawning interview with Chris Matthews that "We’ve got to get back to the middle. We’ve got to get back to the big center."

For one thing, she is far more hawkish than people seem to realize. As an example, back in 2011, as Secretary of State, she was one of the most hawkish voices about the bombing of Libya and actually went so far as to tell a Congressional briefing that the Obama administration would simply ignore any attempts by Congress to assert its Constitutional authority in matters of war and peace.

She has also been an enthusiastic supporter of the drone war that has killed thousands of civilians.

In 2014, after leaving the administration, she declared a position on Iran's nuclear program that, had it been adopted, would have undermined the agreement that was reached and bemoaned that the US had not been more involved in Syria, including creating a "credible fighting force" and she has advocated a "no-fly zone" and a "safe zone," the latter of which, despite her flippant denials during a recent debate, would require ground troops.

Just recently, a couple of weeks ago she declared on Meet the Press that her policy on Iran would be "to distrust and verify." Sounding more like a member of Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet than a candidate for president of the US, she proposed new sanctions on Iran over a claim it's violating UN Security Council resolutions about its ballistic missile program. Which at least is consistent: During the 2008 primaries, she called Obama "naive" for saying he would be willing to talk to the Iranians.

In Congress, she supported both the Patriot Act, the one I dubbed the Traitor Act for its impact on civil liberties, and its reauthorization. More recently, she has defended NSA spying and called Edward Snowden an enabler of terrorism while saying she was "puzzled" why he fled the country when "we have all these protections for whistle-blowers" - apparently forgetting (no, of course she didn't actually forget) that the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistle-blowers than all previous presidents combined.

On the economy, suffice it to say that, as I said last time, she has so many ties to Wall Street it looks like some kind of kinky bondage party. Enough, in fact, that they are so comfortable with her that Tom Donohue, president of the US Chamber of Commerce said just recently that the only reason Clinton has come out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership is because Sanders has and that if she's elected, she will switch back to supporting the pact she once called "the gold standard" for trade deals before starting to waffle in the face of its great unpopularity with primary voters.

Until she was challenged by Sanders' campaign, she supported fracking and for months she avoided taking a stand on the Keystone XL pipeline, only to finally come out in opposition on the grounds not that it's a bad idea but that it's a "distraction." She has said some good things on the topic of climate change but favors boosting fossil fuel supplies, which pretty much undercuts the argument.

There's more, but that's enough to make the point that yes, a solid case can be made that Hillary Clinton does not deserve the support of progressives.

Here's the sad part: Even given all that and all the rest I didn't address, she is still light-years ahead of, light-years beyond, anyone running on the GOPper side. So much so that were she to be the nominee and I lived in a toss-up state - which I assuredly do not - I would have to choke back my bile and vote for her.

Doubts about Sanders
I'm hoping I wouldn't have to make that choice. I do have problems with Bernie Sanders. His rather fumbling defenses of his weak record on gun control disturb me and he seems to lack, in the absence of a better term, a good feel for issues around racial and sexual justice, particularly where those issues are not easily connected to a class economic analysis.

This is not to say that he is bad on those issues, in fact his record on them is a solidly good one. But when he talks about the billionaire class running the country, when he talks about economic inequality, when he talks about changing the nature of power in the country, you can tell that he feels this, this is not just analysis, this is passion, this is commitment, this is genuine belief, this is emotional, this is his heart. And he doesn't seem to have that same feel for issues of racial and sexual justice. Lacking that sort of emotional connection, it's too easy for such issues to keep slipping down the list of priorities, forever sitting in the "In" box without ever actually getting moved to the desk.

And that worries me.

On the other hand, it's also true that his encounters with Black Lives Matter protesters indicated that he has the ability to listen and even learn something.

On the economy, as I said last time, he is not the socialist he claims to be and even less the socialist he is often made out to be by the media. A number of his proposals are good but I think they clearly do not go far enough.

But ultimately, bottom line, this is what is comes down to for me:

A little while ago, there was a brief kerfuffle when Sanders was asked about the fact that Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign had endorsed Clinton, which seemed rather odd considering he had a 100% lifetime voting record with each of them. He responded by referring to those groups as part of "the establishment." He quickly backed off that, realizing it was a gaffe. But while a gaffe, not untrue; I think he was referring to the national levels of those organizations, which at that level focus mostly almost exclusively on inside-the-beltway Congressional lobbying. That is, they are part of that establishment which I have been, and I think he was, talking about. Which raises, for me, an important difference between Clinton and Sanders.

First things first: She is a former Senator and a former Secretary of State who gets paid bunches in speaking fees to corporate gatherings. He is a sitting US Senator, a former member of the House, with something like a 33-year history in elective office, 25 of those at the federal level. Which means, if we are to be fair, that both these people are members of "the establishment."

Which brings us to the difference I spoke of between them, and it's a fundamental one, a sort of political "he-said-she-said."

She sees that establishment as what you have to work within and which sets the boundaries of the possible. He sees that establishment as what you have to go beyond to generate pressure (his "political revolution") to make that establishment do what it would not have done otherwise.

All of which brings to mind a slogan from the dreaded '60s: "Be realistic - demand the impossible." Because that is the only way true progress has ever been produced. And I prefer to go with hope.

As Edward McClelland of Salon wrote just prior to the caucuses (paraphrased),
Clinton's campaign is based on fear – the fear that Republicans will return to power and undo any progress made. Sanders is running on hope – hope for what he calls a "political revolution" that will take power out of the hands of billionaires.
If our society were likened to a house with a leaky roof, Bernie Sanders would be the one saying "I know it's hard but we've got to fix the roof!" while Hillary Clinton would be the one to advocate placing flower pots under the drips in order to beautify the rooms.

He is the voice of the hope for real progress and she is, ultimately, the voice of the hope that things won't get worse or at least will get worse more slowly. Which is why I am seriously considering, for just the second time in my life, changing my registration just so I can vote in a Democratic presidential primary. The first time was in 1988 when I switched from "independent" to Democrat to vote for Jesse Jackson. This time it will be a switch from Green to Democrat and the vote will be for Bernie Sanders.

*It is true that a number of primaries are not winner-take-all, so the same argument could be made about them. I would in those cases make an exception (and so accept there is a "winner") for those where getting the most votes makes a significant difference in the number of delegates (i.e., they are not awarded, for example, in numbers equivalent to each candidate's percentage of the vote but disproportionately go to the top vote-getter) and, in political terms, where the final margin is significantly larger or smaller than expected. I suppose it would also be fair to say someone "won" a non-winner-take-all primary if they were double-digits ahead of their nearest rival.

**Later accounts said the difference was closer to 0.3%. Other reports indicted that there were additional examples of coin tosses and Sanders won some of those. That, however, does not change the basic point that given that the number of coin tosses significantly exceeded the final margin, that margin, whoever it wound up favoring, was the result of random chance.

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