I have been staying studiously neutral in this primary election, and it is a strange feeling. In the first part of my career, I lived in Iowa and dove in deep and early to presidential primaries. I had a great time, learned a huge amount, met some of the best lifelong friends I have ever had, and made enough of a mark that I eventually landed a great job in the Clinton White House as a very young man, so those primary fights were important to me.
This year, though, I have chosen to stay out for a couple of simple reasons. First, I feel like the more important fight is in the fall against the Koch brothers, Wall Street and the billionaires who want to take over our democracy, and given my friendships on both sides of the Bernie/Hillary divide, I might be able to play a modest role to bring everyone together for that battle in November. And second, I feel like the Elizabeth Warren strategy of staying neutral and exerting maximum leverage to push both the candidates and the media to talk about the most important economic issues is working, and activists like me can play a good role in supporting Elizabeth’s strategy. After all, once you endorse a candidate, you may have a seat at the table to try to persuade them of the merits of an issue or a strategy, but you can’t hold them accountable or be critical in any significant way.
I am comfortable with that decision, but it sure feels strange, and I can’t resist the urge to give some advice from time to time to both sides. Today, the day after my old home state definitively showed how closely divided Democrats are in this choice, my advice is going to be to my old boss Hillary: The way you win this primary, and the general election afterward, is to be bold and embrace your inner Bernie.
Hillary’s messaging has been better this time around than it was in the 2008 race, where her pollster Mark Penn convinced her that 2008 was not a change election and that voters were not looking for someone new and different. It was a bad decision and she paid the price. This time around, she is running with a somewhat more populist and progressive message, which is good as far as it goes. She’s decided that mobilizing the progressive coalition that elected Obama twice is more likely to be successful given changing demographics than winning with the old Clinton coalition that included lots more conservative white voters and states Democrats are unlikely to win anytime soon like Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia and Louisiana. All of this is great, but she needs to fully embrace the strategy.
Here’s the problem: This frame that her campaign unfortunately helped to create of Hillary’s long hard slog incrementalism vs Bernie’s big, bold solutions does not work in this political moment, just as it didn’t work in 2008. And that is why her campaign — far better funded, far more endorsements, far more political pros, running against a democratic socialist who wasn’t even a registered Democrat until last year — ground to a tie in Iowa and is behind in New Hampshire.
Take this article from Sam Stein in Huffpost, which Sam interviewed me for and used a quote which would horrify my mother because I swore in it.
Sam leads the article with Hillary’s mocking quote about Obama from 2008: “The skies will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect,” she said. “I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be,” and Sam’s article suggests that the same message is coming through this year. I fear he is right.
Being the nose to the grindstone, long hard slog, small steady progress candidate could — and did, for her husband — work in a time like the mid-1990s, when the economy was bubbling along pretty good, wages were going up, and the tech boom was making people feel more optimistic about the future. That is not the time we are living in, though.
When you look at wages and other economic indicators for working families since the tech bubble burst around the turn of the century, it is not a pretty picture. The financial collapse, the damage it did to most folks’ assets and wages, and the strong sense from voters that billionaires on Wall Street got bailed out and then made out like bandits has left an intensely sour and cynical taste in most voters’ mouths. And the dysfunction in government since the Republicans took over the House in 2010 had made things even worse.
People want big, deep, fundamental change. They don’t want the establishment calling the shots, or business as usual. And so we see the rise of the extremist anti-establishment right in Trump and Cruz on the Republican side, and the surprisingly strong appeal of Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side.
What Hillary needs to do in my humble and unsolicited opinion is to beat Bernie by embracing Bernie. Not so much him personally — I get they are in a contest. But Bernie’s boldness and big ideas. Attacking Medicare For All as too big an idea and saying we just need to tweak Obamacare is at best a mixed idea when most Democratic primary voters love Medicare and dislike insurance companies, but it also adds to the impression of Hillary being small and incremental and Bernie thinking big and bold.
Attacking the Bernie/Elizabeth Warren proposal to break up the biggest banks isn’t just unpopular with most Democratic voters, it makes Hillary look like she doesn’t want to change the status quo when it comes to that most despised of special interests, Wall Street. And talking in general about how Bernie’s proposals won’t make it through a Republican Congress as far right as this one immediately triggers a BS alert amongst most Democratic primary voters because let’s face it, nothing a Democrat would propose could pass this republican Congress.
Winning this election requires Hillary to propose policy ideas that are — and that sound like they are — big, bold, strong, tough, exciting. Think about how different this race would have been, for example, If she had embraced just one of the major Wall Street reforms that Elizabeth Warren has been pushing such as breaking up the biggest banks. It would have sent a big signal that she is serious about wanting to shake things up, to be a game changer. More importantly it would have completely undercut Bernie’s single most powerful argument, that she is too close to Wall Street. Because voters of all stripes are really, really tired of business as usual, taking strong stands on big policy ideas like this is exactly what Hillary needs to do.
Because she is who she is, Hillary will always have trouble convincing people she isn’t part and parcel of an establishment they don’t trust. It gets worse, though, a lot worse, when she emphasizes that she only wants small changes and criticizes Bernie for wanting big ones. That doesn’t mean she has to adopt all of his policy proposals, but she needs to reframe and re-energize her campaign by pushing her own big, bold ideas.
If she does that, she not only strengthens her hand in the primary fight, but she strengthens herself in the general election as well. It isn’t just Democrats who are spitting in the eye of the establishment in case anyone hasn’t noticed, and the classic swing voters are looking for a big shake-up in what they perceive as a corrupt system. Beyond that, though, is what I would call the Steve Phillips argument: as Steve argues so eloquently in his new book, the numbers don’t lie. Democrats have a governing progressive majority if they inspire, engage, mobilize, and turn their base out to vote.
There are a lot of Bernie supporters who are convinced that Hillary will never take on the powers that be or propose bold new ideas. I know that Hillary is capable of being bold and taking risks, though. I was there the day, early in Bill Clinton’s first term, when the D.C. insiders in the administration told her to take health care reform off the table because there were too many powerful special interests opposing it, and Hillary responded by saying “we can’t back off from this issue because there are children dying every day from a lack of health care.
It is up us to stop it, and the time is now” she concluded as her voice rose, banging her fist on the table. And even when the broader health care reform bill failed, she kept working away, and eventually she and Teddy Kennedy delivered the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). I know she has it in her to dream big dreams and fight the powers that be. If she wants to win this race, she just needs to do it more often.
Hillary, embrace your inner Bernie.