You listen to Bernie Sanders and hear something familiar. The party establishment has been corrupted by big money. It hasn’t achieved the promises it has made to voters. International trade has been a corrupt bargain for American workers. America has been too assertive and quick to take military action overseas and should work within international coalitions above all else. The mainstream of the party is much closer to the center than it is to the beliefs of its base.
Bernie Sanders is a force I have not observed before in Democratic politics. From my point of view, Democrats largely agree about what they want to achieve and even the means to achieve it. They differ on the margins, whether a specific regulation should be adopted or not, whether a person represents the correct interest group or not. But in the main Democrats and their affiliates operate as a team. And a very effective one.
Bernie Sanders says that team is a failure, even a fraud. It’s not truly “progressive.” It’s a bunch of sellouts. It hasn’t taken us to the promised land of Denmark. A large part of it supported the war in Iraq. It’s not willing to support the “political revolution” necessary to effect real change in American politics and society. The Netroots rebellion of a decade ago challenged the party to live up to its principles. Sanders and his voters are calling for a new set of principles.
Bernie Sanders’s radical critique of the Democratic Party is not unlike the radical critique of the Republican Party made by Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and (in 2008 and 2012) Ron Paul. Bernie is different than President Obama. When Obama challenged Clinton in 2008, their policy differences did not extend beyond the war in Iraq and whether it was a wise idea to meet with the leaders of rogue nations without precondition. Sanders is a critic not just of the Democratic Party but of the thrust of 30 years of American politics. He’s hostile to the tradition of friendliness to markets at home and abroad, openness to foreign trade, and support for America’s role as guarantor of international security. The Democratic Party has been open to an alliance with portions of Wall Street for decades. Sanders vehemently rejects that alliance. He doesn’t want to regulate the banks. He wants to break them up.
As a conservative, I am much more sympathetic to Hillary Clinton’s case for gradual change than I am to Bernie Sanders’s calls for radical upheaval. But I must admit a feeling of pleasure in the way Sanders has exposed the liberal Democratic establishment for what it is. These people are so self-absorbed and self-congratulatory that they do not even conceive of themselves as an establishment. When Sanders raised the issue during the Democratic debate, Clinton responded by saying she can’t be establishment because she’s a woman. Does she really believe that? Can she not see that feminists and the abortion lobby run large swathes of the Democratic Party? Probably not. Delusion is a powerful thing.
I admire the fact that Sanders has basically called out every Democratic hack, wonk, and journalist in the city as part of the status quo. But I also think his solutions are totally at odds with political reality, especially in the sphere of foreign policy. And I also know that the Democratic establishment against which Sanders is fighting includes almost all of the mainstream media, which wants nothing more than Clinton to have an easy path to the Democratic nomination. Sanders is very likely to win New Hampshire next week. But I admit I subscribe to the conventional wisdom. Bernie as the Democratic nominee is just something I cannot see right now.
So it will be Hillary. It always has been Hillary. And here Bernie Sanders has been useful. He has already exposed the soft underbelly of the Clintons’ fourth run at the White House. The Iowa results show that enthusiasm for Clinton is wanting. Sanders has attacked her again and again as ineffective, as a typical politician. The email scandal is out there, even if Sanders won’t make an issue of it directly. Clinton is unlikable, untrustworthy, and a liar. And she faces an insurgency that she never expected.
Bernie may lose the battle. But he’s giving Republicans the tools to win the war.