Tired of Democrats vs. Republicans? Here’s how to fix it

Published: Salon (August 23, 2016)

I’ve been second to none among progressive pundits urging the sane world to unify behind Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump. I’m not going to repeat those arguments here. (If you’re reading this article, the chances are you know them anyway.) But it’s time to acknowledge the major logical flaw in any lesser-of-two-evils position:

If we progressives want meaningful change in our society and the larger world, how can we achieve it when both major parties are so flawed?

“We’re the only political party in this country dedicated to the idea that every American has a right to pursue happiness in any way they choose, so long as they don’t hurt other people or take their stuff,” explained Nicholas Sarwark, chair of the Libertarian National Committee. “That’s a message that’s resonating with more and more voters as the old parties self-destruct.” The Libertarian Party’s candidate for president, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, is running on a platform that consistently opposes government power in every walk of life. As such, he supports positions as ideologically disparate (at least by the traditional left-right ideological paradigm) as low taxes, LGBTQ rights, staying out of war and legalizing marijuana.

The other notable third-party challenge comes from the Green Party, whose presidential nominee is Dr. Jill Stein. The Green Party’s ideology is staunchly left-wing, focusing on issues like income inequality, racial discrimination, regulating big business and protecting the environment. Considering that Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist,” gave Clinton a run for her money in the Democratic primary, one might assume that the Green Party would pose a serious threat to her White House bid. (Indeed, I’ve been quite concerned about that possibility myself.)

Instead, the Green Party candidate consistently ranks last in polls including the four principal presidential contenders: If the election were held today, she’d place last after Clinton, Trump and Johnson, in that order.

I usually hear supporters of third-party candidates chime in with “How are we going to change that if we keep voting for candidates from the two major parties?” My response has been that, while I agree we need to break free from our rigid two-party system, the time to make that change is long before we reach a new presidential election cycle. By the time both major parties have nominated their candidates, the machinery that guarantees one of them a victory has already been set in motion – unless groundwork has been laid well in advance for a viable third-party alternative.

How can voters make this happen? “A third party – or even an organized faction within one of the existing major parties – is most likely to gain influence by winning at lower levels first,” explained Mark Lindeman, adjunct assistant professor of political science at Columbia University.

Citizens “should try to organize and build power wherever they are,”  Lindeman said. “It will tend to weed out any illusions they may have about what their fellow citizens think and want – and to find the most sustainable basis for a movement.”

Sarwark echoed this view, urging those who share libertarian values, “Join the Libertarian Party and get active at the local level. Vote Libertarian in as many elections as possible, to send a clear signal to the old parties that you are tired of their expanding government control over your life.”

Scott McLarty, media director for the Green Party, went even further with his suggestions: “Citizens can protest – even walk out – whenever they attend a ‘nonpartisan’ candidates forum that excludes alternative-party candidates. Citizens can refuse to participate in polls and surveys that artificially limit the choice to two major-party candidates, and complain to reporters and editors who publish such misleading polls.”

McLarty added that people can also push for instant runoff voting, which “enables voters to rank their choices, guarantees that the winner has the support of a majority and eliminates the alleged spoiler effect,” as well as “urge legislators to overturn ballot-access rules that were designed to privilege Democratic and Republican candidates and make access difficult for alternative-party and independent candidates.”

This last point is especially important since it goes to the heart of why most Americans think their only choices are to vote for Clinton or Trump. “The problem for third parties is compounded by restrictive ballot access laws and other barriers that the major parties have erected to protect their de facto monopoly,” wroteBruce Bartlett in Forbes. “Single-member congressional districts and first-past-the-post election rules also tend to favor the two-party system.”

Because each state has very distinct and usually complex laws for candidate eligibility, any contenders outside the Democratic and Republican establishments will have an extremely tough time making it onto the ballot. Unless ordinary citizens start a grassroots movement demanding that this change, third-party candidates will find it virtually impossible to realistically compete for the presidency and only slightly easier to do so in state and local races.

What we can’t do, though, is ignore the hard truths about our choice in 2016 simply because we want things to be better down the road. Right now the Democratic presidential candidate, for all of her flaws, is a smart woman with extensive government experience who supports a moderate (that is, center-left) platform. Her Republican opponent, by comparison, was nominated by pandering to America’s basest racist and sexist impulses, displays temperamental problems (including aterrifyingly blasé attitude toward the prospect of using nuclear weapons) and has no experience except that of running failed business after failed business after failed business.

I agree with McLarty and Sarwark that the nation needs strong third-parties — Libertarian, Green, you name it — to counter the power of the Democratic and Republican establishments, which have had a lock on national power for more than 150 years. This is proved by the fact that the Democratic and Republican nominees are the most unpopular in recorded history. And yet it’s still unlikely that any third-party alternative will poll at 15 percent, the minimum necessary to appear in the presidential debates. (This is something else that voters should demand be changed.) If we don’t change the system soon, we will raise a generation that believes it isn’t even worth fighting for.

That said, one doesn’t effectively fight for it by casting an futile vote in this election, neglecting this problem for four years and then throwing away another ballot during the next presidential contest. If those who are thinking of voting for a third-party candidate want to act like good citizens, they will make sure that the non-racist, non-incompetent contender wins this time around — for the safety not just of America but the world — and then get off their duffs and participate in empowering their preferred third party all year round. If millions of Americans do this in 2017, 2018 and 2019, Clinton can be held accountable in 2020 should she fail in her duties as president — and not just by a Republican.

For that to happen, though, we need to start giving a damn, long before the next presidential election is underway.

The Wrong Kind of Liberal

Published: The Good Men Project (August 6, 2016)

I’d like to talk about a specific type of liberal – namely, the liberal who believes that his or her liberalism can be brandished as a “get out of jail free” pass for bad behavior.

Based on my personal observations, this manifests itself in three ways:

  1. There is the MacFarlane type of liberal – i.e., someone who believes that because of their left-wing political views, they can make any number of offensive jokes without being accused of bigotry. “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane is a particularly egregious offender here, most notably when he released an episode of his show in which all of the characters insulted and dehumanized a transgendered individual while MacFarlane proclaimed innocence because of his well-known sympathy for LGBTQ rights. I’m also reminded of close friends from Bard College (which, at least when I attended, had a reputation as the most left-wing school in America) who regularly cracked jokes about morbidly obese African American women, the mentally disabled, lower-income whites, and other marginalized groups… and, when confronted, would invariably mention their liberal politics as an excuse.
  2. Then there is the Bernie Bro type, someone who believes that because they are steadfastly adhering to left-wing political values, it excuses political behavior that enables regressive results. Throughout this presidential election, many commentators have noted that the Bernie Sanders supporters who refuse to back Hillary Clinton are operating from a place of privilege. Even though they may emotionally sympathize with marginalized groups, they are willing to sacrifice their well-being in the name of abstract ideological goals because they personally wouldn’t feel the effects of a Donald Trump presidency. When I bring this up to Sanders supporters, I naturally hear about how “progressive” they are in their views toward marginalized groups… as if having a sympathetic ideology means anything when you’re willing to sacrifice others in its name.
  3. Finally there is the Wesley type, named after an abusive and narcissistic hippie from the 1994 movie “Forrest Gump.” In general, this is the type of person who treats others around them in a terrible way, then talks about how left-wing they are as a way to vilify the other person when called out on it. To use another personal example: When I discovered that one of my friends had been gossiping about me to my ex-girlfriend and I told him I was hurt by it, he claimed that “as a feminist, I have to take a woman’s side in situations like this.” Instead of apologizing for betraying my trust or admitting that he allowed himself to be manipulated, he tried to cover it up as a progressive political stance.

If you think any of these descriptions apply to yourself, do the world a favor: Don’t react by writing me an angry email or posting a nasty comment. Perform a little introspection. The world will benefit from it… and you might become a better, more genuine liberal as a result.

It’s time for Democrats to unify: Why even the most idealistic Sanders voter should support Clinton

Published: Salon (June 16, 2016)

We don’t know what Bernie Sanders discussed with Hillary Clinton when the two of them met Tuesday night, but it’s fair to assume that the conversation revolved around Clinton’s new status as the presumptive Democratic nominee. As the burgeoning Bernie or Bust movement clearly demonstrates, a lot of Sanders supporters are unhappy with the prospect of backing Clinton. Of course, because Green Party candidate Jill Stein has offered to run on a joint ticket with Sanders, they may not actually have to do so.

And so we find ourselves at a crucial junction in American political history. If Sanders and his supporters swallow their pride and acknowledge that, despite her flaws, Clinton offers them their best chance of achieving progressive policy changes, they will use their newfound leverage to push her to the left and then elect her president. On the other hand, if they place ideological pride over doing the right thing, they can contest Clinton’s nomination up to the Democratic convention or join Jill Stein on a third-party ticket… and their legacy might wind up being the election of President Donald Trump.

Before I encourage both Sanders and the Bernie or Bust movement to support Clinton, it is first necessary to dispense with the popular arguments used against doing so. The most common refrain that I hear from those in the Sanders camp is that Clinton somehow “stole” the nomination. Although she undeniably had far more support from the party establishment, this in its own right doesn’t constitute stealing (after all, Trump was also overwhelmingly opposed by his party establishment, with well-known results). Yes, Clinton has 581 superdelegates to Sanders’ 49… but she also won 2,219 pledged delegates to Sanders’ 1,832. More importantly, she won 15.8 million popular votes to Sanders’ 12 million, making her without question the preferred choice of a majority of Democratic primary voters.

This leaves the policy differences between Clinton and Sanders, which though meaningful are hardly prohibitive. Sure, Stein has opportunistically claimed that Clinton might be worse than Trump, but if you share Sanders’ values that assertion simply doesn’t hold up. As I’ve explained in the past, Clinton wants to invest $275 million in job-creating infrastructure spending (compared to $1 trillion for Sanders), raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour (compared to $15 for Sanders), maintain Obamacare (compared to Sanders’ support for a fully socialized health care system), and establish debt-free college tuition for low-income families (compared to free college for all public university students under Sanders). On every major issue in this election, Clinton’s stances are moderate versions of those taken by Sanders. Trump, on the other hand, favors economic policies that blatantly favor the wealthy… and, unlike both Clinton and Sanders, has focused his campaign on pandering to bigotry against Hispanics and Muslims instead of addressing the real economic problems facing ordinary Americans.

In short, anyone who shares the ideals professed by Sanders during this campaign (including Sanders himself) is morally compelled to see that while Clinton may profess a watered down version of those values, Trump embodies their direct antithesis. As a consequence, it is unconscionable to risk a repeat of the 1968 presidential election, in which a liberal insurgent (Eugene McCarthy) took his protest candidacy to the Democratic Convention and thus weakened nominee Hubert Humphrey in his unsuccessful campaign against Richard Nixon. Similarly, if Sanders accepts Stein’s offer and runs as the Green Party nominee, he risks repeating the role played by Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential election, when his third-party candidacy siphoned enough votes away from Democrat Al Gore to throw the election to Republican George W. Bush.

That said, it’s not enough to simply point out the overlap between Sanders’ message and Clinton’s campaign platform, though. If we’re going to be ideologically honest in this election, we must remember that the Democratic Party has a long history of delivering on its promises. Franklin Roosevelt spent the 1930s passing economic and social reforms that relieved the rampant misery of the Great Depression and provided a safety net for working class Americans; Lyndon Johnson’s administration spent the 1960s passing civil rights legislation, creating Medicaid and Medicare, and waging a successful war on poverty; and Barack Obama, despite the ferocious opposition of a Do-Nothing Congress, managed to end the war in Iraq and pass comprehensive health care reform.

This is why, when a progressive like me urges Sanders and his backers to rally behind Clinton, we are the ones being principled — not the intransigents who would throw out the baby with the bathwater. The Democratic Party, for all of its flaws, is the only institution within our existing political system that could realistically achieve the objectives laid out by the Sanders campaign. Because Sanders has put in such a strong showing against Clinton, he is in a position to demand that she spend her presidency addressing the problems of income inequality and plutocracy to which he has so eloquently drawn attention. To throw all of this away in a fit of pique, or because our backers cling to the fanciful idea that a miraculous Green Party revolution might occur (despite the lack of any statistical evidence that it would win in the general election), is worse than quixotic. It is downright foolish.

If Sanders wants to make a point, he will force a contested convention and/or run as a third-party candidate. On the other hand, if we want history to remember the Bernie Sanders campaign as one that made a real difference, we will demand that he instruct his supporters to do the right thing and vote for Hillary Clinton.

Sanders supporters pushed Clinton to the left—now they have to keep her there

Published: Quartz (June 7, 2016)

Heading into California primary today, Donald Trump is catching up toHillary Clinton in the general election polls. According to political analysis from statisticians like Nate Silver, the reluctance of some Bernie Sanders supporters to back an alternate Democratic candidate is part of the reason for Trump’s boost. Sanders’ backers tend to identify as progressive, according to Silver, but not necessarily as Democrats. “If Clinton wins over those voters, she’ll gain a few percentage points on Trump in national and swing state polls,” Silver explains. “If not, the general election could come down to the wire.”

If Democrats are going to sway disaffected Sanders fans, they will need to remind voters that the Democratic Party is not the enemy, even if it is “the establishment.” Clinton is very much a traditional Democratic presidential candidate. As a result, she is institutionally beholden to a set of policies that, while perhaps falling short of the democratic socialist ideal, still achieve much of what Sanders aspires to do.

A short history lesson is in order here. Although the Democratic Party has been around since 1828 (making in the oldest continuously active democratic political party in the world), it didn’t become a definitively left-wing organization until Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency in the 1930s. During his 12-year-long administration, Roosevelt’s New Deal provided economic relief to millions of poor Americans struggling during the Great Depression, as well as took measures to prevent any future crashes.

The New Deal programs laid the foundation for the constructive programs pursued by other progressive Democrats, particularly Lyndon Johnson, whose Great Society included the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s, the creation of Medicaid and Medicare, and the War on Poverty; and Barack Obama, who provided widespread relief after the economic crash of 2008 and passed comprehensive health care reform. Even less accomplished Democratic presidents managed to prevent major rollbacks on social welfare policy by compromising with their Republican adversaries, particularly Harry Truman (who worked with the infamous “Do Nothing” Congress) and Bill Clinton (who saved Medicare from a Republican-controlled Congress even after they forced a government shutdown.)

As the presumptive Democratic nominee, Clinton will be bound by historical precedent and party leadership to continue in this tradition if elected to the presidency.  Sanders supporters need to ask themselves what policies are most important to them. Certainly there is little question that she would have to spend much of her administration thwarting a Republican-held Congress. Beyond that, Sanders supporters need to ask themselves what policies are most important to them, and to what extent these policies overlap with Clinton’s stated goals.

In general, Clinton’s economic policies are watered-down versions of what Sanders is proposing. To reduce unemployment and income inequality, Clinton proposes spending $275 billion on job-creating infrastructure and raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour. Similarly, to make education more affordable, Clinton has prioritized making community college free and public four-year colleges debt free, as well as providing universal preschool to all four-year-olds. While once an avid proponent of free trade and deregulation, Clinton is now committed to opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership and increasing regulations on Wall Street.

The difference between the two candidates is perhaps best captured by their respective stances on health care reform. Sanders wants a socialized single-payer system, while Clinton supports tweaking and modifying the existing reforms passed by Obama under the Affordable Care Act. It’s reasonable for Sanders supporters to argue that their candidate’s proposals are better. It is patently unreasonable, however, to ignore the large overlap between the Sanders and Clinton agendas.

As others have already argued, Sanders supporters are actually in a position of power here. If Clinton wins a tight election without the support of Bernie fans, she may not feel particularly sympathetic or beholden to their concerns. If she wins as a direct result of their backing, however, it will certainly push her to focus on the economic policies the Sanders campaign has focused on for the past 12 months.

And of course, if Clinton actually loses in part because Sanders supporters stayed home, the next president will be Trump, whose economic plan is designed to benefit the rich through strategic tax reductions. There will not be a $15 minimum wage under a president Trump.

Some independent-leaning progressives may not like the influence wielded by the Democratic establishment. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t back the party’s candidate—with conditions.

If Clinton reneges on her progressive economic proposals, Sanders supporters should absolutely hold her accountable in 2020. Unless and until that happens, however, it’s important to remember that she represents a political party that has a long history of fighting for liberal causes—and just as importantly, against conservative ones. For better or worse, being a good progressive this year requires being a good Democrat, at least at the ballot box.

Bernie Sanders has a big decision ahead

Published: Quartz (May 3, 2016)

Staring down the DC press corps on Sunday (May 1), Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders vowed to make Hillary Clinton’s path to the party’s presidential nomination as challenging as possible. “It is virtually impossible for secretary Clinton to reach a majority of convention delegates by June 14 with pledged delegates alone,” Sandersexplained to reporters at a National Press Club conference. “In other words, the convention will be a contested contest.”

While Sanders has every right to pursue the Democratic nomination until the last delegate has been counted, the odds are emphatically against him. While Sanders supporters may cling to a few theoretical strands of hope, it is all-but-mathematically-impossible for Sanders to catch up to frontrunner Hillary Clinton at this stage in the process. Heading into today’s Indiana primary, she leads Sanders 1,645 to 1,318 among pledged delegates and 520 to 39 among superdelegates. With a total of 2,383 delegates needed to secure the nomination, Clinton is in the homestretch.

Assuming Clinton is the nominee and Donald Trump—who currently leads the Republican field by a wide margin—is her challenger, there is no question who Sanders should support. While a few political commentators (and presumably Sanders fans) have suggested otherwise, the fact is Clinton’s political goals are far more aligned with Sanders than those of any candidate on the GOP side. In light of this reality, it’s time to start thinking seriously about what Sanders can do—or, for that matter, should do—to ensure a liberal (and yes, Bernie Bros,Clinton is a liberal) makes it into the White House in November. If history serves as a reliable guide, two steps come immediately to mind:

1. Select the issues that are central to the Sanders platform and hold Clinton accountable to them.

If you’re a Sanders supporter, you should actually feel pretty good about this primary season. Even if your candidate does not win the nomination, he has put himself in an excellent position to influence Clinton’s policy agenda. After all, Sanders’ campaign was never meant to be about the desires of one man. Instead, the Vermont senator’s stated goal from the beginning was to raise the national profile of issues that he and his supporters believe are important: opposition to “disastrous trade policies,” a $15 minimum wage, a carbon tax to curb global warming, stronger stances against fracking, universal health care, tuition-free college, and breaking up Wall Street’s big banks.

Regardless of how well Clinton does in the coming months, Sanders’ campaign has shone a spotlight on the millions of American voters who believe the economic and cultural status quo simply isn’t good enough. Clinton has already been pushed to the political left in part because of Sanders’ supporters. Now she will need them to help her win the general election, but they also need her if they hope to accomplish any of their original socioeconomic goals. In theory, this has all the makings of a symbiotic, if not necessarily loving, relationship. Remember, Sanders supporters have leverage—just because they elect her once doesn’t mean they’ll back her re-election bid.

Of course, this strategy will only work if the Sanders supporters fully back Clinton in this election—and that is the point Sanders must eventually make. If Clinton wins without the support of the Sanders movement, they will lose their influence. And then there’s the possibility that she could wind up losing as a result if the Democratic party remains divided heading into the national contest. This brings us to the second point:

2. Sanders needs to remind supporters of the historical consequences of putting ideological pride over common sense.

This point was perhaps best summed up by former vice president Hubert Humphrey in his memoirs, published in 1976. “Some liberals feel the only way you can be truly liberal is to take a position that cannot possibly succeed, and then go down fighting with flags flying,” Humphrey explained. “With that view, you are never so happy as when you are unhappy, and you’re never quite so unhappy as when you succeed.”

Humphrey understood this tendency all too well. As Democratic presidential candidate in 1968, Humphrey struggled to unify his party. This was in large part due to the fact that one of his primary opponents, left-wing senator Eugene McCarthy, refused to endorse him in anything but the most tepid fashion. The ’68 election was incredibly close, with only a razor thin popular vote margin separating Humphrey from the winner, former vice president Richard Nixon. It’s not unreasonable to assume that Humphrey could have won had McCarthy’s supporters swallowed their pride and fully supported his ticket. Similarly—in an example millennials know all too well—if Green Party candidate Ralph Nader had dropped out of the 2000 presidential election 32 years later,exit polls indicate that Al Gore may have been able to best George W. Bush in the electoral college. If the Sanders movement is motivated by a desire to help the less fortunate, they won’t allow pride to overshadow the bigger picture. 

While these examples may seem like ancient history to 2016’s younger voters, both occurred during Sanders’ own lifetime, and he has good reason to heed their implicit warnings. Although leftists in both elections argued there was little separation between the Democratic and Republican nominees, the administrations of Nixon and Bush resulted in resoundingly negative outcomes for the American people. It doesn’t take a political scientist to predict a similar situation if Trump is elected, beginning with the open Supreme Court seat.

If the Sanders movement is motivated by a genuine desire to help the less fortunate, they will not allow their pride or frustration to overshadow the bigger picture. My hunch is that many of the more strident Sanders supporters, though currently livid at the prospect of supporting Clinton, will ultimately do the right thing on November 8th. Sanders has a moral responsibility to emphasize both the opportunities afforded by a Clinton administration and the dire consequences of a Trump one.

While he may not be ready to admit it, Sanders actually holds more cards than he has had this entire election cycle. After energizing the electorate and pushing Clinton to defend her progressive credentials, Sanders could cement his legacy as an effective and courageous crusader against inequality. But if he refuses to heed the warnings of history—or waits to make his move until it is too late—he will be remembered as yet another shortsighted spoiler from an intransigent left.

Bernie Sanders is a compassionate, intelligent man who has no clue how to run a country

Published: Quartz (April 6, 2016)

If Bernie Sanders wants to be president, he’ll need to do better than this.

The Democratic senator is doubtless feeling pretty optimistic today, fresh off a primary victory in Wisconsin. And yet a much more telling measure of the candidate’s presidential chances happened earlier this week, during an interview with the editorial board of the New York Daily News.

Reading the interview is a thoroughly disheartening affair. As editors plied Sanders with questions about how he would implement his radical agenda, it became abundantly clear that Hillary Clinton’s chief rival doesn’t have many answers.

Take his response to questions about his highly touted plan to break up America’s big banks. After reassuring the board that “the idea of breaking up these banks is not an original idea. It’s an idea that some conservatives have also agreed to,” Sanders was asked how he would go about such an impressive task. Sanders’ subsequent waffling should give even the stoutest Sanders supporter pause.

 As editors plied Sanders with questions, it became abundantly clear he didn’t have many answers. First, he suggested legislation (somehow pushed through a presumably Republican Congress) would do the bank-busting. Then he claimed that his administration would have the authority to force through changes on its own, before quickly contradicting himself and reassuring his interviewers that “the president is not a dictator.” When the Daily News pointed out that a federal court had recently overturned an attempt to regulate America’s biggest life insurer Metropolitan Life, and asked how this precedent might impact his own efforts as president, Sanders conceded: “It’s something I have not studied, honestly, the legal implications of that.”

Sanders was similarly evasive when asked how his “political revolution” might be affected by the realities of a GOP-held legislature. After spending most of his time talking about the revolution already wrought by his campaign, Sanders argued that his presence in the presidential race would result in a voter turnout large enough to retake the Senate for liberals and make gains in the House. (This would still result in a divided Congress, but okay.) He also claimed that a win would “mean that millions of people now want to be involved in the political process in a way that has not previously existed,” somehow compelling Congress to act in accordance with their newly expressed wishes.

Sanders’ worst moments, though, came when he was asked to discuss foreign policy. Because the wording of these exchanges is so important, it’s better to just quote directly from the transcript. Here’s Sanders talking about Israel and Palestine:

Daily News: Do you support the Palestinian leadership’s attempt to use the International Criminal Court to litigate some of these issues to establish that, in their view, Israel had committed essentially war crimes?

Sanders: No.

Daily News: Why not?

Sanders: Why not?

Daily News: Why not, why it…

Sanders: Look, why don’t I support a million things in the world?

And here he is on drone strikes:

Daily News: President Obama has taken the authority for drone attacks away from the CIA and given it to the US military. Some say that that has caused difficulties in zeroing in on terrorists, their ISIS leaders. Do you believe that he’s got the right policy there?

Sanders: I don’t know the answer to that.

And terrorist interrogations:

Daily News: What would you do with a captured ISIS commander?

Sanders: Imprison him.

Daily News: Where?

Sanders: And try to get as much information out of him. If the question leads us to Guantanamo…

Daily News: Well, no, separate and apart from Guantanamo, it could be there, it could be anywhere. Where would a President Sanders imprison, interrogate? What would you do?

Sanders: Actually I haven’t thought about it a whole lot.

Just to be clear, Sanders’ character is not in question here. Sanders is an incredibly compassionate man, one driven by a deep desire to help the disadvantaged and correct injustice. His campaign has created an incredibly opportunity for liberal Americans to push their party to do better on the kinds of issues frequently regarded as taboo in the past, from destigmatizing the word “socialist” to boldly pushing for a national minimum wage of $15 per hour. An American president has to do more than simply raise awareness about important issues. 

At the same time, an American president has to do more than simply raise awareness about important issues. A qualified candidate must be able to realistically assess how he or she would implement the policies that they believe to be most important. Sanders was unable to do this during his interview. And his answers revealed a rather shocking lack of knowledge about the many aspects of being president unrelated to his stump speeches, most notably foreign policy. In the process, he raised serious doubts about whether his bid for the White House can, or should, be viewed as anything more than a single-issue campaign.

This brings us to the deeper lesson we can learn from the 2016 presidential election. The presidency isn’t a symbolic title. It is a job,and in order to fill it one must demonstrate a breadth of understanding as well as a depth of conviction. Sanders has copious quantities of the latter. But in the context of this incredibly vital election, that’s simply not good enough.

Donald Trump’s secret weapon against Hillary Clinton

Published: Salon (April 5, 2016)

There is one issue in which Donald Trump is much more progressive than Hillary Clinton – and, unless she learns from history and decisively changes the way Americans perceive her positions here, it may wind up costing her the presidency.

I’m referring, of course, to American trade policy. Although the last president to oppose free trade was Hebert Hoover (and his administration was more than 80 years ago, for those of you keeping track), Trump has been sounding the horn of unapologetic protectionism throughout his presidential campaign. Indeed, opposition to free trade may be the one consistent view Trump has held throughout his public life; when he first mulled a presidential bid in 1988, his main issue was America losing in trade wars with Japan and Kuwait. Twenty-eight years later, Trump’s economic platform focuses on prohibiting American companies from building plants in Mexico, penalizing China for manipulating its currency, and striving to “modify or cancel any business, or trade agreement that hinders American business development, or is shown to create an unfair trading relationship with a foreign entity.” Most notably, he denounced the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – which, if signed, would be the largest trade deal in history – calling it a “disaster.”

Ironically, the only other candidate in this election to share Trump’s long history of outspoken protectionism is Sen. Bernie Sanders. Unlike Trump, however, Sanders’ aversion to free trade makes ideological sense. Throughout American history, trade protectionism has been associated with strengthening labor, the traditional prerogative of more left-wing political parties. In speech after speech, Sanders has hammered away at free trade deals for serving the interests of corporations rather than workers. As he put it during a debate with Clinton shortly before his upset victory in the Michigan primary, “You didn’t need a PhD in economics to understand that American workers should not be forced to compete against people in Mexico making 25 cents an hour.” An overwhelming majority of Americans share this view, with a recent Bloomberg Politics poll discovering that opposition to free trade “unites the country like few others, across lines of politics, race, gender, education, and income.”

This brings us to Clinton’s views on trade, which are problematic to say the least. During her husband’s presidency in the 1990s, Clinton undermined Democratic progressives and worked with congressional Republicans to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Despite being lauded as a “no brainer” at the time, NAFTA was a disaster for the American working class, depleting our nation of almost 700,000 jobs by 2010 and allowing employers to disempower labor unions by threatening to move to Mexico if workers dare to assert their economic rights. As a result, Clinton has taken a more mixed stance on trade issues in the ensuing years, voting against the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2005 and half-apologizing for NAFTA in 2007 by conceding that “we have to drive a tougher bargain” in the future. Although Clinton supported TPP as Secretary of State, even referring to it as “the gold standard” of trade deals, she has since distanced herself from the agreement on the grounds that it would hurt the middle class.

Considering the massive public backlash against free-trade agreements, Clinton’s current stances may not be enough. According to a recent study by J. Bradford Jensen, Dennis Quinn, and Stephen Weymouth of the National Bureau for Economic Research, voters are more likely to punish candidates they perceive as supporting free-trade agreements due to the demonstrable impact such deals have on their livelihoods. Indeed, when you look back at American history, you will find that it is littered with presidential elections which hinged on trade issues – and, if the past serves as a reliable precedent, a candidate whose position isn’t sufficiently aligned with the perceived public interest usually winds up going down in flames.

Take the 1888 presidential election: In a move that was considered shockingly bold at the time, President Grover Cleveland dedicated the entirety of his 1887 State of the Union message to the subject of tariff reform – i.e., the need to increase free trade in America. At a time when tariff rates had reached unprecedented highs and ordinary Americans were suffering under the yoke of high prices, Cleveland’s surprising decision to make tariff reform a front-and-center issue wound up dominating the subsequent national campaign. In one stroke, the Democrats became the party of tariff reform and the Republicans (led by nominee Benjamin Harrison) became the party of protectionism. While it’s debatable whether America was ultimately pro or anti-free trade at this time – Cleveland narrowly won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College – there is little question that his willingness to boldly declare his stance on this issue allowed the campaign to be waged on his terms, and his terms alone.

If Clinton wants to avoid being bested by Trump in the general election, she would be well-advised to mimic Cleveland’s tactics (albeit not his policies). As many observers have noticed, Trump’s outspoken opposition to free trade has played an integral rolein his presidential candidacy’s success, mobilizing workers to his side while giving him the appearance of an outsider willing to challenge the economic establishment. Although Clinton has spent the past decade gradually shifting her positions to be closer to that of Sanders and Trump, right now Trump is currently in control of the national conversation when it comes to this issue. It seems reasonable to assume that, if Clinton and Trump wind up squaring off against each other in the general election, Trump will attempt to put Clinton on the defensive regarding her pro-free trade past, with the goal being to make her look like a flip-flopper if she takes a protectionist stance or like a tool of special interests if she reverts to her free trade guns.

By delivering a game-changing speech on trade, however, Clinton could preempt such maneuvers. For this to work, she would need to deliver a high-profile address that accomplishes three things:

  1. Unequivocally acknowledge the error of her past free trade policies, most notably NAFTA;
  2. Point to her opposition to CAFTA and refusal to support TPP once it became clear that it would repeat NAFTA’s mistakes;
  3. Point out that liberal Democrats have historically been the main champions for workers’ rights in this country, both on trade policy and other key issues.

By achieving the first goal, Clinton would not only effectively apologize for the harm wrought by NAFTA (which she has already tentatively done in the past), but cast her shifting position as a healthy ability to learn from her mistakes rather than as expedient “flip-flopping.” This point would be reinforced by succeeding in the second goal, which would have the additional benefit of demonstrating that her opposition to trade deals which hurt American workers predates the current presidential campaign. Finally, by tying her protectionist stance to the traditional progressive positions she has adopted – including raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour, investing $275 billion in infrastructure to create up to 3 million new jobs, and supporting unions against companies that undermine labor regulations – she would simultaneously underscore how Trump’s anti-free trade stances are more demagogical than ideological and establish her own campaign as the one that truly champions the overall interests of the working class.

Make no mistake about it: It will not be easy for such a speech to be successful. When Cleveland did this almost 130 years ago, it was because he used a platform that guaranteed his words and stances would garner massive media attention. Clinton’s choice of venue and presentation would have to be similarly savvy, and her words would need to not only plant herself squarely on the side of the working class, but do so in such a way that she would be subsequently viewed as the main candidate for workers’ rights vis-à-vis free trade. This will be a tall order for her to fill, and it will be no mean feat if she pulls it off.

At the same time, Clinton pretty much has no choice but to try. Considering the bipartisan opposition to free trade and Trump’s success in fueling his campaign with anti-trade sentiment, Clinton will be an incredibly vulnerable candidate in the general election unless she finds some way of combating Trump on these grounds. While she seems generally aware of the fact that her past on trade policy could hurt her, there is little indication that she recognizes the gravity of the situation in which she finds herself. If she doesn’t pick up on this soon, she risks failing to implement adequate damage control until it’s too late.