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Opinion This one moment perfectly captures the Clinton-Sanders war over progressivism

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)


Tonight the Democratic presidential candidates are set to debate in New Hampshire, and all indications are that they will use the occasion to battle over whether Hillary Clinton is a genuine progressive, something that Bernie Sanders has worked hard to cast doubt upon of late. At last night’s CNN town hall meeting and elsewhere yesterday, Sanders pointed out that Clinton had previously described herself as a “moderate” and that Clinton’s acceptance of huge sums of Wall Street money undermined her progressive credentials.

Since this battle will drag on and on, it’s worth clarifying exactly what it is Sanders is arguing. Sanders made an appearance on CNN that, I think, captures what this is all about.

In the interview with Wolf Blitzer, Sanders repeated his core arguments — that Clinton’s effort is heavily funded by Wall Street interests, and his isn’t; that she represents “establishment politics and establishment economics,” while he’s challenging a corrupt order which allows “billionaires to buy elections.” Then this happened:

BLITZER: Are you suggesting that Secretary Clinton is beholden to Wall Street and big money?
SANDERS: No. What I’m simply saying is a fact. She recently reported that her Super PAC received $25 million. $15 million of that came from Wall Street. I will let the American people determine what all of that means.

Sanders has been making arguments that are both specific and general. He says that in some cases, Clinton’s policies are not sufficiently progressive, and that his more ambitious ones (single payer, universally free public college) are required. More broadly, he says our political economy is in the grip of an oligarchic elite, resulting in a massive upward redistribution of wealth in recent decades and rendering government paralyzed from doing anything about it. Sanders believes our politicians, or perhaps our political system, cannot break this oligarchic grip as long as elected leaders take campaign money from that oligarchy. Clinton is a part of this problem.

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Sanders constantly points to the funding of her campaign — and her acceptance of speaking fees — as symptomatic of this problem. But Sanders does not want to take the final step and say that Clinton personally is making the policy choices she does precisely because she is beholden to the oligarchy, due to its funding of her campaign. The upshot is that Sanders is indicting the entire system, but doesn’t want to question the integrity of Clinton herself — or perhaps doesn’t want to be seen doing that. This is the central tension at the heart of Sanders’s whole argument.

This comes up again and again. Sanders recently ran an ad attacking financial institutions for giving contributions and speaking fees to politicians, and arguing that this is why our economic and political system remains rigged for elites and why nothing is being done about it. But Sanders didn’t name Clinton herself in the ad. Sanders ran a second ad that contrasted his vision for Wall Street with that of Democratic politicians who take money from the Street and thus cannot solve the problem — again without naming Clinton.

In making this broad argument, Sanders is implicitly indicting not just Clinton, but President Obama and many Democrats who voted for Dodd-Frank financial reform. Indeed, that’s the essence of Sanders’ whole case: Obama achievements such as the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank, while laudable, still fall woefully short of addressing the scale of our challenges and meeting the ideal of distributive justice that Sanders is championing. This, Sanders says, is because Obama failed to break the power of the oligarchy, both by failing to rally a large enough grassroots movement against it and by continuing to take money from it. On both fronts, Sanders will do otherwise.

And yet, at bottom, Sanders is not quite willing to say why it is that the acceptance of oligarchic money by specific individual Democratic politicians, such as Clinton or Obama, leads them to personally embrace policies that are insufficiently ambitious to address the soaring inequality that poses a quasi-extistential threat to the middle class and our political economy.

To be clear, as noted above, Sanders is also specifically criticizing Clinton’s policies, which is fair game, and more broadly, there’s nothing wrong with Sanders indicting the entire Democratic establishment. We should be debating the question of how big money paralyzes our system and skews Congressional policy-making in both parties towards the interests of the wealthy. But there are still fundamental unanswered questions at the heart of this Clinton-Sanders argument, and both candidates should fill this void. Clinton could do so by explaining why it is that accepting Wall Street money does not constrain her in policy terms.


* WAIT, IS DONALD TRUMP…CHASTENED BY HIS LOSS??? CNN reports that Donald Trump, having lost Iowa, is now shifting his approach a bit in New Hampshire, scheduling the sort of intimate retail events that he had mostly shunned for the past six months. As CNN puts it, he is squeezing in events like “a meeting with local business owners and an event with the Manchester Police Department.”

Is it possible that Trump actually might be chastened by his second place finish in Iowa? It turns out that jetting in on your own plane to massive, raucous rallies that resemble rock concerts may be flattering, but it just might not be enough!

* MANY UNDECIDED DEMS IN NEW HAMPSHIRE: The new UMass Lowell Tracking Poll finds Bernie Sanders leading Hilary Clinton by 58-36 among likely Dem voters in New Hampshire, but that lead is down a few points, and 75 percent say they could still change their minds. The demographics heavily favor Sanders here, but it does seem likely the race might tighten substantially.

* RUBIO GAINING GROUND IN NEW HAMPSHIRE: Today’s UMass Lowell Tracking Poll also shows Donald Trump still dominating, with 36 percent of likely Republican voters, but Marco Rubio has now edged into second place, with 15 percent, followed by Ted Cruz at 14 percent. Rubio appears to be gaining ground daily.

A second place finish for Rubio in New Hampshire would give his campaign a major boost and lead to an outpouring of media fawning about his “Marco-Mentum,” but it still remains to be seen where he can come in first place in the near future.

* RUBIO’S RIVALS DESPERATE TO STOP HIM: The New York Times reports that Chris Christie and Jeb Bush are tacitly teaming up to pile on Rubio, because a strong showing in New Hampshire will help him dominate the “establishment lane” that they hope to inhabit:

Over the past 48 hours, Mr. Christie has mocked Mr. Rubio as a cosseted “boy in the bubble,” derided him as “constantly scripted” likened him to “the king of England,” and, perhaps most creatively, compared his Senate career to that of a helpless fourth grader who is told which chair to sit in at school. On Wednesday, Mr. Christie challenged anyone “to show me the significant accomplishment that Senator Rubio has done while he’s in the United States Senate.”

Between the description of Rubio as “the boy in the bubble” and the mockery of his shiny boots, the attack line on Rubio — which essentially casts him as a lightweight fop — is getting really subtle.

* FEMALE SENATORS WANT ELIZABETH WARREN TO ENDORSE: The Hill reports that some female Democratic Senators are quietly pressing Elizabeth Warren to step in and endorse Hillary Clinton before the New Hampshire primary, building the case for the first female president:

Warren declined to comment in the Capitol Wednesday, and her office did not return a request for comment. An endorsement from Warren would be very valuable now. Sanders is leading Clinton by double digits in New Hampshire, where Warren has a higher profile than in most states because it’s part of the Boston media market.

As I’ve reported, this actually represents a very complex dilemma for Warren, and it’s uncertain how she’ll resolve it.

* WHY DEMS ARE DIVIDED BETWEEN HILLARY AND BERNIE: E.J. Dionne’s column today explains it:

Most share Clinton’s view that gradual reform is the most practical way forward. But most also agree with Sanders that even moderately progressive steps will be stymied if money’s influence is left unchecked, if progressives do not find new ways of organizing and mobilizing, and if so many white working-class voters continue to support Republicans. The party’s divided mind is one reason Sanders’s challenge is more vigorous than many expected. Call it the dialectical primary: Democrats are searching for a synthesis between reform and revolution.

* AND A TOP RUBIO SUPPORTER STRUGGLES TO NAME HIS ACCOMPLISHMENTS: On Morning Joe today, Joe Scarborough repeatedly pressed Rick Santorum, who has now endorsed Marco Rubio, to name a single Rubio accomplishment.

In response, Santorum spewed more homina homina hominas than Jackie Gleason ever did throughout the entire run of “The Honeymooners.” (Ask your parents, kids.)