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What we learned from the Democrats’ big weekend in Minneapolis

Hillary Clinton is looking past her rivals; Bernie Sanders thinks he’s electable; Martin O’Malley is a revelation; and Lincoln Chafee seems straight out of a Frank Capra movie. 

By now you’ve read accounts of the big national political event that unfolded in Minneapolis Friday, a meeting of the Democratic National Committee addressed by four of the five declared Dem presidential candidates. For MinnPost, Cyndy Brucato more than ably covered the speeches (and the “media availabilities” in which each candidate took reporters’ questions within moments after those events concluded) in real time Friday. Her accounts (of Hillary Clinton and Lincoln Chafee and Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley) went up Friday.

All of which frees me up to make a few observations on the day.

Hillary Clinton

Clinton remains the prohibitive favorite to be the nominee. She is playing it safe and smart and that, of course, is something a lot of leftier liberals dislike about her. She’s cautious and conventional (except that, by her gender, her candidacy represents the possibility of a historic breakthrough, which for many voters may take the edge off the “conventional” issue).

Her presentation Friday was smart and strong and — as is usual in her campaign so far — lacking in the kind of specific policy commitments that some people (I’m in this category) want to hear from a presidential candidate.

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She favors creating an economy in which everyone has an “equal shot at success,” and says that “a full-time minimum wage can’t lift you out of poverty.” (But it’s Sanders who says the minimum wage should be $15 an hour, by federal mandate.) She’s worried about student debt because it prevents kids from getting through college or leaves them indebted in ways that crush their post-college years. (But it’s Sanders who calls for public universities and colleges to be tuition free.)

She constantly asserts progressive goals, some of them very progressive sounding but hopelessly amorphous. An example from Friday’s speech: “My whole life, I worked to even the odds for people who have the odds stacked against them.” What will she do to even those odds? For the most part, details to come later.

She flashes a combative streak, taunting the gigantic Republican field. (“They all sound like Donald Trump, without the pizazz or the hair.”) She says Republicans like to accuse her of “playing the gender card,” and replies: “If equal pay for equal work is playing the gender card, then deal me in.” If Trump would like to debate issues of women’s health care with her, “that’s a general election debate that’s going to be a lot of fun.”

It feels to me as if she is doing everything to create a world in which she is already the nominee, and she is rehearsing killer lines that she will use against whichever pitiful troglodyte the Repubs put up against her. But she is looking past her intraparty rivals.

Hillary Clinton speaking
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Hillary Clinton doing everything to create a world in which she is already the nominee.

Maybe this is the perfect strategy. History suggests that when there is a clear frontrunner for the nomination, that person almost always ends up as the nominee. Mitt Romney. John McCain. John Kerry was the frontrunner in ‘04 before Howard Dean briefly replaced him, but in the end Kerry was nominee. If you go back further, you’ll mostly see the person who was the media’s frontrunner, and the money and organization frontrunner, and the résumé frontrunner a year before the primaries begin ends up as the nominee. The exceptions are actually fairly few, although the frontrunner often goes through a period where the impression of inevitability is temporarily shattered. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton in 2008 was one of the exceptions. But back on the first hand, by money and organization and endorsements and experience, Clinton in 2015 looks like one of the most dominant frontrunners ever.  

So maybe Democrats who are focused on the electability issue should be glad she isn’t engaging with Sanders and saying things to compete for leftier liberal votes that will make it harder for her to compete for moderate swing voters in the fall. Maybe it’s best for an incoming president to have as few concrete policy promises as possible to preserve flexibility to respond to the possibilities that present themselves. But for those who crave those kind of policy proposals, she is frustrating.

At the end of Friday’s presentation, she talked about being a grandmother and wanting every opportunity to be open for little Charlotte. But then she always says (she said it Friday, but I’ve heard it from her often) that every child should have the same opportunities. It’s a lovely thought. But every time I hear it I think that either she is suggesting a radical, revolutionary leveling of all the privileges that come to being born wealthy and connected in America, or she is just saying something that sounds great, something that she knows no one could possibly take seriously, unless she was advocating for a revolution.

Bernie Sanders

Sanders is following the opposite strategy, if you can even call it a “strategy.” He does use the word “revolution.” A lot.

He is arguing for a set of policies — pretty darn concrete policies — that are left of anything usually advocated by serious candidates in the mainstream of the U.S. two-party system. (In some technical sense, he is not a part of that two-party system, since he has never identified himself as a Democrat. But he is seeking the Dem nomination. Of course, the fact that he has identified himself with the term “democratic socialist” for decades will be used as a club by Republicans if he ends up on the ticket.)

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In his presentation, he wasted little time on charm or humor or poetic language. His demeanor is sometimes described as “grumpy.” It’s safe to say that his material is not developed to reassure moderate swing voters.

He surely knows that his association with ideas that are considered radical in the traditional American policy spectrum raise in the minds of many Democrats — maybe even many who would agree with some of the proposals but want to make sure a Democrat occupies the Oval Office in 2017 — that he would be unelectable.

Sanders devoted a big chunk of his speech Friday to answering that criticism without acknowledging it. He embraced the conventional wisdom that Republicans benefit from low-turnout elections while Democrats benefit from high turnouts. The 2014 Dem disaster — with Republicans making large gains in both houses of Congress and controlling both — was all about a very low turnout. The Repubs didn’t win it, he said, the Dems lost it by not energizing a different set of swing voters — not the ones who swing between Dems and Repubs, but the ones who swing between voting and not voting. He said most of those (and he’s right about this), when they do vote, vote for Democrats.

“Democrats will not retain the White House, will not regain the Senate or the House, unless we generate excitement and momentum and produce a huge voter turnout.”

Without mentioning Clinton by name, he argued that her cautious style (“the same old same-old”) will not do it. “We do not need more establishment politics or establishment economics,” he said.

The candidate who can generate the kind of turnout needed, he said, is his own candidacy, which has already shocked the political establishment by the turnout for his rallies. More than 100,000 people have signed up as volunteers. Although he hasn’t raised the huge figures Clinton has, Sanders argued, he has actually had more donors — he claimed 400,000 have contributed. It’s just that the average amount given by his donors is $31.20, because he is not the candidate of the “millionaires and billionaires.”

Why is he able to attract new voters and activists? Because “our grassroots campaign is calling for a political revolution.” Yes, he is calling for a “revolution,” a pretty hot word in U.S. political rhetoric. Yes, true, he’s calling for a peaceful revolution accomplished through the ballot box, but it’s nonetheless a revolution that has a large quotient of class conflict.

In short, the very qualities that many Democrats fear would make Sanders unelectable, he insists is his case for electability.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaking
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Sen. Bernie Sanders wasted little time on charm or humor or poetic language.

Said Sanders: “The people of our country understand that given the collapse of the American middle class, and given the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality we are experiencing, we do not need more establishment politics or establishment economics. … What we need is a political movement prepared to take on the billionaire class and create a government which works for all of us, and not just corporate America and a handful of the wealthiest people in this country.

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“We need a movement which takes on the economic and political establishment, not one which is part of that establishment,” Sanders said in a clear if implicit reference to Clinton. “We need a movement that tells corporate America and the wealthiest people in this country that they will start paying their fair share of taxes. We will end the insanity of living in a country where the top one tenth of 1 percent own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. That is not the kind of economy we want.”

Of course, every Democrat engages in populist rhetoric (although this is more radical-sounding than most). But Sanders takes positions, concrete policy positions, that explain how he would like to implement this revolution through legislation that, presumably, he would hope to sign as president. It really is not normal for a candidate to be this concrete. Here are some of the positions he took, with impressively little wiggle room:

He favors defeating the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and the Keystone Pipeline. He calls the current federal minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) “a “starvation wage” and wants to more than double it over a period of years to “15 bucks.” He called several things about the U.S. status quo a “disgrace.” One of them is that on average women make 78 cents for every dollar made by men. He pledges to reach “pay equality.”

He called it an “international embarrassment” that the United States is the only “major country” that does not provide at least 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. He would mandate that.

To tackle unemployment (which Sanders said is really 10 percent if you count discouraged workers who have stopped looking for jobs or who are working part-time and want to work full-time, and which he said is over 50 percent among black youth), he advocates a “massive federal jobs program to rebuild our public infrastructure, our roads and our bridges.” He said he would “create millions of jobs rebuilding our infrastructure, and I intend to do that.”

He wants the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision overturned, pledges not to appoint any new Supreme Court justices who are not committed to do that and says that the political movement he envisions “tells the Koch Brothers and the billionaire class that they will not be able to continue to buy candidates and elections.”

He promises to oppose the forms of what he calls “voter suppression” (mostly various measures that make it harder to register and vote) and thunders: “If a politician is too cowardly to face the vote, if a politician thinks they must suppress the vote in order to win, that politician should get another job.”

By the way, about that idea of free college education at all public universities, he says he would pay for that “by imposing a Wall Street speculation tax.” He said he has already introduced legislation to this effect, a bill that also reduces interest rates on student debt.

Sanders did vote for the Affordable Care Act, although he always favored something much closer to a single-payer system like Canada’s, which covers everyone at government expense. While other liberals are focused on preventing the Republican repeal of Obamacare, Sanders still says “we can live in a country where health care is a right for all people.”

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In a way, that last one characterizes the Sanders moment. With Republicans still demanding repeal of Obamacare, most Dems and most liberals are anxious to block them. Sanders favors what, by U.S. standards, would be a radical step beyond Obamacare. (Although by the standards of other wealthy industrialized nations, it is not radical at all.)

Is America ready to break the limits of conventional U.S. liberalism? Will voters follow a grumpy Vermonter with a New York accent who would be 75 on Inauguration Day 2016 down that path? Seems pretty unlikely, but it seems we’re going to find out. A new Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll indicates that Clinton’s lead, among Iowa Democrats, which was by a 41-point margin in May (57-16 percent), is down to seven points (37-30).

Martin O’Malley

O’Malley’s speech to the DNC was a revelation, at least to me. Compared to Clinton and Sanders, he has received only a fraction of the attention and registers almost nothing in polls. I thought he rocked the room. He visibly ticked off DNC Chair (and Florida U.S. Rep.) Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Two things jumped out. He is willing to denounce the Republican field in stronger, harsher terms than any of the others, terms that almost certainly thrilled the assembled Democrats. On the other hand, he is accusing the party leadership of rigging the nomination race for Clinton, specifically by limiting the number of debates.

I guess I agree with O’Malley about the debates (although many cycles of wanting debates to be more edifying than they ever are has undermined my enthusiasm for them). And O’Malley, I should add, has — to his credit — exceeded all the other candidates in putting out substantive policy-position papers. To read them go to his campaign website and pull down the menu under “vision.”

But for me, O’Malley’s “more debates” argument interfered with his strength on Friday, which was the strength, humor, outrage and eloquence of his attack on the Repubs. Here’s some of what the call-out-the-Repubs part sounded like (I took it from the prepared text, but it was very effective from the stage, and the statements below are aggregated from various portions of O’Malley’s remarks):

“I — for one — will not remain silent in the face of the lies, … the distortions, … and the racist hate being pumped out over the airwaves from the debate podiums of the once proud Republican Party!

“Let their party be led by a hate-spewing carnival barker!

“Now in an ongoing series of debates, the party of Lincoln is led by Donald Trump. Donald Trump whose deep understanding of the law is such that last week he said part of the Constitution is unconstitutional. Donald Trump whose foreign policy insights are, he said, based entirely on what he’s seen on TV …

“You could easily have mistaken their debate for a reality TV show, like ‘Survivor.’ But the difference between the Republican debate and ‘Survivor’ is that one involves contrived challenges and oddball contestants on the edge of sanity, while the other takes place on an island …

“The Republicans stand before the nation, malign our president’s record of achievements, denigrate women and immigrant families, double-down on trickle-down, and tell their false story … 

Martin O'Malley speaking
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Martin O’Malley was willing to denounce the Republican field in stronger, harsher terms than any of the others.

“The leading Republican candidate talks openly about forced expulsions and taking away the birthright of American-born children, and we turn the Democratic Party into ‘the appalling silence of the good.’ ” (That last “appalling silence” bit, by the way, is a quote from Martin Luther King.)

“Their party’s leading candidate scapegoats immigrant families. He launches racist attacks on entire ethnic groups of Americans — to the delight of David Duke and other white supremacists —  and our response … is to limit debates?”

But O’Malley’s positive vision, even his colorful denunciation of the other party, were significantly undermined by the fact that his main message was a demand for more Dem debates.

This cycle the DNC has taken an unprecedented level of control of the debate schedule and has sanctioned a total of six debates, four of them occurring before the Iowa caucuses. Here’s O’Malley denouncing the DNC on that score:

“Four debates and only four debates — we are told not asked — before voters in our earliest states make their decision … . This is totally unprecedented in our party. … This sort of rigged process has never been attempted before. … Whose decree is it? Where did it come from? To what end? For what purpose? What national or party interest does this decree serve? How does this help us tell the story of the last eight years of Democratic progress? How does this promote our Democratic ideas for making wages and household incomes go up again and not down? How does this help us make our case to the people? Is this how the Democratic Party selects its nominee, or are we becoming something else … something less? … Will we let the circus run unchallenged on every channel, as we cower in the shadows under a decree of silence in the ranks? Or will we demand equal time to showcase our ideas, our solutions to the nation’s problems, and our leadership for the better America we carry in hearts?”

As delivered by O’Malley, his two main themes were constantly interspersed. He never went more than a line or two about his own proposals or about his views of the Republicans without inserting a demand for more debates. He didn’t say so during his talk Friday, but when asked by reporters he specified that he believed the limit on debates was rigged to help Clinton.

I’m not sure others felt this way, but for me, irrespective of how many debates you might think are ideal, O’Malley was making a self-serving argument because he doesn’t believe he can get the attention he needs without more debates. But he made a big impression and, I suppose, if he could make it to a national television audience in a few debates, maybe he could shake up the race for the nomination.

Sanders, by the way, when asked at his media availability, said that he too favors more debates. But he didn’t mention it in his own speech and his candidacy obviously — compared to O’Malley’s — is thriving without the debates.

Lincoln Chafee

The fourth candidate who appeared Friday was former Gov. and Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island. Scion of a distinguished Rhode Island Republican family from back in the days when New England Republicans were often quite liberal, he is now a Democrat but has been elected to office as a Republican and an independent.

I’m not sure who thinks Chafee has a chance to become the Dem nominee for president or how, but he did make an interesting comment (during his media availability) about why he had shown up at a DNC meeting. He noted that there is little or no precedent in recent history for a brokered convention or even a second ballot, but that in such a scenario the DNC members — who are also superdelegates — can play a big role, so he wanted to make sure and meet them and show them his political wares.

Personally, I find Chafee affably authentic and charming and even modest (if it’s possible to be modest and still offer yourself for president). He almost seems to have wandered in out of a Frank Capra movie. In judging a candidate for president, he says, you should think about his record, his character and his vision for the future.

As far as his record, he mentions that in 2003 he was the only Senate Republican to vote against authorizing the Iraq war, a fact he always brings up (and is not above pointing out that Hillary Clinton voted to authorize it). Sanders, who was then in the House, also voted no. Chafee also notes that he voted against George W. Bush’s “tax cuts for the rich.” He says Rhode Island’s economy prospered during his term as governor.

Lincoln Chafee speaking
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Lincoln Chafee mentioned that in 2003 he was the only Senate Republican to vote against authorizing the Iraq war.

On his “character” he mentions a few things, including that he has had “no scandals.” Later, the media asked him if that was any kind of backhanded shot at Clinton. He says nope and, likably, acknowledges that a no-scandal record involves a lot of luck for a governor who makes many appointments and can get dragged into something scandalous by his appointees.  

When asked whether he joined the other non-Clinton candidates in demanding more debates, Chafee said six seemed fine, noting that “Lincoln and Douglas only had five.” (He didn’t note that those debates were when they ran against each other for U.S. Senate.)

Some footnotes

The fifth declared Dem candidate for president, former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, was the only no-show. Wasserman Schultz announced that he was taking his daughter to college that weekend. I’m pretty sure he made the right choice.

Rabbi Michael Latz of Minneapolis congregation Shir Tikvah gave the benediction before the start of the morning business session and managed (in an unusually long benediction) to mix a huge amount of Old Testament-infused godliness with a lengthy discussion of the murder of Emmett Till. Till was a black child from Chicago who was murdered for whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955. Friday was the 60th anniversary of Till’s death. When Latz finished his benediction, instead of an “amen” the assembled Democrats gave him a standing ovation. Wasserman Schultz commented that she had never before seen a standing ovation for a benediction. Nor have I.