BOSTON The early success and popularity of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is raising big questions about the future of the Republican Party. And now a similar dynamic is taking shape in the Democratic contest, where Bernie Sanders has defied expectations with his grassroots challenge of Hillary Clinton — turning their primary race in New Hampshire into a fight over the future and soul of the Democratic Party.
Sharply Contrasting Visions
The race between Clinton and Sanders was expressed succinctly by the two candidates at the end of last week in New Hampshire, before they headed out to Iowa.
“We have had enough of establishment politics, establishment economics,” Sanders said at a rally in Wolfeboro. “We need to move in a bold direction.”
The next day, speaking to supporters in Rochester, Clinton asked: “Are we going to try to build on the progress we’ve made under President Obama, or are we going to rip it up and start all over again?”
So in two phrases, there’s the choice voters face.
There are Democrats like Joan Valentine, of Madbury, New Hampshire. She’s a longtime Clinton supporter and says she’s sticking with her.
“She’s worked hard for better education, for children and family issues, for women’s issues,” Valentine said. “I think it’s high time we have a woman president, and I think she’s the most qualified person running in the whole field.”
But Sheryl Lang, an undeclared voter from Ossipee, is supporting Sanders because she says he understands the struggles of working people like her.
“Like he is, I’m mad. I’m angry. I don’t like what’s happening. I think that we need to shake things up,” Lang said. “We need someone who stands up for us middle people. And I think he’s doing a great job of that.”
Two sharply contrasting visions of where the Democratic Party needs to go. Clinton embraces the legacy of President Obama and the Democratic Party establishment. Sanders calls for a new direction, even “a political revolution.”
How Stark Is The Choice?
“This is a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party and the future of a more progressive politics in America,” says Bill Curry, a former White House adviser to President Bill Clinton. Curry ran for governor of Connecticut a couple of times and now writes for Salon.com.
“This is a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party and the future of a more progressive politics in America.”
A critic of Hillary Clinton, Curry says Sanders has a chance to upend the Democratic establishment that Clinton represents.
“If this is framed as a set of policy choices and a set of value choices, I think Sanders wins — certainly in Iowa, certainly in New Hampshire, and then after that, who knows. I think all bets are off.”
As Curry sees it, those policy and value choices have to do with correcting a political system that no longer works for average Americans.
At campaign events, Sanders talks a lot about what he calls “the grotesque level of income inequality” in America. And he gets specific about how a corrupt system benefits the very rich, and why it makes so many New Hampshire voters angry.
“It has a lot to do with the fact that there are kids in New Hampshire, kids in Vermont who get arrested for possessing marijuana. And yet when you are the CEO or a major executive of a multi, multi-billion dollar financial institution, which helped crash the economy because of their greed, recklessness and illegal behavior, you do not get a police record,” Sanders said at a recent event. “That is wrong, that has got to change.”
Like Sanders, Curry is critical of Clinton for accepting Wall Street money while promising to reign in its excesses. He sees a stark choice for progressives between what he calls “the pay-to-play system of the Clinton-Obama years,” and Sanders’ message of progressive social change.
But there’s a debate among Democrats about how stark this choice really is.
“There isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on virtually all of the issues.”
“There isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on virtually all of the issues,” says Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor and one-time Democratic presidential nominee.
Dukakis says both candidates fundamentally agree on core issues, including the need for higher wages, making health care more affordable, combating climate change and even going after those one percenters.
“We should make everybody making a million dollars or more have to pay a 30 percent income tax rate — that is an effective rate that actually produces income,” Clinton said last week in Rochester. “Because it’s wrong that you’ve got millionaires and billionaires whose tax rate is lower than their secretaries.”
Dukakis says seeking out differences between the candidates is something that always happens.
“When you have candidates, who are very much in the same political world philosophically and otherwise, as the thing starts to heat up, and it always does, people start looking for differences,” Dukakis says. “But there is very little difference between them.”
Finding Real Differences
But drill down a bit into their positions, and you do find real differences. Perhaps the best example of that is health care.
Sanders thinks the country needs to move toward “a Medicare for all single-payer program.”
Clinton might have agreed with that back in 1993 — when she led a failed effort to pass national health insurance. Now, she says, given what’s politically feasible, it makes sense to embrace and improve Obamacare — which now covers 90 percent of Americans.
“I will defend the Affordable Care Act against efforts to repeal it or start over, because I know we can make it better, but I sure also know we don’t want to go back into a really contentious national debate about health care — that is a recipe for gridlock,” Clinton said recently.
But Sanders points to higher and higher deductibles, 19 million Americans still uninsured and many more under-insured. Clinton’s critics — like Bill Curry — say the Affordable Care Act represents a give-away to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, and no amount of tinkering with it can change that fact.
“This system is addicted to the past, it’s addicted to the powerful and it’s addicted to money,” Curry says. “And that is the reason we can’t fix health care.”
So does that mean Clinton is in the hands of corporate interests, or just pragmatic, smart enough to recognize what’s possible? Dukakis says the latter.
Which brings us to why he’s supporting Clinton. He agrees with a lot of what Sanders says, but he thinks the Republican attack machine will savage the 74-year-old democratic socialist.
“Anything and everything you’ve done, and a lot of things you haven’t done, are used against you,” Dukakis says. “I mean, I had an incumbent Republican president who referred to me as the invalid one day — and set off a firestorm about my mental health and psychological stability. It was all nuts. I think I dropped 8 points in a week.”
Of course, Clinton has a long history too, and remains the focus of an FBI investigation — all fodder for that attack machine. So it comes down to two competing visions of the Democratic Party.
Maybe Purnell Ross has the right idea. He’s a longtime Democrat who’s supporting Clinton, but says he also likes a lot of Sanders’ ideas.
“I’d like to see them run as a couple, quite frankly,” he says. “It’d be a win-win for all of us.”