Al­ter­na­tives to Clin­ton­land

What mes­sage will Democrats de­liver?

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - DOYLE McMANUS doyle.mcmanus@la­times.com Twit­ter: @doylemcmanus

Don’t de­spair, po­lit­i­cal junkies. There’s still go­ing to be a vig­or­ous de­bate in the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial pri­mary cam­paign — even though it won’t re­ally be about who the nom­i­nee should be. Un­less she stum­bles, Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton seems to have the nom­i­na­tion pretty well sewn up.

In­stead, the de­bate will be about some­thing just as im­por­tant: what it means to be a Demo­crat in 2016 and what mes­sage the party should take into the gen­eral elec­tion fight.

And, for all you heart­bro­ken lib­er­als, here’s good news: In that de­bate, Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren (D-Mass.) is still a full-fledged player — not as a can­di­date but as an in­sis­tent voice in Clin­ton’s left ear.

War­ren, the hero­ine of the party’s pro­gres­sive wing, met with Clin­ton a few months ago to urge her to run a pop­ulist cam­paign.

The se­na­tor out­lined some of the poli­cies she’d like to see: an in­crease in So­cial Se­cu­rity benefits, a much higher min­i­mum wage and stronger fi­nan­cial reg­u­la­tion to force big banks to get smaller.

And one more re­quest: War­ren urged Clin­ton to dis­tance her­self from the Wall Street fat cats who she thinks have amassed too much in­flu­ence in Demo­cratic ad­min­is­tra­tions, in­clud­ing both Bill Clin­ton’s and Barack Obama’s.

War­ren didn’t get a solid com­mit­ment, I’m told, so she’s a long way from giv­ing her bless­ing to Clin­ton’s cam­paign.

“I want to see who else gets in this race, and I want to see what the is­sues are that they push,” she said in a CNN in­ter­view last week.

There’s no short­age of can­di­dates for the El­iz­a­beth War­ren Chal­lenge. Sen. Bernie San­ders, the in­de­pen­dent so­cial­ist from Ver­mont, is likely to join the Demo­cratic Party and an­nounce his can­di­dacy soon. For­mer Mary­land Gov. Martin O’Mal­ley has con­spic­u­ously sounded War­ren’s themes on vis­its to Iowa and New Hamp­shire. For­mer Vir­ginia Sen. Jim Webb has tried to stake out pop­ulist ground to War­ren’s right, in­veigh­ing against a “mon­eyed aris­toc­racy” but op­pos­ing higher in­come taxes. And for­mer Rhode Is­land Gov. Lin­coln Chafee, a Repub­li­can-turned-Demo­crat, says he may run be­cause he thinks Clin­ton is too hawk­ish on for­eign pol­icy.

As can­di­dates, they all look a bit Quixotic. (Ac­tu­ally, Don Quixote prob­a­bly has higher name recog­ni­tion.) But in pol­icy terms, they rep­re­sent se­ri­ous Demo­cratic al­ter­na­tives to Clin­ton­land.

In­creas­ing So­cial Se­cu­rity benefits has sud­denly be­come a pro­gres­sive touch­stone af­ter a decade of de­bate over trim­ming the pro­gram. War­ren, San­ders and O’Mal­ley are in fa­vor; Clin­ton hasn’t taken a po­si­tion.

Break­ing up big banks and restor­ing the Glass-Stea­gall Act, which limited com­mer­cial banks’ ac­tiv­i­ties un­til Bill Clin­ton helped re­peal it, is on the same wish list. War­ren, San­ders and O’Mal­ley are in fa­vor; Clin­ton hasn’t taken a po­si­tion.

War­ren, San­ders and O’Mal­ley have said they op­pose the Tran­sPa­cific Part­ner­ship, a big trade pact that Obama hopes to pass this year. Clin­ton sup­ported it as sec­re­tary of State.

And War­ren, San­ders and O’Mal­ley op­pose the Keystone XL pipe­line, which would carry oil from Canada’s tar sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast. As sec­re­tary of State, Clin­ton said she was “in­clined” to ap­prove the project, but more re­cently she has re­fused to take a po­si­tion.

On for­eign pol­icy, Clin­ton faces a dif­fer­ent set of chal­lenges. She’s long been more hawk­ish than Obama; she ini­tially sup­ported the 2003 U.S. in­va­sion of Iraq, only to ac­knowl­edge later that it was a mis­take, and she urged the pres­i­dent to in­ter­vene more force­fully in Syria. (He didn’t.) Webb and Chafee have both said they think she’s too quick to call for mil­i­tary ac­tion. “Any­body who voted for the Iraq war should not be pres­i­dent,” Chafee told Politico last week.

That’s a range of views al­most as di­verse as in the bustling Repub­li­can cam­paign.

While we don’t know how things will shake out, the re­sults mat­ter. At stake is whether the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee will con­tinue in the cen­ter-left “New Demo­cratic” tra­di­tion of Bill Clin­ton, the slightly more lib­eral vein of Barack Obama, or move fur­ther to the pop­ulist left.

Clin­ton al­ready knows what she thinks about most of those is­sues, of course; she’s been in pol­i­tics a long time. But she’s avoided tak­ing pre­cise po­si­tions, a way of keep­ing her op­tions open to see how the cam­paign de­vel­ops. That can’t last. It’s not just pesky re­porters who will be ask­ing her ques­tions; as soon as she starts talk­ing with or­di­nary Democrats in Iowa and New Hamp­shire, whose vot­ers are among the best in­formed in the coun­try, they’re go­ing to de­mand to know where she stands.

Like many pun­dits, I’ve writ­ten that it would be good for Clin­ton to have real de­bates with ca­pa­ble spar­ring part­ners, un­der the the­ory that she needs a tuneup be­fore tak­ing on the GOP nom­i­nee. Al­most ev­ery pro­fes­sional cam­paign strate­gist I’ve talked with says that’s nuts. For a front-run­ner, they say, de­bates are mostly an op­por­tu­nity to com­mit gaffes and lose sup­port.

But Clin­ton says she’s go­ing to work for ev­ery vote; she’s not go­ing to make the mis­take she made in 2008, when she be­haved as if she were the in­escapable nom­i­nee. She needs to prove her­self.

In any case, pri­maries aren’t only about choos­ing a can­di­date. Equally im­por­tant, they’re about re­fin­ing the ideas that the nom­i­nee will take into the gen­eral elec­tion — and, if she wins, into the White House.

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