This coming week New Hampshire goes to the polls in the first primary of our prolonged election season. Various contenders hope to stamp their ticket as front- runner thanks to their performance. For many months Donald Trump has been my main worry. His demagogic politics, given to demonizing Muslims and Mexicans, clearly puts him outside mainstream cultural traditions.
But Republicans finally have awakened. If polling holds, so-called establishment candidates will grab 40% of the vote to Trump’s 30%. Once the field winnows a clear alternative will emerge, not likely Todd Cruz, the other brash voice, but Marco Rubio, a moderate with sensible policies on immigration and even to some degree taxes. If he learns how to debate.
Surprisingly the other side suddenly has decided to jump off a cliff. That’s not good news. Senator Bernie Sanders rush into contention against Secretary Hillary Clinton bodes ill for the Democrats and for the country. His brand of aspirational politics encourages belief that we live in a revolutionary moment when fairy tales can happen, like single-payer health care, a $15-an-hour minimum wage and a giant increase in taxes on upper incomes. His politics encourages citizens to believe the impossible possible, which infantilizes our discourse, polarizing a divided country even further.
In the real world American politics won’t embrace any of Sanders dreams. Republicans control the House of Representatives and thanks to their dominance of state houses, which draw district lines, won’t give that up for many years. While oversight of Senate business may bounce between parties, the need for 60 votes to move legislation means extreme bills die. Senator Sanders won’t be any luckier than President Obama.
Yet his support defies such logic. In fact, it turns it on its head. I heard former Ohio state Senator Nina Turner, who once supported Secretary Clinton, on National Public Radio radio assert the Presidential election would set the table for the 2018 mid-term vote. Her point: President Sanders would have two years to stump the country and return a Congress happy to support his policies.
Senator Turner certainly should know history. President Obama entered his term with unassailable majorities in Congress but could not get a “public option,” the goal of many Democrats as the precursor to a single payer system, into the Affordable Care Act. Republicans not only opposed it, so too did conservative Democrats. Efforts to raise taxes other than capital gains and boost the minimum wage significantly also fell flat.
But the Sanders groundswell persists. Pundits talk about anger over wage inequality, health care costs, and the labor participation rate. A recession slow to lift. Maybe. But something in the American character believes in magic bullets and the need for purification. Trump plays to that promising his brio will restore America to former glory. Almost alone in the financial world some U.S. economists argue the world should endure a Depression to bludgeon excess capacity and easy money. No other western country sports major evangelical religions that call for modernity’s end.
Senator Sanders appeals to that purifying, magical mindset. If only we elected someone with strong enough beliefs our country would go through a “revolutionary transformation” and become more social democrat than much of Europe. Don’t get me wrong. As a business owner stuck with rising health care expense, single-payer makes sense. But it won’t happen. Right now we need to talk about how to tackle difficult issues given our political dynamics, not daydream about what we should do given fairy dust.
Which leave us pondering how Secretary Clinton should respond. I don’t think she can transform herself into a “progressive”. No use rebranding when you can’t. Tide is Tide. It’s not Seventh Generation Organic Detergent. Instead she must appeal to common sense, point to the obstacles even President Obama couldn’t overcome, emphasize the legislative calculus, and argue for the Politics of the Possible.
I suspect the Democrats will listen if she embraces her real sensibility. Otherwise either a so-called “democratic socialist” (he’s not by the way, socialists believe in government control of the “commanding heights” of the economy and he does not) or a muddled brand will face off against a clear-eyed Marco Rubio. That’s what many may want. But the Democrat’s bloodletting won’t help a country needing an adult debate about our future.