Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Politics Of The Plausible

The most critical moment of last night's debate was not Bernie Sanders'  very good "I'm not that much of a socialist compared to Eisenhower" line. And it was not Hillary Clinton's Wall Street/9-11 fumble.

It was a low-key exchange about two-thirds of the way in between Sanders and moderator John Dickerson.
DICKERSON: Back now in Des Moines with the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Senator Sanders, I want to start with you. Let's say you're elected president. Congratulations.

SANDERS: Thank you.


Looking forward to it.

DICKERSON: You've said you'll have a revolution.


DICKERSON: But there's a conservative revolution going on in America right now. As John Boehner knows and as Democrats know, who have lost in state houses across the country.


DICKERSON: Those conservatives are watching tonight and probably shaking their heads. So how do you deal with that part of the country? The revolution's already happening, but on the other side?

SANDERS: And we are going to do a political revolution, which brings working people, young people, senior citizens, minorities together.

Because every issue that I am talking about-- paid family and medical leave, breaking up the banks on Wall Street, asking the wealth to pay their fair share of taxes, rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, raising the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour -- every one of those issues is supported by a significant majority of the American people.

The problem is, that as a result of a corrupt campaign finance system, Congress is not listening to the American people. Its listening to the big money interest.

What the political revolution is about is bringing people together to finally say, enough is enough. This government belongs to us. Not just the billionaires.
tl;dr = Sanders simply rejected the premise and argued that his "political revolution" (drink) will sweep away all in its path.

This exchange underscores the magnitude of the challenge facing Sanders.

To his credit, Bernie Sanders has come farther faster than anyone ever expected, but the mountain is really, REALLY high. And the few journeys America has taken that are comparable have taken decades, not months or one election cycle.

The Sanders strategy depends on expanding the electorate. Obama's expansion was primary a demographic change. And despite his strong first term accomplishment, his policies - the stimulus, the private insurance based Obamacare - were evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

The civil rights era was a revolution, and the  Nixon-Reagan era also effected a political counter-revolution, in the opposite direction, but that took decades, with roots reaching back to 1948 and fallout continuing into the Obama era.

FDR realigned the electorate as well, and he arrived just after the last time income inequality was as brutal as it is today. But he also followed the complete collapse of the economy. As bad as things are now, they are not Great Depression bad.  (Which would have happened without the relatively timid but best he could get Obama stimulus.)

To win, Sanders will need a New Deal level re-aligning election - in an era where there's already a strong counter-trend to the way he wants to lead the country.

Are there 218 House seats that can be won not just be Democrats, but by non- Blue Dog Democrats? Can the Democrats pull off a 14 seat gain to get a filibuster-proof majority - because even with the biggest landslide in history (to the level of Chuck Grassley losing), 30 Republican Senators are mid-term hold over?

Because, by his own acknowledgement, that's the kind of thing that needs to happen for a Sanders win and for a President Sanders to get anything done that even remotely resembles his ambitious goals.

Sanders vs. Clinton is the classic test case of idealism vs. pragmatism, but it's also a test of plausibility. Iowans take the caucuses seriously, and we very much feel like we are choosing a president. The aftermath of Paris will underscore that even more.

Hillary Clinton may be a polarizing figure, but pretty much all Iowa Democrats if pressed would acknowledge she is capable of doing The Big Job. (Martin O'Malley still has a grade of incomplete) But Sanders, campaigning just to his base in the hopes that his base will grow, still has to get past that test. Which he made harder by exiting from the Paris discussion as fast as possible in his opening statement so he could pivot to his Billionaires and Political Revolution comfort zone.

There was a semantics game of "Not America's Fight" vs. "Not ONLY America's fight" between Clinton and O'Malley. Sanders, however, has a clear discomfort discussing anything he can't filter through an economic lens. Asked about security threats, he discusses climate change and veteran's care. Both very important issues - but not the issues one images being discussed in the Bin Laden War Room, an image Clinton again invoked last night.

To break out of his niche and into the broader electorate, into a true MASS movement, Sanders has to figure out how to get people to plausibly picture him in a national security setting.

Also to the issue of plausibility: Clinton devastated Sanders' free college tuition plan (she and O'Malley argue for "debt-free" instead) with one line" I disagree with free college for everybody. I don't think taxpayers should be paying to send Donald Trump's kids to college."

Getting called a clown by Trump is a YOOGE win for O'Malley. He positioned himself well as the Uncola to the front runners' Coke vs. Pepsi, and benefited immeasurably from getting pretty much all the time that had been wasted on Chafee and Webb in Debate 1. For the first time, he looks like a plausible (that word again) option.

Clinton's  9/11 answer was bad. But it wasn't Rudy Giuliani bad, because Giuliani's whole raison d'etre was that he was mayor on 9/11.  It was bad in the sense that Clinton has a painful blind spot as to how her career-long relationship with the financial sector is perceived, and was too quick to double down in defense. (Her followers only heard the 60% of donations from women line that immediately preceded it.)

More of my thoughts on the twitter feed. A few underscores:

Why is the specific phrase "radical Islam" important to Republicans?  How is it different from "radical jihadist ideology" (Clinton) or  "radical jihadis" (O'Malley)? Answer: it's important to the Christianist wing of the Republican base to specifically include the non-Christian religion in the term. The only OK non-Christian religion is Judaism, and only because Israel is a sign of the Rapture.

Bernie Sanders talks about a political revolution. At her post-debate rally, Clinton talked about voter registration and the caucus date.

Hillary loses some points with labor arguing for a $12 minimum wage vs. Sanders and O'Malley's $15. But reminder: a Republican Congress under a GOP president could ELIMINATE it.

The reaction to Hillary saying "I come from the 60s" is classic faux outrage and will be long forgotten by next year. (However, legalizing weed was taken as a serious issue in a presidnetial debate).

Future post: Color and flavor.

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