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Hill, No? — Round 2

Debating in the waiting room

Update, November 3: We’re pleased to provide second installment in our hypothetical debate on what a blowout win for Hillary Clinton might mean for her critics on the left. Read Tuesday’s opening arguments (parts 1 and 2), and today’s closing exchange (parts 3 and 4).

Editors’ note, November 1: What follows is the opening exchange in a sort of hypothetical debate on what a blowout win for Hillary Clinton might mean for her critics on the left. Will a decisive victory over Trump unite the party’s renascent progressive faction with hardline Hillary supporters, or will a mandate empower Clinton to stay in the comfortable center? Baffler contributors Max B. Sawicky and Natasha Vargas-Cooper duke it out below. Read their opening arguments here, and tune back in on Thursday for another installment of “Hill, No?”

Part 1: Point: The Case for a Clinton Blowout

Part 2: Counterpoint: A Blowout Will Banish Progressives Once More

Part 3: Rebuttal: A Question of Leverage

Part 4: Closing: Planning for the Left’s Future


Point: The Case for a Clinton Blowout

Max B. Sawicky: Of course, we don’t have a choice. But there has been debate (that could be understood as speculation) over whether or not a huge Democratic electoral margin would be a good left thing. I favor a blowout. I can’t make it happen or not happen, but let’s speculate.

Some would prefer a thin electoral margin for Hillary Clinton. These folks have the virtue of recognizing that a Trump victory is unacceptable. The hope for a narrow victory is based on the idea that any illusion of a “mandate” for Clinton will empower her to pursue her dubious policies.

To some extent, the anticipation of bad policy choices is exaggerated, especially in the domestic realm. The new Clinton administration might not push for a $15 minimum wage, but it will probably go for some increase. Clinton officials will seek new revenue from taxes on the wealthy and dedicate some of it to infrastructure and childcare. They will pursue voting rights, if only to cement Democratic electoral hegemony; support reproductive rights; make some effort to support existing regulations; and nominate inoffensive people to the Supreme Court.

Some ascribe to the new Clinton administration an intention to privatize Social Security. These fears are behind the times. Social Security privatization is dead as a doornail. The word itself was jettisoned long ago by conservatives; it became radioactive, not least because of furious attacks from mainstream Democratic economists like Jason Furman, now head of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Of course, much of what President Clinton will be able to do depends on control of the Congress.

Centrist Democrats do not favor privatization, mostly because it could increase the deficit. (Tax revenues are diverted into private accounts instead of deficit reduction.) The more likely threat is some kind of new Simpson-Bowles “Grand Bargain” austerity program that includes benefit cuts, among other deficiencies.

Fears of the damage that a mandate could do are more compelling when we turn to foreign policy. Clinton’s interventionist bent has been widely recognized. Her ambitions for moving into Syria are concerning. Her hostility to Obama’s Iran deal was odious. The best case for her geopolitical worldview is that she’s neither a certifiable madman nor an ignoramus, as her opponent is.

Of course, much of what President Clinton will be able to do depends on control of the Congress. Here the scale of her victory will be correlated with changes in the Senate and the House. A narrow victory with no change in control of Congress will restrict her more on the domestic side. It will matter less in foreign policy, where she is more dangerous. So one point against a narrow victory is that favorable changes in Congress will afford her more opportunities on the domestic front—admittedly both good and bad—and possibly distract her from foreign adventures. In the same vein, a turnover of control in the Senate elevates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to more powerful positions. Sanders would be in line to chair the budget committee, a potentially powerful platform to further propagate his proposals. Warren would be well placed to press for a more prominent role in committees dealing with related issues of wealth inequality and economic justice.

The ideological coloration of a blowout would matter. Insofar as it is portrayed as a victory over the uniquely awful Trump, the implication is that it would be a centrist recalibration of the country’s ideological script, which would permit the left’s interests to be ignored.

Alternatively, if it is seen as a triumph over the Republican Party fueled by support from Sanders and Warren, it could point to a more progressive environment for policy across the board. On this last point, many have lamented Sanders’ absenteeism in foreign policy activism. (The same could be said about Warren.) In Sanders’ case, I’m predicting new vigor. His neglect on this front enabled him to cement his domestic priorities in the popular mind. He has more freedom now to expand his scope.

The whole idea of a “mandate” to an important extent is a creature of the hot-air press. Presidents do what they can do, whether or not the bloviating pundits say their actions have public support. Administrations have better sources of information on public opinion than the pronouncements of opinion writers. It is safe to say that the right will wage full-scale political war on a President Clinton. She will need all the friends she can get, including from her left. This will be particularly important in 2018, when the pattern of contested seats in Congress and the diminished turn-out in off-year elections will be more favorable to the Republicans.

A final consideration is the fate of the forces unleashed by Trump, in the wake of his defeat. A narrow defeat would energize them, not incidentally fueling challenges to the election results themselves. They would not disappear after the results are certified, nor after the inauguration of Hillary Clinton. Republican control of down-ticket offices would fortify them, provide them new candidates for leadership.

By contrast, a crushing defeat would be demoralizing and demobilizing. Deprived of support or indulgence from allies in the Congress and in state and local governments, America’s neo-fascist currents would tend to remain underground. This is much to be preferred.

I conclude that now is indeed the time to go “Maximum Democrat,” as an ornery friend of mine grouses. But not to worry: #OurRevolution recommences in earnest on November 9. I’ve even crafted a new hashtag in preparation, with no claims to originality. Welcome to the White House, Hillary, but we regret to inform you that there will be #NoHoneymoon.

Counterpoint: A Blowout Will Banish Progressives Once More

Natasha Vargas-Cooper: A massive blowout for Hillary Clinton would submerge Bernie Sanders progressives into a deep dark sea. And this, in turn, would make it easy for Clinton and her friends on Wall St.—many of whom we can expect to pop up in her cabinet—to congratulate each other for no longer having to pretend to entertain the wearisome demands the progressive flank of the Democratic party.

We all remember the cold panic mainstream Democrats went into at the end of the primary campaign, twisting in their panties over whether or not Sanders supporters would disabuse themselves of idealism and join the Clinton cause. Thanks to Sanders’ enthusiastic support of Clinton during the Democratic National Convention, that question now is moot. But it remains instructive, precisely because it counters Max Sawicky’s rosy scenario, in which Sanders faction is somehow going to be more relevant if it is surrounded by mainstream Democrats. Yet thanks to revelations from hacked DNC emails published on WikiLeaks (Thanks, Putin! Or Chinese Revolutionary Secret Hacking Core! Or Mountain Dew Swilling American Crypto-Cyber Terrorists!), it’s clear that mainstream Democrats hold the progressive splinter faction of the party in near-complete contempt.

During the primaries, we saw Clinton scrambling to pay lip service to a number of progressive causes (mainly some environmental and labor-related restrictions on trade and something coming close to a child care policy) while simultaneously doing everything in her power behind the scenes to sabotage Sanders and his supporters. As the Podesta emails make abundantly clear, the repudiation of Sanders and the Sanders movement is the fallback position for leaders of the Democratic establishment. And there’s no reason to believe that it doesn’t continue to be.

A massive blowout for Hillary Clinton would submerge Bernie Sanders progressives into a deep dark sea.

In view of these trends, I would prefer what you might call a Goldilocks outcome for this election: just enough votes to defeat Donald Trump and not too many votes to give Clinton the blowout that Sawicky endorses. It’s simple matter of political arithmetic: the power of any faction has within a political party is based on how much the majority— in this case, corporate-friendly Democrats—need it to nail down a successful legislative agenda. The bigger the blowout, the more diluted that leverage becomes for the left faction.

In his brief for a Hillary blowout, Sawicky also overlooks the stated intent of high-ranking Republican legislators to wage an obstructionist war on Clinton. Jason Chaffetz, the Republican congressman from Utah and chair of the powerful House Oversight Committee, has vowed to subject Clinton is endless investigations. “It’s a target-rich environment,” Chaffetz told the Washington Post in a recent interview. “Even before we get to Day One, we’ve got two years’ worth of material already lined up. She has four years of history at the State Department, and it ain’t good.” 

Last week, Sen. John McCain vowed to not let any of Clinton’s Supreme Court nominees get on to the bench. “I promise you that we will be united against any Supreme Court nominee that Hillary Clinton, if she were president, would put up,” McCain said. “I promise you”—a mind-boggling thought but nevertheless on the record.

What’s the likely Democratic response to all this Republican obstructionism? Again, all you have to do is check the Podesta record: Party leaders will likely insist, loudly and often, that any dissenting voices within the Democratic Party will unconscionably harm their beleaguered executive leader. This will be a slight variation on the refrain that we’re now hearing, amid the reports of renewed FBI scrutiny of Hillary’s email antics, that any criticism of Hillary Clinton strengthens Donald Trump.

 This entirely predictable land rush of uncritical Clinton praise will no doubt include many self-identified lefties who have joined Clinton’s cause during the campaign season. Here, for example, is columnist Katha Pollitt in a fundraising appeal this week for The Nation:

Even if he is resoundingly defeated, Donald Trump’s barefaced lies, and the unapologetically sexist, bigoted, and violent rhetoric of his campaign, have opened doors for his supporters that will not be so easily closed. Where will the unabashed hatred and contempt Trump has awakened in a disturbingly large portion of the electorate go? The Nation has worked to provide our readers with critical examinations of Trump’s candidacy and the threat it represents to the nation at large, and we won’t stop reporting on the movement his campaign has emboldened on November 9. Post election, The Nation will be here to cover where Trump and his followers go next, and how we keep pushing for progressive reform into the next administration and beyond. 

In seeking to rally the Nation readership, who are a safe bet to throng to the Sanders end of the Democratic spectrum, Pollitt isn’t pledging on the Nation’s behalf to hold Hillary Clinton accountable or to advance any progressive-minded policy agenda. No, the chief aim is to continue the food fight with the Trump wing of the GOP.

In the end, I would argue—and I think Sawicky would agree—that the actual vote count in a Hillary Clinton blowout is secondary to the forbidding organizing work ahead for the American left, so that dissenting forces within the Democratic party can begin pressuring the Clinton administration, as the cliché goes, in the streets and the suites. Personally, I would be happy with a weak Clinton administration that would still need every ounce of support it could squeeze out of a reluctant or skeptical base. I like Sawicky’s proposed hashtag #NoHoneymoon as a way to remind us all of the need to pressure Clinton to keep heeding the large cohort of voters to her left. I just don’t see why we should wait until November 9 to start.

thierry ehrmann
Should we seek to elevate Bernie Sanders within the Senate, or to build on his movement? /thierry ehrmann

Rebuttal: A Question of Leverage

Max B. Sawicky: It’s a pleasure to engage Natasha Vargas-Cooper (“NVC”). We are trying to predict the power dynamics in two alternative near-term futures. In one, Hillary Clinton wins the election by a whisker. In the other, she enjoys a blowout. I argue the prospects for humanity and the left (to me, of course, the same thing) are better in the latter event; NVC favors the former outcome.

The first question that must be addressed is what happens in the Congress. If both houses flip to the Democrats, a broad spectrum of Clinton administration initiatives, both good and bad, becomes tenable. If only the Senate turns over (usually considered the most likely possibility), then a President Clinton will have the ability to freely choose her appointees to high-level Executive Branch positions, and most important, nominees to the Supreme Court. If both houses stay in Republican control, Clinton would be limited to foreign policy initiatives and regulatory moves.

In comparing the two worlds proposed above, the greater the scale of the victory, the more likely it is that Congress moves from no change, to a Democratic Senate, to a Democratic Senate and House. For all of HRC’s deficiencies, which outcome would you prefer—keeping in mind that at one extreme the Congress blocks absolutely everything Clinton might do, and at the other her power is maximized?

I still prefer a complete turnover in Congress. If you prefer gridlock, you prefer the status quo. I argue that the latter is implied by a narrow Clinton victory, NVC’s preferred outcome. What does gridlock mean? It means more of the past six years. Flat funding for domestic priorities. Endless wrangling over political appointees. Constant investigations of the administration, typically on spurious or trivial grounds.

There may be some noble efforts to persuade people to chill out for Hillary but go big for Democrats in down-ballot races. I’m sure this is an elementary exercise for readers of this magazine, but sadly there are a lot of simple minds out there. A strategy of such complexity, I’m afraid, is too much for many people. The most straightforward appeal is to go maximum Democrat: Trump is an ape, and all Republicans are responsible for him.

The special sauce on top of a Democratic Senate turnover is the elevation of some progressive stalwarts to more powerful positions. Bernie Sanders in particular is in line to head the budget committee and could possibly ascend to the chairmanship of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. (The latter is arguably more important.)

NVC begins by claiming that with a big win, progressives would be submerged and have little leverage. I think you have to look where the energy in the party lies. The greatest enthusiasm is motivated by dual agendas, both of them reflecting left-leaning sentiments. From the Clinton side of the primary struggle, the strongest activist plank consisted of issues identified most directly with the interests of women: reproductive rights, equal pay, family leave, increased support for child care. From the Sanders side, it was free college, universal health care, and action on climate change. Their rhetoric on taxing the very wealthy and on infrastructure spending was similar.

Yes, the Clintons wage war on progressive views and persons. But at the same time they will have to govern, which will require allies to their left.

All of these priorities are enshrined in the Democratic platform. Progressives have historically been in the leadership on all of them. We are not going to see Democratic centrists suddenly take the lead on any of this stuff. At the same time, the Republicans, when they are not knifing each other, will seek to destroy the administration and everyone in it. A President Clinton will need all the friends she can get, most of all from activists who can rally the party’s constituencies around the progressive priorities that she is already committed to, at least as far as rhetoric goes.

Does that mean she is inevitably going to do great stuff? No. It does suggest, however, that progressives could be more visible than ever in Washington D.C. in a Democratic Congress. In general, progressive priorities flourish when the right is hunkered down and outnumbered. These priorities are more of a luxury when a beleaguered administration must always be focused on sheer survival.

NVC puts the administration’s views down to their personal scorn for the left. No doubt, this scorn can be observed in a clear line from Bill Clinton’s rubbishing of Lani Guinier and his drive-by on Sister Souljah (actually directed at Jesse Jackson), to Obama’s boyz going off on “fucking retards” (Rahm Emanuel), “bed-wetters” (David Plouffe), and the “professional left” (Robert Gibbs). Another Obama alumni, Jim Messina, went off to make money working for the Tories in the UK. Like the saying goes, the Cossacks work for the Czar. This is not a liberal gang; we knew this before Wikileaks. There should be no illusions about how the Clintons and Obamas feel.

What they are obliged to do is a different matter. It depends on politics outside the window. Only a clown like Trump can imagine that politics is all in his head. Yes, the Clintons wage war on progressive views and persons. But at the same time they will have to govern, which will require allies to their left. The corporate Democrats are not a majority in the party, and there are no Republican partners in view to pull Clinton in the other direction. NVC claims that Republican obstructionism would enable Clinton to impose party discipline. I think a posture of dependence on, or at least symbiosis with, the left is more likely. I also think that in the domestic realm, Clinton proposals while limited will not be awful. Prospects will be better with a more supportive Congress.

Finally, there is the matter of the movement that Trump has elevated. A blowout is the best repudiation of those vile forces. A narrow victory is more encouraging of continuing opposition, including incessant racist babble about vote fraud. While we agree that anti-Trumpism is not sufficient, and could end up being a crutch, I would contend it is necessary.

We do agree that after November 8 what will matter most is the ability of all the party’s constituencies to remain mobilized. If the party leadership is negligent on this score, the Sanders forces will not be. Nothing that happens in the next two weeks is going to change the Clintons’ policy ambitions. Some new idle policy suggestion that might cheer progressives will have little weight. The election campaign is in its rock-fighting stage. The only thing that will matter is the scale of the victory. I’d rather see an internal debate within a victorious Democratic Party than more of the same defensive crouch against the neo-fascist goons who now dominate the GOP. Over to you, Natasha.

Closing: Planning for the Left’s Future

Natasha Vargas-Cooper: It’s a pleasure to bat the election back and forth with Max because, apart from being a true gentleman and a scholar, he eloquently states many of my own views on the Clinton Team and its rather noxious record.

That saves us a lot of time and repetition as we review Hillary Clinton’s propensities toward co-governance with both Wall Street and the Pentagon and her abhorrence of anything deemed truly “progressive.” So no need to rehearse once again that laundry list of lesser evils of which we, and most of our readers, are both aware. Thanks, Max!

Further, we are basically just speculating on what consequences a still unknown outcome will have on November 9 forward, and the truth is that neither Max nor I are going to influence this election in any manner with this polite polemic—certainly not to the degree that, say, Mr. James Comey might. (Though I cannot help but noting that whatever the motives and maneuvers of folks like Comey, Jason Chaffetz, and Company make regarding the Clinton email pile-up, the underlying issue remains pretty simple. As with all Clinton-related scandals that get blown out of proportion the underlying issue is, again, the Clintons themselves. None of this would be happening if Hillary Clinton had not opted to use a private server that was clearly set up to hide her correspondence from the eyes of inquiring reporters armed with FOIAs).

But I digress. Back to arguing why the least popular presidential candidate in history—apart from Donald Trump, who’s a safe bet to win this distinction by, at least, a Pinocchio-sized nose—should be given a sweeping mandate. Here, for my money, are key, operative sentences of Max’s argument:

Yes, the Clintons wage war on progressive views and persons. But at the same time they will have to govern, which will require allies to their left. The corporate Democrats are not a majority in the party, and there are no Republican partners in view to pull Clinton in the other direction.

I think it’s a mistake to say corporate Democrats are not a majority in the party. Certainly, Democratic voters are not. But Max knows that in both major parties, the overwhelming majority of voters are glorified props, whose real interests are never represented by the elites atop each party structure. These elites merely cobble together electoral majorities by rallying the base around mythical platforms—be they lower taxes or de-gendered toilets—and then, once they’ve secured their formal hold on power at the polls, proceed to do pretty much whatever they want.

We must dig in for the long haul to work for a radical political re-alignment in this country.

In this chastened view of electoral power-jockeying, it seems clear that the Democratic party’s real power bases indeed reside on the pro-corporate wing—and that the party’s key leaders are, nearly to a person, corporate power brokers. And party nepotism and patronage are such that the Democrats’ non-corporate satellites are all too happy to serve as proxy enforcers of party orthodoxy, beating back any challenge to the prevailing elite. Among the other cringe-worthy exchanges in the leaked Podesta emails is a steady stream of derision for organized labor—except, of course, for the deferential union leaders who eagerly conspired to let Hillary’s pro-labor rival Bernie Sanders twist in the wind. Likewise, consider the unseemly role played in the primary by the likes of Gloria Steinem and the Jurassic Feminists, who closed ranks along with folks like John L. Lewis and Dolores Huerta to act as ideological border patrols, barking rogue Sanders supporters back into the obedient herd or threatening to bite them.

To govern, Clinton will need allies on her left, Max says. She will have many of them, unfortunately, without giving them very much in return. I remain convinced that tons of them will quickly rally to defend her against the inevitable Republican onslaught. That has been the unwavering history of the Democrat-progressive relationship of the last twenty-five years. And they will do it for free—especially since the remnants of the Trump-Breitbart movement will be around as a convenient rallying point for “party unity.”

Yes, it will be a good thing to have Warren and Sanders in elevated positions if the Democrats take back the Senate (something I support but that currently stands at no more than about a 60 percent likelihood). It is likewise crucial that progressives who might still not vote for Clinton back down-ballot Democrats in places where it really counts.

But even if an elevated Warren and Sanders in the Senate are a definite boon, the harder arithmetic of representation in Congress still prevails. Without sixty Democratic votes in the Senate, the Republicans can still easily obstruct just about anything they please no matter who chairs what committee. As to the Democrats taking the House, even the most sanguine party-line Democrats concede that this prospect is but a faint chimera. (Admittedly, if Dems miraculously take both houses, this whole exchange will be thankfully rendered null and void and we can start all over anew. But it’s not going to happen.)

All this leads to one conclusion. The inspiring rise of Sanders in the primaries, the unpopularity of the next president-elect, the near complete rejection of the two party elites by my generation are wonderful gifts to be exploited by left leaders seeking to build a long-term movement politics. We must dig in for the long haul over the next decade or two to work for a radical political re-alignment in this country that can effect some fundamental change. That requires as independent a social movement as possible, one that will eagerly be sought after by desperate Democrats rather than scorned, patronized and ultimately co-opted by featherbedding party elites. We can thank Donald Trump for smashing one of the two parties. The sooner we can liberate ourselves from the sclerotic grip of the other, the better.