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Hillary Clinton 2016 and the Folly of the Left-Flank Push

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The 2016 Democratic primary will probably include a democratic socialist candidate for president. That would be Bernie Sanders, the irascible senator from Vermont, who has spent the past few months telling the press that he is considering entering the race.

Michael Kazin, himself a socialist and one of the old guard at Dissent, is positively jubilant. Sanders, he wrote last month, would provide Democratic nominee-apparent Hillary Clinton with a much-needed “shove from the left,” without which she “is likely to stick to mushy moderation.”

In a similar vein, The Week’s Ryan Cooper penned a column last week volunteering former senator Russ Feingold to be the 2016 primary’s anti-Clinton. Although he “would almost certainly lose,” writes Cooper, Feingold could still “make Clinton worry about her left flank” and force her into a more dovish posture.

It’s not hard to see why drafting progressive candidates into the Democratic primary has become a favored pastime on the left. (Pleas for Elizabeth Warren to run are practically their own sub-genre.) Clinton supported the Iraq War as a senator, signaled her support for Keystone XL as secretary of state, and sat on Walmart’s board of directors for six years. We don’t exactly know what her 2016 presidential campaign will look like just yet, but the left’s wariness isn’t unreasonable.

Nonetheless, any effort to drag her further leftwards by making her “worry about her left flank,” as Cooper put it, is almost certainly doomed. If Clinton is all but guaranteed to win the primary one way or another, as both Kazin and Cooper admit, then what could she possibly have to worry about? Why should she bother trying to mollify people who have rallied behind an obvious stalking horse? If Clinton is universally acknowledged to be the inevitable nominee, then she has no reason to wait for the general election to begin. In such circumstances, a candidate like Bernie Sanders would likely pose little more than a slight nuisance. Clinton might attempt to placate his supporters just to keep her road the convention as smooth as possible, but only so long as doing so costs her virtually nothing. A left-wing challenger probably won’t be able to extract anything more than lip service from Clinton; she certainly won’t make any concrete promises that could even slightly erode her swing state pull.

The only reason Clinton would ever be likely to provide more than lip service would be if her primary opponent somehow posed a genuine threat. If a left-wing candidate could plausibly threaten to withhold a broad swath of the Democratic base from Clinton in the general election, she could end up making a deal to prevent that from happening. But that’s not going to happen, for two big reasons.

One, with the possible exception of Elizabeth Warren, no potential candidate has the broad-based Democratic support to make such an ultimatum sound anything but laughable. And two, nobody in Democratic politics, socialist Bernie Sanders included, has the nerve to risk handing the White House over to a Republican. The specter of Nader 2000, along with the very real danger that Paul Ryan (or whomever) could seize the presidency, will be enough to keep potential spoilers in line.

The progressive left’s circumscribed tactics may be prudent, but it’s worth noting that Tea Party Republicans do not share its squeamishness regarding intra-party total warfare. As a result, they’ve been remarkably effective when it comes to disciplining (or removing) apostatical RINOs in the House. Cries for a “Tea Party of the left” tend to diminish the important structural differences between liberal and conservative social movements, but there is something to be said for the populist right-wing’s adherence to ideology over party unity.

That said, the Tea Party’s greatest successes have not occurred on the level of presidential politics. The Republican nominee in the 2012 presidential election—the only presidential election of the Tea Party’s young life thus far—was a former blue state governor whose main achievement in office was instituting a sort of state-level proto-Obamacare. His victory in the primary was undoubtedly a loss for the Tea Party, though his choice of running mate was at least a sub rosa acknowledgement that the grassroots did not hold him in particularly high regard.

But presidential contests were never the primary battleground for the Tea Party. Their crucial fights have been in Congressional races, state legislatures, city councils, and state party committees. Only relatively recently—and after a series of important smaller-scale triumphs—has the movement begun to penetrate the Senate.

There’s a lesson there for would-be electoral insurgents on the left. Following the example of Dennis Kucinich in 2004 probably won’t lead to much in the way of concrete gains; the more strategic route is being forged by people like Kshama Sawant, who in 2013 became the first socialist in over a century to hold citywide office in Seattle. Sawant has played an instrumental role in pushing for a $15 minimum wage on the local level, which in turn has helped to shift the political center of gravity nationwide. That may be an incremental gain, but a thousand of those incremental gains are what make up a sea change.

Kshama Sawant will never be president, but more Kshama Sawants could alter the political context in which another President Clinton would have to govern. It’s only by changing those underlying political conditions that the left can ever become a formidable player in national politics again. In the meantime, progressives would be advised to only show their true strength in those races where they’re actually strong; otherwise, they’ll just end up looking weak.