Could you imagine a liberal Democrat in 2015 arguing that you shouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton in the presidential primaries because, although she has been a trailblazer in her day, her “very unwillingness to be confined by existing voter attitudes, as part of a long-term strategy to change them, is both a very valuable contribution to the democratic dialogue and an obvious bar to winning support from the majority of these very voters in the near term”? No, of course you can’t. And that’s a good thing! That is, however, precisely what former Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank writes is the reason you shouldn’t vote for Bernie Sanders. And that’s not a good thing. Now, I ain’t saying whether Frank is right or whether he’s wrong about how many people will ultimately support Sanders. But that’s actually what we have primaries to sort out.
Frank writes a good article, as you might expect. And this one in Politico is worth reading just for his take on the current Republican presidential array. But the point, as usual for him, is not primarily to entertain. Support Sanders, he warns, and you’re doing the Republicans’ work, because “they believe boosting Sanders’ candidacy is their only way to prevent Clinton emerging as the nominee with broad support early in the process, strengthening her position in November.”
The straw man that Frank creates to make the pro-Sanders argument thinks “that Clinton will somehow benefit from having to spend most of her time and campaign funds between now and next summer proving her ideological purity in an intraparty fight, like Mitt Romney in 2012.” Again, I can’t say how a prolonged campaign of Clinton “proving her ideological purity” would go, but I do know, as does Frank, that Sanders is currently tapping a deep reservoir of discontent about the economic direction of this country. A lot of people are making it clear that they want a new flavor in this debate, and they deserve it.
Frank’s cautious instincts are understandable enough. Political campaigns can get messy. Two candidates compete, bad feelings can ensue. Certainly we have to concede that politics do not come without risk and things don’t always work out like we hope they will. Yet some campaigns are savvier than others. Sanders, for one, has been clear from the start that, in regard to Clinton, it is his intent to debate and not demean. And as for taking the debate right to the Republicans as soon as possible, it is Sanders who has made the innovative proposal of mixed Democratic-Republican debates, so that he, and presumably Clinton as well, could do just that.
An unquestionable sense of urgency underlies Frank’s hope that we can just “accept the legitimacy of Clinton’s liberal-progressive credentials.” Think of where a Republican president might go, he warns us, “on health care, immigration, financial regulation, reducing income inequality, completing the fight against anti-LGBT discrimination, protecting women’s autonomy in choices about reproduction.”
And yet, as our global questions become ever clearer, every political generation probably feels the urgency of what is at stake in our presidential debate more keenly than the one before. The reason for Sanders’s already surprising success in this race is that he has understood this better than the other candidates and profoundly and effectively raises the question of whether an economic oligarchy should be allowed ever increasing control over an ever smaller world.
Really, rather than questioning the wisdom of Sanders raising this challenge, might we not better ask if his conclusions are yet drastic enough? With a Democratic administration that has bombed seven foreign nations and continued the longest-running war in the nation’s history, in Afghanistan, faced with a Republican opposition that considers this not bellicose enough, shouldn’t we wonder whether the Sanders campaign, and the nation, might not also benefit from a profound challenge to the destructive and delusional foreign policy consensus that currently befogs Washington?
When people are looking for real answers, anyone trying to provide them should be encouraged, not discouraged. People are showing up at those Sanders rallies because they want more debate, not less.