The battle for the Democratic presidential nomination between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton is intensifying as the Iowa caucus approaches. Clinton’s once thought inevitable victory is threatened by Sander’s progressive populist message.
Initially the competition was thought to be between the “centrist” Clinton and the “radical” insurgent Sanders. Yet in recent weeks Clinton has stressed her own progressive credentials – directly challenging Sanders on his gun control record and trumpeting her feminism. In her own words, “I don't take a backseat to anyone when it comes to progressive experience and progressive commitment.”
By and large the mainstream media has embraced this changing narrative. Clinton is said to be “gaining steam,” the “clear winner of the debate” and to have emerged “largely unscathed” from the Benghazi hearings. According to the even the staunchly conservative Wall Street Journal, Clinton’s ends the month with her “front runner status firmly intact.”
The race for the nomination now supposedly features two progressive candidates each fighting for the same values and similar radical transformation of the nation’s politics. Yet looking beyond the hype, is Clinton anything more than an establishment figure in progressive clothing?
Change or More of the Same
There is ample reason to doubt Clinton’s sudden progressive change of heart. Publicly, she has spent almost three decades presenting herself as a “safe” Democrat. Her challenge, thus, is to be able to tap into the anti-Wall Street movement without alienating her strong ties to the financial community.
It is a political strategy that her Wall Street supporters largely support. “Sure, some of Clinton's Wall Street supporters bristle a little bit at any perceived attacks on their industry,” according to Ben White CNBC, “But mostly they get it. And fundraising is never, ever going to be a problem for Clinton. She could start her own Occupy Wall Street protest and still back up the Brink's truck and fill it with banker cash.”
Such pandering has been widely criticized. So much so that Anderson Cooper explicitly questioned whether she in fact had any authentic principles, asking her “Will you say anything to get elected?”
The list of her financial supporters has only reinforced these fears. She continues to “rake in” Wall Street cash despite tough talk. She has also been criticized for the millions in contributions she has taken from her self-proclaimed “enemies” in the insurance and pharmaceutical industries.
In terms of policy, Clinton has a limited if almost non-existent record of progressive legislation. She has long been to the Right on issues of the environment, economy and civil liberties. As a secretary of state these claims to progressivism are even harder to sustain. Her tenure was marked by widespread support for dictators who supported American interests from Honduras to Egypt.
By contrast, Sanders has a long history of progressive principles and action. He openly admits to being a “democratic socialist,” has put through leftist legislation at the city as well as federal level and voted against the Iraqi Invasion along with the Wall Street bail out.
In light of these facts – it would seem the competition is not so much Sanders or Clinton but instead real change versus more of the same.
The question, then, is why so many Democrats have flocked to Clinton in recent weeks, if the polls are to be believed. Faced with the threat of losing the Party’s liberal base to Sanders, Clinton has recommitted to pandering to progressives across the country.
Ironically, it is Republicans who are usually charged with foregoing reality for the ideological fantasies of their most extreme voting base. However, Democrats are no stranger to such attractive delusions. In the case of Clinton, she has taken pains to increasingly paint herself as an “electable” progressive against the “unelectable” socialism of Sanders. She is a “progressive who gets things done.”
Sanders, for his part, has been increasingly “sharpening” his stark differences with Clinton. In the debate he refused to accept Clinton’s argument that she told Wall Street “to cut it out” a year before the 2008 financial crash – declaring “Congress doesn’t regulate Wall Street. Wall Street regulates congress.” Just this week, he proclaimed, “I am delighted, that in the last couple months, Hillary has come on board with positions I’ve held for many years, on trade, on the Keystone Pipeline… So I’m glad that Hillary Clinton is moving in my direction.”
It remains to be seen though whether Sanders can overcome Clinton’s progressive pandering.
Revolution or Rhetoric
Heading into the Iowa caucus Bernie Sanders is still very much in the race to defeat the frontrunner Hillary Clinton. To many, his candidacy has already won by “pulling Clinton to the left.” Sanders has called for nothing less than a “political revolution.”
Yet there are bigger issues at stake then whether or not Clinton wins. It is whether in the face of the rising power of the “billionaire class” at home and abroad, the country will be satisfied with mere speeches. If decades worth of political principles and policies can be trumped by a well written and placed quip.
Indeed, the choice for the Democrats and potentially the nation at large is between revolution or rhetoric.