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Hillary, Bernie, and the Progressive Question

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at the final debate for Democratic before the New Hampshire primaries at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, New Hampshire on Thursday. (Photo: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

It was fascinating to watch Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders duke it out in the New Hampshire debate over who is a progressive.

With young voters overwhelmingly supporting Sanders’s call for a “political revolution,” and Clinton objecting to being called “the establishment candidate,” it is clear that a grassroots, populist movement is having a big impact on Democratic presidential politics.

"I am a progressive who gets things done," Clinton said, reminding the audience that she is the more experienced and more practical candidate.

She bridled at what she called Sanders’s “artful smear”—targeting her speaking fees and campaign contributions from Wall Street. And she argued, implausibly, that a candidate can take millions of dollars from special interest groups with no effect whatsoever on how she views policy.

“Senator Sanders is the only person who would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment,” Clinton declared to loud applause from the audience.

Does being a woman make Clinton an anti-establishment candidate?

In the same debate, Clinton came out for the death penalty, NAFTA-like trade agreements, and noted that she was “flattered” when the odious Henry Kissinger complimented her for running a tight ship at the State Department. These are hardly anti-establishment positions.

She is also, for better or worse, closely associated with her husband’s administration and it’s centrist, Third Way brand of politics: welfare reform, bank deregulation, big corporate trade deals, and the assertion that “the era of big government is over.”

Still, a lot of progressive feminists rightly object to the overtones of sexism in the attacks on Hillary, and see her candidacy as both the first woman president and the most qualified candidate in the race as legitimate. Plus they hate the condescending tone of her detractors on both the right and the left.

Feminist writers Katha Pollitt, Clara Jeffrey, Joan Walsh and scores of others are continually pointing out the mansplaining and misogyny in attacks on Hillary, not just from the Republicans and Fox News, but also from Sanders supporters.


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And then there is the argument, laid out by Jonathan Chait and others, that Sanders just can’t win, and even if he did win, could not govern.

Here, in summary, is the argument for progressives to support Hillary: She is the sensible choice for anyone who doesn’t want to risk a Cruz Administration. She’s highly qualified and smart. And progressives who don’t think she’s left enough—especially women—ought to help defend her from the misogynist, Benghazi-obsessed rightwingers who have made a cottage industry of trying to take her down.

Fair enough.

But in a funny way, the electability argument is at odds with the argument that Clinton deserves our support because the forces of misogyny and rightwing hatefulness are arrayed against her.

Can such a polarizing figure really argue that she’s the one to “break the gridlock” and get things past a Republican Congress?

And if she does find common ground, will it be by bringing in another Wall Street dominated administration?

In some ways, figuring out what the sensible choice is for Democrats is beside the point. Sanders is giving Clinton a run for her money, not because one group of Democrats or progressive pundits is winning an argument. The interesting thing about the Sanders phenomenon is the movement behind him—many of them young people, including young women. Any Democratic candidate is going to have to respond to the real aspirations of those voters—and not by telling them they are being unrealistic.

It would be nice if that movement were coalescing around a woman.

In fact, as Abby Scher reported for The Progressive more than a year ago, young feminists chose their candidate a long time ago—a champion of real progressive values, and an enemy of the Wall Street establishment.

Her name is Elizabeth Warren.

Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. Se moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Follow her on Twitter: @rconniff

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