Count me among those puzzled by Hillary Clinton’s recent endorsements and positioning. Clinton is now locked in a near-statistical dead heat nationally with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination, with many polls showing her trailing in both New Hampshire and Iowa. Unexpectedly, she has an enormous gender gap. Young women prefer Sanders over Clinton by 20 points.
This neck-to-neck race is all the more surprising given Clinton has received about 11 times the TV coverage of Sanders—and about one-quarter of the debates of eight years ago, reflecting failures of major democratic institutions.
Clinton has reacted to Sanders’ recent surge by accelerating her attacks. She is misrepresenting his positions, like implying his proposed investments are not paid for in his economic plan, and standing by her daughter’s misleading statement that millions of Americans could lose health care in the single payer health care system Sanders recommends.
She has also allied herself with President Barack Obama in a misleading way (as she did in the first debate), capitalizing on his hugely popular speech that announced executive action on gun violence. A current Clinton ad tells viewers, “I’m with him” in standing up to the gun lobby. Yet the same day it was released, Vice President Joe Biden countered that either candidates’ position on gun violence could earn Obama’s endorsement—even while he called Clinton “relatively new” to issues of wealth disparity and touted Sanders as credible and “tapping into a yearning that is deep and real.”
Of particular interest are recent alliances and positioning, given the new electoral dynamics. Let’s first examine the reality of endorsements.
One might imagine endorsements would be made primarily on the basis of alignment of current and past policy positions, factoring in leadership considerations. Some organizations and individuals do meet and rigorously match up positions. And organizations from NARAL to the NRA rate politicians based on legislative scorecards.
Yet the process often works differently for Democratic front-runners. Consider the following:
1) Some people and organizations believe there is either a significant benefit—or a chance to avoid a major penalty—by endorsing a likely winner early in the process. And some establishment candidates expect it. Remember New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s office closing down lanes of the George Washington Bridge to foil constituents of Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who endorsed Christie’s 2013 opponent?
2) Many believe the Clintons place a premium on fidelity. Think “Clinton loyalists.” In contrast, who would be a “Sanders loyalist?” A teacher in Duluth? A college student in South Carolina? A doctor in Long Island? Senator Elizabeth Warren?
3) Rarely is there as big a price to be paid for not endorsing number two, or endorsing that person late. A case in point: Clinton loyalist Rahm Emanuel backed Obama just days before the suspension of Hillary’s 2008 campaign, yet Emanuel became president’s first chief of staff.
A related example regarding alliances: #BlackLivesMatter protesters at a Bernie rally were met with a strong response from Sanders. Yet it was neither an attempt to ignore their issues, nor to coopt them. Instead, Sanders almost immediately hired an African American press secretary, Symone Sanders, who is well-versed in criminal justice reform and developed a plan to achieve racial justice, and has since expanded to include environmental justice. Think of the old Avis commercial: “We’re number two. We try harder.”
4) Wealthy members of the establishment often cultivate connections. Those in power at nonprofits and in politics may be able to offer politicians or organizational leaders a plum administration job. Or the relationship could be used to facilitate a child’s admission to a competitive private school, college or workplace. In addition, the organization’s decision to endorse is often not democratically determined from member votes.
The end result is often a system where winners (large organizations, establishment politicians) endorse winners. This quells democratic debate and further entrenches established candidates. And it worsens a system of patronage, political and otherwise. Sure, those who come close sometimes run again, like Maryland Representative Donna Edwards who garnered bigger endorsements on her second congressional run. But overall it weakens our fragile democratic process.
Of course, alliances can be both beneficial and newsworthy. They can provide that “good housekeeping” stamp of approval for undecided voters and can bring in further money, outreach or visibility for either side. But if the endorsement of a candidate seems at odds with the values of a favored nonprofit or politician, it’s probably because it is. And if a lot of the establishment politicians and major nonprofits seem to be endorsing establishment candidates, it’s because they are. And if it seems poised to backfire, it may well be. The system speaks volumes about our political process, much less about qualified candidates.
Recent Endorsements and Positions
Major endorsements and repositioning on issues have already occurred in the two weeks of 2016.
1) MoveOn and The Nation: On January 12, the progressive nonprofit MoveOn issued an endorsement of Sanders after he earned 79% of the 340,000 members’ votes. His margin, the largest in the history of MoveOn, won him an endorsement, which is only given to candidates with strong support.
MoveOn Executive Director Ilya Sheyman cited five reasons for the endorsement of Bernie Sanders: his standing up to corporate interests; his support for communities facing oppression; his unwillingness to accept permanent war; his electability based on turnout and polling; and his membership support. Moveon will mobilize members to get out the vote in early primary states.
The Nation, a “flagship of the political left,” endorsed Sanders on January 14, citing his “clarion call for fundamental reform … that has inspired working people across this country.” Both endorsements seem are logical fits.
2) Gun Violence: On January 12, Clinton accepted the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence’s endorsement. And last week, Obama announced that he wouldn’t support a candidate who didn’t back “common-sense gun reform.” That was viewed by many as a potential move toward a primary endorsement for Hillary Clinton, something that would be far from surprising given Obama’s 2012 re-election may well have been due to Bill Clinton’s famous convention “Do the Math” speech. Yet it seemed surprising that the US president would not factor in climate change, #BlackLivesMatter, economic inequality and other key Obama priorities that Sanders strongly advocates for in a manner consistent with his political history and funding.
Obama quickly clarified that he was not making a primary endorsement. Nonetheless, Clinton started running ads on January 12 that touted her commitment to gun violence prevention and her alignment with the president, prompting Vice President Biden to step in.
One would imagine that Clinton, who has anointed herself a movement leader on this issue, would advance a broad philosophy through bold positions. Sanders’ focus on wealth inequality informs his thinking on and framing of issues from austerity to the environment to banking to racial justice to health care. One would similarly expect Clinton to tie gun violence to the #BlackLivesMatter movement by highlighting the deaths of kids and adults in brutal police shootings, which are rarely punished. One would expect that she would speak to how gangs provide vigilante justice when the police and criminal justice fail communities.
So too might one expect her to make the issue international by highlighting the deaths associated with our arms deals. Although that might be uncomfortable, according to a Mother Jones article:
“IBT found that between October 2010 and September 2012 [when Clinton was secretary of state], State approved $165 billion in commercial arms sales to 20 nations that had donated to the [Clinton] [F]oundation, plus another $151 billion worth of Pentagon-brokered arms deals to 16 of those countries—a 143 percent increase over the same time frame under the Bush Administration. The sales boosted the military power of authoritarian regimes such as Qatar, Algeria, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman, which, like Saudi Arabia, had been criticized by the department for human rights abuses.”
Many of the weapons we sell or give away have been lost; many have gone to terrorist groups. Even when they remain in the hands of recipient governments—like the Saudis, who have received arms through a series of enormous military deals—they are sometimes used to kill civilians of another nation or to intimidate their own citizens.
Finally, as a leader on this issue, Clinton would be expected to share truths regarding an American culture of hypermasculinity and violence. To highlight the psychological effects of hours of entertainment spent shooting other individuals or watching them being shot in video games, as well as our current crop of highly graphic spy and crime shows. Yet she’s chosen a narrow and falsely competitive framing of the issue, despite endorsements.
3) Planned Parenthood: On January 7, Planned Parenthood Action Fund endorsed Hillary Clinton as its first primary endorsement in its 100-year history. This too came as a surprise. Women of childbearing age, presumably their primary constituency, are probably equally well-served through direct positions endorsed by each Democratic candidate. In fact, Sanders has a NARAL rating of 100%.
Yet the Planned Parenthood constituency of women will benefit far more from Sanders’ policies because of their strength in addressing issues of class, race and social justice to end a reality in which the top one-tenth of 1% have as much wealth as the bottom 90%. The favoritism toward Sanders by young women of 20 points shows they think this way too. It will be interesting to see if these organizations or Clinton benefit or lose more from the alliance; Sanders’ supporters of Planned Parenthood have already expressed fury and a reluctance to fund the organization.
It is also worth noting that Lily Adams, the daughter of Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards, worked on the campaign and in the press office of Senator Tim Kaine, who is considered a potential running mate for Clinton, should she win the nomination. Adams currently works for the Clinton campaign in Iowa.
At the State of the Union address on January 12, President Obama paraphrased the first part of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s quote: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
Supporters see in Sanders a simple courage in discussing the basic urgent truths of our society, even as they are ignored by the media. A man whose solutions come from a place of uncorrupted and unconditional love. And a person who, through that embodiment, can tackle forces of deep political and corporate corruption to transform our society.
Supporters instinctively trust, admire and follow him. And that’s why many believe the nonexistent media coverage, the challenges of standing up to new field organizations, the flurries of misleading statements, and the perplexing endorsements can be overcome. They believe the truth and unconditional love in Bernie Sanders’ candidacy will reign triumphant.