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What matters is what happens next, not ‘what happened’

“Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.”

Photo Credit: Wikipedia
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“Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.”

Remember when Bill Clinton used this Fleetwood Mac nugget as a theme in his 1992 campaign? Today, as Hillary Clinton’s campaign memoir goes on sale, the Democratic Party Clinton and his fellow “centrists” remade in their image seem unable to stop thinking about yesterday.

Can the Democratic Party truly reject its past mistakes and look to the future?

Don’t look back

The past shouldn’t be off limits, of course. We’re supposed to learn from our mistakes. Nevertheless, Democratic Party operative Paul Begala tweeted, “New rule: Nobody is allowed to comment on Hillary’s book until… they have read the book.”

Why does it seem like Democratic insiders are always trying to police the discourse? Politics is public property. People can talk about whatever they want. Still, when it comes to political debate, it’s wise to actually follow Fleetwood Mac’s advice, and not just hum along:

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Don’t stop thinking about you-know-what.

So, are the controversies Hillary Clinton’s campaign memoir stirs up useful, or a waste of time?

It cuts both ways. Clinton says she’s done running for political office. If that’s true, it’s unproductive to argue about her personal merits. But her contentious and inaccurate statements in published excerpts from the memoir seem designed to influence the future of the party.

If she seeks influence, these statements should be challenged, in a forward-looking way.

Settling scores

Begala’s comment was a response to Twitter comments by MSNBC host Chris Hayes, who called the book “compelling and candid and written with a pretty remarkable intimacy” and said that “the ‘juicy’ newsy tidbits give the impression it’s some kind score-settling rant, which it is not.”

Calling the book “compelling,” “candid” and “intimate” is not the same as saying it is “reflective,” “courageous,” “brave,” or “insightful.”

The excerpts already released have given us some stark statements – for example, that Clinton’s disappointed her campaign didn’t channel the kind of energy and enthusiasm that the Women’s March engendered, and that she blames both Bernie Sanders and his followers for contributing to her defeat.

These aren’t just personal beefs. They speak to the future of the progressive movement. That means they deserve a response.

The blame game

“I couldn’t help but ask,” Clinton reportedly writes of the Women’s March, “where those feelings of solidarity, outrage, and passion had been during the election.” That question should inspire some self-reflection on her part. The Democratic Party’s leaders need to ask itself how a spontaneously organized demonstration generated worldwide enthusiasm and support, even as their party continues to decline at all electoral levels.

Republican cheating has a lot to do with it. So does the corrupting effect of money in politics, which elevates Republicans while weakening Democrats – perhaps most of all when they are its recipients.

A Democratic Party that depends on big-donor money will always struggle to craft a coherent message. Clinton’s campaign was merely the latest and most vivid example of that.

The party faces a turning point. It can devote itself to economic populism and find new sources of both funding and energy, as the Sanders campaign did. Or, it can rededicate itself to the Wall Street centrism of its last three decades and continue to fail.

Bashing the future

Hillary’s bashing of Bernie and his supporters in the book is both unwise and unfair. In a CBS News interview ahead of the book’s release, Clinton mischaracterized both Sanders’ campaign and his supporters’ behavior.

Clinton was more divisive toward Obama in 2008 than Sanders was toward her in 2016, and it showed in the results: Only 12 percent of Sanders supporters voted for Trump, while more than twice as many Clinton supporters voted for McCain.

This bashing is also politically suicidal for Clinton’s party. Bernie Sanders remains the most popular politician in the country. In fact, he’s the only politician most voters actually like. Meanwhile, Clinton’s popularity has fallen below even Trump’s. Demographically, Sanders enjoys his strongest support among African Americans and the younger voters who will shape this country’s political future. It’s madness to alienate them.

It’s even worse to stigmatize them. Clinton repeats the falsehood that Sanders supporters were overwhelmingly young males – millennial Bernie supporters were mostly female. She also repeats the unfounded slur that Bernie supporters were unusually vicious online. A 2016 survey showed that, compared to Sanders backers, nearly twice as many people considered Clinton supporters “aggressive and/or threatening” in social media interactions.

PACs and propaganda

Clinton isn’t just settling scores. She’s trying to marginalize her opponents in order to weaken their influence. She doubled down on that effort last week by supporting one of her most hyperbolic online supporters, Peter Daou, in a clumsy and bellicose online propaganda venture called “Verrit” – a blog, essentially, he founded with his wife Leela.

More importantly, Clinton has formed a PAC to raise money for candidates she finds ideologically suitable. Clinton’s PAC is structured as a so-called “social welfare nonprofit.” These entities, as the New York Times notes, “are often cited for a rise in dark money in politics because of their ability to protect donor anonymity.”

She must not succeed. Clinton, together with her allies and supporters, represents both an outmoded ideology and a troubling set of values. That ideology, while progressive in some ways, clings to an outmoded faith in free markets and corporations while seeking to manipulate them for constructive purposes.

“I want to really marry the public and the private sector,” Clinton has said.

Whose values?

Clinton’s values are best expressed in the book excerpt where she dismisses the Sanders agenda as a “pony” and “no-minute abs.” These awkward attempts at humor trivialize programs Bernie supports like Medicare For All, which could save an estimated 320,000 lives over ten years.

That Clinton dismisses vital and potentially life-saving programs with contempt speaks volumes. So does her assertion that they are unattainable “ponies,” when they have been attained, and are pillars of society, in other developed democracies.

Clinton’s distorted values are shared by an entire cohort of Democratic politicians, consultants, and followers. This value system thinks it’s perfectly fine to form a dark-money PAC. It celebrates being part of the governing elite, so much so that the ostensibly progressive Clinton could proudly claim the execrable Henry Kissinger as a “friend.”

This value system says this country can’t do big things like Medicare anymore, and shouldn’t bother trying. It says you can take six-figure speaking fees from Goldman Sachs and still believe you have answers for the public’s “anger” toward Wall Street. Clinton opposed a 21st century Glass-Steagall Act, and tried to deflect the debate over big banks with a false “either/or” approach toward shadow banking, as if it were impossible to address both problems.

These aren’t my values. I doubt they’re yours.

Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here

Dems would be wise to pay attention to the next line of Fleetwood Mac’s song, too. The Democratic Party has been failing its constituents for years. If it doesn’t change, the party will fail again.

Economic inequality has skyrocketed under both Democratic and Republican governments, and voters know this. Runaway fossil-fuel consumption is ravaging the planet. Mass incarceration has become a social plague. Each of these problems is approaching an irreversible tipping point. To solve them, we’ll need braver and bolder solutions than their stagnant ideology permits.

Fighting about Hillary Clinton’s personality is a waste of time. But it’s important to debate values. It’s even more important to offer constructive alternatives.

Case in point: As these words are being written, Bernie Sanders is about to introduce a Medicare For All bill in the Senate, with the support of Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and other leading Democrats.

What do we stand for?

“People don’t really know what we stand for,” historian Michael Kazin said recently of his fellow Democrats. That’s clearly true. But the real problem is that Democrats don’t know what Democrats stand for. They need to choose, once and for all.

It’s no wonder some Democrats want to police the discourse. That’s part of a larger goal: policing the limits of the possible. But the old ideas of the politically possible aren’t just wrong. They’re disastrous. If we don’t do big things there’s a good chance we won’t make it as a civilization.

Yes, I’ll read Clinton’s book, cover to cover. I’ll argue about it too, if that helps shape the future in some small way. Otherwise, I’ll let it pass. This is a time of emergency, with more urgent issues at hand. There’s no point fighting about the failures of the past, unless it clears the way for the successes of the future.

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