Commentary on current events, politics, government, and popular culture from John Sheirer, author of the book, Make Common Sense Common Again.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Sanders-Clinton Conundrum

A much shorter version of this article appeared as my monthly newspaper column in my hometown newspaper, The Daily Hampshire Gazette

Here's my interview on the WHMP Morning News about this subject.

I'm a fan of Bernie Sanders. He brings an energy to the Democratic primary that we all would have missed if the only other contenders against frontrunner Hillary Clinton had been folks such as Martin O'Malley, Lincoln Chaffee, and Jim Webb. And Sanders has promoted several core liberal/progressive issues, especially income inequality, tax fairness, and college costs. I'll vote for Sanders in a heartbeat if he wins the Democratic nomination. I respect and share his supporters' passion.

But a disturbing trend has developed. Whenever I engage Sanders supporters in a discussion of the issues, they often voice distrust of Hillary Clinton with claims that she isn't honest, is too much like a Republican, and is too disliked to win the general election. None of these contentions are accurate. Clinton and Sanders are far closer on the issues than most people know, and both candidates fair extremely well in general election polls.

In fact, Clinton is a remarkably honest politician, especially for one with a trumped-up reputation for dishonesty. Just consult the leading political fact-checker in the country, Clinton ranks slightly ahead of Sanders in PolitiFact's overall honesty ratings, and she has been evaluated on more than three times as many statements as Sanders. Both candidates are among the most honest major politicians rated by Politifact. Not surprisingly, all of the Republicans rank far lower than either Democrat. When Republicans claim that Clinton is dishonest, the irony flows like maple syrup at a New Hampshire campaign breakfast. 

Many Sanders supporters call a potential presidential contest between Clinton and the Republican nominee, "the lesser of two evils." But lumping Clinton into the same category of "evil" with the truly horrible cadre of Republicans food-fighting for their party's nomination plays right into the Republican scheme. That's why the Republican candidates hardly mention Sanders but attack Clinton every chance they get.

Here's how it works: Republicans know that the vast majority of Clinton supporters, who tend to be practical by nature, will vote for Sanders if he is the nominee. Republicans also know that a significant number of Sanders supporters might not to vote for Clinton. So Republicans constantly throw dirt at Clinton knowing that the mainstream corporate media will amplify the message to the airwaves, giving the impression that Clinton is roundly disliked while allowing Sanders to remain unscathed. CNN and the New York Times, for example, have flogged the twin fake scandals of Clinton's e-mail and her role in the Benghazi tragedy until even some Democrats have used these attacks as evidence that Clinton can't be trusted. In reality, Clinton has been repeatedly exonerated on all counts. Republicans can't claim that Clinton has a fake birth certificate, but their attacks are no less absurd than the "birther" nonsense used against President Obama.

The contention that Clinton is "Republican lite" ignores the fact that Clinton and Sanders agree on about 90% of the issues, and both of them disagree with Republicans on about 90% of the issues. In fact, they voted together 93% of the time during the two years they served in the Senate at the same time from 2007 to 2009. That makes both of them solidly within the liberal/progressive tradition by any reasonable definition. The two candidates may differ on details, but on the broader issues, they are far more alike than different.

The details of their policy positions are available on each campaign's websites and through the excellent "On the Issues" website pages for Sanders and Clinton. Ten minutes of scanning those resources will show that Sanders and Clinton are both in stark contrast to any Republican candidate. Here are the major issues to confirm the fact that the two Democratic contenders are, in reality, very close. 

Minimum Wage: Both Clinton and Sanders favor raising the minimum wage--Clinton to $12 per hour, Sanders to $15. All of the Republican candidates oppose raising the minimum wage, and some have floated the idea of eliminating it altogether. Trump even said, "wages are too high" during a nationally televised Republican debate. 

Voting Rights: Both Clinton and Sanders favor restoring the Voting Rights Act, making registration easier, expanding early voting, and reducing wait times for voting. All of the Republican candidates have bought into the Republican Party's fake "voter fraud" scare tactics and favor legislation that makes both registration and voting more difficult in ways that disproportionately affect minorities, women, and young people. 

Unions: Both Clinton and Sanders are long-time union supporters, and both have been endorsed by major national unions. The Republican candidates have all been active in efforts to weaken unions. 

Campaign Financing: Both Clinton and Sanders want to repeal Citizens United and reform campaign finance laws. Most Republican candidates do not. (Trump is the exception because his own ridiculous wealth lessens his need for massive corporate contributions.) 

Gun Laws: Both Clinton and Sanders favor common-sense gun laws. Sanders, coming from the rural and somewhat libertarian state of Vermont, has actually opposed some gun regulations that Clinton supported, Sanders voted against the Brady Bill in 1993, and he voted for a bill protecting gun manufacturers from lawsuits as recently as 2005. But they are currently both very much on the liberal/progressive side of gun policy. Both have an "F" rating from the National Rifle Association. The Republican candidates all favor legislation that relaxes gun safety even more than the already loose laws that plague our country. 

Wall Street and Banking Reform: Both Clinton and Sanders support Wall Street reform. Sanders focuses on the reinstating the Glass-Steagall law, breaking up the big banks,  and reforming the Federal Reserve while Clinton has proposed a comprehensive reform approach that's stronger than the current Obama administration reforms. Yes, Sanders would be more hated by Wall Street, but the financial industry wouldn't be happy with most Clinton proposals either. Wall Street has donated to her campaign in the hope that she will be less reform-minded than Sanders, much as they supported Obama in 2008. But they pulled way back on their support for Obama in 2012 because he championed the Dodd-Frank reform bill, credit card reform, the Consumer Protection Bureau--and he won a $5.7 bill settlement for the financial crisis of 2008. Wall Street will similarly drop support for Clinton when she works for the reforms she has proposed. The Republican candidates, of course, want to deregulate their buddies on Wall Street as much as possible regardless of the consequences to everyday Americans. 

LGBT Issues: Both Clinton and Sanders support LGBT equality in all aspects of life, from marriage to employment. Clinton may have come to her position on marriage equality later than Sanders, but she is there now. The same can be said of Obama, and he has become a champion for LGBT rights. Republicans, of course, all seek to repeal the advances of recent LGBT rights victories and bring us back to the discrimination of darker times. 

Religious Freedom: Both Clinton and Sanders support freedom of and from religion for all Americans as the U.S. Constitution outlines in the First Amendment. The Republican candidates have ignored the Constitution and behave as though Christianity deserves preferential rights regarding religious freedom. 

Equal Pay: Both Clinton and Sanders support equal pay for equal work and have both supported legislation that supports gender equality. The Republican candidates pay lip-service to equality, but none of them has voted for any legislation that addresses the issue. 

Deficit Reduction: Both Clinton and Sanders favor reducing the federal budget deficit through a combination of fair taxes and reductions to wasteful spending, particularly defense spending. Republicans have proposed cutting programs for the poor and middle-class, shifting tax burdens even more onto the poor and middle-class, and increasing defense spending. In short, their budget-reduction plans actually increase the budget deficit while comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted. 

Taxes: Both Clinton and Sanders have proposed tax increases for the wealthy and corporations to return us to the fair policies that helped to create the middle-class in the last century. Clinton, in fact, has promised not to raise taxes on people making less that $250,000 per year while Sanders proposals don't rule out increased middle-class tax rates to fund specific programs. The Republican candidates, of course, talk about lowering taxes on everyone, but the details of their plans reveal a far greater burden on the middle-class and the poor to fund giveaways to the wealthy and corporations. 

College Affordability: Both Clinton and Sanders have proposed plans for no-debt college education. Sanders's plan calls for free tuition at public institutions while Clinton's plan calls for expanded work-study and grant opportunities for students to finance their education. Both plans would address the crippling student loan debt crisis. The Republican candidates view education as a commodity subject to the whims of the free market. Under their plans, student debt is just a profit source for the banking industry. 

Marijuana and Drug Policy: Both Clinton and Sanders favor medical marijuana and reforming the criminal justice system with regard to drug laws and sentencing, although Sanders goes farther in the direction of decriminalizing recreational marijuana use than Clinton. The Republican candidates are split on medical marijuana, and all except Rand Paul support harsh penalties for recreational drug use. 

Foreign Affairs: Both Clinton and Sanders emphasize that our nation's diplomatic role in the world is far more important than our military role. Clinton has a reputation as more of a hawk than Sanders, but her work as Secretary of State shows she understands the essential nature of American diplomacy as a way to encourage peace throughout the world. The Republican candidates (with the exception of Rand Paul) have all beaten war drums, particularly relating to conflicts in the Middle East. Most of them would have us escalate the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan while starting new wars in Iran and Syria. 

Iran Nuclear Deal: Both Clinton and Sanders support the Obama administration's nuclear deal with Iran as the best chance for peace and nuclear de-escalation in the region. Clinton's work as Secretary of State during Obama's first term helped to lay the groundwork for the deal. All of the Republican candidates, of course, oppose the deal and would almost certainly kill it before even giving it a chance to work. 

Terrorism: Both Clinton and Sanders support creating international coalitions that combine military action and diplomacy to fight terrorism. They both oppose torture and support programs aimed at reducing terrorist recruiting, cutting off funding sources for terrorists, and closing the offshore prison at Guantanamo Bay. The Republican candidates favor a return to the Bush administration's "us against them" mentality, they oppose closing Guantanamo Bay, and they favor the use of torture. 

Social Security and Medicare: Both Clinton and Sanders oppose privatizing Medicare or Social Security. Both support increasing benefits and coverage, especially through tax increases on the wealthy. Both oppose raising the retirement age (despite inaccurate reports that Clinton endorsed this idea). Most of the Republican candidates favor raising the retirement age, along with reductions and privatization of both Social Security and Medicare. 

Abortion and Family Planning: Both Clinton and Sanders support comprehensive access to contraception, family planning, prenatal care, family leave, and continued federal funding for Planned Parenthood. They both support a woman's right to choose what to do with her own pregnancy. All of the Republican candidates believe government should make reproductive choices for pregnant women and that insurance coverage for contraception access should be determined by an employer's religious beliefs. Republicans also oppose federal funding for Planned Parenthood, and most have told ridiculous lies as part of an organized right-wing smear campaign against the organization. 

Stem Cell Research: Both Clinton and Sanders support funding for embryonic stem cell research because of the medical benefits in treating numerous diseases. All of the Republican candidates oppose embryonic stem cell research on confused anti-abortion grounds. 

Universal Healthcare: Both Clinton and Sanders believe that healthcare is a human right. Both support Obamacare and have made proposals to improve the program. Sanders has long been a proponent of a single-payer system, and Clinton proposed a comprehensive program in her role as First Lady more than two decades ago. The Republican candidates universally oppose Obamacare and single-payer health insurance systems. They view healthcare as a product available to only those who can afford it. 

Comprehensive Immigration Reform: Both Clinton and Sanders support comprehensive immigration reform, including a detailed path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Some Republicans support minor, piecemeal immigration reform, but most of the Republican candidates are loudly anti-reform, especially Trump. 

Refugees: Both Clinton and Sanders favor America's longstanding tradition of bringing refugees from troubled regions of the world into the United States. Both candidates support the current rigorous system of screening refugees to ensure that people intent on committing terrorist acts do not gain entry into the country masquerading as refugees. The Republican candidates have been fear mongering about refugees coming to our country and don't seem to recognize that we even have a screening process. They've shown very little compassion for the plight of refugees fleeing terrorism. Trump's proposed ban on Muslim refugees is the most bigoted and xenophobic example of Republican views. 

Trans-Pacific Partnership: Both Clinton and Sanders oppose the TPP. Sanders has consistently been against these types of major trade deals while Clinton was an early supporter of the TPP before she opposed the final form of the deal. Some Republicans have voiced support for the deal, but most oppose it, primarily out of automatic opposition to everything President Obama supports. 

Keystone Pipeline: Both Clinton and Sanders oppose the pipeline because of its negative environmental impact. Clinton took longer to come to that position, but she is now in the same place as Sanders on the issue. All of the Republican candidates support the pipeline and downplay its environmental impact while wildly exaggerating the jobs and energy benefits. 

Climate Change and the Environment: Both Clinton and Sanders recognize the scientific consensus that climate change is real and caused by human activity. They both support the Obama administration's recent international Paris agreement to reduce emissions. They both support efforts to promote renewable energy and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. They both understand that climate change is an issue that affects the international security of the United States. The Republican Party is the only major political group on the planet that denies global warming. Republican candidates downplay, dismiss, or ridicule climate science and promote fossil fuels over renewable energy. 

Veterans Programs: Both Clinton and Sanders have consistently championed programs that benefit American veterans and current military members. The Republican candidates love to praise veterans, but they are far more likely to put more military personnel in harm's way for questionable goals, and they have consistently opposed programs that would help veterans after they come home from combat.

Clinton isn't perfect, of course. There are legitimate questions about her corporate donors, her super PAC, her campaign tactics, and her connections with the party establishment. She is also against marijuana decriminalization and has been in favor of capital punishment in the past--although she hasn't said much on the issue in recent years. But, after reviewing the list of views she shares with Sanders on so many crucial issues, it's just not credible for anyone to claim that Clinton has more in common with Republicans than with Sanders.

Here's another fact that Sanders "lesser-of-two-evils" supporters must understand if they are going to make a responsible choice in the event that Clinton secures the party nomination: Hillary Clinton is not evil, lesser or otherwise. Ample evidence exists from her long career in public service to support her candidacy from a liberal/progressive viewpoint. This evidence rarely sees the light in the scandal-obsessed corporate media, but Clinton's progressive record of accomplishments is clear for anyone who takes the time to look beyond the smear campaigns.

Clinton was an active and progressive First Lady during her husband's presidency. She chaired the task force that created the Health Security Act of 1993, dubbed "Hillarycare" two decades before "Obamacare." The proposal was eventually defeated by obstructionist Republicans and weak Democrats who thought the program was too liberal. Those who today claim that Clinton is just a Republican in disguise would do well to remember the criticism from all those years ago: "too liberal."

Clinton also went to China during her time as First Lady and spoke courageously about women's rights when China most certainly didn't want to hear about women's rights. Despite the defeat of "Hillarycare," Clinton fought for the Children's Heath Insurance Program (CHIP), which continues to provide health care to millions of children. She helped pass the Adoption and Safe Families Act, improving the adoption system across the nation. She worked for veterans suffering from Gulf War Syndrome when they came back from the first Iraq war waged by the first Bush administration. In short, she was a progressive force as First Lady.

In less than two full terms as a Senator, she developed legislation to extend full military health benefits to National Guard members and reservists. Representing New York, she was instrumental in securing funding to address the medical needs of 9-11 first responders. And she helped to strengthen the CHIP program that she helped found as First Lady. She also developed legislation that reformed immigration policies, improved flu vaccines, supported family caregivers, and expanded access to family planning services.

Coming on the heels of the Bush administrations disastrous foreign policy, Clinton joined President Obama to rebuild America's respect in the world community as Secretary of State. She renewed, improved, and established relationships with nearly every region of the world during her four years as our nation's leading diplomat. She negotiated a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas during an escalation in their conflict. She organized China, Russian, and the European Union to impose the sanctions against Iran that laid the groundwork for getting that nation to negotiate a nuclear deal.

In addition, her work with Bill Clinton through the Clinton Foundation helped improve the living conditions of millions of people in hundreds of countries. The foundation funds health care programs, disaster relief, education, women's rights, civil rights, and a host of other programs across the globe--earning praise (and donations) from even Donald Trump himself before his run for the presidency. Republicans have alleged conflicts of interest between the Foundation and Clinton's role as Secretary of State, but they haven't provided a single reliable fact to back up their charges. 

Overall, I have three requests for the Sanders supporters. First, please look at Hillary Clinton's positions on the issues objectively. Don't fall into the trap of right-wing rhetoric that began before some of today's voters were even born. Republicans have been attacking her since her husband ran for president in 1992, partly to damage him but also because they knew she would be a formidable candidate herself in the future. They were right. She was an active and passionate First Lady, an effective and progressive Senator, and a tireless and consequential Secretary of State. And she has been a career-long champion of progressive causes.

Second, please tone down the anti-Clinton rhetoric. In more than three decades of studying politics, I've never seen supporters of one candidate attack another so closely aligned to their own candidate the way a small but loud minority of Sanders supporters have attacked Clinton. I've personally been called as many foul names in recent months by Sanders supporters as I usually am by right-wingers--and I loudly proclaim my love for Sanders. My crime? I recognize that Clinton is better for the country than any Republican presidential candidate.

Please remember that people who are undecided are listening to our discussions. When they hear nasty attacks, they assume Democrats are as bad as Republicans, get turned off, and don't vote. Don't let the normal squabbles of party politics (such as the nothingburger December data breech) take away from the fact that she and Sanders have been refreshingly civil in their interactions with each other. Take your cue from Sanders himself and focus on Clinton's positions on the issues rather than personal attacks.

Third, and most important, if Sanders loses to Clinton in the primaries (which every poll shows will likely happen), then please do the right thing and vote for Clinton in the general election. She may not be perfect in everyone's view, but she's far, far better than any Republican candidate. One reason we got two terrible George W. Bush terms is that people didn't think Al Gore and John Kerry were perfect enough. And a big reason we have a horrible Republican Congress and so many bad Republican governors and legislatures across the country is that people didn't think Obama was perfect enough in 2010 and 2014.

If Clinton gets the nomination, then we need all of the Sanders supporters voting for her and convincing their reluctant friends to do likewise. Sanders himself will certainly endorse and vote for her if she's the nominee. He has vowed not to run as an independent, and he won't be writing in his own name or voting for third-party candidates with no chance to win. And he absolutely won't be staying home on election day. Some folks may still not completely trust Clinton, but she's on board with the vast majority of the Sanders policy positions.

If Clinton is the nominee, then there's always the chance that she could ask Sanders to be her running mate. The conventional wisdom has Clinton selecting a young, dynamic candidate (Julian Castro, for example) to energize the youth vote. But Sanders has already energized the youth vote, so why not him? If Clinton becomes president and wins a second term, as most presidents in the past half century have, there would be plenty of time to groom younger candidates to hold the presidency in 2024. More likely, Clinton could immediately appoint Sanders to the cabinet as Secretary of Labor, where he could have an even bigger policy impact than he does in the Senate.

If people refuse to vote for her because she's not as good as Sanders, or if they write in Sanders rather than voting for Clinton, then we're much more likely to end up with a President Trumpcruzrubiobushpalinputin--along with more wars, more alienation of the world community, more tax cuts for the rich, more fights about marriage equality, no minimum wage increase, no reasonable improvements to gun laws, no improvements in health care reform, no sane immigration polices, lots of extremists in the cabinet and on the Supreme Court, and on and on. We thought George W. Bush was bad, but the people vying for the Republican nomination right now would be many times worse. 

The core message here isn't that Sanders supporters should give up. By all means, please keep campaigning for him in the primaries. He's an outstanding candidate who would make a terrific president. The vast majority of Clinton voters will support him if he wins the nomination. The core message is that two very specific candidates, Sanders and Clinton, would be far better than any Republican in the race.

Listen to both candidates, compare and contrast, vote in the primaries for the one you think should be the nominee. But the Democrats who don't vote in the general election if their favored candidate doesn't get the nomination could very well help Republicans win the White House and, even worse, win down-ballot Senate, House, Governor, and local elections as well. Republicans have proven that they get out and vote in Presidential elections even when their preferred candidate doesn't win the nomination. Democrats need to show the same commitment.

The bottom line is that Democrats must vote, whether we nominate Sanders or Clinton. If we don't, then Republicans will win. That's not fear mongering. That's basic electoral reality. 


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