How We Lose, AKA Washout Wednesday

Yesterday was Super Tuesday, 2016 edition. As expected, on the GOP side Donald Trump continued smashing his way into both the nomination and the nightmares of the people who keep telling us they’re “moderate” or “traditional” Republicans who’ve nonetheless spent the last fifteen-plus years coddling the very culture that inevitably would give rise to someone like Trump: winking and nodding at the Tea Party, encouraging denigration of a sitting POTUS, even stretching back as far as impeaching Bill Clinton over a blowjob. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: you built that, guys — so enjoy it!

But it’s not the slow-motion/real-time implosion of the Republicans that I’m talking about today, it’s the fate of my own Democratic party that I have such a love/hate relationship with. Yesterday brought the expected increasing of Hillary Clinton’s lead over Bernie Sanders. It’s still not impossible for Sanders, but the road gets increasingly steep and narrow from here on out. Meanwhile, today’s New York Times brings with it a raft of post-mortem analysis, but it was the following sentence from this piece that stood out to me:

Often, they [voters who were interviewed] said they were swayed as much by the arguments of Mrs. Clinton’s most persuasive surrogates — delegate math, and “Fear of a Trump Presidency” — as by the candidate herself.

I went on a bit of a tweet storm about this, and someone suggested I Storify it, but due to the nature of the breaks in the flow and the fact that I made a few spelling/typo mistakes, I’m doing it this way instead. Here’s the idea, though: I’ve no doubt that many of the truly conflicted, last-minute or wavering voters who ultimately voted for Ms. Clinton did so on the basis of the arguments of her “most persuasive” surrogates. But look at the persuasion they employ: it’s essentially appeals to fear and to inevitability (“math” and fear of Donald Trump).

I saw someone very early in the day on Twitter saying that a Trump v. Clinton matchup will be “an epic battle for the soul of our country,” and all I could think was: does anyone outside the Clinton camp really believe that? Because it almost certainly won’t be. Hillary Clinton’s Presidency would be historic in an eye-watering way in a similar fashion to Barack Obamas: he was the first African-American, she will be the first woman President. That’s not nothing. But at the end of the day, to paraphrase Hillary Clinton arguing a few weeks ago that Bernie Sanders is a one-issue candidate: electing a woman, by itself, does not solve racial injustice, nor cure institutional sexism, nor repair America’s sagging infrastructure, nor in fact anything else. No, it matters what that particular woman actually winds up doing and saying as President. If it did not, then Carly Fiorina or for that matter, Sarah Palin would be as good as Hillary Clinton.

Would a Trump v. Clinton matchup be “an epic battle for the soul of our country?” Ask those voters interviewed by the Times who came out because math, and because fear of Trump. Think they’re inspired? Think they’re voting their hopes, their interests, their desires? No, they’ve been explicitly told the best reasons to vote Clinton are simply to prevent a much worse outcome. “Battles for the soul” of anything require actual hope on both sides. You know, like what that candidate back in 2008 ran on? What was his name again? A Trump v. Clinton matchup might be a battle for survival, but not to decide the country’s soul. At least not on one side.

It’s a lot like what Steve Earle once famously and poignantly sang (tellingly, about the re-election of Ms. Clinton’s husband in 1996):

It’s Christmas time in Washington /

The Democrats rehearsed /

Getting into gear for four more years /

Of things not getting worse.

That’s why I say: this is how we lose. Because “we suck less” or “the other guys are scarier” have never been motivators for people, except as a last resort. When you’re listening to those arguments, you’re one step away from not voting. If you’re making those arguments, it can only be because you don’t have any better ones; if you did, you’d use those.

Would Democrats lose in November, if Clinton is our nominee? There’s no way to know. Trump is such a wildcard that he defies easy political predictability. He’s been running like the son of Mussolini (even retweeting a quote of his recently) in the GOP Primary, but as many chagrined Republicans have noticed (and tried to highlight), many of his positions in the past haven’t been all that traditionally conservative. Trump could easily pivot and run to the left of Hillary on numerous issues. In any other GOP candidate, that might be seen as (and taken as) a fatal bout of flip-flopping, but Trump has held so many 180-degree contrary positions already and it’s not seemed to hurt him at all. It’s entirely within the realm of possibility at this point that a Clinton v. Trump matchup could wind up with a President Trump, though.

If you think it can’t happen, well, have a look back at how many people said Trump could never get even this far, and then ask yourself whether you’re willing to bet your house that he can’t win the general. Make sure to take into account that in 2008, we were coming off eight disastrous years of George W. Bush. During the heat of that campaign season, the global financial system nearly melted down, and by election day, we were hemorrhaging 700,000+ jobs per month. We were SO ready for the kind of “fundamental transformation” promised by that candidate whose name keeps escaping me. This year, we’re coming off eight years of a relatively successful Presidency of a Democrat the right absolutely loathes, and the enthusiasm is therefore all (or almost all) on the other side.

What worries me isn’t so much that, however: Presidential years tend to have higher turnout, and those fear/math-based argument often are just barely enough to propel enough people out to the polls to ensure a win for “the good guys.” So when I say “this is how we lose,” I don’t mean immediately (although as I say, that remains a possibility too). Instead, I mean down the road. Here’s how it goes: Clinton’s war machine beats back a more liberal and hopeful candidate with appeals to fear and math. It works in the primary and, barely, in the general. But then we’re treated, all of us, to what two years of what a Hillary Presidency actually looks like. Not the inevitable, over-the-top GOP hissy fit and obstructionism, but the actual sausage-making of a Hillary administration. And it’s not pretty. The Hillarists are right about one thing: she’s the most examined candidate maybe ever…so it won’t come as any surprise when a President Hillary behaves exactly as one might expect: good-ish on some social issues, especially women’s issues, but far too cozy with Schumer and the Wall St. crowd and as militarily hawkish as ever.

And Democratic voters start remembering (or maybe they never forgot) why they weren’t all that keen on Hillary to begin with. After a while, the disappointment over the gap between what they’d like to see a Democrat advocate and what this particular one does advocate grows until, inevitably, the disappointment turns, as it did in 2010 and 2014, into resignation and apathy, ironically right when some of the loudest voices for “pragmatism” argue we need the most engagement: in the midterms, on the local level. I’m surprised this isn’t well-understood, because every four of years lately we’ve been treated to a repeat of it. It isn’t those whom Robert Gibbs so famously derided as “the professional left” who peel off — in 2010, the group that stayed home was younger voters, and it makes perfect sense: old junkies like me aren’t the issue; we showed up in 2010 and 2014 to glumly and dutifully pull the lever for yet another round of uninspiring centrist hacks hand-selected by Steve Israel. It’s not us the DNC should be worried about; it’s the people who have the most hope for the political process (and/or the most to lose from it going badly): they’re the ones who see only “four more years of things not getting worse” – and often, barely even that – and wind up disaffected non-voters.

At this stage of the primaries, this isn’t an argument in favor of Bernie Sanders. It’s not even really an argument against Ms. Clinton. Rather, it’s an argument against what seems to be an unshakeable conviction amongst Democratic centrist regulars that somehow this time, the triangulating corporatist will really inspire voters to turn out and work for change, whether in the primaries or through the grassroots. When we vote our fears or “the math,” we lose – either right away, or the next midterm. When we vote our hopes, our aspirations, our desires, that’s when change really happens. It’s where we were headed in 2009, before we were treated to twenty-odd months of attempts to “transcend partisanship” and “leave the politics of the past behind” which resulted in startlingly little beyond increased GOP intransigence. And it’s where we could be headed now — but it’s looking more today than it did yesterday like we won’t be. Yesterday was Super Tuesday.

Welcome to Washout Wednesday. Keep your fear of a President Trump front and center – it may be all that keeps us from one. And don’t forget “the math” — it’s never wrong. ;-P Or, if that all sounds like dismal malarkey to you, then let me leave you with this:

I have so little patience with the armchair strategists in the media, those political meteorologists who spend their days forecasting the future, who tell you there’s no point in voting for a candidate because there’s no way he or she can win, as if the end is a fact of nature rather than a choice of citizens. Or their counterparts in the electorate, those anxious realists who demand that you lay out the path for them, assure them of the destination, before they even take a step. Oh, to know the end of the day ‘ere the day is done! The fact is: Every movement fails. Until it succeeds. And then, when it does, everyone says, of course it succeeded, it had to succeed. No, actually, it didn’t have to succeed. But what made it succeed—or at least helped it succeed—was that men and women, for a time, shook off the need for certitude, let go of the bannisters of certainty, remembered that they are not scientists, and put themselves into motion. Without knowing where they’d end up.