It's about power, people, and learning how to use it
Dave Dayen patiently explains how primary politics works:
On Wednesday, Clinton decided to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the just-inked trade deal with 12 nations that is a centerpiece of Obama administration second-term achievements. “The bar here is very high and, based on what I have seen, I don't believe this agreement has met it,” Clinton said in a statement, cruelly timed to the moment that top White House officials were holding a conference call defending the deal.
This has sent a chill into the hearts of a particular Washington specimen: the self-appointed guardians of order. Mark Halperin flatly accused Clinton of lying about her opposition to TPP. Others pointed to Clinton’s praise for TPP in her recent book, or the 45 times she’s spoken out in favor of it. And Ezra Klein pronounced himself “unnerved” because it shows her as calculating and poll-driven.
In other words, the theory goes, Clinton is pandering, taking a position that she may not sincerely support to appease a faction of the constituency she wants in her corner. Unions don’t like TPP or the Cadillac tax, and with Bernie Sanders breathing down her neck, Clinton had to adjust her profile to keep their endorsements rolling in.
There are definitely signs that Clinton had prior (and very possibly, future) support for TPP. Her top policy advisor on the deal while at the State Department, Robert Hormats, praised it the day before she came out against it. If you take the temperature of those in her policy orbit, you would probably find more supporters than opponents.
But a lot has changed since November 2012, when Clinton called TPP “the gold standard in trade agreements.” One point she made in this week’s PBS interview on the topic is that, while at the State Department, she pushed for higher standards in the South Korean free trade agreement, yet was still disappointed in the results. “Even a strong deal can fall short on delivering the promised benefits,” Clinton said in her statement.
Indeed, the U.S.-Korea deal led to an 80 percent increase in the bilateral trade deficit and 75,000 U.S. jobs, according to the liberal Economic Policy Institute. So a retrospective view, combined with witnessing first-hand the struggles of the American worker on the campaign trail, may have brought Clinton to a considered change in viewpoint.
But the bigger issue is this: What’s wrong with pandering? Our system of government, as it has evolved, offers precious few opportunities for ordinary people to get into the national conversation. Big Money has a tight grip on governance through insistent lobbying, and for the most part they fund national elections.
For once, the Democratic nominating fight, and the emergence of Bernie Sanders, has given public interest groups a voice, a rare channel to impact the political system. We shouldn’t roll our eyes at that; we should respect it. National leaders should have to listen to their constituents and earn their support. Primaries are one of the only moments that allow such an opportunity.
The thing about outside leverage on politics is that it’s not static. It can change, and leaders can drop their panders when it suits them politically. Public interest groups and ordinary citizens must not take anything for granted and remain insistent. They are correct to look at this skeptically.
But here’s what we know from political science, a point made most eloquently by the same Ezra Klein who is so unnerved by Clinton’s position-taking: Politicians typically keep their campaign promises. Presidents may not fulfill them, but that has more to do with Congressional obstruction than a flip-flop.
In other words, locking in a particular endorsement in a primary has real lingering effects. That makes the process some call pandering, which I would call paying attention to your political base, all the more important. If you can move a candidate on an issue you care about, you can keep them in that position for a long time.
Read the whole thing. He's 100% right. And this piece should also speak to certain progressives who are unfortunately pooh-poohing her opposition as being a meaningless pander and another sign of her inconsistency. That is a big tactical mistake.
Look, we cannot know what is in Hillary Clinton's heart any more than we could ever know what was in Barack Obama's heart or Bernie Sanders' heart or any other politician's heart. We don't sleep with them or get drunk with them or share time on the psychiatrist's couch with them. And we, as citizens, only have limited ability to hold them to their promises. Once elected, they're in for their term and that's that. So primaries are the only way we have to push these politicians to take positions that the grassroots care about.
In this race it's working very well. As it happens a very lefty candidate is getting big crowds and is nipping at the front-runner's heels. That's good! Maybe he'll win! But even if he doesn't, this race is making all the candidates move left on a number of issues which means the system is working in liberals' favor for a change. We should be thrilled.
Can we ensure that Clinton or Sanders will deliver on every one of these lefty goals in office? Of course not. Unlike the ignorant Tea Party who think that because 12 people in their district elected them that they are entitled to have their agenda enacted unchanged, liberals supposedly understand that our system of government requires some cooperation and compromise within the caucus itself and the government at large. We don't delude ourselves into thinking they can single-handedly enact the platform they ran on once in office. (Right????) So we try to get these candidates on record, get them to commit to our agenda, try to provide them with a congress that can help them win and back them when they take progressive positions, and givem hell when they don't. That's our job as citizens and activists. At election time we try to move even more of our agenda into the platform. Wash, rinse, repeat.
I know that people get personally invested in candidates. It's human. We all do it. But it's also very important to keep in mind that this whole game is about leveraging power (and in the progressive sphere, empowering people, particularly those who have been marginalized and excluded.) We lefties don't have a lot of levers to pull -- money from small donors and primaries and that's about it when it comes to the presidency. Where we have more clout is in the congress and if we spent as much time concentrating on that as we do on the American idol presidential race we might have more luck building progressive power that could actually do some good. A strong congressional check on any president who went back on his or her word without reasonable cause would be the best way to keep them accountable.
If you'd like to support some good progressive for congress this cycle, you can do so here. Blue America is seeking them out and trying to help them all over the country. As always.