For the most part, the Democratic debates have been substantive, leaving the angry innuendo and personal attacks to the Republicans. Anyone who follows politics knows that candidates tend to be respectful until the campaign heats up. Then attacks get sharper and often personal. But this time around, we can’t afford that. There is too much at stake for Democrats to alienate their potential base so that they decide to sit out the general election.
Recent developments in this campaign, quite frankly, have me worried. First is the behavior of the Clinton campaign, which seems intent on alienating people who are now in the Sanders’ camp but will be needed by Clinton if she gets the nomination. For all his gifts, former President Bill Clinton is not helping build unity. If he has disagreements with Sanders’ policies he should spell them out. But his attacks on Bernie Sanders have been divisive and citing Henry Kissinger’s support for Hilary’s work as Secretary of State makes me wonder where the former president has been for the last fifty years. Henry Kissinger is not a plus for a person of my generation or anyone who considers herself a liberal or progressive.
The blunders of Madeline Albright and Gloria Steinem have also hurt building bridges and the Clinton campaign would be well served to get their supporters on message. But the more fundamental problem, and the one that really worries me, is the message coming from the Clinton campaign itself.
Equally troubling to me is when Sanders supporters say that if Clinton gets the endorsement they won’t support her or they will back a third party candidate. I wonder if they are seeing the same threat that I am. Yes, she is a centrist Democrat on many issues—not my favorite type. But I would much rather have a moderate Democrat in the While House who is good on many issues then anyone from the current crop of Republicans. It’s not even a question.
This is not the Republican Party in which moderates used to be a main element. That segment of the party has been pushed out, thanks to big financial backers like the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and the Walton family. This is now a far right party that fans the flames of xenophobia and hate speech against immigrants and people of the Muslim faith; advocates for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, sets back the clock on Roe v Wade and the rights of voters, workers and union members; seeks to privatize public education; and more.
The next president will likely appoint several Supreme Court judges and the recent death of Justice Scalia has underscored how critical this decision will be. If it is a Republican president, we could see an overwhelming majority of far right judges for years to come. That is frightening!
Last week, Bernie Sanders won in the New Hampshire primary by a wide margin. His campaign resonates with young people who face a very uncertain future. Sanders’ critique of Wall Street, his support for single payer health care, free higher education and the need for a political “revolution” that elevates the power of middle and working class Americans makes sense to young people, and older ones like me.
Who knows what happens in the rest of the states? Maybe Bernie’s message does not play as well as it has in New Hampshire and Iowa. My guess is that he will continue to gain support. His record number of donations and his large, boisterous rallies across the country point to a profound change in the body politic of this country. The success of Donald Trump points to the same thing, albeit with a more conservative bent.
The American people are deeply worried about their future and their kids’ future, and business-as-usual politics don't give them much comfort that things will get better. It is a big political miscalculation to think these dynamics can be easily dismissed. The Clinton campaign would be well advised to embrace these issues rather than criticize Bernie Sanders for not being a realist. People want a change and they are inspired by the “idealism” that Sanders represents.
At the end of the day, no politician is free of flaws. Who gets elected mayor, governor, or president is only part of the political process of this country. The task of progressives is to build the movements that can move all politicians in a progressive direction. Without that, all politicians succumb to the pressure of big money and corporate influence.
But the task before us, while we build the movements, is to elect the best person available and that will be a Democrat. The Clinton and Sanders camps would do well to keep their eyes on the prize of the threat posed by a Republican and not unwittingly assist in the creation of the deep ill will that would make such a scenario possible. The American people can’t afford that.
Joshua Pechthalt is the president of the California Federation of Teachers