Is Tulsi Gabbard’s campaign for President a problem for Democrats?
Are her foreign policy positions the only problem for the party?
About three years ago, a friend of mine from college announced on Facebook that he had decided to support Bernie Sanders for President. He believed that Sanders’ campaign was a moral cause that he had to support.
In response, I wrote words dripping with sarcasm: “Oh good, maybe the Republicans can win this year.” My comment led to a long back and forth where he defended his choice and I pointed to examples of where purist candidates hurt the eventual Democratic nominee.
The problem is that primaries inevitably become bitter and personal. When you have candidates running against each other with deep roots in the party, as occurred when Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in 2008, the candidates and their supporters work hard to reunite the party in preparation for the general election campaign. Such is not the case when the candidate and his supporters do not have a similar commitment to the long-term good of the party.
Enter Bernie Sanders. Remember that in the House and Senate, he was proudly independent. Even though he caucused with the Democrats and supported most of their candidates for leadership, he refused to join the party. In fact, he struggled with the idea that to run for the Democratic Presidential nomination, he would have to be a Democrat. Nevertheless, he — correctly — realized that his best path to the Presidency was through the Democratic nomination process. As a result, he swallowed his independent pride, and joined the Democrats for this process.
Because Bernie had a limited Democratic party history, many of his supporters had limited commitment to the party as well. Their ultimate commitment was to Bernie Sanders, not to the Democratic cause. As a result, they felt little compunction about burning down the Democratic party if they didn’t get what they wanted — even if it helped the Republicans claim the White House.
The biggest complaint of the Bernie supporters is that much of the leadership at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) were Hillary Clinton supporters. I still see that complaint coming up on a regular basis these days, showing the very real damage this approach caused to the party. Just as Trump has attacked the small d democratic institutions causing them long-term damage, so too did Bernie and his supporters attack the big D Democratic institutions causing long-term damage. If one believes, as I do, that the ultimate good is best served by a competitive Democratic party, that damage hurt the ultimate good of our country. That concern seems to be borne out by the Trump Presidency.
In truth, it is not surprising that many of the leaders of the DNC were Hillary supporters. Where Bernie was proudly independent, needling the organized political parties on a regular basis, the Clintons are party animals. Hillary, Bill and more recently Chelsea have all made major contributions to the Democratic party, both financial and through their activism. It is not by accident that Barack Obama felt that he could appoint Hillary Clinton — his erstwhile rival — to his most important cabinet position. He knew that she could put aside her personal disappointment for the good of the country and the Democratic party. She had shown that time and again. So while Bernie was a stranger to the Democratic activists involved at the highest levels of the DNC, Hillary was well-known to them. Indeed, she had been a fellow soldier with them for years. They knew her and trusted her.
Thus the emails the Russians released right as the Democratic National Convention was starting revealing the private support some of these leaders expressed for Hillary should have come as no surprise. The question is whether it made a difference, and the answer is a resounding NO.
What could the party have done to assist Hillary Clinton in her primary campaign. Could it have given her money? No. Could it have helped her win primaries? Again, no. In fact, Bernie had his greatest success in caucus states, arguably places where the party activists have a larger influence than in the primary states where Hillary generally prevailed. What about the superdelegates, who supported Hillary in much larger numbers than Bernie? Hillary had enough votes to win the nomination even without the superdelegates, and in fact, she never fell behind Bernie in the count of elected delegates as opposed to superdelegates. Ironically, had the Democrats followed a purer nomination process the way the Republicans did, Hillary would have won more resoundingly.
I would argue that the moral outrage some Bernie supporters still harbor for the Democratic party as an institution needs to be tempered by the fact that the Bernie supporters have manipulated the facts to their advantage much as they accuse the DNC of doing so for Hillary. Consider the Nevada caucuses. Hillary won the caucuses by a five-point margin. Then, Sanders supporters attempted to overturn that result by trying to get certain delegates admitted to the state convention, where the national convention delegates would ultimately be selected, despite the fact that they did not receive the electoral backing required. Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver claimed that the party had engaged in process rigging. The respected journalists at Politifact, however, found no basis for that allegation, and in fact found that “there’s no clear evidence the state party ‘hijacked’ the process or ignored ‘regular procedure.’” But yet, that allegation is still repeated by Bernie supporters, leading to continued suspicion of the party.
The truth is that the Democratic party nominating process is actually very small-d democratic. Indeed, that is why Sanders did as well as he did in the process. If this were really a process dominated by party officials, he never would have had a chance, given Hillary’s long relationship with the party activists and his non-existent one. But yet Bernie supporters claim exactly the opposite. It is reminiscent of the claims by Trump that if he did not win, the process was rigged in favor of Hillary. Just as Trump’s claims have damaged our national democratic process, so too have the claims of Bernie supporters damaged the Democratic party’s democratic process. Democracy only works when the parties involved believe it has legitimacy, and part of legitimacy involves the loser stepping aside gracefully to support the winner. Such has not happened after the Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton primary battle.
So what does this have to do with Tulsi Gabbard? Gabbard, the member of Congress representing Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional district. She is an Iraq War Veteran who has won some recognition as a progressive voice. Many, however, have seriously questioned her anti-war positions, given that she has embraced right-wing authoritarian dictators such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Her position opposed to American interventionism is not necessarily out of the mainstream, given that Obama fought to keep America out of Syria. However, her refusal to acknowledge the evil acts of some of these dictators has placed her outside the mainstream. What’s more, she has argued vehemently that our war on terror should be focused on “Islamic terrorism,” helping to drive anti-Muslim discrimination. As a result, her candidacy has raised the hackles of many mainstream Democrats.
Although I am concerned by her foreign policy approach, I am more bothered by her criticism of the Democratic party in the wake of the Sanders campaign. She was one of the most prominent supporters of Bernie during the 2016 primaries, and she quit her position in the DNC leadership to protest what she perceived to be pro-Hillary bias there. She later joined the accusations of process rigging by the Democratic leadership despite the fact that she knew better. In this way, she has helped undermine the party whose sole priority right now must be the defeat of Trump and his Senate enablers in 2020.
It is my hope that my fears are unfounded. Unfortunately, I have been through too many campaigns where Democrats engage in the circular firing-squad, beating each other up to the point where it is hard for us to reunite against the Republican nominee. This is not a year we can engage in such self-defeatist activity. Just too much is at stake.
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