As the actual voting to select a presidential nominee begins, the choice for Democrats is very similar to the one they had eight years ago. Should they nominate a non-traditional candidate who represents a more radical form of liberalism or should they choose a veteran with all the credentials a candidate for president should have? Barack Obama was exciting and dynamic. Hillary Clinton was mainstream but with baggage. After a lengthy primary season, the voters gave the edge to Obama.
This year Hillary is back, this time with even more significant credentials, and again she is outflanked on the left, and her nomination is again at risk. But Bernie Sanders is not Barack Obama, and this Hillary is not that Hillary. And the result is that the Democrats have a dilemma, one that might be of greater consequence than the one they faced in 2008.
In the 2008 primaries, Obama portrayed himself as an agent of change with a presumably (if never absolutely articulated) more liberal/progressive agenda than Clinton. In his soaring oratory, he captured the hearts of those in the party who were looking for a return to old-line liberalism with a new millennial gloss. Obama fit that description, and even though Hillary also represented a new identity for the party, she was too easily dismissed as “yesterday’s news.” Obama secured the nomination after a tough series of primary votes across the country.
This year, Clinton is again facing a serious challenge from her left. Bernie Sanders is certainly not new-millennial in appearance, but he does offer a sense of old-line liberalism in his attacks on Wall Street greed and the excessive wealth that he regards a corrupt system has produced. His idealism has again captured the hearts of those Democrats who yearn for dynamic and progressive change. Hillary, by contrast, represents a continuation of the present brand of Democratic ideology, and, ironically, she wants to build on the Obama record. Sanders, without engaging in open attacks on Obama, wants to go in a different direction (one to the left of the direction Obama has set).
Simply stated, the choice again turns on whether to go with your head (Clinton) or your heart (Sanders). But, in fact, the practical considerations are much more complex. Let’s start with Ms. Clinton.
Her résumé is beyond impressive. In fact, on paper, she is probably the most qualified candidate in either party. She was a dynamic first lady, perhaps the most influential since Eleanor Roosevelt; she was a well-respected, and surprisingly non-confrontational, U.S. senator for eight years; and she was the perhaps the busiest, if not most accomplished, secretary of State in modern history from 2009 to 2013. She is smart and capable. And, she’s a woman, which is exciting in and of itself, since the country has never elected one to be its president.
But Hillary has baggage, lots of baggage, eight more years of baggage than she had in 2008, when she was already a veteran of smear campaigns promulgated by the Fox News wing of the Republican Party. And, whether fair or not, she seems to give that crowd lots of ammunition.
The controversy over her use of a private e-mail account while she ran the State Department may not end in an indictment of her (an investigation has been underway for months), but it will certainly be an issue throughout the campaign. Benghazi, too, will be raised, should she be the nominee. And Donald Trump has even found a way to hold her husband’s sexual activities against her.
And then there is her image, which, again whether fair or not, is less than squeaky-clean. Let’s just say that she doesn’t score high on the trustworthy scale. She’ll be skewered by the Republicans if she gets the nomination. And to the extent Democrats want, first and foremost, to win the presidency, she represents an uncertain choice at best.
But she might look like a sure winner compared to the prospects for a Bernie Sanders election. For all his positives (from the perspective of Democrats), Sanders is everything a majority of the general electorate would be almost certain to reject in a presidential nominee. First of all, he’s a self-identified socialist, and that alone disqualifies him from election in much of the country.
And calling himself a “democratic socialist,” as Sanders does, isn’t likely to help all that much. The term alone is off-putting. Sanders probably intends it to clarify that he isn’t a communist, but to most voters it will just be confusing, unless it is viewed as an awkward attempt at obfuscation. Bottom line: He’ll be regarded as a socialist, pure and simple.
And you can fully expect him to be called an atheist as well, since he admits to “not being very religious,” which, when you’re Jewish, is a euphemism for not really believing in God. Listen carefully to Sanders’s speeches. He never mentions God, never closes his speeches with the obligatory “God bless the United States,” and never intones the Almighty as his guiding light (another obligatory in many parts of the country).
Sanders is also old (74), which didn’t hurt Ronald Reagan’s re-election effort when he was a similar age, but Sanders isn’t running for re-election. Most of the country (those who would be voting in November) doesn’t know him yet. When the voters do get to know him, he’ll be fighting against a triple negative stereotype: socialist/communist, Jewish/atheist, and old. Any one of those could be enough to defeat him against even a questionable Republican candidate.
So the Democrats have a dilemma: they have to choose from two candidates who are highly flawed, even as they are admirable in many respects. Sanders says he can win because he can draw millions of voters who normally sit out elections. Hillary says she can win because she has learned how to handle the attacks from the right. But neither is a sure thing.
In fact, whether they decide with their hearts or their heads, Democrats could very well end up making a choice with which they are far from comfortable.