The Big Fight Democrats Can't Afford to Lose

Thanks to susaniniowa for stating it so clearly: “This is the first moment of the election of 2018. If we blow it, we can expect to lose.” -promoted by desmoinesdem

I have been reading a lot of social media comments from Bernie Sanders supporters who think he “sold out” because he said Clinton would remain an important voice in the party. I think they are profoundly wrong about Bernie, and about how to respond to what we face now. We cannot confront the coming threats to the well-being of our fellow citizens and the planet itself if we allow ourselves to be divided. Our first and biggest fight may come as soon as January. We cannot afford to lose it.

I supported Bernie Sanders all through the primary season. Recently I framed one of his posters from the caucuses. I have it in my office now, next to my framed Udall poster from 1976, and the signed 1960 photo of “Uncle Mo,” shaking hands with JFK in front of the White House. Mo Udall and JFKI am mention this to illustrate that like many progressives, I have been supporting great candidates who went on to lose for a very long time. The disappointment I felt at the end of the primaries was all too familiar.

I am pleased that none of the candidates I supported reacted to their losses by behaving like petulant vengeful children, as Trump surely would have. Bernie is a class act. The people who would like him to model his behavior on that of a recent Senate candidate in Iowa do not understand how politics works, and neither do people who are still attacking him for having the effrontery to run at all. No one gets everything they want, and the candidate who defeats you is your opponent, not your enemy, usually. His or her supporters are not the enemy either.

If you want to have anything good ever come of your involvement in politics you have to let politicians do politics–and politics requires compromise, (up to a point and more about that below), and being civil to people you need to work with for the greater good. Of course Bernie said what he said about Clinton, and he’s right. More than sixty million people voted for her. Shutting her out would be political malpractice.

Unless you have been around politics for a few decades, you may not get how amazing the impact is that Bernie had on the limits of acceptable discourse about policy. I lived through the rise of the neoliberals in the 80s and 90s, (read Thomas Frank for the history), when the Democrats were all about the scary scary deficit, globalization, and ending welfare as we know it. People were reading Thomas Friedman’s conversations with cab drivers and opining about the world being flat, and how the workers whose factory jobs disappear need to “retrain” on html, or whatever.

Bernie moved the Overton Window far beyond those limitations, despite frantic attempts by the Washington Post and other media to stop him. The epic months-long pile-on was memorably chronicled by Thomas Frank in Harpers. Now even the Very Serious People have to concede that the goalposts have been moved.

While the Post excoriated Sanders’s economic proposals, Trump stole a few of them. He denounced trade deals, promised to bring back jobs and to replace Obamacare with something much better, and he vowed never to cut Social Security or Medicare. These promises turned out to be popular, notably among independent and Democratic voters in the upper Midwest, which should have surprised no one after the Democratic primary results. On trade, Trump had the issue mostly to himself after the Clinton forces kept it out of the platform, and McAuliffe blurted out that Clinton did not intend to oppose it. Now that he has won the election, Trump is not waiting for the inauguration to do a complete 180 on his economic promises, choosing Social Security privatizers for his transition team, and playing footsie with Ryan on cutting Medicare. I would not be surprised if Trump did a moonwalk on trade as well. Sad!

The Democratic Party seems to be adapting, however reluctantly, to this political landscape, and acknowledging the need for change. (Congratulations to the Iowa Senate Democrats on picking a team that is up to the challenge. The U.S. Senate Democrats revamped their leadership team, but have made some missteps that may cost them. The U.S. House Democrats are still sorting out whether the three septuagenarians who lead them will continue as though nothing has happened.) After decades of embracing corporate-friendly “centrism” as the way to win elections, and losing an impressive number of seats, many in the Party want to identify personnel and policies that will help it take them back. I personally like John Nichols’ prescriptions, among many other thoughtful pieces written since the election. The outcome of the struggle for control of the DNC will be one measure of whether real change or better PR will be on the menu going forward. I am optimistic that the Party will take back the economic message that has properly belonged to Democrats since FDR.

Now is not the time for Democrats to give up and walk away, just as the change the party needs is starting to happen, and the changes that the Republicans have planned for the country will be catastrophic. Bernie Sanders understands this. Politicians like him, or like Tom Harkin, are rare, so Sanders supporters should not compare him to some ideal; compare him to what’s on offer. All Democrats, including Clinton supporters, should have his back in this coming nightmare Congress, and the backs of every Democrat who stands up to what the Republicans will try to do.

We have at least one big fight that will probably be served up immediately after the inauguration: killing Medicare. Why does this affect you if you are not 65 or older? First, the elderly are comprised of the formerly young. Young people, take note. Second, Medicare is single-payer. Medicare is the well-run cost-effective program that could someday be expanded to cover everybody. In 2009, we almost got it extended to 55-year-olds, (killed by Joe Lieberman). If Obamacare becomes unworkable for whatever reason, Medicare is there to solve the problem when the pendulum swings back toward the Democrats, as it will. But not if the Republicans kill it. We should do everything we can to oppose them.

This is the first moment of the election of 2018. If we blow it, we can expect to lose. If the Democrats stick together, this is a fight we can win. Whether or not the Republicans have 50 votes plus Pence, they are not going to want to kill Medicare unless they have Democratic votes to make it “bipartisan.” We need to make sure they don’t. Any Democrat who now votes with the Republicans to turn Medicare into a voucher program should never get another dime from a party organization, and should face a primary in 2018. They will surely face defeat in the general, where such a vote would be a deadly weapon in the hands of an opponent. There are no excuses for compromises on killing Medicare, and we should not accept any. Having said that, we cannot rely on our elected representatives to do all the heavy lifting for us. They should be backed up with a flood of telephone calls to district offices, and contacts when legislators are back in their states. Republicans like Young, Blum and King should understand that angry seniors will be burning them in effigy if they allow Ryan to have his way.

There will be other fights to follow, but if the Republicans lose this one, they will lose momentum and political capital, just as George Bush did in 2005 with his Social Security privatization scheme. If they win, they will understand they can win anything. If they can kill off a program that is absolutely loved by millions of Americans in both parties, they can do the same to Social Security, veterans’ benefits, Medicaid, environmental laws, and voting rights. Now is the time to stop shooting at people on your own side and fight back.

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