Dead reckoning

Gary Kroeger, who endorsed Bernie Sanders before the 2016 Iowa caucuses, challenges some conventional wisdom in progressive Democratic circles. -promoted by Laura Belin

“We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again and that is well but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.”

I use that Mark Twain quote quite often. The “wisdom” is what is necessary if we are to extract the truth from an event, but that wisdom is often hard to find. I thought of this as former Vice President Joe Biden was dismissed the other day in a CNN focus group of Democrats.

“I think we need a bold, strong leadership, and you’ll find that in the progressives,” said one Democratic voter. “We had the standard-bearer for the kind of pragmatic centrist candidate in Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Donald Trump is now President.”

The deduction made by one of those polled was that Hillary Clinton, a “centrist” lost and that is why we now have Donald Trump in the White House. In other words, it was her “centrist” identity that lost.

Are we sure we are not avoiding a cold stove with that analysis? After all, Hillary Clinton, the centrist, received nearly 66 million votes, more than any white male in history who has run from president. Including the man who defeated her in the electoral college.

There is no doubt that Hillary Clinton was (is) a polarizing figure, and I know people who will give no quarter in that regard. “I hate her,” said one staunch Democrat I know. But is that why she lost? There is no doubt that many Democrats didn’t vote for her, and some voted for Donald Trump. Certainly they weren’t the “progressives” in the Democratic Party, but from those “swing” Democrats who went for Ronald Reagan in the 80s and then swung back to Bill Clinton in ’92 and Barack Obama in 2008. The latter two being “centrists” themselves.

So what decided the 2016 election? Could it have been those very progressives who put their votes up for ransom when Bernie Sanders wasn’t the Democratic nominee? Hillary Clinton had nearly 3 million more votes than Donald Trump, but could she have gotten a couple million more (or more) if the progressive wing hadn’t put down their number 2 pencils and stayed away from the polls? Clinton only needed 70,000 more votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to have received those state’s electoral votes, and to have changed the outcome.

The case can be made against the Democratic National Committee, which favored Clinton and erased Sanders’ viability in the primaries. If Sanders had been the nominee, a lot of people, progressives in particular, believe he would have defeated Trump. There is plenty of polling that says he would have. But…would he have?

If the Trump campaign could take “Crooked Hillary” to the election bank, how hard would it have been to brand Sanders a “Socialist”? And to have scared those same swing voters back to the right?

Would our new media-savvy, email-hacking, election-lords, the Russians, have preferred Sanders over Trump? It’s not likely Vladimir Putin would have preferred anyone over Trump; that love-fest of love-hate can only be explained as two peas in a despot. Two men who do not like to be challenged and at least one of them would make it illegal to do so. Which one that would be is open to debate.

And nothing here is anything but conjecture. The issue at hand now is, what are Democrats going to do in this next election cycle?

The party is fractured.

When I ran in a primary for Congress a few years ago I put on all of my materials: “A True Progressive Voice.” That’s because I am a true progressive. There isn’t an issue from the most progressive side of modern Democratic ideology that wasn’t part of my platform. I was unapologetic in my support for more rational gun control, for environmental stewardship, for civil rights legislation and LGBTQ rights, immigration reform, for a woman’s right to choose, healthcare reform, and affordable education. And not just as broad platitudes, but with specific ideas and programs. If I had been elected there is no doubt my voting record would fall under “Very Progressive.”

That being said, I am what progressives in my party are now labelling a “moderate” or a “centrist.” It was my position when I ran, and it is today, that to get things done there has to be room for reasonable conversations and debate with those who disagree.

Those disagreements can be loathsome, such as to limit the acceptance and rights of the LGBTQ community, or the failure to recognize systemic racism and sexism. I’m not so delusional as to think that I can change minds, but I am practical. And I am old enough to remember when bipartisanship, led by progressivism, ushered us toward civil rights legislation, environmental protection, and even Roe v. Wade.

I don’t move off of any of my ethical core beliefs, but those are not compromised because I can acknowledge oppositional beliefs, or because I have witnessed that the movement of progress is waged from the middle.

Values frame our conscience, but destinations are reached by our mobility.

I can (or you can) dream of a complete sweep of progressives into the House, the Senate, the White House and with a liberal majority in the Supreme Court. A country where all of our ideals are met; a liberal utopia. And then we can watch the pendulum swing, as it has, too far the other way. And we will be fighting for things we thought we’d already won. Just like we are now.

Unless we work from the center, pulled hard in all directions (as it should be), but with respect over rancor, with results over rhetoric; we will be trapped in an ideological civil war that counts bodies over victories.

Gary Kroeger is a restaurateur in Cedar Falls and CEO of the Iowa consulting firm Outlier Creative Solutions. He blogs at Gary Has Issues.

Top photo: Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain in 1909. Image in the public domain from the George Grantham Bain Collection in the Library of Congress.

  • "Socialist"

    Branding Sanders a “socialist” is not nearly the same as branding him corrupt. I would argue socialism is far more popular than corruption and less looked down upon in the same sense. Further all Clinton (and the democratic establishment) did during the primary was brand Sanders as a socialist and the polling that you mentioned prevailed nonetheless. Sanders, a self described democratic socialist, is also the most popular politician in the country in the face of the nasty primary battle he endured. This seems to indicate that Sanders would not be hurt by being branded a socialist in nearly the same way Clinton was hurt.

    Fighting from the center is not effective. Here’s an example; Barack Obama wants a public option, so he goes to congress and says ‘I want a public option.’ With a democratic super majority, he is forced to settle with Obamacare, a right-wing health care reform endorsed by Nixon and Grassley in the 80’s and very similar to Mitt Romney’s healthcare plan prior to his run for president. Obama went into the debate from the left of what he got; therefore it seems plausible that if left wing reforms are sensible as you seem to believe, you would argue to the left of what you want.

    Similarly, assuming an equal and opposite reaction from the right is misguided. It would be significantly more difficult for them to attack a single-payer healthcare program while in power as it was for them to repeal protections for pre-exisiting conditions this past election cycle. The reason they are able to attack items such as the individual mandate are because they are unpopular, despite being for the public good. They negatively affect certain individuals who can’t necessarily afford to purchase health insurance. Obamacare was a step in the right direction but it was a half measure, and arguing from the middle only stands to handicap proposal which stand to benefit a vast majority of Americans, such as single-payer healthcare or tuition free college.

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