April 20, 2016

KOWALEWSKI | The Democratic Rift

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After months of contentious campaigning, the Democratic Party is poised to nominate a historic candidate for president. Yet, many Democrats have stated that they will refuse to support this individual in the general election. Instead, they continue to favor an alternative candidate who has severely questioned the judgment and qualifications of the front-runner. Although the overall outcome of the race appears increasingly certain, this persistent rift threatens to imperil the party’s chance of winning in November.

Of course, I am referring to the 2008 primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Eight years later, it may be easy to forget the extraordinarily acrimonious tone of their contest. Both candidates unleashed a relentless onslaught of negative advertisements against each other, suggesting that the other was an unacceptable choice. Nonetheless, in the end, Hillary Clinton made peace with Obama’s nomination. Today, after serving in his cabinet, she frequently invokes the need to protect President Obama’s legacy.

This is a necessary context for understanding the 2016 race. It is true that the contours of the primary have changed since the beginning, particularly as Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) has closed his initial gap in support. While the Sanders campaign continues to be nominally “positive,” his accusations against Clinton have grown increasingly severe. He has assailed Clinton for speeches to Wall Street, pushed her to embrace a $15 minimum wage and even deemed her “unqualified” to be president.

Some observers have pondered if this foretells a major schism in the Democratic Party. Not so. Indeed, as mentioned above, this is simply the way that modern presidential politics works. In fact, Clinton and Sanders have not even come close to matching the invective of 2008. The White House, unfortunately, isn’t often won by being nice. All candidates play the same game; they trade barbs, they insist they will be the nominee and, eventually, they unite around the winner.

There is little reason to think that this cycle will be any different. Quite a few states still need to vote, and both candidates continue to campaign. But the primary process is winding down. The Sanders campaign insists that they will take the fight to the convention if necessary, but this is mostly just political posturing. If Hillary Clinton continues to lead both pledged delegate totals and the popular vote, it is virtually impossible for Sen. Sanders to plausibly take the nomination by convincing superdelegates. I expect he realizes that.

If Sen. Sanders ultimately is not the Democratic nominee, I also anticipate that he will have no issue with endorsing Clinton. On numerous occasions, he has indicated that he would back Clinton in the general election. However, while this would represent a technical concession for Sanders, this obscures his greater victory. Indeed, he won the battle for the Democratic Party’s future before primary voting even began.

The Democratic primary has generally been framed as a high-stakes choice between Clinton’s measured reforms and Sanders’ call for a political revolution. Certainly, this has been encouraged by Sanders himself. But this obscures the fact that the actual differences between Clinton and Sanders are quite small. Since the announcement of her candidacy, Clinton has emphasized her outreach to the left flank of the party. Indeed, when Clinton is compared to prior Democratic candidates — even Obama — her vision stands out as an unusually bold statement of progressive principles.

This is the truth that should comfort those who support Sanders; the ideological heart of the Democratic Party is firmly with him. Overwhelmingly, Democratic voters have sided with progressives such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on the need for major policy shifts. Clinton has not built her delegate lead by fighting back against this tide. If she had, she would have lost. Instead, she has framed herself as the best shepherd of the country through this particular moment. The supposed rift, therefore, hardly exists at all. For the most part, Democrats agree on the direction we need to go. We just wonder the best way to take.

Overall, the differences between Clinton and Sanders are small. Yet the differences between Clinton and Trump or Cruz are enormous. Both Trump and Cruz, in their own unique ways, represent the culmination of the GOP’s turn toward extremism. It is hard to overstate the damage they could do in the White House. Should either win the presidency, the progressive cause would be paralyzed for more than a generation.

After the mists of the primary have cleared, this ideological valley will be unmistakable. And I believe that even the staunchest supporters of Sanders will come to Clinton’s side. There is too much to lose — the Affordable Care Act, the Supreme Court, any hope of immigration reform  — to let political stubbornness prevail. We should all recognize the grave lessons of 2000.

Finally, I want to say that I do not intend to minimize anyone’s opinion. The disputes between Clinton and Sanders may be small in the larger scheme of things, but they are sincere and strongly felt. This primary has had a crucial role in adjudicating these controversies, and my hope is that this has clarified the priorities of the Democratic Party. Once we keep the White House, we should make certain that we push our leaders to fully implement these core beliefs.

Nonetheless, the journey of real change has to be taken step by step. And if we lose the presidency, we will be racing merely to stay in the same place. This is why it is critical that we have a united Democratic Party. Clinton and Sanders both know this. It may seem hard to imagine now, but the day will come when they share the same stage not as opponents, but as allies.

When that happens, may it serve as a lesson to all of us. That’s what the Democratic Party believes in. We know that change doesn’t come from one person; we know that we have to work together. But for now, in these closing weeks of the primary, let us continue to debate, campaign and vote. It’ll be great preparation for November.

Kevin Kowalewski is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at krk78@cornell.edu. Democratic Dialogue appears alternate Thursdays this semester.