Monday, April 18, 2016

On Bernie Bros, Hillary Haters, and Ideological Purity (Or, What LBJ's Presidency Might Tell us About Hillary's)

I was in Los Angeles last week to catch a Dodgers game, and had a few hours to kill before the game began. Yelp sent me to a hipster watering hole on Sunset Blvd where I sipped on a local IPA while taking in the LA social scene. I found myself seated next to a group of 20-something hipsters and, being a researcher, decided to conduct some ethnographic research by observing the LA hipster in his natural habitat (basically, I eavesdropped on their conversation).

Their conversation was wide ranging, but eventually turned to politics, and, wouldn’t you know it, one of their number was a full-fledged Bernie Bro. I listened with fascination as he tried to A) explain the difference between socialism and democratic socialism to his hipster friends, and; B) convince his pals of Bernie’s ideological purity.

I don’t think anyone understood his socialism rant (certainly I did not understand him), but the second part of his lecture was representative of the type of nonsense I’ve come to expect from Bernie Bros:

“Bernie has been fighting for the same things his entire life. He’s been consistently progressive. Hillary is a flip-flopper. She’s always having to go back and apologize for things she did 20 years ago. She isn’t a real progressive.”

As I sat and listened to this, I couldn’t help but think about Hillary’s record in comparison to who I think is the most fascinating President of the 20th Century – Lyndon B. Johnson.

If you have not read Robert Caro’s four-part series on LBJ, I highly encourage you do so. In those books, Caro carefully dissects LBJ’s complicated, seemingly incongruous record as a Senator from deeply conservative Texas. LBJ came of age and was first elected to Congress while FDR was President, and in his first congressional campaign, ran as an ardent New Dealer – an economic populist who would support FDR’s agenda. Over time, as the depression faded into distant memory, Texas became more and more conservative, and the once progressive young New Dealer had to walk a fine line between supporting progressive policies that would establish his bona fides in the national Democratic Party while not alienating his increasingly conservative base back home. An ambitious man who wanted desperately to be President, LBJ’s tightrope act in the Senate lasted for over a decade, even while serving as the Senate Majority Leader.

Every Democrat in the Senate thought they knew the “real” LBJ. The southern segregationists gave him a free pass on signing the Southern Manifesto, a full-throated rebuke of desegregation signed by all southern Senators with the exception of Johnson (who was “allowed” to not sign because of his role as Majority Leader and the understanding they all had that signing would doom his Presidential ambitions) and Tennessee’s two senators (Al Gore and Estes Kefauver, who were both progressives on civil rights). Despite LBJ not signing the manifesto, the southern segregationists were convinced that Johnson was one of them. His first speech as a senator (“We of the South…”) was a rebuke of federal overreach into civil rights issues. He had willingly watered down the civil rights bill of 1956 to the point that, while significant in that it was the first civil rights bill passed since Reconstruction, it accomplished very little in actually promoting civil rights. The Strom Thurmonds and Richard Russells of the world were convinced that Johnson was one of them.

Meanwhile, Johnson had successfully convinced the liberals in the Senate that he was actually one of them. He would privately support their initiatives, work behind the scenes to help pass their bills, and would explain to them in private conversations that his voting record was not necessarily a reflection of his actual views, but rather those of his constituents back home in Texas.

The voting public, meanwhile, was left only to speculate that Johnson was a fairly conservative Southern Democrat based solely on his voting record – he regularly voted against federal involvement in civil rights issues, was hostile towards organized labor, and had a decidedly hawkish record on foreign policy; policy issues that made him popular back home in Texas, but not in the national Democratic Party.

Then, at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, presidential nominee John F. Kennedy was looking for a running mate. A New England liberal, he knew he needed a moderate southerner or westerner to help bring balance to the ticket. As leader of the Democrats in the senate, Johnson was the obvious choice – besides, Kennedy was one of those progressive Senators who was convinced that Johnson was really in the progressive camp.

When Kennedy floated Johnson’s name to party insiders as a potential running mate, it was met with outright hostility. Civil rights leaders did not support Johnson’s positions on race. Labor leaders threatened a full revolt because of his poor record on labor issues. These constituents were interested in a candidate with ideological purity – someone like Hubert Humphrey. Bobby Kennedy very famously tried to convince his brother to change his mind, even going so far as visiting LBJ’s hotel suite to try and convince him to decline the nomination. But LBJ was an ambitious man, and he knew that his only path to the Presidency may very well lie in accepting the VP nomination, which he did.

We know the rest of the story – Kennedy was fairly ineffective at getting his program passed through Congress, while Vice President Johnson was relegated to the “kids table” and was rarely involved in any major policy decisions. Then, in November of 1963, Kennedy was assassinated and Johnson became President, and in a period of two years pushed some of the most progressive legislation of the 20th Century through Congress: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act, the Higher Education Act of 1965, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, the War on Poverty….the list goes on and on.

In a speech to Congress urging passage of the Civil Rights Act, Johnson spoke of his time as a young man teaching in an impoverished school in Cotulla, TX, a largely immigrant town near the Mexican border. Johnson stated in that speech that he had vowed, as a young school teacher, that if he ever had the power to help people like those children he knew in Cotulla, that he would do so, famously stating “Well, now I have that power. And I intend to use it.”

Those Southern Democrats who were convinced that Senator Johnson was really one of them were shocked by what they saw in President Johnson. This was a man they did not know. Richard Russell, Johnson’s mentor in the Senate, was famously quoted as saying he felt personally betrayed by Johnson. This man – who had spent his entire career performing an intricate tightrope act, trying to convince both liberals and conservatives that he was one of them – finally showed his true colors when he became President. His domestic agenda is rivaled only by FDR’s in its impact on disenfranchised people in America. His record as a senator was anything but ideologically pure, but once he was freed of the need to please the electorate in Texas, he was able to let his ideological purity shine through. LBJ was, in fact, a progressive, and his liberal bona fides are evidenced by his legislative achievements.  But he had to become President before we could truly find that out. And he succeeded where Kennedy failed because he understood what it took to get legislation through Congress. He knew all the levers of power, and he knew how to use them.

Which brings us back to Hillary Clinton. Hillary rivals LBJ in ambition. It is clear that, much like the fictional Claire Underwood, she has been angling for the Presidency for most of her adult life. She has strategically and surgically picked her path, and despite a few setbacks (a political upstart named Barack Obama and a little misunderstanding about email servers), she has methodically plotted her path and now stands on the threshold of the highest office in the land.

But the Bernie Bros who demand ideological purity above all are now standing in her way.
Ideological purity for many elected officials is a luxury they can ill-afford. Bernie has had the benefit of serving as a Senator from the most liberal state in America. He has never really had to weigh his liberal convictions against those of his constituents and vote in a way that violated his conscience (his controversial stances on gun control being the only possible exception – a stain on his ideological purity that his supporters seem willing to overlook). He has enjoyed a luxury that LBJ could have only dreamed about as a Senator.

The model for electing Democratic presidents for the last 75 years has been simple – pick a moderate- progressive from the South. Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton all fit this rule. The two exceptions to that rule were both young, passionate, handsome, articulate first-term Senators named Kennedy and Obama who took the political world by storm, who broke all of the rules of Presidential politics and who, despite their reputations, ran and largely governed as moderates.

Now, take a look at the “ideologically pure” liberals who have run for President in the last 75 years whose last names were not Kennedy or Obama: Adalai Stevenson (trounced by IKE not once but twice), Hubert Humphrey (trounced by Nixon), George McGovern (trounced by Nixon), Walter Mondale (trounced by Reagan), Michael Dukakis (trounced by Bush 41), and John Kerry (beaten handily by Bush 43).

The only outlier in the dataset is Al Gore, a moderate Southerner who lost the election but WON THE POPULAR VOTE!

So if you are a Democrat who wants to be president and are not as handsome or rhetorically gifted as Kennedy or Obama, your formula for becoming President in the last 75 years was to be a Southern moderate.

Do you suspect Hillary Clinton has noticed this trend, as well? I suspect she has.

Her husband ran and governed as a moderate because that was the winning formula. Some people are now questioning his record and ideological purity, but he governed during a time when compromise was not a bad word. He was a progressive Democratic governor from a conservative southern state, was President during a time in which the county was still coming to terms with social issues that now seem straightforward (particularly issues surrounding gay rights), and took pride in working with the other party in order to accomplish objectives. He was more interested in effectiveness than he was in ideological purity. His record of accomplishment is now under attack by those who demand ideological purity (interestingly, the Tea Party demands ideological purity of its candidates, as well).

Hillary has carved out a similar path. Her record as First Lady, as Senator from New York, and as Secretary of State is that of a moderate progressive – staying true to the ideals of her Democratic base, particularly on issues related to women's rights, children and healthcare, but not so far to the left that she would be written off as “too liberal,” all the while plotting her run for the Presidency. She has fastidiously followed the only formula that has worked in Democratic Presidential Politics for the last 75 years, and at no point in her career had the luxury of calling herself a Democratic Socialist or compiling the type of voting record that Bernie has been able to compile as a back-bench Senator with not a single significant legislative achievement to his name.

So to the Bernie Bros seeking ideological purity, I offer this: be careful what you wish for. The Democratic Party has fallen into the “ideological purity” trap before, and it has led to disastrous results on election day. And let us learn a lesson from LBJ’s legacy and ask ourselves an important question - what might a President Hillary Clinton do once she is unshackled from the chains of moderation? Once she is given the power of the Presidency, how might she use it? Like LBJ, might we see her true colors? Do we really doubt that, in her heart, she is just as progressive as Bernie or any of the other liberal icons of yesteryear? Do we REALLY believe she is a corporate sellout aiming to do nothing more than protect her Wall Street cronies?

Hillary has methodically followed a formula for the last 40 years. It was and remains the only tried and true formula to elect Democratic Presidents. Does that make her disingenuous? A sellout? Untrustworthy? If we begin hurling those monikers at her, who else might we need to hurl them at? She was and is the Democratic Party’s best chance at keeping the White House, and I suspect that, like LBJ, she would go down in history as one of our most progressive Presidents if given the chance.

Don’t mistake this blog as my endorsement of Hillary – I am still weighing all of my options, and am becoming increasingly interested in the possibility of a Libertarian as president. But as a registered Democrat who worked for John Kerry and voted for Obama twice, and as someone who cares deeply about a progressive social agenda in this country, I have zero doubts as to Hillary’s liberal bona fides. Frankly, I am sick and tired of hearing the Bernie Bros pound their chests while extolling the virtues of Bernie’s ideological purity and discarding Hillary’s “moderation” with self-righteous indignation. Bernie Sanders would be a horrible president, not because he is a horrible person (to the contrary, he seems like a really great guy), but because he has zero chance at getting any of his agenda passed through Congress. He has never passed a bill as a Senator – what makes anyone think his legislative prowess will suddenly change once he becomes President?

So if you want progress, and you want a champion for social justice and economic equality who actually has a chance to get things done and not just talk a good game, it may be time to begin rethinking your options. Ideological purity never got us anywhere. I’ll take effectiveness over ideological purity any day of the week. Kennedy was ideologically pure, but ineffective. It took ideologically impure but legislatively effective Lyndon Johnson less than 12 months to do what Kennedy failed to do in more than three years. I’m not interested in a candidate who makes me feel good – I’m interested in a candidate who will get things done. Hillary, not Bernie, is that candidate for the Democratic Party.