The already excellent Washington Post coverage of the first Democratic presidential debate gets even better with two columns by E. J. Dionne, Jr. and Harold Meyerson.
It’s not as simplistic as the “Bernie is pushing Hillary to the left” meme, although that is also quite likely. Dionne does a particularly good job of describing the unique and historic contribution of Senator Sanders to the Democratic presidential campaign and to America’s political dialogue in general:
…For the first time in the modern political era, Americans got to watch leaders of a mainstream political party debate the relative merits of capitalism and democratic socialism. And for once, socialism was cast not as the ideology that produced a brutal dictatorship in the old Soviet Union, but as a benign and, yes, democratic outlook that has created rather attractive societies in places such as Denmark and Sweden.
Whatever happens to Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) candidacy, he will deserve credit for having widened our political horizons…We now have a more realistic sense of the choices before us: Sanders’s unapologetic democratic socialism, Clinton’s progressive capitalism and the Republicans’ disdain for government altogether. Guess who occupies the real political center?
The consequences of the Sanders campaign for the Democratic Party have been enormously favorable, explains Dionne. “Democrats are far more united than Republicans, who are in a shambles. Democrats are the party of what the political consultants like to call kitchen-table issues — family leave, higher wages and kids being able to afford college — while Republicans are the party of ideology and abstractions.”
Dionne also credits Clinton with a highly skilled presentation. “She maintained her good mood and big smile in the face of repeated challenges from CNN’s questioners, deploying the classic Clinton strategy of insisting that the campaign is about what the voters need, not what the media and the GOP want to talk about.”
Even better, Clinton got a very deliberate lift from her leading Democratic adversary in the campaign. “This is where her most important victory came, with a key assist from Sanders. The sound bite played over and over was created when Sanders agreed with Clinton by asserting: “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails.” Some sleazy media tried to spin it as a diss, but anyone paying attention understood it as an impressive display of Democratic solidarity, which worked beautifully in the wake of Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s blundering admission that the email fuss is all about hammering down Clinton’s poll numbers.
Dionne notes the reference by Sanders to Denmark’s example of a thriving social democracy in which government plays a more active role in securing decent living standards for all citizens. Meyerson elaborates on the creative synergy in the dialogue between the two candidates on the advancement of such social democratic ideals in the U.S.:
…The relationship between the European social democracy that Sanders extols and the American progressivism that Hillary Clinton champions is complicated and at times symbiotic, with clear areas of overlap and difference…The European social democratic belief in citizens’ rights extends deeper into the economic realm — particularly the workplace — than American liberalism’s does.
He puts the differences between the policies that define northern European social democracy and American progressivism into a current context:
The great irony of Northern European social democracy is that it has produced perhaps the world’s most successful capitalist economies. The Swedish full-employment policy that so intrigued Bill Clinton, for instance, made workers confident that they could get jobs with at least comparable pay if their companies failed, thereby eliminating popular resistance to shuttering moribund industries and incubating new ones. The German economy — by any measure the most successful of any advanced capitalist nation over the past decade — confers on employees considerable say in company policy by giving their representatives half the seats on corporate boards. It is also home to the world’s most successful small and medium-size businesses, the Mittelstand, the kind of small manufacturers whose numbers have diminished in the United States as Wall Street has pressured our big retailers and manufacturers to offshore their suppliers.
The crucial distinction between Europe’s social democrats and the Democratic Party in the United States is that the former have institutionalized worker power to a far greater degree than have our Democrats, who are quintessentially a party of both capital and labor. This has mattered most particularly in the post-1970 era of globalization. While the major corporations of all Western nations have gone global, those in Northern Europe have, as a result of the power that workers wield, retained the best jobs in their home nations and still identify themselves with their home countries. The vast majority of U.S. corporations, by contrast, identify themselves as global, seem content to offshore jobs and don’t invest much, if anything, in training workers for highly skilled jobs here. That’s not because U.S. corporate chief executives are less patriotic than their European counterparts, but because social democratic parties have vested workers with the power to constrain corporate conduct, and crafted policies that favor their home nations’ economies through, for instance, increased public investment. They have limited the size and sway of finance, whose demand for profits accords no special status to the notion of a “home country.”
Meyerson acknowledges that Clinton also wants to expand worker rights in the context of liberal capitalism and he credits Sanders with having the understanding that empowering workers is an essential requirement for Democratic advancement. Meyerson concludes with the powerful insight that “In the United States, liberalism advances only when radicalism is bubbling, which is why Clinton and Sanders need each other, and why the Democrats need them both.”
The Democratic coalition would lack this synergy if either Clinton or Sanders were not running for president. Their campaigns are complimentary and reinforcing to each other. Both candidates have also elevated the Democratic dialogue by treating each other with respect.
Meyerson and Dionne have done a fine job of putting the candidacies of Clinton and Sanders in clearer perspective, especially in relation to each other. Most of the other traditional media reporters and columnists will no doubt continue with the cage-match framing, which misses the larger point — that Sanders and Clinton benefit tremendously from their synergistic campaigns, as do the Democratic Party and American politics.