Point Austin: Primary Thoughts
For your consideration as you enter the voting booth
In this space last fall, commenting on the already toxic Republican presidential campaign ("Those Who Sow the Wind," Sept. 25), I wrote that the surprisingly interesting and fundamentally political Democratic campaign could wait for another day. With the March 1 Texas primary looming (you mean you haven't early voted?), that day has come. By last September, the race for the Democratic nominee had already become more competitive than anticipated, with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders providing a vigorous challenge to the still likely nomination of Hillary Clinton.
That's all to the good. The Chronicle editorial board has enthusiastically endorsed Sanders – which is fine – but I was apparently one of few members raising some judicious doubts. Not because I disagree with many of his positions – his New Deal progressivism re-branded as "Democratic Socialism" (it plays much better in Vermont) is well within the wheelhouse of our political inclinations – but because I am yet to be persuaded of his ability to be a truly national candidate, and not only because I live in Texas. I read plenty of bicoastal pundits who appear to believe that those of us who live in flyover country can barely tie our political shoes without direction from New York or California. But as the late Molly Ivins used to say, "One thing you learn early in Texas politics: Things can always get worse."
I read those wistful stories insisting that Sanders sometimes polls better against GOP candidates than Clinton, and all I can do is shake my head. Clinton has been slandered and savaged for nearly four decades by the GOP attack machine (sufficiently that plenty of Dems seem to buy the tired tales). Sanders, on the other hand, is yet to be touched – indeed, Karl Rove's American Crossroads PAC and other Republican vehicles have been attacking Clinton "from the left" in a naked effort to promote Sanders' candidacy at her expense.
Should Sanders in fact be nominated – still a long shot – it will take but a moment to redirect that deep-pocketed phalanx against "The Red Jewish Atheist from Birkenstock." Maybe his candidacy would be able to survive that, at least in some liberal states, but it won't be as easy as his starry-eyed supporters appear to believe. The electorate is still quite polarized, and the biggest campaign money runs very hard right.
To Be Established
Nevertheless, I'm delighted that Sanders' generally progressive message and broad support are succeeding at their primary task, which is to pressure not just Clinton but the entire Democratic Party to consider policies that could otherwise lapse from the public debate. Sanders' insistence on single-payer health care – although often couched in pointless attacks on the quite successful Obamacare (providing access to many millions more people) – has returned the "public option" to Clinton's policy proposals. Neither is readily achievable unless we can indeed alter the partisan balance in D.C. and the states, but Clinton's incremental version would be a wedge to provide real alternatives – and Sanders' advocacy should help build support for it.
But that does raise another major worry about Sanders, who until deciding to run for president was never a Democrat at all, but rather a small party or independent candidate who continues to disdain "party-building" – that is, strengthening the institutional Democratic Party in states (such as Texas, and too many others) that desperately need a strong alternative to one-party Republican rule. Neither his unfulfilled turnout promises, nor his campaign organization, have yet delivered the long-term foot soldiers (or the funding) that comprise an effective political party, and that are far more important to real downballot progress than the high-profile "establishment" that Sanders so cavalierly dismisses. (And just how is it that a 25-year member of Congress escapes the dreary label of "establishment"? Just by hailing from Burlington?)
I'm eager to see what happens, while I'm cheerfully reminded of a Sanders declaration about himself and Clinton: "On our worst days, I think it is fair to say, we are 100 times better than any Republican candidate."
Please be sure to vote.
A Note from the Author
This will be my last "Point Austin" column for some time, and except for stories already in preparation, a break from the Chronicle. I'm taking a leave to address a major medical issue, and the doctors report that I should allow at least two months to return to full strength. I hope to be back in the saddle in this space before too long.
In any case, it's undoubtedly a good idea to periodically step away from the grind of weekly political commentary, and its corollary requirement to have an opinion on virtually everything, all of the time. I will be glad to have a few weeks of relative contemplation, and to be reminded that the universe is quite a bigger place than the Austin City Hall, the state of Texas, and these United States.
Thanks to all "Point Austin" readers, and may we meet here once again.