An eternal pessimist reflects on the campaign and turns in desperation to a call for humor
There is rumbling along the fault lines in the Democratic Party. The candidates are testy. Alliances and detentes are strained. Honorable differences share the stage with vanity, spleen, and self-righteousness. The line between political hardball and dirty politics is blurred, and where that line lies is in the eye of the beholder. Everyone is looking for an edge. None of this bodes well for November.
With enemies like this the president has little need for friends. The subservience of the Trump Republican Party could suffice. I am perhaps overstating it. I certainly hope that I am.
The Sanders campaign issued "sloppily worded" talking points for use by volunteers canvassing voters who lean toward Warren. They paint her as a candidate whose appeal is limited to "highly educated, more affluent" people who are going to vote Democratic anyway. The clear implication is that Warren appeals to elites, while Bernie is a man of the people, the virtuous working class.
Warren and her legions were understandably miffed. Rather than counter the charge of elitism with rhetoric and data to refute it, the Warren camp blindsided Bernie and the bros by dredging up a private conversation from two years ago where Sanders is alleged to have committed the gender crime of saying that a woman could not be elected president. He denied the charge. Warren did not back down. He said, she said. "Believe women. Just believe women," said a Democratic staffer in Iowa (Thompson, et al., 'He totally said it' or 'complete BS'). To which I say, Kellyanne Conway. Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Betsy DeVos. No, I am not equating Elizabeth Warren with Trump's harpies. The point is that "believe women" is not in and of itself a convincing argument.
As those who come to this space from time to time may have picked up, I like Sanders and Warren. I believe them to be honorable and authentic. Their flaws and blind spots are outweighed by their commitment, principles, and intelligence. Their rhetoric can be persuasive. Maybe that affinity colors my judgment and makes me inclined to give them more benefit of the doubt than I would give to, say, the president. To which I might add, the president has well and fully earned that disinclination to give him any benefit of the doubt on anything.
Warren and Sanders have declared that they want to put this dismal episode behind them. To that end they marched together in last week's Martin Luther King Day parade. They know that wading deeper into this bog would be an ill-advised, pointless distraction from the issues and the greater imperative to dethrone the current occupant of the White House. It is not exactly a sure thing that all of their supporters will recognize this and will follow their lead.
Along comes Zephyr Teachout with an op-ed column at The Guardian blasting Joe Biden. The title sums it up: 'Middle Class' Joe Biden has a corruption problem – it makes him a weak candidate. Sanders disavowed Teachout's op-ed, stating flatly that it is "absolutely" not his view the Biden is corrupt in any way and he is sorry the column appeared. The apology was undercut by reports that his campaign had issued a press release that circulated the column among supporters and the media (Bowden, Sanders apologizes). Biden took the high road and thanked Bernie for the statement, adding, "These kinds of attacks have no place in this primary. Let’s all keep our focus on making Donald Trump a one-term president."
Teachout is a Fordham University law professor who endorsed Sanders in 2016 and again in the current race. She ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor of New York in 2014, the House of Representatives in 2016, and New York attorney general in 2018. She may not exactly have her finger on the pulse of the electorate.
Her column and the Sanders campaign press release exemplify the scorched-earth approach that is instinctive for some of his advisers, staff, and supporters. I am tempted to engage in it myself with reference to the Khmer Rouge faction within the progressive movement, those who brook no dissent from the true faith, no deviation from the shining path. Damn centrists and liberals are lumped in with conservatives, Trump Republicans, and the radical right, all adversaries to whom no quarter is to be given. In an alternate universe I might not feel obliged to note that this is hyperbole, conscious exaggeration for the sake of making a point. I should also note that for Trump Republicans and the radical right politics is a brutish state of nature where adversaries must be crushed.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's dismay at being relegated to the same political party as Joe Biden is illustrative of the progressive mindset: "Oh God. In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are." She may have a point. But what is to be done? We are, after all, in America. As I have said on other occasions, and repeat myself with apologies to those who have heard it before, the country is not nearly as progressive as the Ocasio-Cortez contingent seems to think. We can find some way to band together, or we can cede the field to the Republicans.
Along comes Hillary Clinton lashing out at Bernie Sanders: "Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done." She goes on to rail against "a cadre of online Sanders supporters" critical of her 2016 campaign for "their relentless attacks on lots of his competitors, particularly the women" (Weissert, 'Nobody likes him'). There is something to be said for elements of her critique, but she undermines herself with remarks marinated in the black bile of long-nursed grudges. This tarnishes whatever legacy she may claim and further divides people we need to have working together toward the common goal of ending the national nightmare that is the Trump presidency.
It is fair to ask how far up in the Sanders campaign responsibility lies for the "sloppily worded" talking points, the press release, and assorted misrepresentations of Biden's record where positions and statements from years or decades past are taken out of context. As Sanders said in connection to the Warren talking points, "We have hundreds of employees…And people sometimes say things that they shouldn’t." While no candidate can control the overenthusiastic but ill-advised actions of local staff and volunteers, it should not be too much to expect Sanders to take responsibility and to lay down the law about his expectations as to the conduct of his campaign. The same goes for the rest of the Democratic field. As for the candidate of the Trump Republican Party, experience tells us what we can expect.
Therein lie questions that unsettle my thoughts by day and disturb my sleep by night. Will the Ocasio-Cortez squad, the Jacobin crew, and like-minded comrades offer more than grudging support for Biden or Buttigieg or Klobuchar, or maybe even Warren for that matter, if one of them is the nominee? Will Clinton and moderates who cast a wary eye toward much of the progressive agenda offer more than grudging support for Sanders or Warren if one of them is the nominee? Will enough of us be all in for the Democratic candidate whoever that may be? Will we reach out to Never Trump Republicans and "Trump-tolerant" voters who "dislike the man but generally like his policies, or…simply dislike the Democrats more" (Firey, Are the Democrats Getting the Trial They Want?), as I believe we need to do?
Speaking for myself, a party of one, the affair has become a tedious slog. A dose of humor is often a good prescription for woes that beset us. While humor will not miraculously heal the wounds or fill in the fissures that divide us, it can be balm for a weary spirit. I turn to Red Bernie, whose sense of humor comes out as spontaneous and authentic when he growls in curmudgeonly fashion, "I wrote the damn bill." During the Des Moines debate, when Biden mentioned that Kim Jong Un called him a rabid dog who should be beaten to death with a stick, Bernie quipped, "But other than that you like him." The response to Clinton was on point: "On a good day, my wife likes me, so let's clear the air on that one." I like him when he says that. He is not rolling over. There can be a an edge to it. But the humor disarms the antagonism, if only to a degree, and that helps.
In another guise humor can be used to skewer an adversary. Amy Klobuchar was right when in one of the debates she asserted that humor is an effective way to go after Trump. She elaborated in an interview with NPR's Tamara Keith:
I think if you're just straight-laced the whole time dealing with Donald Trump, no matter how good your policies are, I don't think it's going to work because you've got to show how absurd he is. And you can't just do that with pre-planned lines. You have to know how to use it in the moment.
Humor of the self-effacing variety may be the most salutary of all. It can nudge us toward humility and reflection and acknowledgment of stuff that makes us sadly and sometimes amusingly all too human. Voters might like to see more of that in our candidates.
Keep the faith.
John Bowden, Sanders apologizes to Biden for supporter's op-ed, The Hill, January 20, 2020
Thomas Firey, Are Democrats Getting the Trial They Want?, The Bulwark, January 23, 2020
Tamara Keith, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar Turns To Humor To Distinguish Herself Among Candidates, NPR, July 17, 2019
Natasha Korecki, Sanders apologizes to Biden for surrogate’s brutal op-ed, Politico, January 21, 2020
Clare Malone, What The Sanders vs. Warren Battle Is Really About, FiveThirtyEight, January 16, 2020
Neal Meyer, AOC Is Right: She and Joe Biden Should Not Be in the Same Party, Jacobin, January 7, 2020
Zephyr Teachout, 'Middle Class' Joe Biden has a corruption problem – it makes him a weak candidate, The Guardian, January 20, 2020
Alex Thompson and Holly Otterbein, Sanders camp admits anti-Warren script was deployed in multiple early states, Politico, January 14, 2020
Alex Thompson, Trent Spiner, and Stephanie Murry, 'He totally said it' or 'complete BS'? Sanders and Warren voters dig in, Politico, January 20, 2020
Will Weissert, 'Nobody likes him,' Hillary Clinton says of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, PBS NewsHour, January 21, 2020