How Democrats became the party of ‘safe socialism’
The Democratic Party has perhaps never been so radical or so conventional.The Democrats are now to the left of President Obama and desperately trying to placate the teary-eyed, obstreperous, wholly unrealistic shock troops of the Bernie Sanders Revolution, yet they’re also portraying themselves as the party of sobriety and traditional political norms.
This year, Democrats want to fight the man and be the man, and running against Donald Trump, they might manage the feat.
The Sanders delegates – by all appearances, the kind of people who typically work the giant puppets at street protests rather than serve as delegates at a political convention – nursed their sense of betrayal at an event that marked their success.
Yes, the Democratic National Committee blatantly tilted against Bernie, and yes, Hillary Clinton is a highly malleable careerist, but the latest, Sanders-lite version of Hillary is a testament to the power of the Revolution.
Hillary, who described herself as a New Democrat at the outset of her 2008 campaign, got pushed left on the Trans- Pacific Partnership, the Keystone pipeline, Social Security, the minimum wage, criminal justice and immigration.
The change on immigration is particularly stark. Back in 2008, after some waffling, Hillary opposed giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. Now, illegal immigrants address the Democratic convention and hail Obama’s executive orders to allow them to stay in the country. The authority to issue those orders was so dubious Obama used to say it didn’t exist. Now Hillary promises to go even further.
Nonetheless, the Democrats’ leftward march isn’t the point of contention one would expect in a typical general election. On the high-profile issues, there’s a stark difference between Trump and Clinton on immigration and guns, but not so much on trade, entitlements and the minimum wage, where the distinctions arguably involve only questions of sincerity or degree.
It’s telling that two of the three major progressive victories in the Democratic platform Sanders crowed about in his convention address – breaking up the banks, reinstating the Glass-Steagall financial regulations and opposing TPP – made an appearance in the Republican platform, as well.
The GOP committed itself to reimposing Glass-Steagall and a draft included soft opposition to TPP before the language was stripped out in favor of silence on the issue (in 2012, the platform robustly favored the agreement).
If the overlap in substance masks how the Democrats have changed, so does the way they’re selling themselves. Although it’s been rocky, they’ve attempted to stage a traditional convention with traditional speakers making traditional pitches. They’ve showcased rising stars (and alleged rising stars) and featured a president and a former president.
They wrap their case for Hillary in anodyne commonplaces that pass for cutting attacks when running against Trump – you shouldn’t mock disabled people, question the religion of your opponents or casually question the utility of decades-long treaty commitments.
The wildness of Trump makes it possible for them to try to sell a “safe socialism,” or a politics that is consistently left wing but doesn’t scare the horses.
It may not have been his intention, but you could be forgiven for thinking that, in his convention speech, Bill Clinton sought to situate Hillary on the left, while making her sound as boring as someone who has spent the entirety of her adult life attending committee meetings and serving on task forces.
Running against Trump the populist, there was little risk Hillary could go too far left with her VP pick, say by choosing Elizabeth Warren or Tom Perez. She still opted for the aggressively normal Tim Kaine, a career politician who has maintained the affect of a suburban dad.
He comes off like the neighbor you trust to return your rake after borrowing it. If you found him in Trump Tower, he’d be wandering around in the lobby wearing a fanny pack mingling with the tourists on a trip with the kids.
The self-styled party of normality is even playing the patriotism card. In 2008, Michelle Obama notoriously declared herself proud of her country for the first time. The other day she pronounced us the greatest country on earth (i.e., no need to make it great again).
Democrats routinely hit Trump for calling the military “a disaster,” and President Obama, in a speech invoking Reagan’s “shining city on a hill,” all but called Trump un-American.
The classic Chris Matthews distinction is that Democrats are the Mommy party and Republicans the Daddy party. This has never been truer, except Democrats believe they can convince voters Daddy is off bragging to tabloid reporters about his romantic exploits under an assumed name – among other erratic and unaccountable actions.
It may be that none of this works, and everything safe and professional feels stilted and inauthentic to disaffected voters this year. But the Hillary Democrats are putting their faith not so much in hope and change as in stolid reliability.