Early in the Democratic presidential primary, Hillary Clinton’s campaign, including her network of super political action committees, spread dishonest attacks about Bernie Sanders and his supporters routinely. Which is part of what makes the progressive response to the hacked audio of Clinton at a private fundraiser in February remarkable.
The fundraiser, as The Intercept reported, was hosted by “Beatrice Welters, the former U.S. ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago, and her husband Anthony Welters, the executive chairman of an investment consulting firm founded by former Clinton aide Cheryl Mills.” Clinton offered donors her thoughts on what made a “political revolution” appealing to millennials.
“Some are new to politics completely. They’re children of the Great Recession. And they are living in their parents’ basement. They feel they got their education and the jobs that are available to them are not at all what they envisioned for themselves,” Clinton suggested. “And they don’t see much of a future.”
Clinton maintained it was not a good idea to tell idealistic people, particularly young people, that they bought into a “false promise.” So, it was up to politicians like her to say there is another way to make progress that can actually produce achievements because Sanders doesn’t know how to achieve the plans he promoted.
What she said sparked a backlash on social media, particularly from supporters of Sanders who have not forgiven Clinton and the Democratic National Committee for how they conspired to rig the primary process against Sanders. But the campaign’s response to this backlash was swift.
Clinton spokesperson Glen Caplin told The Washington Post, “As Hillary Clinton said in those remarks, she wants young people to be idealistic and set big goals. She is fighting for exactly what the millennial generation cares most about – a fairer more equal, just world. She’s working to create new pathways to jobs and career opportunities, to build more inclusivity and community, and to ensure everyone gets a fair shot.”
“She believes that the most diverse, open-minded generation in history wants their voice heard in this election and that’s why she worked with Senator Sanders on a plan to provide students with debt-free college, and it’s why she’s traveling the country listening to their concerns and talking about not only what’s at stake in this election, but her plan for the generation.”
Sanders admitted he was “bothered” by Clinton’s remarks but stated on CNN, “I agree with her,” and, “There are young people who went deeply into debt, worked very hard to get a good education, and yet they are getting out of school, and they can’t find decent-paying jobs. And that’s a major problem. They are living in their parents’ basements.”
“We’re in the middle of a campaign. And I—trust me. If you go to some of the statements that I made about Hillary Clinton, you can see real differences. So we have differences. There’s nothing to be surprised about. That’s what a campaign is all about.”
Liberal pundit and Vox.com editor-in-chief Ezra Klein praised the comments as an example of the “audacity” of Clinton’s “political realism.”
“Her persistent theme is the danger of overpromising, and the difficult work of persuading voters — particularly young ones — to stick around for the slow, grinding work of change. Her rallying cry is that modest victories can add up, over time, to something much grander,” Klein argued.
One of the more obnoxious efforts to defend Clinton came from Michael Tomasky over at The Daily Beast. He was upset that he had to stop watching golf and football and write about this latest uproar among the “far left.”
“Of all the arrant bullshit I’ve seen on Twitter this election, this is easily the bullshittiest. She insulted no one,” Tomasky proclaimed. “In fact, quite the opposite—for someone speaking behind closed doors to ardent supporters, she was not only restrained, but she openly and directly asked her supporters to be patient with the impatient; that is, to understand the views and motivations of the younger people who wanted more radical change.”
According to Tomasky, people should celebrate Clinton for being “restrained” because the political class usually is less guarded when expressing contempt for the left. Except, it is not like Clinton made this statement because she is some kind of scholar interested in anthropology or social sciences. She wasn’t didactically exploring the finer points of what drives cultures or demographics to protest certain conditions in communities. She was speaking to a room full of rich people, probably from the top 15 percent, who were reasonably terrified at the time that Clinton would not be a strong enough candidate to survive an upswell of left-wing populist anger.
In February, when Clinton made these remarks to her donors, Sanders had raised more money than Clinton and the polls going into the Nevada caucus were close. The media’s major takeaway from that month’s debate was that Clinton painted Sanders’ plans as unrealistic.
It simply is not true that she was not insulting anyone. If one listens to the recording, it is clear Clinton was working the room. “I mean, I’m still trying to understand the revolution part. Because here’s how I think about it,” she said. Donors giggled and chuckled. She played to them.
Clinton played to her rich donors again when she said:
…[T]here’s just a deep desire to believe that we can have free college, free healthcare, that what we’ve done hasn’t gone far enough, and that we just need to, you know, go as far as, you know, Scandinavia, whatever that means, and half the people don’t know what that means, but it’s something that they deeply feel.
A transcript does not communicate the sarcasm or derisiveness of Clinton’s comment, but when she said “whatever that means,” it was not an example of empathy and understanding. She wholly rejected the idea that the government should move toward social programs like Medicare For All and free public college tuition. She was engaged in a kind of humor that would go over well at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference or CPAC.
The same month Clinton made the recorded comments, her campaign recruited a black congressman, South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn, to be the face of opposition to Sanders’ college plan and gin up controversy by suggesting it would doom historically black colleges.
Clyburn said, “[If] you start handing out two years of free college at public institutions are you ready for all the black, private HBCUs to close down? That’s what’s going to happen.”
The Democratic presidential nominee only worked with Sanders on a plan for “debt-free college” when her campaign and the Democratic National Committee were terrified Sanders supporters would not fall in line at the national convention in Philadelphia. Clinton’s campaign needed to support a few aspects of the “political revolution” to make it appear it was worthwhile to vote for her (even if she never meaningfully pursues these agenda items as president because she doesn’t really believe in them).
Is it really audacious to stand tall and insist the status quo is unalterable? Or to cast doubt whether Sanders and young people really have all the answers on how to transform the system to work for the 99 percent instead of only the top one percent?
Clinton wants people to be idealistic but not too idealistic. Her message is that older generations, who are part of the political class, need to determine what change is and is not achievable. Set the goals. Then, convince millennials these goals are achievable unlike their idealistic vision for revitalizing the country, which Sanders inspired them to support.
It makes little sense for Sanders or any of his supporters to say they agree with Clinton. Her assessment is not born out of a genuine interest in making the “political revolution” possible. It is born out of an interest in managing anger, co-opting energy, and steering action into policy plans that the Democrats are comfortable advancing for the purposes of pure politics—for touting during campaigns against Republicans.
That does not bode well for the Sanders agenda if she is elected president, but the bigger question is whether the coalition that made up the backbone of the “political revolution” will show enough solidarity and have the courage to make clear demands of Clinton as president.
It is one thing to encourage others to hold their nose and vote for Hillary Clinton because she is the lesser of two evils and Donald Trump is one massive evil that this country must not elect. It is quite another thing to downplay, misrepresent, justify, and ignore the truth of what Clinton stood for or pretend the fact Sanders and her are “collaborating” means she’s had some change of heart.
Clinton is still the same politician, who will not support a ban on fracking and who hawkishly supported bombing Libya. She is the same politician, who fervently opposed Medicare For All and still does not support a $15 federal minimum wage. Yet, it seems no matter how often corporate Democrats undermine progressive action or populist reforms, there are always enough progressives willing to excuse this action and even praise the calculated way in which Democrats play politics and punch down at the left.