One of several key narratives to emerge from Wednesday night's Democratic town hall on CNN was the roiling fight over whether former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is really the "progressive" she now claims to be, or if she's the "proud moderate" she also claims to be. According to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), she can't possibly be both:
I don't know the context of it, but Sec. Clinton said some people call me a -- paraphrasing, some people call me a moderate. And I proudly say that I am a moderate. That's what she said. So all I said you can't go and say you're a moderate on one day and be a progressive on the other day. Some of my best friends are moderates. I love moderates. But you can't be a moderate and a progressive. They are different.
And I said that I'm a progressive who likes to get things done. And I was somewhat amused today that Senator Sanders has set himself up to be the gatekeeper on who is the progressive because under the definition that was flying around on Twitter and statements by the campaign, Barack Obama would not be a progressive, Joe Biden would not be a progressive, Jeanne Shaheen would not be a progressive, even the late, great Senator Paul Wellstone would not be a progressive. So I'm not going to let that bother me. I know where I stand. I know who stands with me. I know what I've done. But I don't think it helps for the senator to be making those kinds of comparisons because clearly we all share a lot of the same hopes and aspirations for our country that we want to see achieved. And I don't think it's appropriate that, you know, if Planned Parenthood endorses me or the Human Rights Campaign endorses me, you know, they're thrown out of the progressive wing and put into the establishment. That's just not anything we need to do. Let's have a good contest of ideas. Let's contrast where we stand. And that's what I intend to do for the next couple of days.
There are a few different ways to look at this, one of them being to actually examine the candidates' records, as each of them has done. Hillary points to Bernie's gun control issues and vote against Bush-era immigration reform as blemishes on his "progressive" bona fides, while Bernie had his own litany, including Hillary's vote on the Iraq AUMF. Honestly, if you asked anyone whose picture was more likely to be next to the word "progressive" in the dictionary, most people would say Sanders, but Hillary's no slouch either. People forget that she ran to Barack Obama's left on health care in 2008, and he even mocked her for it. Bernie also has a point that Hillary has a tendency to turn the burner up and down on her political stove when it suits her, when she really ought to try and find a sweet spot between policy ambition and pragmatism and stick with it. But the fatal flaw in Bernie's premise is that the "progressive" ideas he champions, that both of them champion to varying degrees, are moderate ideas, or so we tell people. When you ask them, most people will say that health care ought to be a right, that we shouldn't rip families apart through deportation, that we should have sensible gun regulations, that people should be paid a fair and livable minimum wage, and that we shouldn't go to war lightly. By insisting that a moderate politician can't champion these ideas, or that these ideas are not moderate, Sanders is arguing against himself. That said, I've been covering politics for a long time, and observing Hillary Clinton for even longer, and I know why the "progressive" label doesn't fit her as well as it does Sanders, and I don't think she should try to wear it. There's something that's always bugged me about what I've always seen as a rear-guard effort to re-brand the word "liberal," and it came into sharp focus as I looked at Sanders' Twitter screed against the unnamed Hillary yesterday:
These are the things that Bernie Sanders thinks are important to make you a progressive, and what struck me is what's missing from that list. I'm skeptical of TPP, I wasn't in favor of Keystone, I was appalled when Hillary invoked 9/11 to defend her ties to Wall Street, and I thought the Iraq AUMF was a disastrous mistake. But none of these issues particularly animates me, and the ones that do were nowhere on Bernie's list.
Where were any mentions of criminal justice reform, police accountability, voting rights, LGBT rights, women's rights, or even health care, for that matter? What about immigration? What about the minimum wage? These are all areas that Hillary has show some policy ambition on this election, but where she's also somewhat vulnerable to attacks on her record, so why not mention them?
Because while these issues may come along for the ride on a "progressive" agenda, they're just not as important as the others. "Progressive" is more than just a code-word for liberal, it's a stripping-away of core liberal values that make a point of lifting up voices other than straight white male fair trade coffee drinking Greenpeace donors. Even last night, Hillary Clinton told Anderson Cooper that the Voting Rights Act would be her litmus test for Supreme Court nominees, something I'm still waiting for Bernie Sanders to say. It was the first thing Hillary listed.
Hillary Clinton is a liberal, and she should say so. A liberal can also be a moderate, and be a progressive who cares about more than three things. She'll still have to answer for compromises she's made to get things done, or to hold onto power to get things done, but at least she'll be wearing a label that fits.
Hillary also needs to get a better answer to questions about her Wall Street ties, because her town hall moment on that issue was a disaster. Cooper literally knocked her back on her heels with that one. With all the time they've had to wrestle with this one, there is no excuse for the Clinton campaign not to have come up with something by now.
It may be a little late for this, but they ought to try the tack President Obama has feinted at from time to time, that even on Wall Street, there are people who would rather play by a less reckless set of rules. You can't compete if you're the only one with a speed limit, but that doesn't mean you relish the idea of a fiery crash. That explanation may or may not put the issue to rest, but it's a hell of a lot better than shrugging and saying you weren't sure you were going to run for president.