Hillary Clinton’s Willingness to Forfeit Crucial Rhetorical Ground

I could list you a dozen or so bullet points on why the prospect of a Clinton presidency is deeply troubling in terms of predictable impacts. Trade policy. Regime change. Accountability questions. Military spending (the surplus of which has led to trickle-down militarization of police departments at bargain basement price points). Drone strikes. Financial policy. The very real likelihood that we’ll be looking at another 8 years of seething, irrational hate in opposition to our Commander in Chief.

That’s not this post, however.

I could list you plenty about a Sanders presidency, too, if this was a post about Sanders, but it’s not. Not really. I vote on June 7th. The second-to-last day of primary dates. I’ve begrudgingly accepted, over the last couple weeks and certainly the last 12 hours, that this race is effectively over. I could choose to believe in the last-chance, last-ditch efforts that Sanders and his campaign are posturing to affect, but too much of me just doesn’t want to. Too many Bills seasons, perhaps. For a candidate who needed to run a near-perfect campaign to achieve victory against an establishment candidate in a primary built to nominate the person most-preferred by the establishment, he hasn’t. Not even close. Jeff Weaver has been a disaster – not half as cunning as, say, Rahm Emmanuel, but just as smarmy (though hopefully half as criminal) – and the tone of virtually all of Bernie’s proxies and de facto proxy-supporters has been mean, demeaning, vile, uninformed, sexist, racist, intellectually dishonest, whatever you want to say about it is probably true enough in terms of impact. More frustrating still, when given the opportunity to speak Truth to Power – say, when asked recently to name one vote or action that Clinton has undertaken due to the influence of money she’s received from the financial sector – Sanders has floundered. I’m no politician, but I’m nevertheless getting the sense that I’m more of one than Bernie, and certainly more of one than the many people he has surrounded himself with.  That’s a truly sad realization

“It’s not about her votes, it’s about the appearance of impropriety, the appearance that Goldman and others, investment shops that precipitated the financial crisis and were never truly held to account, have a friend in the presumptive nominee. Regulators and State executives should choose their friends more wisely. The ability of the Federal Government to effectively run is at all times dependent on whether elected officials are perceived to be above board. Americans deserve a government they can trust and, speaking for many of my supporters who have expressed similar sentiments, the speaking fees and campaign contributions create a palpable feeling that Secretary Clinton is friendly with the financial sector and, when called upon, will err on the side of supporting those friends rather than holding them to account for their malfeasance.”

I’m not sure why that would have been so hard. Why that wasn’t in Bernie’s back pocket at the debate and at every appearance since always is a question we aren’t likely to get answered, if we were ever to ask. It illustrates a massive political gap, though; the space between Bernie’s idealism and the questions that his idealism begs.

Even so, this is all prefatory and highly tangential. This isn’t a post about Bernie.

This is a post about the presumptive Democratic nominee, as presumptive as ever, and what she’s been willing to declare forfeit in her quest for that nomination.

“I’m not just making speeches and not just promising free this and free that and free everything,” Clinton said. Sanders, a democratic socialist, supports nationalized health care and “free” tuition to public colleges and universities. Clinton has argued that Sanders’ proposals are unrealistic.

Chuck Ross, The Daily Caller, February 21, 2016

With that deft sleight of hand (or not so sleight seeing as HRC was called out for making the same argument about Sanders that she had admonished Jeb Bush for making against her), Clinton took a path towards her nomination that explicitly adopts the Big Lie™ that the Right has been telling us for the better part of the last century – that government spending on social welfare, utilitarian good-of-all programs are rightly criticized as promising “free” things to voters – and did so for the most cynical of reasons: because it was by-and-large the most straightforward way to knock Sanders’ feet out from under him. Ostensibly, it worked.

I give Clinton more credit as a Democrat than to believe that her political philosophy is inexorably tied to the belief that social welfare programs amount to government giving people free stuff. Maybe that’s more credit than she deserves, but my present gripe doesn’t depend on defining her as a true anti-progressive villain, so I won’t. All the same, when she pokes fun at Sanders for living in fantasy land and promising free college and “free everything,” she sets herself apart from a fundamental tenet of modern progressivism, here clumsily laid out: that after all of the military spending and bank bailouts and tax loopholes and crumbling infrastructure and America’s rank in global education and the often debilitating cost of health care, there’s a BIG place at the bargaining table for social welfare spending. A BIG. FUCKING. PLACE. We’ve already paid into federal tax revenue. We’ve already sacrificed. We’ve watched as wages gaps and income disparity increase, as criminal conduct in corporate America gets a slap on the wrist and petty drug use gets protracted sentences. We’ve watched kids shot in the streets by Officers of the State and prosecutors leave their A-game at home to the benefit of their colleagues-in-blue. We’ve watched college costs skyrocket, I mean HOLY SHIT, and we’ve watched families post gofundme pages and friends create charity t-shirt ventures to cover the costs of healthcare. We’ve already identified the problems, we’re already paying in the money, and progressives want to ties those two thing together – to make the government work a little bit harder for us who need it rather than for us who already have it. Sure, people hate taxes, but people hate watching those tax dollars flushed down a military industrial complex black hole far more, I’d wager, and progressivism simply seeks to reset the spending towards citizen welfare and stability. Just a little bit.

Bernie was never talking about “free everything;” he was making the argument for progressive ideals, for reasoned investment in American welfare. No different than the social welfare conversations about national defense or the protection of corporate well-being. Clinton’s choice to take up the mantle of denigrating social welfare to the point where everything looks like a standard-less bread line, where we make no more discernment in doling out the federal fisc than a Medieval British Lord would as he gives alms to the poor, does a disservice to progressive ideals, to say nothing of progressive idealism.

Taxes are not theft. Social welfare pending is not “free everything.” They are contracts. Our fiscal decisions represent the promises we choose to make to each other, and the investment in our shared nation-state. When we talk of social welfare, the investment we make in each other, in those less fortunate, is about far more than simply throwing money at a problem so we feel better. Structured, reasoned social welfare programs accomplish myriad aims, not the least of which is fighting for an America where the ability of every citizen to make their lives better is mutually affirming to all of our lives and all of our success. Where the economy benefits from a consumer base made up of all Americans, rather than simply everyone minus those who society has left behind.

We know this, of course, because we don’t speak of programs like social security as “free stuff.” We made the choice to fund that social welfare program because it was important to us to ensure that late-in-life finances were assisted by the public fisc and we knew it would have broad social benefits for those citizens still working, as the economy benefits from ongoing income and spending among those who have retired, not to mention the assurance it gives to workers that they will be able to retire, at some point, without relying completely on the success and reliability of private investments.

Neither Social Security nor Medicare nor Family Medical Leave nor Workers Compensation nor Unemployment Benefits present an altogether complicated cost-benefit analysis, and maybe these have all become so ingrained in how we talk about American public policy that we forget that they can act as useful analogues for the decisions we presently face. At worst, they provide illustrative examples of why, when Hillary Clinton bemoans her opponent’s call for “free everything,” she’s giving up ground in the argument about why and how we decide to wield the power of government for the common good.

Make no mistake: the idea that social welfare spending is mere frivolity without any benefit beyond the direct beneficiary is a key component of Conservative thinking, and when progressives like me take issue with Clinton’s neoliberal tendencies, we aren’t just calling out her policy decisions (they’re getting better, I suppose?). We’re taking aim at her willingness, as she has done this campaign, to adopt the frame proposed by the Right and use it for her own purposes.

Taxes are not theft. Social welfare spending is not “free everything.” They are contracts. Say it with me.

Thing is, I doubt Clinton would disagree. All the same, her rhetorical choice to equate Bernie’s proposed social welfare spending as “free stuff” really puts a wrench in her ability to stake out any room for the Party to argue for all the social welfare components of Clinton’s platform. She will start her General Election campaign with yet another obstacle to consider, this time from the left, and she’ll face a Republican opponent who can simply point to her “free stuff” comment any time she advocates for federal spending on programs with any social welfare benefit.

Sadly, this is nothing new – that is, the tendency of the Democratic Party to rhetorically tack towards the Right for political wins; to forfeit significant ground in order to win, regardless of the policy cost; to campaign and govern from a place of persistent fear of loss. Yet in a primary where one of the candidates unabashedly made social welfare a priority, and made the historical we’ve-already-paid-into-this arguments and the present cost-benefit arguments over and over, it’s such a fucking disappointment.

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