Hillary Clinton is not going to make it easy for you to come around to supporting her. “You” meaning the good young liberal, who probably voted for Obama, and perhaps even (if you are old enough) supported him over her in 2008.
Earlier this week, Chelsea Clinton, rather suddenly acting as a campaign surrogate, delivered a blatantly dishonest attack against your favorite old socialist Bernie Sanders, and his plan to replace America’s expensive patchwork healthcare system with a federally-funded single-payer plan for everyone:
“Sen. Sanders wants to dismantle Obamacare, dismantle the CHIP program, dismantle Medicare, and dismantle private insurance,” she said during a campaign stop in New Hampshire. “I worry if we give Republicans Democratic permission to do that, we’ll go back to an era — before we had the Affordable Care Act — that would strip millions and millions and millions of people off their health insurance.”
This is not entirely new territory for the Clinton campaign. Clinton has already attacked Sanders’ plan for necessitating taxation, as Jim Newell pointed out last year. That line, that it is unfair of Sanders to propose that the tax burden for true universal healthcare be distributed widely, has also been repeated this week by numerous Clinton surrogates and advisers.
What distinguishes these attacks from prior Clinton attacks on Sanders—that he is soft on guns, that his attacks on her are unfair—is that they’re entirely cynical and disingenuous. Everyone involved in making these arguments knows full well that they’re bullshit, with a patina of plausible deniability. Chelsea Clinton has a masters degree in public health from Columbia. She knows exactly how what she’s saying obfuscates the issue.
“Because if you look at Senator Sanders’ proposals going back nine times in the Congress, that’s exactly what he’s proposed. To take everything we currently know as health care, Medicare, Medicaid, the CHIP Program, private insurance, now of the Affordable Care Act, and roll it together.”
Yes, by “dismantle,” and “strip millions and millions and millions of people off their health insurance,” we meant he’d roll these existing, popular programs together into one larger and more expansive one.
It would be one thing for Hillary Clinton’s campaign to say that a national single-payer plan is politically unfeasible, that it’s not achievable no matter who our next president is, that it would be too disruptive to the status quo to win the popular support necessary to overcome opposition from entrenched interests, etc. Those are perfectly legitimate arguments, that also have the benefit of being probably true. Hell, even pointing out that Sanders doesn’t (yet) have a detailed plan to pay for a national healthcare program is well within the bounds of honest political debate, as the question of how costs would be distributed is a pretty important one.
And the Hillary Clinton campaign has said some of those things. In fact, they’re mixing in some of those legitimate arguments alongside the bullshit ones. But the argument the campaign is making in a sustained way to voters, not reporters, is that single-payer is bad and scary and will cost you money. They’re going full-on demonize-the-tax-and-spender: Bernie Sanders will raise your taxes and kill Medicare. The implied corollary is that Sanders is raising your taxes to give benefits to someone else. Bernie Sanders wants to “dismantle Medicare.” It’s the scuzziest form of Democratic Party political scaremongering, pitched at low-information voters who probably couldn’t precisely define what “single-payer” is, but who know damn well what Medicare is.
There’s no defending the decision to pick this particular fight. Hillary Clinton ought to be running as—and for most of this campaign thus far she has been running as—the most liberal electable candidate possible. The only argument against Sen. Bernie Sanders that ought to be necessary for her to make is: Come on, this guy?
The deal mainstream Democrats make with liberals (and to a lesser extent, properly left-wing voters) is you hold your nose and vote for the less-bad one, because the Republicans are terrifying, and in exchange Democrats will do their best to at least not make liberal outcomes less likely. Hillary Clinton’s campaign is currently working to make a very popular liberal outcome less likely to be achieved. To have the standard-bearer for American liberalism—which the likely Democratic nominee for president is, like it or not—dismiss single-payer as unachievable policy is to is to decline an opportunity to shift the Overton Window. To have her attack it as bad policy on explicitly conservative grounds is to actively try to push that window to the right.
This should give enthusiastic (as opposed to grudging) Hillary Clinton supporters pause. In 2007-2008, the line among Clinton supporters was that Obama was not actually appreciably to the left of Hillary Clinton—that his differences were primarily symbolic, and largely meaningless. There was plenty of truth to that line, especially on domestic issues. (It papered over the primary reason Clinton was vulnerable to a liberal challenger, which was her Iraq War vote. Her undiminished hawkishness is still the most compelling reason to refuse to support her!) But the Clintons always find ways to complicate the claim that, at heart, they’re good liberals.
Assuming Bernie Sanders can’t actually win the nomination—and I am positive most people in Clinton’s campaign still believe that he cannot—Hillary Clinton doesn’t even have to make any sort of affirmative case for herself to liberal Democratic voters. She just has to not give them reasons not to want to support her.
Is she capable of that? Or does Clintonian contempt for the left run so deep that she can’t even make it to the general election without a cynical rejection of the arguments underpinning American liberalism?