Why the Democratic nomination race won’t be a Clinton coronation

July 14, 2015
Former Senator James Webb (D-VA) holds up a union card as he addresses the International Association of Firefighters delegates at IAFF Presidential Forum

Former Senator James Webb holds up a union card as he addresses the International Association of Firefighters delegates at IAFF Presidential Forum in Washington, March 10, 2015. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

If you thought the 2016 Democratic race would be a coronation, think again. Divisions in the party are emerging. Just like the ones we’ve seen before.

Almost every contest for the Democratic presidential nomination ends up as a race between a progressive and a populist. Progressive candidates are inspirational. They campaign on liberal social values and win educated, high-minded, upper-middle-class Democrats. Think Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis or Barack Obama.

Populist candidates are tough guys. They champion the interests of the poor and the working class, and win wage earners, disadvantaged minorities and Democrats without college degrees. Think Robert F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale or Bill and Hillary Clinton.

This time, the progressive candidate was expected to be Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). But she isn’t running. Nonetheless, the vote is still there, waiting for a candidate. It got one. Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) is enjoying a surge of support from progressive Democrats.

Webb celebrates winning the Virginia U.S. Senate race in Arlington

Senate candidate-elect James Webb celebrates his victory at a rally in Arlington, Virginia, November 9, 2006. REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang

The closest thing to an authentic populist in this race is former Senator Jim Webb (D-Va.). He champions working-class interests and, on military issues, is something of a throwback to muscular, Cold War Democrats like John F. Kennedy, Harry Truman and Senator Scoop Jackson. Webb is a decorated military hero who claims to speak for the “forgotten” white working class. If they’ve been forgotten, it’s mostly by Democrats. Once the bedrock of the Democratic Party, many turned into Reagan Republicans. Just 36 percent of non-college whites voted for Obama in 2012.

Ironically, Sanders’ message is pure economic populism. “Nobody should earn more than $1 million,” he said in 1974. He wrote in 1976, “In the long run, major industries should be publicly owned and controlled by the workers themselves.” The people packing his rallies don’t look like horny-handed sons of toil. One Democratic pollster put it this way: “The Bernie Sanders voter is still a Volvo-driving, financially comfortable liberal who is pretty much white.” Why is Sanders such a draw to white liberals? It’s not their populist economic interests. It’s their progressive economic values.

In American politics, everybody’s a populist. The opposite of a populist is an elitist, and nobody wants to be that. Not Webb, who claims to speak “loudly and consistently on the issue of economic fairness.” In his announcement, Webb said, “Let’s clean out the manure-filled stables of a political system that has become characterized by greed.”

According to the Washington Post, “Webb adds a decidedly more conservative option for Democratic voters,” noting, “He has regularly championed the plight of rural and working-class Americans.” Is that conservative? It is if you pair a populist economic message with conservative social values. “I have spent my life in and around the American military,” Webb said when he entered the race. A Naval Academy graduate, he was a company commander in Vietnam and Reagan’s secretary of the navy.

Then what is he doing in the Democratic Party? Answer: Iraq. Webb ran for the Senate in 2006 as a staunch critic of the war in Iraq. He called the 2003 invasion “a strategic blunder of historic proportions.” Webb’s antiwar views are his lifeline to liberals. And a solid platform from which he can criticize Hillary Clinton, who voted to authorize the war.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the New School in the Manhattan borough of New York City

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the New School in New York City, July 13, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Webb wrote the book Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. He was writing about Ulster Protestants who settled the United States more than 200 years ago. We now call them Appalachian whites or country-music fans. They’re Webb’s people — and they’re a constituency whose support for Democrats has collapsed.

In 2010, Webb published an article titled “Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege.” In it, he wrote that, since the rise of the civil-rights movement, “the supposed monolith of white Anglo-Saxon dominance served as the whipping post for almost every debate about power and status in America.” He criticized diversity programs for “having expanded so far beyond their original purpose that they now favor anyone who does not happen to be white.” Recently, Webb urged caution in the rush to condemn the Confederate battle flag: “We all need to think through these issues with a care that recognizes the need for change but also respects the complicated history of the Civil War.”

Webb embodies an obsolete Democratic tradition that combines economic populism and cultural conservatism. How obsolete is it? When Webb won his Senate seat in Virginia, he lost white men by 24 points.

Where does that leave Clinton? In 2008, she easily carried white working-class Democrats in Appalachia. But she still lost. She doesn’t want to take that chance again.

Clinton knows that progressives have become the dominant voice in the party. Which is why she declared in New Hampshire last week, “I take a back seat to no one when you look at my record in standing up and fighting for progressive values.”

Clinton is trying to straddle both traditions. She’s both a Clinton Democrat and an Obama Democrat. Bill Clinton is a hero to populist Democrats but faces criticism from progressives. Obama is a hero to progressives but has never done well with populists. Hillary Clinton is trying to hold them both.

4 comments

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Only rural Vermont – which is relatively unique because of its small, homogenous population, relative isolation from the global economy, and its insulation from the problems confronting the rest of the country (illegal immigration, urban blight) would elect a Bernie Sanders as Senator; he simply would not be considered credible anywhere else, especially with his wish list of new entitlements (free college!), financing for which he doesn’t have a clue. And as a Democrat I find his constant railing against “corporate America” remarkably puerile and uninformed. Yes, we need Dodd-Frank and robust regulation of the financial industry. But Sanders exhibits general disdain for markets, capitalism, and international trade in general.

Posted by Cassiopian | Report as abusive

I think you’re undercutting Webb’s liberal credentials. He’s pro choice, supports same sex marriage and his message on criminal justice reform & economic fairness is squarely in the Democratic Party’s mainstream. On foreign policy he is less of a Scoop Jackson-type hawk and more of a military-realist. He understands the military and would be cautious in sending troops anywhere in harms way.

It seems that his unwillingness to play the identity politics game that continually undermines Democratic goals has gotten him tarred as a conservative, when in fact he presents a nuanced alternative that cuts through so much of the typical BS.

My biggest concern with him is his lack of more comprehensive strategy to address climate change & for that reason he’s my #2 pick behind Biden, but ahead of Hilary. Not buying Sanders snake oil.

Posted by 54cermak | Report as abusive

Webb is a republican. Bernie is a socialist. Hillary is an opportunists with corporatist leanings. The truth is that many people are tired of a government that only cares about corporations and is decreasing personal freedom and liberty. So, while Bernie is not the perfect candidate he is the only one who connects with the dissatisfaction of the people regarding having the government controlled by corporations.

Cassiopian: Capitalism is a myth. Liberty is a myth. Freedom is a myth. You need to break free from your mental bondage. We are heading back to the days of kings and serfs. Granted, most people choose to be in servitude to the masters rather than responsible for their own actions, but we should not have a government that assist weaklings in self enslavement.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

There is no doubt but that Hillary will certainty secure the Democratic nomination. The only question is who will oppose her as the Republican nominee. Most blacks, hispanics, homosexuals, and women will vote for her for president, leaving only some old white men and a few Asians to vote for the Republican candidate. Consequently, she is also a certainty to be the next president of the United States.

Posted by ArribaJuarez | Report as abusive