As Bernie Sanders has risen in the polls and had an unexpected degree of success in Iowa and New Hampshire, thus posing a potential problem for Hillary Clinton’s coronations, it has been immensely enjoyable watching the Clinton campaign and its many co-conspirators panic. This has ranged from the very bizarre, such as comparing the demand of tuition free college, something that was in the past accomplished in both California and New York City (to say nothing other many countries where it is still a reality) to the redistribution of ponies, to the really rather shameless, like the number of professional pundits attacking Sanders support of single payer, when they themselves supported single payer until it became politically pragmatic to attack Sanders.
What is most remarkable about all of this, is that even though those leading the attack on Sanders purport to be the guardians of all things very serious against Sanders and his supporters unrestrained un-seriousness, is that the arguments that Clinton supporters have resorted to are almost all extremely vapid. That is, while they have taken the most condescending of attitudes towards Sanders supporters, instructing them that support for Sanders is unacceptable given that his policy proposals are unrealistic, vague, short of specifics, etc., they have been relentless in trotting out arguments that are completely hollow, devoid of any underlying political content, and ultimately meaningless.
Nowhere is this more on display then the fixation on Hillary Clinton’s experience. In case you have not recently been evangelized to on this point, not only is Clinton more “experienced” than Sanders, she is the most experienced candidate for President. Ever. Objectively so! Ignoring how one reaches the “objective” conclusion that Clinton is the most experienced candidate for President ever or that her sum time in public office consists of nine years as a Senator and six years as a Secretary of State and Sanders time in public office consists of eight years a mayor, 26 years as Representative, and nine years as a Senator, let’s examine this argument.
On its face it appears valid. After all, it is generally taken for granted that having experience for a “job” is a good thing. However, it is also important to take into account experience doing what. And more importantly, it is worth asking how one plans on using that experience.
Yet, that is precisely the opposite of what those relying on the experience argument do. There may be some vague comments about Clinton’s past positions, followed by how this will enable her to achieve the change we need. Essentially Clinton did stuff, and will continue to do stuff. Why “the stuff” part is usually so vague is a familiar story at this point. Clinton’s record of support for destroying welfare, supporting “tough on crime” policies, and aggressive wars is relatively inconvenient at this juncture in history when many potential Democratic primary voters are angered by income inequality and the vanishing Welfare State, racism and its relationship to the criminal justice system, and war. It is hard to see how said experience can be considered an asset, unless Clinton and company are claiming that after all these years she has experience, as what not to do. There is also the problem of what she will accomplish more generally. While Clinton and her supporters tout her proposals as being realistic alternatives to Sanders utopian dreaming, it is doubtful that very many people believe even if she did have a magic wand she would use it to achieve single payer healthcare. Clinton is not merely more realistic than Sanders and thus is proposing only policies she knows can be accomplished,; Clinton is fundamentally philosophically opposed to the type of social democratic project that Sanders is committed to. All of this is masked by an appeal that a general experience devoid of political content will equip her with a general competency devoid of political content.
Nowhere is this lack of politics more stunningly on display then in an exchange on Henry Kissinger that took place during a February 12, 2016 debate on Democracy Now! between Jeffery Sachs and Rep. Gregory Meeks. This came on the tail of Sanders eviscerating Clinton’s touting of Henry Kissinger’s support of her. Rep. Meeks defended Clinton’s Kissinger connection on the grounds that he talks to people with “expertise” regardless of their disagreements. He stated, “even if it’s a different party, you talk to your former colleagues to find out what they did and how they did it.”
This is all fine and dandy and has a ring of truth around it in an extremely generalized sense. Yet, when the position involves foreign policy you may want to rethink talking to someone who is unable to travel to many countries due to the fact that he is wanted for questioning pertaining to war crimes. Rep. Meeks is particularly exemplary of this phenomenon of giving answers devoid of political content. He ignores the fact that being Secretary of State isn’t just another job, it is an inherently political one, and thus getting advice from other individuals isn’t like how to figure a complex accounting problem or other technical task.
Yet, for those arguing in favor of Clinton have rendered not just being a Secretary of State into a rote, technical task, but the presidency, as well. It does not matter that Clinton supported the War in Iraq or the destruction of welfare, the presidency is merely a technocratic job for which these past experiences have left Clinton well-groomed.
Allowing an actual debate over politics to enter the mix here is doubly frightening for Clinton and those who defend her. First, her actual political choices appear very unsavory compared to Sanders’. However, there is something far more dangerous. The Clintons and much of the punditry assume that certain realms of policy are immune from serious political debate, that certain political criticisms are so far out of the framework of a bipartisan consensus that all serious people share they cannot even be considered. This is why a Democratic Senator can (and must) support a Republican initiated war. In fact, Bill Clinton’s policies towards Iraq, which included not just sanctions, but an explicit policy of regime change and regular bombing campaigns certainly paved for Bush’s escalation of U.S.-Iraq policy in the form of a full-scale invasion and occupation. This is why many of the figures responsible for implementing the Clinton-era policy supported, at least early on, Bush’s own policies. The same is true of a general consensus that serious people want to privatize or eviscerate swaths of the welfare state and only unserious people feel otherwise.
Once this technocratic worldview of U.S. policy is dropped, and actual policy comes back into the picture, the appeals to experience, expertise, ability to accomplish unspecified things all starts to appear pretty vapid. It is then becomes Clinton, not Sanders, whose campaign is short on meaningful specifics.