TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 02, 2016 |
Posted by: Don Saas
B Sides is a weekly franchise that looks at broader cultural topics beyond our usual music beat. The views expressed herein reflect only on the author and not necessarily Baeble itself.
Inevitability is a funny thing.
Back in 2006, I attended a summer camp called Boys Nation. For politically minded high school students, it and Girls Nation are two of the biggest honors you can receive. Two kids from every state except for Hawaii are chosen and they learn about the federal government through direct role-played participation and you meet high level members of the federal government from all of its branches. The most famous Boys Nation alumni are Bill Clinton and Michael Jordan. Bill Clinton famously met John F. Kennedy in the Rose Garden during the program and decided that he wanted to be president himself some day.
There are two big perks to Boys Nation. The biggest is the aforementioned meet & greet with the President of the United States. I met Bush...it's not quite Jack Kennedy. My sister attended Girls Nation and she got to meet President Obama. She won that deal. The other big perk is that you get to meet your state's US senators in their offices (and the senators from other states if they're feeling nice). That year, there were two senators I was hellbent on meeting: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
I missed meeting Barack Obama at a constituents breakfast by about 5 minutes because the kid I was tagging along with that day insisted on getting coffee at Union Station. I wanted to meet Barack Obama cause he'd given the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. It had shot the man into the national spotlight, and I figured he'd run for president in 2016. I wanted to meet Hillary Clinton (and did; there's a great photo of me and the other kids from the program with her at her offices) because I was certain she was going to be the next President of the United States.
Fast forward two years. Barack Obama decides to run eight years earlier than I thought he would. I decide to support his campaign with what I assumed was the full-knowledge that he'd lose now but have a chance to make a splash down the road. That didn't happen. Barack Obama wound up beating Hillary Clinton in arguably the most tightly contested (and vicious) Democratic primary of the last 50 years. Despite the fact that she was the odds on favorite to win the nomination and widely considered to be one of the most inevitable primary candidates in history, she lost. Barack Obama and Joe Biden would go on to win two general elections and Hillary would serve with distinction as the Secretary of State for four years between 2009 and 2013.
And the 2016 election rolled around. If Hillary Clinton seemed inevitable in 2016, she seemed like the unstoppable force and the immovable object in 2016. Who was going to run against her? Joe Biden was her only obvious competition but he kept waiting to announce to run til he finally decided against it (and I'm skeptical he could have stopped Hillary anyways). Elizabeth Warren hadn't had enough national spotlight yet. Cory Booker and Julian Castro represent the future of the party, but they weren't ready for the big time yet. Martin O'Malley threw his name in the ring, but it was obvious from the get go that Hillary was going to steamroll the real life Tommy Carcetti. He had no name recognition and not enough viable ways to distinguish himself from the Clinton machine which is a fundraising powerhouse that nobody not named Barack Obama could hope to compete with in the Democratic party. For two straight Democratic primaries, the election has been Hillary's to lose. Is she about to do it again?
When Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy last year, I experienced that strange reaction all leftists in American politics do when one of the standard bearers for our policies that actually holds office gets a little ambitious...I scoffed. Bernie Sanders, the independent US Senator from Vermont who self-identified as a democratic socialist, hoped to upend the Clinton machine. Get out of here. I assumed his candidacy was mostly to make a point...to let Hillary know that a sizable portion of the Democratic party are still upset about the tie that that the Democratic establishment has to Wall Street and other corporate interests. It seemed impossible at a metaphysical level that he'd score more than 20% of the vote in any of the states. Hillary was inevitable (again) but inevitability is a funny thing.
And on the way to the Iowa caucuses, a crazy thing happened. Bernie Sanders went from being a fringe candidate of the Democratic left to a legit contender for the Democratic nomination (though I'm still pretty bullish on Hillary winning the whole thing). For all intents and purposes, Bernie Sanders tied Hillary Clinton in Iowa last night (and there are some reports saying that while she may have gotten the edge just barely in state delegates, 3, Bernie potentially won the popular vote) and he's on track to win in New Hampshire. Winning NH won't mean anything if he can't improve his standing nationally (although candidates that historically do well in early primaries/caucuses do improve their numbers in states that vote later), but for two straight elections the inevitable candidate is looking at a primary that could last up until the convention and one that she could very well lose.
What does this mean? Are Democrats rejecting Bill Clinton and his legacy? Have people still failed to warm up to Hillary Clinton at a personal level? Is America on the verge of an unprecedented tilt to the far left (or at least the far left by mainstream American standards)? No. Probably not. Definitely not. This election is a snapchat of the rapidly shifting demographics of the Democratic party and a group of young voters who aren't still mired in the culture wars of the Reagan era and don't necessarily grasp the compromises that Democrats in the 1990s had to make in order to survive a Washington, D.C. culture that birthed Newt Gingrich's Contract With America.
Let's say the 2016 election is your first presidential election. That means you're between the age of 18 and 22 which means you were between the age of 10 and 14 when Barack Obama was elected President. Which means you were between the ages of 2-14 during the Bush presidency. You spent little to no time of your most formative political years with a Republican as president. You can probably barely remember the Clinton presidency. I turned 11 the year Bush was elected, and I remember very little of Clinton's presidency besides the scandals and the time he bombed Iraq. And so for the youngest eligible voters, the defining politician of their life is Barack Obama...a president who was defined by soaring rhetoric that didn't necessarily always match up with the punishing realities of America's political systems. And if President Obama (as flawed as he may or may not be) has been the leader of your party for eight years, do you turn to the candidate who wants to push the envelope even further than he did or the one who (more realistically) treats politics as a highly entrenched institution of special interests and competing public figures who all have to be fought/coaxed/reasoned with to accomplish anything? Who do you think young people voted for?
Bernie won over 80% of the youth vote in Iowa last night. To put that into perspective, Barack Obama (the youth candidate of 2016) only won 57% in 2008 in Iowa. There are a lot of factors to take into account there: Barack Obama had more competition (John Edwards scored 30% of the vote that year overall in Iowa), Barack Obama did much better among other demographic groups that Bernie is struggling with massively, Obama had some of the most well-polished field organization in contemporary American politics. But, that 80% in Iowa is going to be the telling number of the whole evening...even more than Bernie finishing in a virtual tie, even more than Donald Trump losing to Ted Cruz, even more than the stories coming out now that several districts/delegates were decided by coin flip between Hillary/Sanders because the votes were so close.
Because that's the inevitable story of this election. Whether it's Hillary or Bernie, they'll likely win the general election. But they're going to face a Congress even more hostile to them than they were towards President Obama. Besides Supreme Court appointments (which will be massive and likely the defining element of the next president's legacy; the Court is currently split 4-4 among party hard-liners with Republican appointee Anthony Kennedy as the right-leaning swing vote), I'm skeptical that either candidate will accomplish much if anything at the legislative level. The House will stay controlled by Republicans and Democrats might manage to swing the Senate back by a narrow margin. Full disclosure, I'm voting for Bernie in the primaries providing he lasts long enough for that to happen (although even as a Bernie supporter, I have problems with his positions. He is so fixated on economic issues that he can't properly address racial problems and he doesn't stand up to the gun lobby with enough vigor), but Hillary would likely be the one with the most clout/pull in the legislature to push a handful of important bills through but even those victories would be minor. It's highly likely that a Bernie/Clinton presidency would be nearly indistinguishable in terms of enacted policy. So why does it matter who wins?
It probably doesn't but what matters is that young voters are leaning so heavily towards the leftist candidate. That's where the inevitability secretly lies. If you'd told me that the youth candidate in a presidential election would be a 74 year old self-described socialist, I'd have laughed you out of the room, but he has become that. And it's because my generation, Millennials, are tired of being stuck in the fights and bulls*** of the Boomers and Gen X-ers that came before us. Yes, our dreams are occasionally unrealistic (Bernie isn't getting single-payer health care or a $15 national minimum wage or the repeal of Citizens United or a re-introduction of Glass-Steagal or any of the other pipe dreams he hopes to achieve), but that's half the point.
It's about dreaming bigger than we're told we're allowed to dream. It's about forging our own identities and our own successes and the social/economic/foreign progress that we want to be our legacy for our time on this planet. And the crazy thing about dreaming the impossible is that sometimes it happens. If you'd told me in 2008 that we'd have marriage equality in America before Obama's presidency was over, I wouldn't have believed it. If you'd told me in 2000 that we'd have (a bastardized form of) universal healthcare, I wouldn't have believed it. If you'd told me that a 74 year old socialist from Vermont would have tied Hillary Clinton in the first election of the year and be poised to win the next bout, I wouldn't have believed it. And more than anything else, the youth want something impossible to believe in cause it has to be better than the reality Boomers handed us in the first place.