For a few magic weeks, Bernie Sanders was taken seriously as a presidential candidate with a chance to win – a huge watershed for a self-avowed socialist. But after falling short (even if slightly) in Iowa and Nevada, and with no friendly states on the horizon, Sanders is back in protest candidacy territory.
Could taking on Hillary Clinton’s warlike foreign policy, which Sanders stubbornly refused to do, have changed the game?
Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that Sanders’s avoidance of racial justice issues says a lot about “how the left prioritizes its various radicalisms.” (It astounded me that a progressive would launch a presidential campaign in April 2015 without one reference to Black Lives Matter, the year’s most animating issue on the left.) The same can be said of Sanders’s refusal to seriously critique Hillary’s hawkishness, or her support for Israel.
Though Sanders opposed both Iraq invasions and has a clearly dovish record (except, of course, on Israel), his campaign is a potential setback to the movement to stop America’s repeated drift toward war in the Middle East. His success suggests that war and Palestine aren’t vital issues to the left, and that a progressive challenge can thrive while avoiding them entirely.
Sanders’s campaign removed antiwar expression from the 2016 election (aside from Donald Trump) and is letting neocons maintain the fiction that opposing militarism is politically costly. Which is how they stay in power under both parties.
It’s true domestic issues were central to the Sanders campaign, and are the main concern for voters in general. But was it really so politically smart to reject the energy that Sanders could have harnessed from antiwar activists? Iowa Democrats are very dovish (they were big Nuclear Freeze supporters back in the day, and opposed the contras and war with Iraq). Bernie lost by a hair there (which has made all the difference); almost anything would have put him over the top.
When Hillary harshly and unfairly attacked Bernie for wanting normalization with Iran (doesn’t Obama want this too?) I optimistically thought it would force the issue. Her charge that Sanders would bring Iranian troops to “Israel’s doorstep” was an ugly pander, if consistent. Now it’s on, I thought, he’ll have to reply. But Bernie ducked. He just ignored it. He’ll mention his Iraq opposition when asked in a debate or on the shows, but this discussion was obviously the last thing he wanted.
That’s too bad: Bernie could have used Hillary’s Israel-and-Iran-baiting to illustrate his core message about how money corrupts politics – for example, the $25 million Hillary’s Clinton Foundation has taken from the Saudi butchers, or her campaign money from megadonor Haim Saban.
It’s a more-than-curious blind spot (oh, who am I kidding? It’s depressingly predictable) that Mr. Money Corrupts has nothing to say about AIPAC’s donor-funded chokehold on the entire U.S. Congress.
And it’s predictable that so many people who reject Hillary’s “pragmatism” in favor of Bernie’s “why not?” will say he has no choice but to support Israel. (Coates observes the same phenomenon in Sanders supporters who are unconcerned about barriers to passing single-payer healthcare or a $1 trillion jobs program, but who become sudden realists about African-American reparations.)
Yes, it was inspiring when Sanders called out Hillary’s friendship with Henry Kissinger and referenced the CIA’s 1953 overthrow of Iran’s democratic government. And it’s great he can point to his 2002 vote against the Iraq war. But none of that can substitute for a forward-looking vision arguing against the bipartisan war machine. Just as it shows when it replies to racial justice critics with ‘60s photos, the Sanders campaign hasn’t processed that elections are always about the future.
Sanders said nothing when Clinton promised to “take the US-Israel relationship to the next level.” (Meaning what, blasting kids off the beach for them? What more could we do?) With no pressure from anyone, Clinton is completely free to propound a pro-war message that makes her donors happy and that neocon pundits pretend is a general election asset. (Trump may prove them wrong – and how amazing is it that in 2016 the Republicans are going to nominate a candidate who opposed the Iraq war while the Democrats will pick one who voted for it?)
It may have made Bernie supporters angry when Hillary’s Nevada victory speech copied their candidate’s message points, but it shows their victory. Like Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, Sanders will go on until the convention: he’s got plenty of money, passionate supporters, a good chance for victories in places like Massachusetts, Colorado, Minnesota and Oregon, and he can pick up delegates everywhere. Hillary will still have to debate him, he can influence the party platform, and he’ll give a big convention speech passionately endorsing Hillary. (Then he’ll become a fundraising powerhouse for progressive candidates and causes.)
But Sanders won’t be president, so his potential evolution in office can’t help stop the next Middle East war. To do that, it’ll be necessary to challenge and defeat pro-war candidates at the House and Senate level.