Former Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank argues in a recently published message to Democrats and Progressives entitled “Why Progressives Shouldn’t Support Bernie” that active political support for Bernie Sanders is a hopeless losing cause. He contends that such efforts just distract from and weaken the inevitable presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton.
This argument is without merit and not persuasive. Competition in our democratic society creates strength not weakness – just as it does in our economy. Robust public discourse and political advocacy is a bedrock principle of the American System.
Reflecting further on Mr. Frank’s unusual message I believe there lays a deeper concern. I suspect the real worry of Mr. Frank and those who urge no resistance to Hillary Clinton is because any viable resistance or questioning of her candidacy may show that the “the Emperor has no clothes”. And that is to say nothing of her unprecedented political baggage and of course the unpredictable Billage factor. .
Most presidential primaries feature multiple candidacies and vigorous debate which, in the end, make the prevailing general election candidates stronger, better vetted and the public much more informed. For example, the current Republican presidential primary field features no less than 16 candidates. Why should Mr. Frank, and perhaps the Democratic Party establishment, fear one robust and energizing opposing candidate?
Believing that Progressives and Democrats will enthusiastically embrace an anointed candidate for President of the United States is a serious and cynical misreading of the underlying attraction and power of our democratic traditions. Pundits and others are surprised by the large and enthusiastic crowds Bernie Sanders is attracting – especially in contrast to the much smaller, controlled and less than exuberant audiences that’s show up for Hillary, the supposedly inevitable candidate. People are not buying Hillary’s candidacy at the visceral grass roots level – despite what the polls say about her huge lead. There is a vulnerability here that hangs in the air like the muggy heat of a hot humid summer day.
The Democratic Party has a long memory and I am sure they are remembering when Eugene McCarthy tapped into the deeper dissatisfactions of 1968 and surprised the pundits and the party establishment in the New Hampshire primary with his strong showing against President Johnson. McCarthy was an unlikely major contender for the Presidency. But what his candidacy did was to clearly show the vulnerability of President Johnson.
Just because he was a sitting President, Johnson didn’t have an automatic lock on his party’s nomination. Political activism and engagement matter and in America that can make a big difference no matter who may think they are automatically next in line. Americans don’t like being told who their inevitable leader is or who cannot or will not be their leader.
President Johnson was suddenly an unclothed Emperor. Soon after the 1968 New Hampshire primary he announced he would not run for re-election. The Johnson government was brought down by grass roots political activism.
Frankly, Democrats and Progressives should be offended at the suggestion they refrain from open political activity and discourse. Grass root activism is the animating energy and power of our democratic experiment. Active, competitive and vibrant political dialogue and campaigning is what makes us unique and is our special way of vetting and ultimately validating those we allow to govern us. Asking an American citizen to refrain from active political engagement in order to have their governance delivered to them by anointed leaders is a pathway we long ago rejected – which I suspect Barney Frank, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment will find out for themselves sometime between now and November of 2016.