One of the great anxieties running through the Democratic Party is a concern that the candidate who wins the nomination will doom the party to in the general.
For backers of Clinton, a Sanders nomination would trap the election in an “enemy within” frame: the Republicans will spend all their time convincing voters that Sanders is a Communist totalitarian who wants to destroy America and throw everyone in concentration camps. They tried it on Obama, they’ll try it on Sanders. But this time it would work: they spend hundreds of millions telling people Sanders is worse than Stalin and Mao combined–he loses, Trump or Cruz wins. That’s the fear from the Hillary camp.
For Backers of Sanders, the fear is a little different.
They believe a Hillary nomination would trap the election in an “anything but the establishment” frame: the Republicans will realize how much their angry populism turns out voters and spend all their time and money casting Hillary Clinton as the face of do-nothing, weak, anti-Christian, anti-American exceptionalism, entrenched government get-rich-for-myself politics. Trump and Cruz have been successful with this frame in the primary season–even if Rubio manages to beat them, they will have the populist scripts in place. They will hurl it at Clinton until the whole country thinks she is the reason America is coming up short–she loses, Trump or Cruz wins. That’s the fear from the Sanders camp.
So, who is correct? What is the best frame to win the 2016 election?
The answer, I believe, is playing out in both primaries: populism.
The GOP primary race has shown that populism is what moves conservative voters right now. Jeb Bush, heir apparent to the throne, can barely get any traction despite his mountains of money. Why? Because his quiet reasoned expertise sounds dull by comparison. He has not inspired voters to see a larger vision and embrace his proposals as the sweeping change needed to right the ship. Both Cruz and Trump have been able to channel the populist frame: Trump pushing xenophobic chauvinism, Cruz pushing ardent religious militarism. Both have worked. Rubio is clinging to their wings–barely–by picking and choosing from Trump and Cruz populism.
The Dem race has shown that populism with an emphasis on confronting and correcting economic inequalities has generated far more energy and enthusiasm than a narrative that wraps job experience in tempered identity politics. Clinton is neither pushing a passionate frame to break the glass ceiling for women–a potentially very powerful form of populism–nor is she rallying the public to a specific foreign or domestic policy vision–despite having a deep range of possibilities in her arsenal. Her policy proposals are the most specific and her credentials are the most convincing, but she has not charged the atmosphere with any soaring vision. Instead of hope, she is promising overwhelming competence.
Take away Clinton’s front-loaded advantage of super delegates and she is, arguably, behind Sanders considerably because of the enthusiasm gap opened up by a Sanders campaign pushing economic populism–in particular, a vision of economic justice that focuses on the robber barons of big finance.
Sanders has elicited voter anger and responded with compassion and hope. And that has given him an advantage in the early war of position.
What does this mean?
It means that populism in various forms has proven effective in both party nominations. Given that, if one party nominates a candidate who is anti-populist to compete against a populist–chances are the populist will win.
For it to be a fair contest, Democrats must not only nominate a populist candidate, but must get out in front with the winning populist message–one about economic justice, rather than barring the gates from the invading hordes.
Hypothetically, could Clinton tack to a populist message that she could then take to the general election to win? Maybe. Whether that is possible, however, depends on whether or not Clinton is capable of seeing success in the general at the end of some road other than a “turn to the center”–the classic idea of a winning strategy lodged like a seed in the minds of 1990s Democrats.
Remember, Al Gore used this strategy successfully–he ran in the primary on competence and experience, then turned to a more populist tone in his campaign against George W. Bush (which he won, technically, using that strategy–even though the court awarded the White House to Bush). Clinton could do the same, if she ended up as the nominee.
But it seems unlikely she would. If Clinton beats Sanders for the nomination, she will likely be convinced that she did so because her frame of competence and experience was the best. A Sanders nomination, by contrast, would take a strong belief in a populist message to compete against the GOP populist message. No doubt Sanders would face many challenges–chief among them: getting out in front of the “commmie” swift boating no doubt being prepared for him right now.
In the end, a populist frame wins. And Democrats would be wise to see that–and to control it, before the GOP controls it and the executive branch.