Democratic Debate Proves Movements Matter

Terrance Heath

The Democratic presidential debate between Lincoln Chafee, Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, and Jim Webb was barely over before the usual post-debate debate over who “won” began. There’s a case to be made that the real winners of the Democratic debate were the progressive movements whose advocacy clearly shaped the discourse and influenced the candidates.

“I am a progressive.”

Let’s just take a moment and bask in the warm glow of the fact that these four words issued from the lips of a leading Democratic presidential candidate: “I am a progressive.” It’s significant that when a Democratic candidate is asked during a primary debate, “Are you a progressive?”, the correct answer is “Yes.” That the candidate was Hillary Clinton, whose husband was once the single Democratic politician most identified with the centrist “New Democrats” faction, is even more significant.

Since the “shellacking” of 2010, progressives have occasionally longed to have the kind of influence over Democrats that the tea party movement has over Republicans. Crazy though they be, the tea party’s power within the GOP was undeniable. Republican lawmakers that previously flirted with sanity shifted right to either win the support of, or avoid the wrath of tea party activists. The tea party’s successful primary challenges against incumbent establishment Republicans put the fear of God into Republican lawmakers.

But now something interesting has happened. Through the hard work of progressive movements and activists, progressive positions became mainstream positions that Democratic candidates’ now rush to embrace. A quick look at PopulistMajority.Org shows that.

Change Is Good

Let conservatives be unchanging, immovable, and unpersuaded by facts or fact-based arguments. It’s worked well for them on climate change, hasn’t it? Now we see that uncompromising ideal in action, in the House GOP’s disarray and the chaotic race for House Speaker.

Hillary Clinton delivered her, “I am a progressive,” response to a question that suggested she has adopted progressive positions out of political expediency. She added what amounted to a defense of critical thinking. “Like most human beings, including those of us who run for office, I do absorb new information, I do look at what’s happening in the world,” she said.

That’s something any politician, policymaker, or thinking person should do. Only conservatives would consider it a point of pride that their views have remained unchanged for decades. In the face of evolving public opinion, and scientific discoveries, they remain resolutely at least 30 years behind the times.

It’s not just OK to change your mind when faced with new information, or when reality no longer fits your beliefs. It’s also smart. Frankly, I’d be more concerned if someone who’s been in politics as long as Hillary Clinton never changed her positions. Anyone who rarely changes is her mind probably uses it just as rarely.

On the issues, the debate showed the impact of organized progressive movements and dedicated activists.

Trade. Clinton’s “I am a progressive” declaration was in response to a question about her recently announced opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which suggested that Clinton changed her position out of political expediency. The political expedience discussion misses the point that an engaged progressive movement made it politically expedient for a candidate like Clinton to oppose TPP. Thanks to that movement, TPP — the secret trade deal that was supposed to get quietly railroaded through Congress — may not even come up for a vote in the House until after the 2016 election.

Black Lives Matter. The Republican presidential debate ignored racial justice issues, even though the only African-American presidential candidate this time around is a Republican. (Looking at you, Ben Carson.) By contrast, CNN’s Don Lemon put the issue at the center of the Democratic debate, when he posed the question, “Do black lives matter?”

⌗BlackLivesMatter activists have been relentless in putting that question before Democratic candidates, and launched Campaign Zero to spell out what they want candidates to do to address structural racism.

The movement spoke, and the Democratic debate showed that the candidates have listened. Bernie Sanders, whose clash with ⌗BlackLivesMatter activists at Netroot Nation went viral, invoked Sandra Bland’s death, as he highlighted the need to “combat institutional racism” and fix “a broken criminal justice system.” Martin O’Malley admitted that, “as a nation we have undervalued the lives of … people of color.”

LGBT Equality. A lot has changed since 2008, when candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both opposed marriage equality for same-sex couples. In both cases, many Americans suspected their opposition was a matter of political expediency, and that both candidates supported marriage equality on a personal level, but doing so publicly was still too politically risky. Since then, Obama became the first sitting US president to champion LGBT equality, and Secretary of State Clinton declared, “Gay rights are human rights.”

In 2008, almost no Democratic presidential candidates supported marriage equality. At Tuesday night’s debate, every Democratic candidate on the stage either supported marriage equality, or at the very least did not oppose it.

  • Clinton addressed it in her opening statement: “…[T]his is about bringing our country together again. And I will do everything I can to heal the divides — the divides economically, because there’s too much inequality; the racial divides; the continuing discrimination against the LGBT community…
  • Sanders was one of the few members of Congress who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996.
  • As governor of Maryland, O’Malley signed a marriage equality bill in to law, as did Lincoln Chafee when he was governor of Rhode Island.

The issue didn’t some up in the debate, because the moderator didn’t raise it. There was little need to. That happened because committed LGBT activists worked hard to make support for LGBT equality a “no brainer” for Democrats. Now, opposition to LGBT equality is more of a liability for Republicans.

Democrats didn’t differ all that much with one another during Tuesday night’s debate. The debate lacked the rollicking, unbridled craziness of the Republican debates, the recent antics of House Republicans, or the chaos of the House Speaker race. It was like the difference between dining at the adults table, or ducking mashed potatoes at the kid’s table.

The record-setting 15.3 million viewers who tuned in for the Democratic debate were treated to high-level debate about policy, ideas, and progressive values. Democrats are finally listening to their base, and — no matter who wins the nomination — will offer voters a clear choice next fall.

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