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Does the debate show Clinton moving towards Sanders?

By Tristan Ewins - posted Wednesday, 28 September 2016

This week’s US Presidential Debate was interesting in a number of ways.  The economic debate in particular was of concern to this observer.  In summary, it was framed with the opposition of Trump’s traditional neo-liberal emphasis on ‘trickle down’ Reaganomics, deregulation, and sweeping corporate tax cuts.  By contrast Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric was suggestive of mild social democracy or social liberalism – which has ‘learned certain lessons’ from the GFC.   Important talking points for Clinton included winding back regressive prohibitive user pays in higher education , improving the minimum wage , and promoting US interests via international trade deals. This was mildly encouraging – and perhaps a sign that a small but symbolic portion of the Sanders policy agenda had been ‘taken on-board’ in order to mobilise the disillusioned ‘progressive masses’ that had been so inspired by Sanders’ break from the ‘Democratic establishment’: which for many was actually seen to be part of  the problem.

Unfortunately what was left unsaid, here, was that the interests of US-based transnational corporations have seen US policy makers (influenced by the dominant corporate lobby) pursue trade agreements which disadvantage even traditional US allies such as Australia.  As with the Trans Pacific Partnership, the right of social democratic governments to maintain natural public monopolies in the interests of the people they represent practically stands to be ‘criminalised’ in the name of ‘free and open markets’. Here there is neither a market nook nor cranny that is spared exposure to the transnational corporations.  And the relationship between the corporate lobby and the US political class is almost a ‘symbiotic’ one.  Of course the eagerness of Australian policy makers to expose our economy to TPP must also be questioned.  Perhaps this is seen as ‘the price we must pay’ for coming under the US security umbrella.

Clinton also argued the case that ‘trickle down economics’ and radically small government had failed Americans as per the 2007-2008 Global Financial Crisis – and that Trump’s desire to ‘go into economic policy reverse’ was an unacceptable risk for the country, and indeed the world.  As per usual, Clinton also emphasised the struggles of the US  middle class when compared with ‘robber baron capitalists’ (where it was implied Trump himself fell into that category) Although Clinton did not use the expression specifically.


But the refusal of mainstream Democrats to speak to – and speak of – the working class-in their ‘mainstream’ electoral discourse provides Trump with an opening.  Here his arguments against deindustrialisation may resonate with desperate workers who are willing to try anything to secure their futures.  Though his ‘solution’ of stemming the flow of manufacturing and other jobs by deeply slashing the taxes of corporations would necessitate a decay of infrastructure, welfare and social services – where the connections between these just don’t seem to be grasped by much of Trump’s support base.  

Trump takes advantage of desperation and the sense of abandonment by many US workers with a shameless opportunism that may yet win him the ‘top job’ in the White House.  He argues as if government should be run like his own personal business.  Though it is interesting to observe that the very impetus for infrastructure projects to come in very significantly over-budget (a phenomenon he pursued relentlessly) is linked with privatisation. Parasitic corporations trying to maximise their returns ; where the sense of ‘the public good’ is lost all but entirely.  Private prisons which abandon rehabilitation and support unnecessarily-severe sentencing in favour of ‘growing their businesses’ are perhaps the most appalling example.

Clinton also argued a strong case in favour of a big investment in renewable energy: and whereas Trump is a ‘climate sceptic’, Clinton’s strong position, here, was perhaps indicative of her imperative of winning over Greens voters whose votes might be ‘wasted’ on the Greens Presidential candidate, Jill Stein.  For progressives this comprises a testing dilemma: protest against the Democratic National Committee’s appalling attempts to undermine the campaign of Bernie Sanders ; or to ‘swallow the bitter pill’ ; and admit that if Clinton is in any way ‘the lesser evil’ , then she is the ‘lesser evil’ by a very significant margin.  A big vote for Stein would make a Trump victory certain.  Though it would build a case for electoral reform – making a genuinely ‘multi-party democracy’ really-viable.

But as Clinton argued: can we trust Trump with the US nuclear codes?    Can we trust him as ‘commander in Chief’ of the world’s pre-eminent super-power?.  (though progressively under challenge from a rising China ; and from an emboldened bloc or  ‘strategic partnership’ centred on Russia and Iran)   And can we really trust him to enforce nuclear non—proliferation?

In conclusion, though, Trump actually made some telling points on foreign policy – despite the fact more broadly that he is ‘not to be trusted’.  For example the disaster of the Iraq War ; and of the regional destabilisation and escalated conflict that ensued. In Australia the lesson for us is that we must never allow such a war to ensue – with our participation and support – without even allowing a parliamentary debate.  And maybe a parliamentary vote. That is one area where the Greens actually make good policy sense.

In the debate Trump seemed ‘energised’. He spoke with apparent enthusiasm – compared with which Clinton’s demeanour was ‘steady and deliberate’ but also ‘buoyant’.  However: there was no ‘knockout blow’. The campaign is only just beginning – and has more than two months yet to run.  

Clinton’s choice of Tim Kaine as Vice-Presidential running mate was also suggestive that Clinton was intending to appeal to the ‘policy Centre’ more so than the ‘unambiguous Left’.   Again: with two months to go, though, there is still the potential prospect of more progressive policy announcements.  The Sanders campaign mobilised millions: especially amongst the young. Clinton would be well advised to go further in remobilising those people. 

And as for the Sanders campaign: socialism is increasingly ‘coming in from the cold’ in US politics.  As Sanders argued – his ‘defeat’ was not the end of the story.  Unlike with the earlier Obama campaign, the intention is that the movement itself will persist ; and continue to build and campaign openly.  While 2016 is not the year for Sanders, perhaps 2020 – or maybe 2024 – will see the resurgence of the US social democratic and democratic socialist Left.   Sanders will perhaps be seen as ‘too venerable’ by then ; but surely for him it was very much about the movement ; the policy agenda ; and a ‘political sea change’ in the US with the resurgence of a distinct and mainstream Left.  And the Democratic National Committee must surely realise that it needs to change its ways – lest the broader Party divide openly against itself.  With the consequence of a clear run for the Republicans – unless they too experience a similar debilitating split.  (not impossible given what we have seen this year)


Here’s hoping for a Clinton victory: and that we may be pleasantly surprised with more favourable policy announcements from a Clinton campaign which realises the imperative of mobilising the movement mobilised itself before-hand by Bernie Sanders.

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About the Author

Tristan Ewins has a PhD and is a freelance writer, qualified teacher and social commentator based in Melbourne, Australia. He is also a long-time member of the Socialist Left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). He blogs at Left Focus, ALP Socialist Left Forum and the Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy.

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