Sanders, Clinton, and the Neoconning of the Democratic Party

What the Clinton-Sanders debate revealed

by , March 11, 2016

Has the Democratic party moved so far to the neoconnish right that red-baiting is now back in fashion in those circles? One would certainly think so if the latest Clinton-Sanders debate is any indication.

I’ve covered the Republican presidential debates in this space while mostly neglecting the Democratic debates for the simple reason that foreign policy is apparently not something Bernie Sanders wants to emphasize. And, for some reason, the debate moderators have proved supremely uninterested in asking questions about the one issue a US President has virtually total power over. This time, however, it did come up, and what happened on that stage in Florida underscores the limited but very real differences between the Clintonian and Sanderista wings of the party. It also illustrates the weaknesses of Clinton’s position, if, as expected, she wins the nomination and goes into the general – weaknesses that will only be manifested if she’s up against Donald Trump instead of some routinely interventionist Republican.

I’ll note, first of all, that Clinton was silent when Sanders attacked her on her Libyan adventure, which everyone but her acknowledges turned out to be a disaster on a par with Iraq. Here’s what he said:

“Well, I’m not going to comment on the Benghazi tragedy, but I will say this. A series of articles in the New York Times talked about Secretary Clinton’s role in urging the administration to go forward with regime change, getting rid of Gadhafi in Libya.

“Gadhafi was a brutal dictator, there’s no question. But one of the differences between the secretary and I is I’m not quite so aggressive with regard to regime change. I voted against the war in Iraq because I had a fear of what would happen the day after.

“And Secretary Clinton talks about Henry Kissinger…winning the praise of Henry Kissinger, I don’t want Henry Kissinger’s praise at all.”

That bit about Kissinger is left over from their last debate – or was that two debates ago? They all merge into one in my mind – but what’s significant here is that Hillary kept her peace. Usually quick on the draw, she holstered her gun: the less said about Libya, the better it is for her.

But if Hillary held her fire, the moderators would later bring out the cannons. Remember, this was the Univision debate, and most of the questions involved the degree to which the candidates were willing to indulge in a little “Hispandering,” as one of the panelists so aptly put it. This meant the discussion was mostly about immigration – as if that were the question uppermost in the minds of Spanish-speaking American citizens. But there is a foreign policy aspect of Hispandering, one that the potent Cuban-American lobby in this country has insisted on for decades, and that involves gauging one’s attitude toward Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

While both Clinton and Sanders expressed fulsome support for the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba, the question of the Cuban regime came up in the form of a question from Univision’s Maria Elena Salinas:

“SALINAS: In 1985, you praised th e Sandinista government and you said that Daniel Ortega was an impressive guy. This is what you said about Fidel Castro. Let’s listen.

“[VIDEOTAPE BEGINS]

“SANDERS: You may recall way back in, when was it, 1961, they invaded Cuba, and everybody was totally convinced that Castro was the worst guy in the world. All the Cuban people were going to rise up in rebellion against Fidel Castro. They forgot that he educated their kids, gave them health care, totally transformed their society.

“[VIDEOTAPE ENDS]

“SALINAS: In South Florida there are still open wounds among some exiles regarding socialism and communism. So please explain what is the difference between the socialism that you profess and the socialism in Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela.”

If that wasn’t a planted question, it may as well have been. Conflating the Sandinistas and the Cuban regime – as if they were the same – is bad enough, but equating opposition to US intervention with supporting the Cuban regime is just brazen demagoguery – although it’s pretty much what we might expect from someone who doesn’t seem to know the difference between Norman Thomas and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

Happily, Sanders didn’t take the red-baiting bait. Instead he went on to denounce US intervention in Central and Latin America – even heroically taking on the Monroe Doctrine! But Salinas wasn’t going to let go:

“SALINAS: In retrospect, have you ever regretted the characterizations of Daniel Ortega and Fidel Castro that you made in 1985?

“SANDERS: The key issue here was whether the United States should go around overthrowing small Latin American countries. I think that that was a mistake…

“SALINAS: You didn’t answer the question.

“SANDERS: …both in Nicaragua and Cuba. Look, let’s look at the facts here. Cuba is, of course, an authoritarian undemocratic country, and I hope very much as soon as possible it becomes a democratic country. But on the other hand…

“…on the other hands, it would be wrong not to state that in Cuba they have made some good advances in health care. They are sending doctors all over the world. They have made some progress in education. I think by restoring full diplomatic relations with Cuba, it will result in significant improvements to the lives of Cubans and it will help the United States and our business community invest.”

This is very much a Florida issue, which is where the debate took place, and is a question very much on the minds of a certain segment – the older segment – of Univision’s audience, consisting in large part of refugees from Cuba. These people haven’t given up hope that the United States will some day lead a regime change operation that will overthrow the Cuban Communist Party and establish a US protectorate on the island – perhaps even fulfilling Teddy Roosevelt’s dream and incorporating it into the United States, much like Puerto Rico.

Yet it is also a Democratic party issue: it was, after all, John F. Kennedy who authorized the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion that sought to “liberate” Cuba and led to the half century cold war between the US and the fiercely independent island nation.

Furthermore, the way Salinas framed the question – essentially asking “How are you different from a Stalinist dictator?” – limned the red-baiting tactics traditionally deployed by “centrist” Democrats under attack from the left-wing of their party. George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy both suffered similar assaults from the neoconservatives – then ensconced in the Scoop Jackson wing of the party – for similar reasons. And Hillary didn’t hesitate to pile on this time, at one point during the debate openly accusing Sanders of praising the Cuban regime.

Once you go outside the bipartisan interventionist consensus prevalent in Washington, you are subject to a smear campaign. On the left, they smear dissidents as closet Leninists: on the right, they smear “isolationists” as “fascists.” When Pat Buchanan ran for President against George H. W. Bush, National Review started frothing at the mouth about the alleged dangers of Francoism and recalling the specter of Father Coughlin in much the same way they are bloviating over the allege similarities between Trump and Benito Mussolini. The relatively “isolationist” Trump is getting the same treatment today,  and it is coming from the very same crowd that slandered McGovern and McCarthy as secret Stalinists.

Indeed, an entire wing of the neoconservative movement is now openly declaring that they’ll support Clinton if Trump gets the Republican nomination. And they aren’t shy about stating their motives: aside from the ancillary and completely phony reasons (after all, since when have neocons shied away from Muslim-bashing?) the reason they hate Trump is because he called them out over lying us into the Iraq war, doesn’t want to overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria, says regime change in Libya was a big mistake, and – horror of horrors! – avers he could get along with Putin. He also questions the very basis of our interventionist foreign policy: paying for the defense of Europe, Japan, Korea, and Saudi Arabia in return for exactly nothing.

This is treason as far as the neocons are concerned, which is why they have mobilized all their forces to stop him. If they don’t succeed, they will troop back into the Democratic party, as I predicted way back in 2007 (scroll down to the last paragraph of this link) – and Hillary Clinton’s interventionist foreign policy will suit them just fine. The Democratic party, having occupied the White House for all but eight years out of the last twenty or so, has moved rapidly in a neoconservative direction on the foreign policy front.

Yes, the neocons –having gone full circle – will fit in just fine.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

Read more by Justin Raimondo