“The Left” Should Gaze At Their Own Navel

I’m pretty scrupulous about avoiding the ongoing fights between the Clinton and Sanders wings of the party, and I’m not going to engage on those terms here. Instead, I’m just going to offer some friendly advice to Ryan Cooper, who was my predecessor as the web editor of the Washington Monthly. He ought to attempt a paradigm shift, at least for long enough to see how it looks.

Cooper is at pains to explain to us why “leftists” are mistrustful of three African-American politicians whose names are mentioned as serious, potentially viable presidential candidates for 2020. The primary motivation for providing us with this explanation is to beat back accusations that they oppose them as possible contenders because of their race.

Freshman Sen. Kamala Harris of California is mistrusted, Ryan says, because she is a prosecutor. As for specifics, she took a campaign contribution from now-Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and failed to bring him up on charges without an adequate explanation. Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick is a favorite of Barack Obama, but he works for Bain Capital, the same vulture capitalist organization that Obama tied like a millstone around Mitt Romney’s neck. And Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, like all New Jersey senators since the days of Alexander Hamilton, is too close to Wall Street. He has not yet been forgiven for defending Bain Capital and other vulture capitalists during the 2012 campaign.

In other words, there are real and somewhat obvious reasons for “the left” to see each of these candidates as captured or compromised by some of the nastier elements of the financial sector. Thus, it’s disingenuous and unfair to attack their critics as racists.

A column that said nothing more than this would be needed and helpful, but Cooper goes a little further and offers these candidates some advice:

If they want to win over the left — and Harris, who has expressed at least mild support for tuition-free public college (for families with income less than $140,000), a $15 minimum wage, expanded Social Security, and Medicare for all, would probably be the most credible person to attempt this — they need to first explain their recent history.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, they need to make a symbolic rhetorical break with the despised donor class.

Human beings are very good at pattern-recognition, and the same talent that allows Cooper to see the “donor class” ties of these three prospective presidential candidates allows others to see how race ties them all together as well. If the latter pattern leads to lazy and uncharitable generalizations, perhaps the same is true of the former pattern. Can we agree at least that in both cases there is a problem with how things are perceived?

The paradigm shift I’m advocating here involves setting aside for a moment the discussion of what these three African-American politicians need to do to explain their recent history or make symbolic breaks with their past. Instead, “the left” should consider what they need to do to overcome the perception among many African-Americans that the Sanders wing of the party is somewhere between tone-deaf and hostile.

To be candid, I’m not saying that either exercise is more legitimate than the other. In fact, part of what I’d expect Cooper to learn from this exercise is that there are real limitations to both ways of analyzing the political rifts on the left.

But let’s acknowledge that Harris, Patrick and Booker are immensely talented, accomplished and charismatic leaders, none of whom can be fairly dismissed based on the connections each has to the financial sector. Lumping them together, too, as if defending Bain Capital is the same as working for them, or as if Booker’s record is really similar to Harris’s, just invites others to question your open-mindedness and motives.

As a more practical matter, “the left” should consider that David Axelrod is not wrong in his analysis:

Obama strategist David Axelrod has had several conversations with [Deval] Patrick about running, and eagerly rattles off the early primary map logic: small-town campaign experience from his 2006 gubernatorial run that will jibe perfectly with Iowa, neighbor-state advantage in New Hampshire and the immediate bloc of votes he’d have as an African-American heading into South Carolina.

Add to this that the African-American community will probably put more weight on the fact that the Obamas are endorsing or at least noisily encouraging Patrick to run than on his job at Bain Capital. They’ll hear that Valerie Jarrett says, “President Patrick is what my heart desires,” and it will count for more than what a bunch of Sanders supporters write on Twitter. If Patrick runs, “the left” will need to come up with a substantive and respectful way of opposing him that doesn’t amount to condemning the Obamas by association. This will be harder to do if the perception sets in in the black community that the Sanders left is opposed to every African-American with an actual shot at being president.

In fact, I suspect Cooper’s fear that the Sanders left will be characterized this way even if it isn’t fair is what led him to write this piece in the first place. But if he sees the vulnerability, his main advice is not to his cohorts on how they can and must avoid this fate. His main advice is to the African-American candidates on how they can avoid taking criticism that they have zero prospect of actually avoiding.

“The left” has already built a narrative around each of the candidates and they’re not going to let those narratives go. Cory Booker can disavow political action committee money, but that will never end the criticism of his record as New Jersey mayor and senator. Kamala Harris cannot go back in time and refuse a political donation or prosecute a man she declined to prosecute. Deval Patrick can no more escape his ties to Bain Capital than Mitt Romney could. If “the left” insists on reducing these individuals down to these unflattering characteristics and refuses to see them in full, then they’re going to invite a well-deserved backlash.

The reason I’ve been putting “the left” in quotes throughout this piece is because it’s absurd to suggest that the vocal opponents of Harris, Patrick and Booker have sole ownership of the term. And they must know that they can’t forge a truly left-leaning takeover of the Democratic Party without making deep inroads with people of color. Moreover, David Axelrod is correct that the early primary schedule could favor a talented, charismatic African-American candidate who has the official or unofficial blessing of the Obama team.

So, what Cooper should try focusing on, at least for a while to see how it looks, is how “the left” can avoid marginalization on the basis of perceived racial insensitivity. In my opinion, neither side can avoid their fates here. “The left” will attack these black candidates as a group for their Wall Street connections no matter how many allies advise them that this will be unwise and self-defeating. But, if you’re trying to be constructive, you might consider that the best way to protect “the left” from charges of racism is not to insist that they have a point, even if they do. It might be better to do what is expected by decent people, and that’s to be fair and focus on the strengths of these candidates and the fullness of their records rather than lumping them together and dismissing them as sell-outs.

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