The day of the 2008 Democratic Presidential primary in New York, I entered the voting booth and immediately thought of my great-grandmother, Miriam Faitt. This next memory might seem romanticized, but I assure you it’s true. Scanning the names of the candidates, I thought of how, back in 1920, on the day that the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, Great-Grandma Miriam was 27, married for nearly five years and the mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old — my grandfather (his sister arrived in 1923). Miriam was at that point a third-generation New Yorker, but Great-Grandpa Isidore, known as Izzy, was the oldest of seven children born to parents who fled the Austro-Hungarian empire. Having survived childhood polio, Izzy was now a lawyer who aspired to be a judge. Or, to put it another way, the American dream was surely his for the taking, whereas for Miriam, a woman, it was less so. Still, she seems to have been ambitious — she was Izzy’s secretary before she married him, after all. Living in the proudly middle class, upwardly mobile neighborhood of Washington Heights, she spent the 1920s active in civic groups and helping to raise Izzy’s social standing.
I knew my great-grandmother, who died aged 90 in 1983, but it was only after her death that I gained some perspective on her life. I think she embraced politics — or perhaps it was politics that embraced her. In a frame behind acid-proof glass, I own a short 1930 letter sent to Miriam from Eleanor Roosevelt. In a scrapbook she kept, I found a photo of FDR from the 1932 election, and a photo of her in the Roosevelts’ box at the 1936 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, to which she was a delegate. It’s sepia-toned history, I guess, but maybe not, for to Miriam it was an America roiled by Depression-era change; I think she saw in herself, maybe, an agent of that change. From 1932 to 1946 — the whole of the Roosevelt presidency and then some — Miriam served as co-District Leader in Upper Manhattan with James H. Torrens, a scion of Tammany Hall who later served in Congress. Standing in that voting booth, I wondered if my sense of history was worthy of her legacy.
Had a journalist stood in that voting booth with me, asking me to explain what was taking me so long, I might have offered an awkward grammatical metaphor to explain why I choose to remain a Democrat. Looking at the long arc of history and agreeing that it bends toward justice, I believe that presidencies of consequence and transformation — Jackson, Wilson, FDR, Johnson — achieve two things. First, they consign the present tense to the past. That done, they summon the future tense to the present. With the exception of three GOP presidencies — Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower — and in keeping with my metaphor, I believe that Republicans generally find the past perfect. Which, as a progressive, doesn’t parse.
Standing in that voting booth, I saw Clinton and Obama as names of transformation — Clinton singing to my head, Obama to my heart. Through that primary campaign, the head-heart duel was scored to be a draw. But voting booths demand a decision, so I voted my head, since Miriam’s legacy felt so close in that moment to my heart.
Let’s talk real-deal for a moment. In 2008, the New York primary was pretty much in the bag for Clinton: she won by more than 300,000 votes and 17 points. So what did it matter how I voted? Same for the general election: what did it matter, since New York was also in the bag for the Democrats? My weepy duel of head and heart was basically academic, even if it was personal. I voted for Clinton to honor Miriam — because, for the first time in modern American history, I had the ability to vote for a truly viable woman candidate for President. I also voted for Clinton for a reason that embarrasses me: I did not believe a man named Barack Hussein Obama could be elected President. I unashamedly voted for him in the general election, and donated to both of his campaigns, but that initial cynicism was where I began. Had I voted my heart, the point for the duel would have been awarded just as fairly.
Were I to score the first Democratic debate on CNN, it would be a tie yet again. Clinton’s reviews range from warm and supportive to ecstatic and orgasmic, yet I’m a wet blanket — I know that her flaws and vulnerabilities remain manifest. We also discovered, by the way, that Sen. Bernie Sanders has manifest flaws and vulnerabilities of his own, especially in foreign policy and gun control. We may now dismiss former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s audition to play Father Mulcahy in some remake of M*A*S*H, and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, each of whom would make a fine Secretary of Insomnia.
The debate was galvanizing, highly validating for progressives, and inspiring when comparing the fundamental cogency of the Democrats to the Republican cancer infecting our not-too-united United States. From Sanders’ “damn email” zinger to Clinton’s “No” when moderator Anderson Cooper asked if she wished to respond to Chafee’s argument that her email non-scandal was really a scandal, the center-left, the left and even the far left all exhibited real substance, co-existence and power. Barring serious change in this race, I suspect that once again I will be forced to award the point in another well-matched duel, again pitting head (Clinton) against heart (Sanders).
But wait a minute. Clinton has my head and Sanders my heart? When I first began to write this post, I planned to suggest the opposite: Sanders’ feverish and populist anti-corporatism speaks to my head, Clinton’s wit and intelligence, if not her ethics, held my heart.
Then I thought some more. When Clinton said “I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done,” it moved me. That’s pragmatism, and I believe that pragmatism trumps idealism. Sanders’ formidable supporters, who I regard as basically half pro-Bernie and half anti-Clinton, will attempt to refute this next point, but to me, that Clinton quote is not a pose, not a triangulation, not a pivot, not a punt, not a stunt, not a feint, not a fault, but a statement realpolitik, something that was never Obama’s strong-suit. And in some ways, the country has paid a price for that.
Sanders is authentic. What progressive couldn’t love all he is and all he represents? But I don’t believe he’s electable, and this time it’s different from not believing that a man named Barack Hussein Obama could be elected to the Presidency — and yes, that difference is unfortunately and regrettably exactly what you think it is. I don’t believe that Sanders, if he were somehow to be elected, could actually enact his proposals at this time, in this Congress, in this political atmosphere. Even if I could dismiss his foreign policy incoherence and come to terms with what gun ownership means in a rural state like Vermont, I was disturbed by his response to that debate question about capitalism. To me, and maybe it’s just me, but progressive does not mean anti-capitalist. To me, in Clinton’s response I sensed a summoning of the future to fix the present imperfect:
SANDERS: Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little by which Wall Street’s greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don’t. I believe in a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires.
CLINTON: Well, let me just follow-up on that, Anderson, because when I think about capitalism, I think about all the small businesses that were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom in our country for people to do that and to make a good living for themselves and their families. And I don’t think we should confuse what we have to do every so often in America, which is save capitalism from itself. And I think what Senator Sanders is saying certainly makes sense in the terms of the inequality that we have. But we are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America. And it’s our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn’t run amok and doesn’t cause the kind of inequities we’re seeing in our economic system.
Campaigns are long and emotions run high and I, too, Feel the Bern. Since I know how much my fellow progressives will disagree with what I’ve written here, allow me to take this next section, with love, directly to them:
If you want to play your violins, poke and prod my chest with your fingers, hurl names at me, question my progressivism, brand me a turncoat, dub me a capitalist, centrist and traitor to the left, have at it.
If you want to fill my whole Facebook wall and Twitter feed with your misty watercolor memories of a President Bernie Sanders that is not be, please, again, have at it.
But I also dream of getting things done.
I came away from the first Democratic debate willing to give Sanders great parts of my heart because if you’re at any level of political consciousness, his rhetoric is really on point. If you’re uncorrupted by your own ears, however, so is Clinton’s. The difference is this: the GOP absolutely eat Sanders alive. To think otherwise is folly. All of which also assumes that some radical right-wing homegrown terrorist didn’t first, God forbid, harm Sanders first. He’s a Jew, and so am I. We consider these things.
We live in the world we live in, not the one we dream of. I believe Clinton — as of Tuesday’s debate and today, at the very least — would operate in the world that we live in yet at the same time deliver us closer to that world we dream of. Moreover, but crucially, I believe that Clinton wouldn’t repeat the most fateful and tragic error of Obama’s entire presidency: seeing Republicans as courtly opponents, not the bloodthirsty, racist enemies they have turned out to be. Why should we fear enemies doing business together — is that not, to use Donald Trump’s phrase, the art of the deal? Much as I feel that Obama was a consequential leader, his aloofness and reluctance to play ball with his enemies — hell, just to recognize them as enemies — hurt his progress irrevocably, and hurt the nation. Writing that truth hurts my heart.
Look, politics is a terrible game. It’s offensive, dirty, foul, vile and disgusting. Republicans are feckless, psychotic peddlers of lies and treason. But until they change or the political situation of America changes sufficiently, they are an inexorable part of our legislative and judicial reality. It’s my view that Clinton stands a better chance of achieving progress squaring off against them than Sanders will. In short, I think her balls are bigger than his.
I’ll be curious what the other Democratic debates reveal. I’ll be curious if Clinton does as well in them as she did on Tuesday. And I wonder what Great-Grandma Miriam would have thought of her — I don’t think it would have been unfettered, unquestioned, uncritical support. I’d like to think that she’d recognize Clinton’s gifts and gaffes and gall, and I’d like to think she’d have voted for pragmatism even as she could Feel the Bern. As for me, to quote the title of an Athol Fugard play, this is a lesson in aloes. I’m swimming in aloe vera, for it’s the only salve I have now that I, too, Feel the Bern. For today I can also imagine the radiating burn of the next GOP presidency, the havoc and horror it will visit upon America. I am one voter, just one. But when I vote next year, I expect to salute Miriam’s legacy. In doing so, I honor her dreams, as I summon the future to the present.