By Peter Bloom
Apr 8, 2016
The Democratic primary has dramatically intensified in the wake of Bernie Sanders resounding double digit victory in Wisconsin earlier this week. With the delegate rich battleground of New York nearing, the rhetoric between the candidates has taken on an increasingly combative “tone”.
The most recent example of the heated nature of this once almost friendly contest is the rising battle over who is qualified to be President. Clinton, perhaps feeling “nervous” in the face of Sanders’ growing momentum, has adopted a new strategy meant to “disqualify him, defeat him and then…unify the party later.” In response Sanders has fired back that it is Clinton who is “not qualified”.
Easily missed in this electoral sparring is an important debate about what in fact does qualify someone to be a political leader. Traditionally, such qualifications are linked to a mix of experience and knowledge. Yet as the Sanders surge has revealed, voters are increasingly rejecting these establishment credentials for something more progressive.
Who is (Dis)Qualified for Leadership?
The crisis of quality arguably started with a widely perceived to be embarrassing interview Bernie Sanders gave to the New York Daily News. In it he appeared not to know how he would break up the “big Banks” as he has been promising throughout his campaign. This apparent confusion seemingly also extended to issues of foreign policy such as Drones and the legality of Israeli settlements.
The mainstream media was quick to pounce on Sanders’ supposed ignorance. Taking advantage of this emerging narrative, Clinton and her allies used this incident to portray Sanders as potentially unfit for office. She declared “He’d been talking for more than a year about doing things that he hadn’t really studied or understood.”
These charges soon threatened to backfire as numerous experts and even some reliably pro-Clinton publications such as the New York Times came to Sanders’ defense. In point of fact, it was the New York Daily News editors, not Sanders, who were misinformed. Sanders replies of “I don’t know” on financial regulation were due, for instance, to their own confusion regarding the authority of the Treasury Department and the Fed.
In the wake of these revelations, Sanders has forcefully challenged Clinton’s own qualifications. He challenged her credentials on both domestic and foreign policy issues. Referring to the recent release of the “Panama Papers” he proclaimed “I don't think you are qualified if you supported the Panama free-trade agreement, something I very strongly opposed, which has made it easier for wealthy people and corporations all over the world to avoid paying taxes owed to their countries.”
Status Quo Experience Vs. Progressive Wisdom
This latest flare up may soon be lost to the newest cycle of fresh outrage so characteristic of close elections. However, it is an opportunity to popularly reconsider what makes an individual suitable to lead and govern. In electing a leader, citizens should expect more than establishment friendly experience and knowledge.
Clinton has been trumpeted repeatedly for her undeniable political experience. Yet as Sanders has taken great pains to point out – it is easy but dangerous to confuse being experienced for being qualified. Also required is wisdom, judgment and strong ethical principles.
"It is easy but dangerous to confuse being experienced for being qualified."
It is not clear by any stretch of the imagination that Clinton is more experienced than Sanders. His success as a mayor, congressman and Senator holds up well with her resume as First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State. However, it is hard to argue that she matches up to him in terms of wisdom and principles.
Time and again – from the Iraqi invasion to LGTB rights, from the free trade to the environment – Sanders’s judgment has revealed itself far superior to Clinton’s. The leak of the “Panama Papers” further highlighted this qualified difference between the two candidates. While Clinton as Secretary of State was negotiating a free trade agreement with Panama that would easier for the wealthy to move their money offshore, Sanders was giving a speech on the Senate floor railing against this deal as a giveaway to the rich at the expense of the majority of Americans.
The contest between Clinton and Sanders represents something far bigger than the election of the candidates themselves. It is the choice between status quo experience and progressive wisdom. To quote Robert Reich, Hillary Clinton is "the most qualified candidate for president of the political system we now have. But Bernie Sanders is the most qualified candidate to create the political system we should have, because he’s leading a political movement for change."
Progressive Quality Control
A crucial question for voters this primary is whether they will continue to be seduced by the false lure of establishment resumes. While knowledge and experience should not be discounted, they should also be weighed against foresight and consistency of principle. An insider’s pedigree may represent a narrow elite worldview unsuitable for a time when it is “too late for establishment politics and establishment economics.”
Progressive voters should demand from their candidates a higher degree of quality control. They must expand their electoral expectations beyond a persona’s ability to personally advance their political career. They must consider whether someone truly is a “progressive who gets things done” or merely a politician who “gets things done” based on whatever is popular at the time and what their corporate allies support.
Hillary Clinton is undeniably an extremely experienced and informed candidate. She is also a clear lesser evil than any Republican she will face. However, Sanders is right, she is not qualified to be a progressive President.
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Peter Bloom is a lecturer in the Department of People and Organisations at the Open University. He has published widely on issues of 21st century democracy, politics and economics in both scholarly journals and in publications including the Washington Post, The New Statesman, Roar, Open Democracy, The Conversation and Common Dreams. His book, Authoritarian Capitalism in the Age of Globalization, will be released next year.