A Brief History: Bernie, Barry, Bill and Hillary

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, left, and Hillary Clinton take the stage before a Democratic pr
Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, left, and Hillary Clinton take the stage before a Democratic presidential primary debate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Tom Lynn)

The degree to which the 2016 Democratic presidential primary has centered on race and the concerns of Americans of color--African Americans in particular--is historic. Not since 1964 when Lyndon Johnson ran on a platform of enacting the Civil Rights Act has racial equality figured so prominently as a campaign issue. Although then-Senator Bill Bradley attempted to make racial equality a centerpiece of his 2000 primary contest against Vice President Al Gore, Democrats in 2016 are being treated to the highly unusual spectacle of both major candidates focusing on race. Yet while the campaigns of Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are making history, Secretary Clinton is also attempting to rewrite it. The cause of racial equality isn't well served by either her revisionism or that of the black political gentry supporting her.

Clinton has caricatured Sanders as a "single-issue" candidate for his disciplined focus on income inequality and Wall Street. In addition, Clinton's black political surrogates have complained that Sanders has been "missing in action" on issues of most immediate importance to African Americans. These are curious critiques of Sanders because similar criticisms could fairly have been leveled at candidate Obama in 2008 and can now be leveled at President Obama even today.

In 2008, when then-Senator Obama was asked about his agenda for black America, his campaign responded, "It's the same as Barack Obama's agenda for all America." In her chronicling of Obama's historic campaign in The Breakthrough, journalist Gwen Ifill observed that Obama's only engagement with race during the election was to simply "erase race as a negative." If Sanders is guilty of not talking enough about race because of his focus on income inequality and Wall Street--issues which are hardly devoid of race--then candidate Obama is guilty of the same thing. Yet African Americans supported Obama by overwhelming numbers in his primary contest against Clinton in 2008.

Clinton and the black political gentry's critique of Sanders misses the mark in another important respect. Emulating Bill Clinton's "race-neutral opportunity agenda," Obama has written "The most important tool to close the gap between minority and white workers may have little to do with race at all . . . . [W]hat ails working-class and middle-class blacks and Latinos is not fundamentally different from what ails their white counterparts . . . ." Obama has also written, "An emphasis on universal, as opposed to race-specific, programs isn't just good policy; it's also good politics." If Obama's approach to his 2008 campaign sounds like the approach for which Sanders is now being criticized, that's because it's quite similar, which is a bit of history that Clinton and her black surrogates have either forgotten or are attempting to bury.

To be sure, there are significant differences between Sanders's current focus on income inequality on the one hand and Obama and Bill Clinton's race-neutral approach to black advancement on the other hand. But these differences actually commend Sanders's approach while underscoring the limited vision of racial equality that Obama and Bill Clinton offered once they were elected. Both as a candidate and in the early part of his presidency, Obama believed in "a rising tide lifting minority boats." Again, his approach was largely derivative of Bill Clinton's. Citing to the economic growth and growth in black incomes and jobs during the 1990s--none of which had a race-specific genesis--Obama has said, "If you want to know the secret of Bill Clinton's popularity among African Americans, you need look no further than these statistics."

To the extent that Sanders is seeking race-neutral remedies to economic inequality between blacks and whites, his approach is far more realistic than Obama and Bill Clinton's. The Great Recession of 2008, which hit African Americans much harder than whites, dissipated the illusion that we can tackle economic inequality on a race-neutral basis without significantly expanding the scope of government programs. That is exactly what Sanders has proposed to do.

In contrast, Bill Clinton famously declared that "The era of big government is over," while Obama's domestic policy legacy is, paradoxically, largely defined by a single issue--the Affordable Care Act. Sanders's proposals to expand the government's role in the fight against economic inequality by providing universal single-payer healthcare and free public college education are no less realistic than Bill Clinton and President Obama's hope of effectuating economic equality between the races with less than what Sanders is proposing. Yet Clinton's black surrogates reserve the "unrealistic" moniker for Sanders.

Another significant difference between candidate Sanders and candidate Obama is that the former has in fact specifically engaged issues of race on the campaign trail. Whether he has done so because he feels compelled by the disproportionately black makeup of certain primary states is beside the point. Clinton has a similar political impetus to discuss race, while Obama quietly signaled to black voters in 2008 and 2012 that, as a black candidate, they should cut him slack in having to address race-specific issues. Indeed, members of the Congressional Black Caucus have also criticized Obama's laxity with respect to addressing racial issues and for failing to consult with the Caucus with any regularity. Thus, it smacks of inconsistent standards and political hypocrisy for the black political gentry to assail Sanders as being "missing in action" on matters of race.

Seeking to exploit black voters' emotional connection to the first African American president, Secretary Clinton has portrayed Sanders as being hyper-critical of Obama and has accused him of attempting to foment a primary challenge to Obama in 2012. On this score, historical context truly matters. In the summer of 2011, Obama sought to strike a "grand bargain" with then-House Speaker John Boehner. Obama had agreed to far more in cuts to entitlement and other programs than the Republicans had agreed to in additional taxes on the wealthy and corporations. Obama even agreed to raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67.

In short, Obama was prepared to triangulate his political base in a similar fashion that Bill Clinton had by, among other apostasies, supporting punitive welfare reform and NAFTA. It was not just Sanders who loudly and righteously objected to Obama's maneuvers. There was sharp criticism from progressives such as Paul Krugman, who wrote, "It's getting harder and harder to trust Mr. Obama's motives in the budget fight, given the way his economic rhetoric has veered to the right."

If Sanders and other progressives had not criticized Obama, they could not seriously call themselves progressives. (One wonders what if any counsel Secretary Clinton gave to Obama during the grand bargain negotiation?) Only after Republicans forced Boehner to pull out of bargaining with Obama for fear of handing him a political victory did Obama veer to the left in time enough for a successful reelection campaign that depended overwhelmingly on base voters. It is as insulting to the intellect of black voters for Secretary Clinton to attempt to deify Obama as it was for Obama to attempt to triangulate his base.

Either Senator Sanders or Secretary Clinton would make a fine president, and certainly either would be better on questions of income and racial inequality than any of the Republican candidates. But their historic Democratic dialogue on race deserves the dignity of historical accuracy and intellectual honesty.