Senator Hillary Clinton’s army of political aides, strategists and tacticians has spent an inordinate amount of time in recent months worrying about the Democratic primary challenge that their boss faces from anti-war candidate Jonathan Tasini. The Clintonites maneuvered mightily to keep Tasini out of the spotlight at the state Democratic convention in May. They did the same when the small but influential Working Families Party pondered its endorsement. They discouraged Democrats from supporting the petition drive that eventually got Tasini’s name on Tuesday’s Democratic primary ballot. And they made it clear that Clinton would not join any debate that included Tasini.
None of this is particularly inappropriate. Incumbents aren’t usually inclined to aide their challengers. But the extra effort by the Clinton camp with regard to Tasini, a relatively unknown labor activist who got into the race without much money or many prominent backers, illustrates the extent to which the senator and her high-powered staff fear the main thing that Tasini has going for him: clear opposition to an unpopular war that Clinton has consistently backed.
On the eve of the primary, Clinton’s team was still spinning against Tasini, spreading the word among Democrats and pundits that they did not expect–and certainly did not want–to see the challenger win more than a single-digit percentage of the vote.
In setting such a low bar for Tasini, however, the usually-savvy Clinton camp could be misjudging the depth of anti-war sentiment among the Democratic electorate, and the extent to which Tasini may have tapped into it.
It should probably come as no surprise that Progressive Democrats of America, the energetic national grassroots group that has had the guts to push the Democratic Party to back a timeline for Iraq withdrawal and to support moves to impeach President Bush, is backing Tasini’s run.
PDA is all about pushing the envelope in a party not known for taking risks and thinking big. And PDA activists in New York–who have formed a half dozen chapters around the state — well understand that the best way to get a message to Clinton before she starts campaigning for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination is in the 2006 Democratic Senate primary. The same goes for the three New York State chapters of Democracy for America — the group founded to maintain the spirit of Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential run–that have endorsed Tasini.
Perhaps even more significant is the support that Tasini has earned from the “reform clubs” of New York City.
Among the groups backing Tasini in his campaign to hold Clinton to account in the September primary are the Village Independent Democrats, a reform political club with roots going backto the days when Eleanor Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson were its allies andmentors in struggles to break the grip of Tammany Hall on New York Cityelections. Also backing Tasini are New York City Democratic clubs such asthe Downtown Independent Democrats, Brooklyn Democrats for Change, CentralBrooklyn Independent Democrats and the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, agroup named for a legendary gay rights activist that was formed to backDemocrats who are strong defenders of LGBT rights.
The Democratic Progressive Action Caucus of New York backs Tasini’senergetic-if-underfunded challenge to Clinton, as does the New YorkDemocratic Socialists of America chapter
Individual endorsements for Tasini, the former head of the National Writers Union, have come from prominent New Yorkprogressives such as author and social welfare specialist Frances Fox Pivenand actress Susan Sarandon, as well as national figures such as authorBarbara Ehrenreich and peace activist Cindy Sheehan.
Of course, endorsements don’t elect candidates. But the support Tasini has garnered did build the base of volunteers needed to gather the more than 15,000 signatures needed to place his name on the primary ballot. And it has helped him maintain an energetic campaign against one of the most recognizable politicians on the planet.
That attention has reminded New York State Democrats that, on the fundamental issue of the 2006 electoral season–the question of whether to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq–Tasini is more in tune with them, and the American majority, than Clinton. The same goes for a host of other issues–from federal trade policy to gay rights–on which Clinton has disappointed liberals. As the primary approached, the Gay City News, a widely circulated weekly publication in New York City that is well regarded for its political commentary, editorialized that: “Clinton has ducked fair dialogue on where she stands on the most pressing foreign policy question facing the nation. Just because she can get away with it does not make it the right thing to do. Clinton has also bobbed and weaved this year on gay rights. Activists have pressed her on her opposition to gay marriage–and come away disappointed that she did not even speak out on the dignity of gay families on the Senate floor when Congress debated the ugly Marriage Protection Amendment.” The editorial concluded: “Hillary Rodham Clinton needs a wake-up call. Help Jonathan Tasini place that call.”
Clearly conscious of the need to more closely identify herself with the anti-war sentiment that prevails at the party’s grassroots, Clinton has in recent months made moves to alter her image as a Bush administration fellow traveler–primarily by lambasting Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, but also by backing Connecticut Democrat Ned Lamont in his fall race against pro-war Senator Joe Lieberman. The fact remains, however, that Clinton continues to side with the White House in debates about withdrawal. As recently as June, the incumbent opposed a Senate proposal by Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold and Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry to set a timeline for bringing the troops home, although Clinton did back a milder call for the administration to discuss exit strategies with the Congress.
To the extent that Clinton has edged off her militantly pro-war position, Tasini deserves a good deal of credit. Even if she does not fear a primary defeat, all indications are that Clinton fears the prospect that Tasini will garner a credible vote.
You will not find any pundits seriously suggesting that Tasini’s fervent anti-war stance–as well as his more-liberal-than-Clinton positions on a host of other issues–will be enough to win him the nomination Tuesday. But there should be a reasonable measure of enthusiasm among savvy primary voters for the challenger’s “Vote for What You Believe In” message. Pollster John Zogby, who got his start in New York State, told reporters several months ago that he thought a properly-framed and financed anti-warcandidacy could take more than a third of the primary vote against Clinton.”There is real palpable anger against Hillary for her stance on the war andfor the fact that she is not backing down,” Zogby said. “It’sconceivable that an anti-war candidate could still get to the mid- tohigh-30s against her.”
Tasini has framed his campaign properly. He has not had the necessary financing. But his energetic and creative campaign, as well as support from Progressive Democrats of America and reform clubs in New York, none of which make endorsement decisions casually, ought to count for something more than a single-digit finish. And if it does, then by the standard the Clinton campaign has set, Jonathan Tasini will have done a commendable job of delivering the anti-war message of his brave and necessary campaign.