One of the common narratives of this election is that Bernie Sanders has “pushed Hillary Clinton left” and “made her a better candidate.”
In the sense that competition obliges competitive people to become their best selves, and that criticism urges people to do better and gives them an opportunity to reflect and refine their arguments, it’s probably true that a primary challenge has served Hillary well.
But that, of course, is not what the narrative that Bernie has made Hillary a better candidate actually means.
It functions to impugn Hillary’s progressive credentials—indeed to imply that they don’t exist at all—and, if there are any demonstrable traces of progressivism in her candidacy, they are attributable to Bernie, not her.
I have a problem with that. I have a problem with it because I intensely dislike a narrative that says a man owns the responsibility for all the good things in a woman’s campaign, and I have a problem with it because it is simply not true.
I saw Hillary speak in person twice during the 2008 election. The first time was at a union hall, with a mostly white audience. She spoke eloquently and at length about the importance of unionization, workers’ rights, jobs, oppression, and wealth inequality. John Edwards had dropped out of the race by that time, and she noted that his message of the Two Americas should not be set aside just because he wasn’t around to deliver it anymore.
The second time was at a high school, with a mostly Latinx audience. She addressed many of the same issues, but tailored her message to address specific concerns of the local Latinx community to whom she was speaking.
Hillary hardly sounded like the corporate shill she is caricatured to be. Eight years ago, I saw her recognize the unique issues at the intersection of class and race.
That the media has conspired to conceal that Hillary was addressing wealth inequality and race (even if imperfectly) many years ago does not mean that she needed a foil in the form of Bernie to “make her a better candidate.”
Which doesn’t mean I believe she isn’t a better candidate now than she was then. She is.
She seems to have a stronger grasp of issues specific to black people now, and is more comfortable and confident speaking about them. The reason for that is because she has a stronger appreciation for, as she said in her address in Harlem earlier this week, listening to black people talk about their lives and experiences and believing what they say.
She has a better perspective on and attendant willingness to address without defensiveness failed policy that she supported, also reflected, as but one example, in the aforementioned address, when she stated that some of the policies for which she advocated in the 90s not only failed to make things better, but made them worse.
She is more able to find a balance between wonkishness and sound bites, saying, for instance, that she is not a one-issue candidate and then delivering details that demonstrate how that is so.
And she has led the way leftward on crucial issues like repealing the Hyde Amendment and gun reform.
Hillary is a better candidate now than she was in 2008, but she was a pretty damn good candidate then. In the interim, she has had a lot more personal and professional experience, namely as Secretary of State. She has forged an important partnership with President Obama. She has done a lot of listening and learning. And that experience shows.
I strongly take issue with the narrative that it is Bernie Sanders who has made Hillary Clinton a better candidate. It is Hillary who has made Hillary a better candidate.
And she alone deserves the credit for that.