Last week, the first presidential debate between candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump took place, and I believe that it can be said that Clinton won. She came prepared with attacks on Trump’s business shortcomings as well as with effective bait, which Trump fell for every time. In post-debate polling, Clinton was consistently seen as the winner by reputable polls. The CNN/ORC poll revealed that 62 percent of voters believe that Clinton won and Clinton, on average, now maintains a national lead of three to four points in the popular vote, up from her one to two point lead prior to the debate. That is coupled with her increased polling lead in many of the swing states.
Clinton’s debate rhetoric displayed the influence of Bernie Sanders and his supporters, especially elements of Sanders’ economic populism. Despite such substantive shifts from her earlier rhetoric towards the left, there are several problematic arguments Clinton made during the debate. While I firmly believe that Clinton is the most prepared presidential candidate in the history of the United States, and will proudly cast my vote for her come November, she needs to be held accountable by the left.
President Barack Obama has largely received a free pass from the left, a situation that liberals should not allow again if Clinton is elected president. As Senator Sanders has often said, it is now up to the voters to hold Clinton to the party platform to ensure that the left’s goals are accomplished. This is a notion that I firmly believe Clinton would agree with herself. In her Wellesley commencement speech in 1969, when she stated that while college students and the youth may not be in positions of power, she said, “we do have the indispensable element of criticizing and constructive protest.”
The overarching problem with Clinton’s debate performance is her reluctance to push controversial stances. The platform that she has endorsed is the most progressive in the party’s history; however, this was not always reflected in her remarks at the debate.
For example, the platform contains substantial policies regarding criminal justice re-form. While the changes in the platform are not enough, they are significant and will result in substantive change. When the issue of criminal justice reform and implicit bias was raised at the debate, Clinton did address that there was an issue and mentioned the existence of systemic racism, but did not delve any further. Instead, she pivoted to gun control. In another instance, she pivoted from implicit bias to mental health reform. While both of these issues are of the utmost importance, a more thorough conversation on systemic racism and her role in creating our current system is needed. Clinton did not call out the policy of “Stop-and-Frisk” as discriminatory. Instead, she mentioned that it was ruled unconstitutional, in part for being ineffective, ignoring the larger issue of the policy.
In another instance, while addressing domestic terrorism and ISIS, Clinton suggested that the government should not alienate Muslim communities in the United States because they can provide valuable intelligence. Suggesting that the acceptance of Muslims in our country is contingent on their ability to provide intelligence is deeply problematic and rooted in many of the same sentiments that have been expressed by the Trump campaign and its supporters. She also failed to raise the issue of white nationalist domestic terrorism, which has caused more deaths than Muslim extremists in the United States since 9/11. This omission allows the narrative of associating Muslims with terrorism to continue.
While these may come off as nitpicky criticisms, there is a greater issue at hand. Clinton and the Democratic Party are actively avoiding any controversial or wedge issues that could trivialize her shot at the presidency. I understand why this tactic has been chosen and I certainly believe that we would see a dramatic regression in all of the keystones of the left’s causes if she loses to Trump, but now is not the time for gentle approaches to major, systemic issues.
The challenges our country faces today, from climate change to economic inequality to criminal justice reform, require fundamental shifts in the foundation our country is built upon. Clinton must seize upon the considerable momentum for systemic change that is present in our country. Her refusal to address the fundamental issues associated with these problems at forums such as the debate make effective change impossible. The sentiments raised by Trump and the alt-right are not going anywhere. They will continue in mainstream U.S. politics for years to come; therefore, it makes no sense to hold off on controversial issues until a later election because the threat of the alt-right will be present in future elections. Avoiding controversial issues in order to better guard against those threats is admitting defeat to the alt-right. By changing their positions out of fear, the Democrats lose. Liberals cannot be afraid to stand up and stand firm in what they believe. In the words of Clinton in that same 1969 Wellesley commencement speech, “empathy doesn’t do us anything … the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible.”
Michael Gordon ’20 is from Palmetto Bay, Fla. He lives in Sage.