I was never really non-political, but my first actual foray into anything beyond armchair politicking was in 2003, when I threw myself behind Howard Dean, then running for the Democratic presidential nomination.
If you remember Howard Dean at all, you probably remember him addressing his supporters after the Iowa Caucuses in January 2004, when Dean – who had finished a distant third behind eventual ticket-mates John Kerry and John Edwards – let loose a scream that was, in practice, the ghastly sound of his campaign's undignified death.
The 2004 election, we told ourselves, was the most important election of our lifetimes. Since then, of course, every election has been labeled as such by one faction or another; but that particular election, for Democrats and Republicans alike, was frought with a weighty urgency that previous contests didn't seem to hold.
Even now, thinking about what was on the line that year, I get tense. To me, 2004 was about the choice between deficits fueled by tax cuts for the wealthy and an economic policy that privileged the middle class; between a ruthlessly capitalist health-care system and the promise that everyone can get quality care; between a nascent surveillance state and privacy; between a devastated environment and a healthy planet; and, most importantly, between an aggressive, swaggering foreign policy and smart international diplomacy.
I spent most of 2003 convinced that only one man could possibly do the hard work necessary to unwind the damage George W. Bush had done to this country and the world, and that man was Dean. John Kerry? Elitist flip-flopper. John Edwards? Hack ambulance chaser. Dick Gephardt? Washed-up Washington insider. Wesley Clark? Inexperienced opportunist. And so on (I liked Carol Moseley Braun, but I knew this country would never elect a young black US Senator from Chicago to be president. I was idealistic, not stupid!).
I was not afraid to say it, either, in person or online. The internets were not then what they are now, with no Facebook, no Twitter and only a handful of forums where large groups could gather to discuss things. The flame wars on sites like Democratic Underground and Daily Kos in those days were legendary. I organized Meet-Ups (remember those?) where the we refined our pro-Dean, anti-Kerry attack messaging. There were heated moments at the 2003 state convention held here in Milwaukee, and at events all around town as we Dean supporters squared off against the establishment-friendly Kerry team and the insurgents supporting Clark.
In the end, of course, we lost. Not just we Dean folks, but we Democrats. Bush got his four more years, and the country got its Great Recession.
I'm not saying the vitriolic splits in the party during primary season were necessarily the only reason John Kerry lost, but will say this: So much of what Republicans threw at the Kerry-Edwards ticket in the general election were things that came out of my own mouth in the primary that year. Though I supported Kerry – voted for him, campaigned for him, gave money to him – over the course of 2003, I had convinced myself, and I'm sure many other voters, that John Kerry didn't care about people like me, would never side with the middle class over the bankers and was just barely to Bush's left on foreign policy. In my heart, I still feel horrible about what I said and did back then in the name of Howard Dean.
The 2008 primaries were a different beast altogether. I stayed out of it; burned by the Dean experience, I joined no campaigns, gave no money and did not, in fact, even make up my mind who to vote for in the Wisconsin primary until that morning.
I liked the way, as both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ran neck-and-neck into the later primaries, the campaigns kept it clean and positive. Sure, some supporters on either side were monsters, but even though that election was also touted as the most important election of our lifetimes, the message from nearly all of us was consistently that either of these two highly qualified candidates were able and ready to lead the country in the right direction.
My fear today, as I write this, is that 2016 is looking more like 2004 than like 2008. It's not just the coincidence of another crazy white guy from Vermont running in the Democratic primary. It's that Hillary Clinton is now being treated like John Kerry, like she is an elitist pseudo-liberal eager to make war with both Iran and the American middle class. She's being labeled a DINO (Democrat in Name Only); some of my friends have been working very hard to convince me that a Clinton presidency would be George W. Bush's third term.
Which is just not true.
Clinton, in 2008, ran to Obama's left. Her Senate record was more liberal than Obama's. The primary way she's distinguished herself in this year's campaign from Obama's record is by running to the his left again, demanding more in terms of economic fairness, social justice, the environment and even foreign policy after having been his first-term secretary of state. She pegs the meter to the left on almost every issue critical to core Democratic constituencies, including the broad Obama coalition.
Is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders more liberal even than Clinton? Sure. But here's the thing: Though he's running in the Democratic primary, he was not elected to his current office as a Democrat, so to say Hillary's a DINO in comparison to Sanders is just dumb.
More importantly, I see in the Sanders campaign the same kind thing that I was a part of in the Dean campaign. Sanders has tremendous support and massive crowds coming to hear him despite having a much smaller campaign infrastructure and fundraising presence, meaning that much of what's happening here, as it happened with Dean, is a bunch of very excited but very inexperienced volunteers working some minor miracles on the ground. But then those same volunteers are going out and fighting hard against – indeed, doing a great job of alienating – Democratic allies.
It's so bad that key high-level Democratic fundraisers and operatives are trying hard to kick-start a demand for someone like Joe Biden who they hope might somehow survive a Clinton-Sanders death match. Thankfully Biden seems uninterested.
Dean brought to the Democratic Party a lot of people who might not otherwise have engaged in politics. Sanders is doing the same thing. The danger is that the Sanders campaign – or at least those energized by it – is doing such a bang-up job of demonizing Hillary Clinton and promoting the idea that she's no better than the Republicans that one of those Republicans might just pull off a win next November.
Is there a way for Sanders to win the nomination without burning Hillary to the ground? I don't know. I like where he stands, but I don't think America is ready to elect a self-proclaimed Socialist to the White House no matter how mainstream many of his positions actually are. Still, there's a way to conduct this campaign that doesn't turn the primary into a murder-suicide pact.
Recognize that allies are allies, and that the Obama coalition isn't going to be swayed by tearing down Democratic women they admire. Remember that the enemy is named Trump or Walker or Carson, not Clinton, and that a Clinton presidency will be good for America and Americans.
And for goodness sake, don't let him scream.