Under Stress, Hillary Steps Up With a Tough Sensible Speech, While Trump Goes to Panderland

Election '16

Did the Orlando LGBT nightclub massacre attack also kill 2016’s progressive politics?

After major domestic disruptions, especially big terror attacks, the national narrative typically turns sharply to the right. The 9/11 attacks are the most obvious example. Before 2001, Congress spoke of a peace dividend, not the shift to endless wars overseas and a fear-based wave that swept over American culture and politics.

Almost anytime there is a crisis invoking national security, progressive responses get stepped on. The GOP, led by its 2016 presidential nominee Donald Trump, is echoing this template: calling for racial profiling, closed borders, immigration barriers and militancy: more fear and fear-based responses.

But Hillary Clinton, speaking Monday in Cleveland, did not just offer prescriptions dominated by hawkishness. It is breathtaking that a week ago, Bernie Sanders was still at the top of the news and poised, he said, to win big in California and keep pushing Democrats to the left. Now, after his loss and Orlando’s tragedy, he’s fading from view.

The question, then, is, will a dark sobriety imposed on Americans by another mass murderer who obtained military-style weapons and stated last-minute fealty to ISIL erase the progressive narrative that has shaped the 2016 presidential campaign? That theme has been reversing injustice’s many forms across America—economic, racial, legal, cultural and more.

Politicians and candidates are known for saying one thing and doing another. So it is hard to know if Clinton’s references in her speech that went beyond promising a tough foreign policy, better police tools and pushing for new gun controls signal a break with the formulaic post-9/11 mindset that elevates force-based solutions above all else.

“This is a moment when all Americans need to stand together,” Clinton said, early on. “We have to steel our resolve and respond. That’s what I want to talk to you about—how we respond. The Orlando terrorist may be dead, but the virus that poisoned his mind remains very much alive. We must attack it with clear eyes, steady hands, unwavering determination and pride in our country and our values.”

Clinton delivered a sober speech. It was tough, sensitive and sensible. On the tough side, she spoke of defeating, not containing, ISIL overseas. Domestically, she vowed to give police more tools and demanded sane gun controls, especially for military-style weapons. On the sensitive side, she expressed grief, touted diversity and said she has the LGBTQ community’s back. Notably, she said part of the way to break the lure of extremists and violence is doing more to help Americans domestically and bring people together, so fewer seeds of violence can take hold.

“The bonds that hold us together as communities—as one national community—are strained by an economy with too much inequality and too little upward mobility, by social and political divisions that have diminished our trust in each other and our confidence in our shared future,” Clinton said, as she concluded. “I have heard that, and I want you to know as your president I will work every day to break down the barriers holding you back and keeping us apart. We are going to get an economy to work for everyone, not just those at the top. We are going to forge a new sense of connection and shared responsibility to each other and our nation.”

Most mainstream coverage will focus on Clinton’s foreign policy pronouncements: her call for nations like Saudi Arabia to stop its citizens from funding jihadist schools; for gun laws that prevent unstable people or those on terror watch lists from buying arms; to find out why the FBI twice investigated the Orlando shooter yet closed those inquiries. What mainstream media is not likely to do is ponder her words on bringing people closer together by embracing diversity, expanding civil rights and trying to stem inequality.

“Our open, diverse society is an asset in the struggle against terrorism, not a liability,” she said. “It makes us stronger and more resistant to radicalization. This raises a larger point about the future of our country. America is strongest when we all believe they have a stake in our country and our future. This vision has sustained us from the beginning—the belief that yes, we are all created equal and the journey we have made to turn that into reality over our history. That we are not a land of winners and losers. That we all should have the opportunity to live up to our god-given potential, and we have a responsibility to help others to do so as well.”

On Tuesday night, as the District of Columbia ends its voting in 2016’s final Democratic Party primary, Sanders is slated to meet with Clinton in Washington. Before Sunday’s massacre, Sanders said he wanted to ensure that the party embraces a progressive agenda in 2016. After Orlando, the conventional wisdom is that Sanders and his call for more progressive policies will be sidelined as focus shifts to the more "serious" subject of stopping terrorism.

But perhaps this time will be different. Perhaps Americans are tired of responding to the latest domestic mass shooting by ignoring America’s homegrown ills. Perhaps Clinton sees a genuine need for a progressive domestic agenda, one that shares many elements with Sanders’ agenda, and that won’t get lost as the horror and reverberations from Orlando continue. One can only hope that 2016’s progressive politics will not be a casualty of America’s worst mass shooting.

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