One of the more quiet and interesting moments of this year's presidential race occurred during the run up to the New York primary. Hillary and Bernie were in a tight and hard fought race and as it moved to New York, where there is obviously a high Jewish population and Israel is a hot-button issue, Jews and Jewish leaders were even more engaged in the Democratic primary.
Late one afternoon I received a call from a colleague inviting me to a lunch with Bill Clinton. The former president would be meeting with 25 New York area rabbis to talk about Hillary, Jewish concerns and the primary. Having always wanted to meet William Jefferson Clinton, I accepted the invitation.
Two things stand out for me from that day. The first is that as the 25 rabbis sat in the room--women and men from across the denominational spectrum of American Jewish life--we all were scratching our heads about why we were there, how we got invited, and musing aloud about being brought into a campaign event which seemed to have assumed we were all "with her," which was not necessarily the case. But hey, it was lunch with the 42nd president of the United States, so, you know.
I'll admit that I was on the fence at that point. Bernie's broad message of social and economic justice was really resonating strongly for me. His talk of revolution was not resonating for me per se; and yet I still felt, inherently, that his strong critique of the system being "rigged" had a certain truth to it that rang a bell of reason.
And yet, Sanders' positions on Israel troubled me. While long an advocate of the two-state solution and a vocal critique of the settlement enterprise myself, I was concerned that Bernie was surrounding himself with people who too easily melded their opposition to the settlement enterprise with anything related to Israel at all. I didn't have a sense that his team grasped the big picture. That the region was deeply unstable and that in the grand scheme of things, Israel was not actually the problem. That broader, more oppressive and totalitarian forces were at play. Sure, Israel had its structural challenges; but they paled in comparison to their neighbors. The refusal to articulate this bothered me. And I was becoming gradually persuaded to the view that Hillary would have been both critical when necessary but fundamentally balanced and in clear command of Israel's strategic importance to American and more broadly democratic interests.
Bill said what you'd think he'd say. Hillary loves Israel. She gets it. Her team will be my team and Bibi loves Hillary. He knows they'll get along. I'd observe that heads nodded in a kind of guarded satisfaction. We were being pandered to; but there was a layer of truth to the maneuver. It all felt both rehearsed and real.
But here is what I actually keep thinking about when I reflect on that lunch in the spring. Each of us had a chance to ask the President a question and as the inquiries moved around the room, I was working on formulating mine.
What has long bothered about Democratic party politics was the generational failure to create real systemic change in our country by a concerted and strategic effort to win state houses across the country. The GOP had long figured out, going back to Nixon and Reagan, that the country could be won locally. State assemblies and state senates; governors mansions. These would be the bread and butter of organizing. We Democrats went for the big stuff, the star power, the national contests. And when add in the power of re-districting and gerrymandering to determine future races, it didn't amount a very pretty picture for Democrats.
I knew that Bill Clinton would love this question. So after a slew of Jewish agenda queries from my colleagues, I hit him with mine. He sat back, leaned in, and held forth a good while on the importance of long term planning. He talked about not understanding the middle of the country. He talked about his own failures and Obama's failures to shore up the local in order to strengthen the national. And he promised that Hillary would get that when she became President. That she would do things differently.
Alas, I have reflected on that conversation a lot these past 48 hours when considering the price we are about to pay as a country for neglecting the concerns of the middle, of the neglected, of the voiceless, while paying a disproportionate amount of attention to the larger, flashier, more symbolic "hot-button" issues of national campaigns.
It's clear to me that Donald Trump is President NOT because America is a racist country but because for too long Democratic leadership lost sight of the great pain and suffering felt by people near the lower middle and bottom of the economic chain who in fact are not really brought into the process of civic engagement and responsibility. Democrats lost sight of one of the foundations of the party--alienated working people of all races who sense that no one is looking out for them.
In our speed-heightened and attention deprived age, it's hard to focus on the mundane. I get that. And with a misogynist, sexually assaulting, race-baiting, bigoted and shameless, tax-evading salesman charming the pants off the disenfranchised with his misplaced anger and false sense of victimhood, it's no wonder that the smoke and mirrors of his show blinded voters to the plain work of government, which, for all her faults, was Hillary's show.
She was no more self-serving than he. In fact, I'd bet my life on the fact that, measure for measure, her dedication to the betterment of others over a lifetime will long outlast his. And yet her twilight rise to power came at a time of such intense anger and alienation that it was not to be.
While our new president is shameless, a debt-master, a sexual predator, his ascent to power is our great shame as Democrats.
My lesson in all this: We need to roll up our sleeves and get to work, at every level of government. Through service and volunteerism; through tolerance and openness; through acts of loving-kindness and justice and love. And yes, through a strategically executed plan of winning seats at local, city, state and national levels so that we can truly be a government of the people, by the people and for the people.