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What Does Zephyr Teachout’s Challenge Mean?

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In the aftermath of Zephyr Teachout’s surprisingly strong challenge to Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary for governor of New York, there are a number of articles proclaiming that it is really meaningful. Joan Walsh, writing just before the primary, talks about Teachout reminding Cuomo that there is a liberal base and that you have to run real progressives in order to get policy made. This I agree with entirely.

John Cassidy’s post-mortem argues that the Teachout run is emblematic of something larger.

The Democratic Party establishment survived. But Teachout and Wu both achieved more than seemed possible a couple of months ago. By thoroughly embarrassing Cuomo, New York Democrats didn’t merely deliver a blow to whatever national aspirations he may have. They signalled to other Democrats, Hillary Clinton included, that the political center of gravity has shifted, and that a significant segment of Democratic voters won’t suffer gladly a return to the timid, pro-corporate policies of the Clinton years, which Cuomo represents.

That’s why what happened on Tuesday wasn’t just a New York story: it has national implications. The progressive movement that emerged from the financial crisis, giving birth to Occupy Wall Street and the de Blasio campaign, may still be inchoate and splintered. But it can’t be ignored.

Possible. I don’t know that Cuomo’s national ambitions are completely ruined. But the combination of the scandal and the fact that he’s already been targeted by a left-wing insurgency in his home state certainly can’t help. As for Hillary Clinton, I don’t know. Clinton so far has floated above all of this in a way that she absolutely could not in 2008. When Clinton announces, will there will be a real left-wing challenge like this? One hopes so and that is it credible. If Warren isn’t going to do it, Bernie Sanders would be useful if he runs within the Democratic Party primaries. Otherwise, he is wasting his time. And even if a left-running Democrat did make Hillary work a bit, would it mean anything at all in the general election or after she entered the Oval Office? Doubtful because everyone is going to be working hard for her, despite her flaws, when the opponent is Ted Cruz or whoever comes out of the clown show that is the Republican Party.

I don’t doubt that the Occupy Wall Street energy is part of this challenge. But I also think that wealthier white leftists tend to overstate the power of other wealthier white leftists to create change. In other words, Cuomo won because of his huge numbers in New York’s outer boroughs and any attempt to create real political change in New York is going to have to deal with the machine politics and the fact that a lot of voters have priorities not entirely or at all based around policy. So where all this goes, I really don’t know, but it is fascinating to watch and obviously hopeful. But anything concrete remains nascent at best.

Another interesting facet to this election is the actions of Bill de Blasio. Like Obama in 2008, de Blasio’s campaign used a lot of rhetoric around change, but once the office is taken, both largely promoted the status quo they always believed in. However, at least in the articles I’ve read, the criticism of de Blasio is less strident than I would have thought. This could mean only that I’m not reading the right lefties, I don’t know. But he really went all in for Cuomo in a way that is going to be hard for a lot of people to forget.

Also, the big loser in all of this is the Working Families Party. Although not really a third party despite its name, WFP is supposed to organize the left for positive change. But the WFP is reliant upon its consistuent groups because it is not a social movement. So when parts of organized labor came out for Cuomo, for reasons that made sense to them since it is the unions job to represent their own members’ best interests, the WFP had no real choice but go along. I know that supposedly de Blasio and the unions enacted concessions from him for the endorsement, but I’ll believe Andrew Cuomo follows through on a promise to the left when I see it. So I’m having trouble seeing what the point of the WFP is in political races if it can’t even buck Andrew Cuomo.

Anyway, I guess I’m mostly skeptical that the Teachout run has much in the way of larger implications for New York or national politics. But it is part of the larger dissatisfaction the base has with right-wing Democrats. Whether that appears in the 2016 presidential primary or not answers the question over these implications.

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