Politics Is Like Sports, Except Better

I follow politics with the enthusiasm of a sports fanatic. At President Obama’s first State of the Union I was able to name every member of his cabinet who passed before the camera, getting excited at the sight of people like Steven Chu and Arne Duncan. So it’s naturally baffling to me when people are all into sports but don’t tune into politics until the next presidential election is practically upon them.

Non-politics-watchers have a tendency to loudly assert that all politicians are the same and that nothing ever changes in Washington. This is like saying that all baseball or football players are equivalent, and that these sports are boring because they’re always played on the same basic field. Naturally, if you don’t pay attention, you’re not going to see the beauty of the sport. If you’re not a baseball fan, it looks like everyone’s just standing around. If you’re not a football fan, it’s just a bunch of dudes mindlessly crashing into each other (sometimes football is like that even if you are a fan). Politics is pretty much the same. Ignore it, and it’s boring. Watch it, and you’ll see things so riveting that you won’t mind reading twenty barely-different takes on the same event.

Oh wait, no, politics isn’t like sports. Because sports never actually matter.

I’ll give you an example. A couple of years ago, Jacoby Ellsbury was the star center fielder for the Boston Red Sox. He was great. He stole home this one time. Everybody loved him. Then, after helping his team win the world series, he became a free agent and signed with the Yankees. The local press screamed Betrayal! Greed! What kind of jerk would leave his beloved team, the one whose farm system he had risen through, the one that had developed his skills with the best coaches in the league etc. etc. etc., and sign with the Evil Empire?

Then neither team won the series and nobody cared.

Now let me tell you about Arlen Specter. Specter was a Republican senator from Pennsylvania from 1980 until 2009. He was pretty much a party-line guy, but he was more self-interested than ideological (in fact, he’d been a Democrat until 1965, when he lost a nomination for Philly DA and switched teams so he could still run – the guy who lost to him called him “Benedict Arlen”). As a result, nobody liked him. A more conservative Republican ran against him in the primary in 2004, and Specter barely squeaked through to retake his seat. Then in 2009, it became clear that Republican primary voters were going to pick the other guy this time.

So Arlen Specter switched sides again.

President Obama and the rest of the Democratic establishment welcomed Specter with open arms, promising to clear the Democratic field for him if they could. In return, Specter became a sudden party-line Democrat.

Hey, remember how the Affordable Care Act passed in the senate on a party line vote, getting exactly the 60 Democratic votes it needed to break a filibuster? One of those Democrats was Arlen Specter.

So because Arlen Specter switched sides (mostly for his career, just like Jacoby Ellsbury), over 10 million people who wouldn’t have had health insurance have it now. Millions upon millions of American women are able to get their chosen method of birth control for free. People aren’t forced to stay in jobs they hate just for the health coverage.

Now, you don’t have to like this result in order to agree with me (and Joe Biden) that this was a Big Fucking Deal.

So politics is relevant. But how about the contention that all politicians are the same? That statement is so obviously false that it’s hard to know where to begin. So I’ll stick with the sports analogy. Are all football players the same? Um, no. Some are private people; some won’t stop talking. Some play honorably; some are cheaters. Some are lovey-dovey with their spouses all over the internet; some punch their spouses in the face. Some are animal lovers; some torture them for sport. And if you watch football with any regularity, you’ll notice that they even play the game differently! Politics is the same way, people.

Except, of course, for the whole “mattering” thing.

Why I’m Not For Bernie

I have enough friends who are into Bernie Sanders that I feel I should explain why my preference remains for Hillary (and, in fact, actually against Bernie) despite agreeing with virtually everything Sanders is for.

Bernie has spent his entire career fighting almost exclusively against economic injustice. This is a positive thing, of course, and has made him a great senator. It does not mean he would be a great president. The presidency is not a good job for single-minded people, because it’s a job that requires one to address somehow or other practically every facet of the country’s existence. To put it more starkly:

A senator doesn’t have to care about foreign policy. A president does.

A senator doesn’t have to care about the military. A president does.

A senator doesn’t have to care about espionage. A president does.

A senator doesn’t have to care about immigration. A president does.

A senator doesn’t have to care about gun control. A president does.

The last of these issues, gun control, is one of my reasons for not supporting Bernie. His record on this issue is spotty, to put it kindly. He voted to protect gun manufacturers from lawsuits, to protect gun sellers from lawsuits, to allow guns on Amtrak trains… I’m not a fan.

Yes, he is from Vermont, which has a hunting culture, but so what? That gives him an excuse? The NRA gave him an F rating despite his spotty record – I doubt he would have lost his seat over a refusal to let gun manufacturers off the hook for the inevitable consequences of the use of their products. I’m not saying he’s Yosemite Sam — he’s voted for some gun control bills too. His record here doesn’t show me that Bernie is against gun control. It shows me that he doesn’t care.

This is also what Bernie’s encounters with the BLM movement have been about.* Their problem with him isn’t that they think he’s wrong about Wall Street or labor laws or income inequality. It’s that those issues are all he seems to really care about. It’s that until they started confronting him, his answers to racism were universal Pre-K and debt-free college.

Look for a moment at Bernie’s “Issues” page on his website. Six out of eight are purely economic, and a seventh, “Racial Justice,” is brand new. “Real Family Values” talks about paid family and sick leave, and says nothing about, say, women’s health or LGBTQ discrimination. Does Bernie have an opinion about immigration? If he does, he hasn’t told his website.

The main criticism of Hillary Clinton seems to be that she’s a regular politician, with all the usual pollsters and rich donors and so on. But you know what regular politicians do? Build and represent coalitions. Hillary has done the real work of reaching out to every Democratic constituency. She’s met with BLM activists. She’s hired immigration reform activists. She’s addressed college tuition and early childhood education. She’s been to Obama’s left on health care since before the presidency was even in his sights. Many of the Bernie fans I know are way too cynical about Hillary’s intentions, about whether she’ll follow up on all this once she’s president. Guys, she is putting forward liberal policy proposals because she’s liberal. Always has been.

Is she also doing it because she wants to win? Um, yes. You think the Democratic candidate shouldn’t be trying to win? I had no idea you read such low-profile blogs, Jeb.

A lot of Bernie fans have objections to Hillary over her personality or her trustworthiness. But as this article skillfully argued, the president should be seen not as a person but as a thing. And before you can implement your agenda, you have to win. As another Jewish friend of mine sadly put it, anyone who thinks a socialist Jew with a thick New York accent has a realistic shot at the presidency in 2016 is living in a dream world.

Whatever he may say, Bernie is an issue candidate. He’s running to push the economic conversation leftward, and good for him! But he’s not prepared to be president. Not even close. Let’s not pretend he is.

*For what it’s worth, I think the BLM activists in Seattle went WAY too far in disrupting Bernie’s speech there. The point where you shut someone down and refuse to let them answer you or be heard by the thousands of people who took time out of their day to hear that person’s speech, is the point at which you are doing a disservice to democracy. There’s making your point, and then there’s shutting down a huge event put on by people who mostly agree with you. I support the Black Lives Matter movement, and was proud of them for being heard at Netroots Nation, but it sure seems like these particular activists were just being dicks.


N.S. Dolkart is the author of Silent Hall, available for pre-order at any bookstore in the US, UK, Canada, South Africa, Australia, or New Zealand. It’s coming out in June, and it’s really good. You should buy it.