Jonathan Tasini isn’t expecting a miracle. The candidate who would take on political giant Hillary Clinton for her adamant pro-war stance is not expecting to repeat what Lamont pulled off in Connecticut; he admits he just doesn’t have the money. And yet he is proud his poll numbers were recently as high as 13% and climbing. Make no mistake: on the issues, he feels, he’s got Hillary’s number all the way. But Ms. Clinton refuses to debate him. Editorials in both The New York Post and The New York Times, in a rare moment of agreement, demanded a debate be held. As one of Tasini’s staffers blogged two weeks before the primary: “Ms. Clinton is in absolutely no danger of losing the primary. Her aversion to debating Mr. Tasini has to do with the prime focus of his campaign: her vote four years ago to authorize President Bush to go to war with Iraq.”
Tasini’s office is small. A cluttered basement apartment in the West Village in New York City, the two-room space is jammed with laptops, folding chairs, and volunteers transfixed to their computer monitors. Just days before his all-important primary, the would-be senator wore his thinned hair combed straight back, a blue polo shirt, dark slacks and cowboy boots—as he spoke with antiwar syndicated columnist and author Norman Solomon by phone. Guernica recorded the conversation.
Guernica: As we speak, Jonathan, you’ve gotten more ink in the daily press in New York in the last few days than probably the rest of your entire campaign. What do you make of it?
Jonathan Tasini: Well, one of the difficulties of this race has in fact been to get regular coverage in the mainstream media, whether it be television, radio or newspapers. There’s been a virtual blackout of coverage on a regular basis—and so we’ll see whether that can make a difference in the next three weeks. Obviously, with a blackout in the mainstream media, what stands out even more is the financial advantage that Hillary Clinton has over our campaign.
Guernica: The Times said something like $44 million compared to $200,000—is that right?
Jonathan Tasini: Yeah, something like that.
Guernica: What are the dynamics for someone who jumps into this race without, say, Hillary Clinton’s name recognition or establishment support—to turn around the lack of media attention to your campaign?
Jonathan Tasini: Many of the national media—if you looked at the Time magazine cover story—I’ve watched some of these reporters on talking head shows—they pretend like there’s no race. They essentially ignore the fact that she has a challenger, or—I think my new first name is now “Little Known.” And they repeat that—and it works like a self-fulfilling prophecy. It says to editors and other media: we don’t have to cover this person. This isn’t shocking because this is the way we know—it’s never about the issues. It’s never a comparison of my issue positions versus her issue positions.
Guernica: Let’s say you raised $44 million. How would that change the dynamic?
Jonathan Tasini: They would consider me a giant killer. Frankly, the practical reality is if I had that money I’d be able to advertise. So there’s a—I’m trying to find the right term for how one feeds off the other—
Guernica: A negative synergy?
Jonathan Tasini: A negative synergy. If you have the money you can—in this world where advertising is king and where the mainstream media controls the message—you can become competitive and they will consider you competitive. Let’s look at the race just across the border in Connecticut: Ned Lamont would not have won that race if he was not a multimillionaire. He was able to put $4 million of his own money into that race which allowed him to then broadcast ads throughout the state on a regular basis, which then made him credible in the eyes of the media.
If I had a million or two million dollars—forget $44 million—this would be a very competitive race. I stand where the majority of Democrats do in this state.
Guernica: What about the national Democratic Party as incarnated in Howard Dean—in terms of your campaign?
Jonathan Tasini: He’s invisible in one sense. In another sense the establishment Democratic Party supports incumbents, generally speaking. You saw that in the Connecticut race and you saw that here. No matter where the issues are people don’t—you know Democrats who are in office don’t want primaries, even if they happen to agree 100% with the challenger, because their attitude is, well, the shoe might be on the other foot someday. So the notion that there would be a debate about the future of the Democratic Party—in other words, primaries—is not something they encourage.
Guernica: So authentically contested primaries are rare?
Jonathan Tasini: They’re rare, yes. Partially because of the money advantage that incumbents have and, second, because the Party discourages those kinds of primaries. Look what happened to Marcy Winograd when she ran against Jane Harman. She had a five-month campaign, she didn’t have a lot of money, there were lots of Democrats coming down hard on [Winograd] about the actual idea that she would challenge [Harman].
Guernica: And Jane Harman was arguably as pro-war as Hillary Clinton.
Jonathan Tasini: Oh, absolutely.
Guernica: And the last figures I saw for that race in Southern California, Harman being a ranking incumbent Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, was something $750,000 for Harman, while Winograd spent maybe $100,000. What would it have been like if she’d had an equal amount of money?
Jonathan Tasini: She could have won that race—there’s no question about it. And to look at it positively, my understanding—I haven’t checked this myself—my understanding is that right after that primary vote, Jane Harman started taking more, relatively speaking, progressive positions. So that was healthy for the party from my perspective. If I had a million or two million dollars—forget $44 million—this would be a very very competitive race. Because I stand where the majority of Democrats do in this state.
I take Hillary’s opportunism as an article of faith. She and her husband took triangulation and positioning to an art form. A lot of voters who don’t even know me, that’s their immediate reaction: it’s just opportunism, there’s no real principles behind where Hillary stands.
Guernica: What about the statements that so-and-so has never held elective office before? I think that was noted in a New York Times article this morning. You got people who are incumbents—by definition with government experience—often, if they are challenged, running against a challenger with no government experience. Does that cut very deeply? Is that important?
Jonathan Tasini: I don’t think so. People ask me this and my reaction is that I have the same experience or frankly more experience than Paul Wellstone did when he ran for the Senate. I don’t think even Republicans would argue that Paul Wellstone was anything but a fine, fantastic senator, in terms of his performance. They might not agree with him on the issues. But I think there was a general sense that he was a fantastic senator in terms of trying to represent his people. [Senator] Patty Murray, the mom in tennis shoes, had no previous elected experience before running for office before she ran. As you know, I built an organization, I’ve done a lot of legislative work over the last 15 or 20 years, so I’m pretty capable—I think I do a fairly damn good job of it. The second issue is that I think a lot of people are looking for people who aren’t professional politicians. There’s a general disgust about the incumbent phenomenon, particularly how wrapped up they are in the Washington money culture. So voters will ask me that question and my answer I think satisfies them.
Guernica: What about the media and political culture of endorsements—in editorials and so forth? Is that important in this race you’re running?
Jonathan Tasini: That’s a good question. I think that in some people’s minds it legitimizes you. Certainly if you look at both the lack of money we have relative to our opponent and the lack of regular media coverage, it wouldn’t hurt to have more of those. But that’s hard to tell. Forget the media endorsements, but organizational endorsements help you with just resources. Getting to voters, certainly unions in turning out people.
Guernica: People who are old enough to have been around during the Vietnam War are having a lot of flashbacks. There were many Hillary Clintons who wouldn’t come out against the war. Do you have much of a sense of déjà vu?
Jonathan Tasini: I think that in terms of both wars being disasters of large proportions I think that’s true. In terms of the fear about coming out against the war, it’s hard for me to compare the timeframes.
Guernica: Is there a prototype that Hillary Clinton is part of, setting aside her personality, history, alleged charisma, is she kind of a cookie cutter with finger to the wind? Is she an archetype of an opportunist, frankly—she sees a war going on and won’t challenge it for strategic political reasons?
Jonathan Tasini: I take that as an article of faith. She and her husband took triangulation and positioning to an art form. A lot of voters who don’t even know me, that’s their immediate reaction. That it’s just opportunism, there’s no real principles behind where she stands and that she will sell out anybody for any particular position. So I think that perception of her is deeply ingrained in people by this time.
Guernica: There’s an algorithm—I think Gandhi and others talked about this—how when you’re challenging the powers that be, “First they ignore you, then they denounce you.” You seem to have gotten over the first hurdle. One of Hillary Clinton’s top henchmen saying I believe that you’re over the top in The New York Times.
Jonathan Tasini: Actually the Gandhi quote goes, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Hillary’s position is not antiwar. It’s about war management. In other words, we didn’t have enough troops, we didn’t bomb enough, we didn’t execute the war enough.
Guernica: Well, you seem to be in the fight-you stage; you’re being trashed by Hillary Clinton campaign aides who would prefer just to never talk about you in the first place. What do you make of that?
Jonathan Tasini: I think we’re in a transition stage between being laughed at and fought. So we’re somewhere in the third stage and we hope to get to the fourth stage. This is the machine at work. For example, I said “Look, if Hillary Clinton was part of a bill, legislation that was passed, that gave every American a million dollars in their pockets she would be touting that vote from here till next Sunday.” In the same way, she has to be held responsible for her vote to send people to war. You can’t have just the positive things you pretend you do and then say, “Well, no I don’t have anything to do with the deaths of people in other countries.” She does. That’s what they claim to be an over-the-top comment—that I hold both Bush and her responsible for the deaths of those people. And I think that overreaction by the spin machine … the media picks up and doesn’t challenge. The challenge should be, “So-and-so’s said that [Tasini’s comment] was over the top.” New paragraph. “But Hillary Clinton’s vote did send the troops to war, did result in the killing of thousands of people, and so Tasini has a point.” Or something like that.
Guernica: That’s compounded by her continued support for the war but somehow under different management, in contrast to, say, John Kerry who supported the war but has at least to a significant degree turned against it. This morning, August 23, in The New York Times, there’s a quote from Roger Hickey, who’s billed as “a co-director of Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal group that praised the Lamont victory.” He says, “Hillary by and large is a team player in terms of Democratic Party politics, and there’s one issue — the war — where we all felt she should have changed her position and where she is very slowly modifying to an antiwar position.” What do you make of this contention that she is “very slowly modifying to an antiwar position”?
Jonathan Tasini: (laughs) I laugh just now, [and] I laughed when I read that [earlier]. The very barest you could say about her position is that she is doing what Republicans are doing, which is treating Donald Rumsfeld like a piñata, which is not great shakes. And her position is not anti-war, it’s about the management of the war, in other words we didn’t have enough troops, we didn’t bomb enough, we didn’t execute the war enough; it is not an antiwar position. Roger Hickey saying that says more about the Campaign for America’s Future’s posture than what Clinton [herself] is doing.
Guernica: What would you like people to say to groups like Democracy for America (DFA) or MoveOn about your campaign—online groups with significant presence?
Jonathan Tasini: These organizations posture at being democratic, but they’re not. They’re run by people at the top who make decisions on whether they’re gonna or how they’re gonna involve their organizations. Because neither DFA nationally or MoveOn are willing to poll their members to find out whether they want to support me in this campaign. I have to say at the local level, at least with DFA, that’s been different. We’ve been endorsed by three DFA officials. The only three that have taken a position endorsed me and they did so by asking the membership and polling their members.
Elections do focus people’s minds. It gives something very concrete to do. But it has to be about something—not just the race, but about building something for the future.
Guernica: Inside the state of New York?
Jonathan Tasini: Yeah, inside New York. The local ones are democratic—they actually asked their members in New York, who voted 80% I think to support me. It is interesting that the national organizations, because I think they want their access, and [they want] to play in the game of politics, and so don’t want to confront what they consider to be a very powerful political machine.
Guernica: Let’s say I live in New York and I’m reading this interview on the web before the primary election. What would you ask me to do?
Jonathan Tasini: Well, the first thing I’d say is call our office and volunteer for the last push because we’re putting together a massive volunteer effort, including phone-banking voters. Second, to the extent that you can, donate to our campaign, to offset the money that Clinton gets from lobbyists, Rupert Murdoch and other corporate connections. And the third is simply send an email to everybody you know about the campaign with our web site link.
Guernica: And what is that link?
Jonathan Tasini: www.tasinifornewyork.org
Guernica: Jonathan, what other points do you think are important for people to mull in this period leading up to the primary and beyond that?
Jonathan Tasini: Primaries are where you define your party. This is a struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party, and there’s no better primary to have that debate than this primary. Because we are confronting someone who is at least perceived and promoted by the media and political insiders as a national leader. So this is an important fight.
Guernica: Do you think that it’s practical for people around the country to build from scratch organizations that are pegged to specific electoral campaigns, or is there a need for new infrastructure that is kept running all the time so that you don’t have to start at square one when you’re challenging a pro-war incumbent?
Jonathan Tasini: I think we definitely need the latter. I’ve been working with Progressive Democrats of America because I do think that we want to help leave something in place that grows. Because elections do focus the mind. Too often progressive-billed organizations want to sit around debating stuff and put out policy papers—which is not a bad thing—but in the abstract people get distracted, bored, and disconnected from that kind of organization. Elections do focus people’s minds. It gives something very concrete to do. But it has to be about something—not just the race, but about building something for the future. So there’s an absolute need to have a real progressive infrastructure, not the one that I think we have which is certainly not trying to challenge the actual system, which I believe at least I’m trying to stand for.
Guernica: Do you think the left has failed to deal with issues of state power?
Jonathan Tasini: In many ways, yes. When you look at the reaction so far from MoveOn, which I think is certainly a big mailing list; and they’ve raised issues and bought advertising; but I don’t think that they’re fundamentally willing to confront state power. And corporate power, which to me is much more threatening than state power. It is the new state. It is the new threat to working people, to our democracy, to the ability to have a reasonable democratic debate that’s not influenced by the money and the power that they wield.
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