(I hadn’t realized that it had been so long since I had written a blog post. Facebook and Twitter really scratch most of the itch when I feel the need to write. Nonetheless, there are times when those platforms just don’t have the ability to capture my thoughts completely.)
It’s been months since the Democratic presidential campaign began, and in that time, we’ve seen lots of coverage of the two remaining candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Most of the coverage on TV has been easy on Clinton, and either dismissive of, or tough on, Sanders. On Facebook, however, the reality is almost completely flipped. Maybe it’s because, through theater, I have so many friends who are part of the younger, 18-29 cohort that seems to be backing Bernie so enthusiastically, but my feed is drowning in “Feel the Bern” posts, and posts that attack Hillary as out-of-touch, corrupt, or cynical. Nonetheless, I am not “Feeling the Bern.” In this post, I will attempt to explain why.
I’ll admit, I like what Bernie Sanders is saying about a lot of things. I am excited about his ideas for state-sponsored higher education, more comprehensive health care, reducing economic inequality, and repairing our broken political system. However, there are some problems, more with the current political climate than with Bernie as a candidate, that make it extremely unlikely that I can support him in the upcoming Colorado caucuses.
The Political Revolution Isn’t Coming
There’s a persistent, incorrect belief that if we just elect the right man or woman as President, everything will be fine. This known in wonk circles as the Green Lantern Theory. I would hope that, for anyone paying attention, the last 7 years of President Obama’s tenure would convince them otherwise. Engagement with the political process at every level is crucial to achieving progressive goals.
Now, Bernie is the first to admit that bringing any of his proposals to fruition will require a “political revolution.” However, that revolution isn’t coming in this election cycle. Bernie isn’t doing anything to build it. Don’t forget, the primaries aren’t just where we select Presidential candidates. It’s also where we select our candidates for the House and, if it’s your state’s year, the Senate. Furthermore, some states have primaries for candidates to the state legislature, where a lot of issues that require federal/state cooperation will live and die. The Sanders campaign, so far as I’ve seen, has done nothing to recruit or support like-minded down-ballot candidates. Exactly where does he expect these candidates to come from, if he isn’t trying to build a movement beyond his own campaign? He’s trading on the same “hope and change” mantra that propelled Obama to the White House, but he is facing a much less promising political environment in which to achieve success.
Don’t forget, when Obama took office in 2009, he ended up with a majority in both houses of Congress, and briefly, a super-majority in the Senate, which enabled all of the major pieces of legislation that were passed. Since then, due in part to aggressive gerrymandering (especially in Republican-held states) and in part to urban concentration of Democratic voters, that majority has flipped in the House and Senate. In 2012, with the higher Democratic turnout of a Presidential race, Democratic House candidates actually received over 1 million more votes than their Republican rivals, yet ended up in the minority by 33 seats. That gap widened even further, to 59 seats, in the 2014 elections, when voters who don’t understand why the Green Lantern theory is wrong stayed home and conceded the election to Republicans.
Absent a real attempt to recruit and support candidates that can take back the House, a Democratic majority in Congress is a pipe dream. The “political revolution” that Bernie needs to enact even one scrap of his platform, is not going to materialize.
How the candidate will be perceived by the rest of the voters in the general election matters. I’m sorry, but it just does. Personally, I think the arguments that Bernie will go down in flames, McGovern-Nixon style, are overblown. If he faces a proto-fascist like (God help us) Donald Trump, or a burgeoning theocrat like Ted Cruz, he still has a good chance, especially with a highly-engaged group of young voters who would (hopefully) turn out the vote for him. Nonetheless, what happens if a more moderate-looking (because, let’s be honest, Rubio, Kasich, and Bush are not actually more moderate, they just seem that way) candidate emerges on the Republican side? Can Bernie really win over voters when he continues to describe himself as a Democratic Socialist, a label that most voters can’t distinguish from plain-old Socialist or Communist? (Note: I understand the difference quite well, so save the comments. My point is that low-information voters, or voters trapped in the Fox News bubble, won’t understand the distinction, and that matters.)
For better or worse, Hillary Clinton is better positioned for the general election. She carries some negative baggage, yes, but a lot of that is manufactured crap that only convinces hardcore Republican voters, who certainly wouldn’t be voting for Bernie anyhow. Her policy proposals are more grounded in the realm of the possible, especially if a miracle happens and we end up with a wave election that flips Congress back to blue. She’s not proposing big new taxes on middle-class voters, and she’s not proposing to up-end the entire healthcare system. Do you really think voters that haven’t even grasped that Obamacare isn’t actually a government takeover of the healthcare system are going to get behind a candidate that actually wants the government to take over healthcare?
Bernie appears to view everything through the lens of economic inequality and corporate corruption. I can see how, for a generation that has come of age facing stagnant wages, poor job markets, and corrupt banks getting away scot-free from detonating the economy, that framing is persuasive. Yet I have a hard time seeing how that view of the world addresses continuing racial inequality and injustice, sexism, and anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hysteria.
Furthermore, Bernie doesn’t appear to have any grasp of foreign policy beyond “don’t invade other countries when they don’t threaten you.” The fact of the matter is that the United States faces a rapidly-shifting geopolitical landscape, with new actors and threats on the horizon, that require a deep engagement with the real facts and trade-offs of foreign policy. Sanders will get torn to shreds by any Republican candidate on these issues, because he doesn’t have a real policy view. Clinton, on the other hand, while definitely far more ready to use military force than I am personally comfortable with, at least has the political chops on this front, and the resume to back it up. Self-described independent voters care about these issues, especially terrorism and national security, a lot.
It’s almost a given that Congress (at least the House) will remain in Republican hands in 2017. Democrats would have to win the overall vote by approximately 7.5%, assuming 2012 turnout, to take back the House. It’s possible that Democrats can flip the Senate back to blue, but a Presidential candidate that is divisive among swing voters (such as one, say, that proposes raising taxes to fund a new Medicare-for-all, or to fund “free” college education, or who doesn’t have a clear foreign policy vision) will make that a much more difficult proposition.
Furthermore, let’s talk about judicial appointments. There is little doubt that the next president will appoint at least 2, and as many as 4, new justices to the Supreme Court in their term. A Republican ideologue could install many more justices like Scalia and Alito, who would roll back most of the progressive reforms made in the 20th and 21st centuries, and they could be on the bench for 20, 30, even 40 years. Real progress in America would grind to a complete halt, with activist ideologues in that mold. This argument alone makes it imperative that we elect the strongest possible Democratic candidate.
We Need a Fighter, Not a Dreamer
Given all of this, it’s clear to me that any Democratic President will be facing a hostile Congress, and likely have no chance whatsoever of enacting any of their policy platform through legislative action. She or he will be fighting a rearguard action, merely negotiating and using the veto as necessary to preserve the gains made through Obama’s administration. Preserving the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, and keeping Congress from enacting disastrous, budget-destroying tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans are the priority. I have no doubt that Bernie would do those things, because there is no alternative. A more ambitious set of reforms is not going to appear with the Congress he would face. Nonetheless, there are two areas where I believe Clinton has the edge: executive action, and negotiating legislative wins where she can.
President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, carbon emissions, political contribution disclosure, and more, are currently under judicial assault. If they survive, it is almost certain that they will be under legislative assault soon after. Either of the Democratic candidates would fight those battles, and likely win, but which one is better positioned to move the ball further? Having spent 4 years running the State Department, I believe Hillary is better positioned to identify those areas where further progressive reform can be accomplished via executive action. She also has a much deeper pool of advisers to draw from to staff agencies and implement those changes.
Clinton was well-regarded as a Senator, regardless of how the howling wolves on the right portray her now. I think it is likely that she has a better chance of grinding out wins with Congress than Bernie, with his take-no-prisoners style, prizing principle over compromise. The politics of compromise are rarely pretty, but they are a necessary skill. That skill of compromise will be necessary when it comes to judicial and executive branch appointments, too. I think Hillary has a better shot of nominating, and successfully getting Senate approval of, the necessary judges to keep the country on track.
Even if he is elected, Bernie will not have the die-hard support of what Democrats remain in Congress. He’s not even himself a real member of the party. He doesn’t fundraise for candidates, he doesn’t donate to their campaigns. It’s doubtful that many of them will even want him to make campaign appearances. Party loyalty means a lot, regardless of whether we wish that were true or not.
Ultimately, It Comes Down to This
I’ll admit, this is mostly an argument about loss aversion. The progress that we’ve made in the last 7 years under a Democratic administration is under threat with this election. Almost all of it could be gone with the stroke of a pen. Millions of people losing their insurance. Banks using the economy as a casino again, with taxpayers holding the bag when they roll craps. “Religious Freedom” legislation that enables widespread discrimination against LGBT people. Crucial environmental regulations swept away. Federal lands sold off to the highest bidder. Budget-busting tax cuts and the elimination of much of the social safety net. An activist Supreme Court that sweeps away every vestige of protections for workers, minorities, consumers, and the environment. All of this could happen with a Republican president and a Republican Congress. Even with a Democratic president, a lot of these are on the table. The key is to elect a President that will battle where they have to, and negotiate where they can, and who has the faithful support of their party when these battles are fought on the floor of Congress. Bernie isn’t that candidate.
I personally love a lot of Bernie’s campaign platform. We do need to reign in the influence of money in our politics. We need to restore economic justice to those who work hard and struggle. We need to repair and strengthen our social safety net. I welcomed Bernie’s entrance into the race, especially when Elizabeth Warren sat this round out. I liked that he was moving the conversation, forcing Hillary to solidify her positions and stake out real liberal stances. But the fact is that he’s Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. He’s an single-issue candidate who’s somehow broken through. If we were the out party, and had no real chance at winning, an ideological reform campaign like he’s running, that would capture the Democratic Party and move it leftward, would be terrific. But the fact is that we can win, and we need the candidate that is best positioned to take on the Republicans on every front in the election, support candidates in down-ballot races, and run the best administration if we do win. When Bernie was a gadfly, a vanity candidate who was in it to raise his issues and change the conversation, that was great. Hillary Clinton deserves to face a real primary challenge, one that forces her to stake out real positions and give the country a genuine choice. But now that it’s time to look at the general election, I find that Bernie is the less acceptable candidate in a number of dimensions. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of Hillary, I know, but I’ve seen enough of what a President can do, both good and bad, to be a pragmatist in these matters.
Some further reading for your consideration (note: I don’t necessarily agree with everything in these pieces):
- Electability – Paul Krugman (New York Times)
- As an Independent Voter and Former GOP Activist, Hillary Has Won Me Over – Jimmy LaSalvia (HuffPo)
- Why I Will Vote For Hillary Clinton, and NOT Bernie Sanders – “LiberalInCamo” (Daily Kos)