Ted Grimsrud—May 27, 2016
Yesterday on Facebook, a friend of mine, Jessica Penner, raised a question to me in a conversation about our current presidential campaign:
Okay, let’s say Bernie gets the nomination and wins the election. HOW will he get done half (or even a quarter) of what he plans with a congress that won’t vet a Supreme Court justice for the sitting president, with a congress that stripped Obamacare to a shadow of what the sitting president envisioned, with a congress that works to get rid of what good Obamacare does (and hurt people like me–a person working full-time but without benefits who also has pesky pre-existing conditions) that our sitting president created. HOW WILL HE DO IT? NO ONE HAS ANSWERED THIS QUESTION. I told your grandson several months ago that Bernie has my heart, but Hillary has my head. Tell me how he will do it, and maybe Bernie might creep into my head.
I don’t have a quick and decisive answer to this challenge, but I think it is worth taking a little time to respond. For me, both my heart and my head tell me that Sanders is the best serious presidential candidate that we have had since Jesse Jackson and that if he were elected at the least his presidency would be way less destructive than a Clinton presidency. I’m not sure Sanders would be all that effective in terms of his agenda, but I am sure Clinton would be devastatingly worse.
I think our current system is failing at an ever faster speed. I don’t have much hope that a Sanders presidency would prevent a catastrophe. However, I do see a glimmer of hope; on the other hand, to me the main difference between a Clinton presidency and a Trump presidency would be about levels of despair. So, really, the case for Sanders has mostly to do with the case against Clinton. However, Sanders is long committed to a positive agenda that truly would bring about major changes and might turn the direction of the system around. Even if he has little chance of implementing much his agenda, if he were president there would be some chance. A Clinton presidency would at best push us just a bit more slowly down the slide into catastrophe than a Trump presidency.
Some specific themes:
(1) I don’t think it’s fair to imply that Sanders couldn’t get his agenda approved by a Republican Congress while Clinton could. We can completely agree that the current Congress is set up to foil any legislative initiative any Democratic president would pursue. This is not, in any sense that I can see, a point in Clinton’s favor. She would go into office with a much deeper and longer-established level of antipathy from Republicans than Sanders would, so it seems at least as likely that she would not be able to get her goals passed.
The difference I see would be more on the level of the things the president can accomplish in spite of Congress. It seems like Obama finally at the end of his time in office has decided to push his agenda more forcefully and to some positive effect (e.g., stronger environmental oversight, the opening to Cuba). I’m more confident of Sanders being assertive in this way than Clinton. Plus, even more, I’m more confident of Sanders appointing a Cabinet that would pursue more progressive policies—most obviously with his commitment to resisting the domination of Wall Street we have seen among many of Obama’s appointees (and likely Clinton appointees).
(2) I also believe that a Sanders campaign would have a more powerful impact on getting more progressive senators and representatives elected—which means he has more potential for having a responsive Congress than Clinton does. I say this, in part, because the key constituencies that Sanders energizes (independent voters and young adults) will almost certainly vote in much lower numbers in response to a Clinton campaign.
The establishment political class that Clinton is very much a part of have shown that they are content with an ever smaller electorate—which hurts the chances of more progressives getting elected down ballot.
As well, it seems clear already that Clinton will run an extremely negative campaign—part of the idea being that Trump’s Republican opponents waited far too long to go negative. And of course Trump has no inhibitions whatsoever about going as negative and dishonest as he feels like doing. So, Clinton will fight fire with fire—perhaps with the result of her being elected but also with the certain result of sucking positive energy out of the election. With such a negative environment, many of these independents and young adults become more likely to stay home (and, hence, not to offer support for down ballot progressives).
On the other hand, Sanders’s strategy would be much more positive. He would offer a vision for empowerment that would get even more traction as a contrast with Trump’s antics—with the likely collateral impact of drawing more voters who would be more likely to vote for other progressives.
(3) Clinton will go into the fall campaign with higher negatives than any major party candidate before her has ever had (surpassed of course by Trump). If she manages to squeak by (which is likely how she will win), she will be profoundly damaged and will be supported by a deeply dispirited electorate.
Whereas, while certainly Sanders would be attacked ruthlessly for his positions (in contrast to Clinton, who would be attacked just as much for her character—points she is pretty vulnerable on), the impact is likely to make him look better for many people. People who struggle with health care and with the possibilities of higher education are likely to be impressed with Sanders when he is attacked for his advocacy for single-payer medicine and free college.
So, my thought is that whereas a Clinton victory would be accompanied with a dynamic of dispiritedness that would hardly translate into a population with high energy to implement her goals , a Sanders victory would have been gained due to just that kind of energy.
(4) Clinton’s record does not inspire confidence in her ability to stand strong with progressive principles in face of strong opposition. There is no reason not to expect her to follow her husband’s practice of holding on to power by compromise—such as his support for “welfare reform” and punitive criminal justice practices.
The key elements of Sanders’s campaign—economic equality, resistance to the 1%, social justice for the vulnerable—reflect the issues he has built his entire career on going back to his initial campaign for mayor of Burlington, VT. We can be certain that as president, he would devote himself to those causes and use whatever means he has at his disposal to further them. Clinton, on the other hand, has come pretty late to, say, marriage equality, criminal justice reform, climate change resistance, minimum wage, Wall Street accountability, et al. I think we should have little confidence that she would remain deeply committed to these causes in face of certain resistance from her right.
(5) Clinton goes into the campaign already with a long history of support for the military-industrial complex and with a significant pro-war record. All we have to do is note the positive things many militaristic neo-conservatives from Henry Kissinger on down have said about her tenure as Secretary of State.
Under pressure of finding ways to buttress her sure to be low approval ratings and to show that she can collaborate with the Republicans, she is likely will get the U.S. military into even more bad situations (expanding upon her horrendous record as Secretary of State—e.g., Libya, Honduras, Afghanistan).
It is true that ineffectual president after ineffectual president has turned to military actions as a way of buttressing their problematic rule (which is what Clinton surely would do as well)—given that this is an area where presidents anymore have more unconstrained power. However, the converse could possibly be true as well—a president who uses this power in relation to military action and refuses to go to war can hardly be forced to. Sanders’s record on militarism is not as strong as would be my ideal, but I am confident that he would be way more peaceable than Clinton in this arena where presidential power is less constrained. I hold on to a thin strand of optimism that Sanders might even turn back from our addiction to nuclear weapons—I have no hope on this score in relation to Clinton.
(6) Finally, it seems to me simply to be a fact that all the big money donors who have supported the Clintons over the years have not given of their largesse simply out of friendship. There are reasons to suspect the presence of a quid pro quo dynamic in Clinton’s earlier career both as a senator and Secretary of State. It’s impossible to imagine this dynamic wouldn’t be intensified should she become president. As far as I know, there is no evidence of anything like this in Sanders’s record.
In face of the likelihood that both would face an equally intransigent Republican congress, the issue then is what would either one be able to accomplish that would actually be life-enhancing in that context. One way of answering that question is simply to be attentive to the forces to which either would be beholden for getting to the presidency. It is hard to exaggerate the differences on that score, I think.