Hilary Clinton vs Bernie Sanders vs an unidentified gentleman



Highlights from the Fourth Democratic Debate | New Republic

Presidential candidates in both parties too often speak as if the President is the secret love child of The Wizard of Oz and the genie from “Aladdin.” They make incredible promises that, even if elected President, they will have no power to implement. The President’s powers are significant but constrained, especially for a Democrat facing the current Republican party, which for the most part considers compromise unprincipled.

The most important question that I’d like to see the candidates discuss in depth is, how will they pursue their policies? Given the pragmatic limits of the President’s power, and the overwhelming likelihood that the Republicans will continue controlling one or both houses of Congress, what do they pragmatically believe they can do and what levers will they pull on to do it? What they’d accomplish if they were a genie dictator is, or should be, a matter of less interest.

By that measure, Hillary Clinton was better at last night’s debate; particularly on the subject of health care, she acknowledges political realities Sanders ignores. Sanders, in contrast, talked about having the “guts” to confront Wall Street. I don’t doubt that Sanders has “guts,” but what specifically does that mean in terms of governing?

Jeet Heer nutshells the debate, and what bothers me about Sander’s campaign:

Sanders is promoting an “ethics of moral conviction” by calling for a “political revolution” seeking to overthrow the deeply corrupting influence of big money on politics by bringing into the system a counterforce of those previously alienated, including the poor and the young. Clinton embodies the “ethics of responsibility” by arguing that her presidency won’t be about remaking the world but trying to preserve and build on the achievements of previous Democrats, including Obama.

The great difficulty Sanders faces is that given the reality of the American political system (with its divided government that has many veto points) and also the particular realities of the current era (with an intensification of political polarization making it difficult to pass ambitious legislation through a hostile Congress and Senate), it is very hard to see how a “political revolution” could work.

In a post from October, Jamelle Bouie makes the depressing but accurate case for Clinton:

The only way President Sanders or President Clinton will accomplish anything is through skilled use of bureaucratic power. So far, however, both candidates are silent on how they would act as an executive. Instead, both Clinton and Sanders are essentially running as legislative leaders, when the real challenge is how she or he would utilize the substantial power they have to direct and influence bureaucrats and regulators.

That’s not to say their rhetoric isn’t important. That Sanders believes in a “political revolution” against money in politics tells you about his priorities as president. And Clinton’s legislative incrementalism gives you a good signpost to how she’ll work with Congress. But, the truth is that—in terms of writing new laws—both agendas are inert. They aren’t passing Congress. […]

And, for Democratic primary voters, who is best equipped to be president in a time of gridlock, where the choice is executive action or nothing? Clinton’s bureaucratic experience, her skill with partisan conflict, and her clear willingness to work against the spirit of the law—as illustrated by her State Department email controversy—make her a prime pick for this era of political grinding.

At this point, I’m leaning towards Clinton, as this post makes obvious. The one thing that makes me think of leaning the other way is foreign policy; Clinton is much too hawkish, and in a US president, that’s a flaw which can kill tens of thousands. But Sanders really hasn’t shown me enough of what he would do; I approve of his (relative) disinclination to use military force, but what would his positive diplomatic goals be?

I’m worried, frankly, that a Sanders administration might lack diplomatic competence, and would like to see any links or arguments Sanders supporters have to reassure me on this point.

(On the other hand, either Sanders or Clinton would be a thousand times better than the laughable and irresponsible blathering we’ve been hearing from GOP candidates lately – 1 2 3.)

Some links I found interesting:

  1. It’s time to start taking Bernie Sanders seriously – Vox Meaning not just that the press should take Sanders seriously, but that Sanders himself should start speaking and campaigning as if he could become president.
  2. Case in point: Bernie Sanders’s single-payer plan doesn’t even address the hard questions about how it would actually work.
  3. David Dayen lays out the differences between Sanders and Clinton on reforming Wall Street.
  4. Dean Baker on the debate over health care makes a good point in defense of Sanders:

    Those who think this sounds like stardust and fairy tales should read the column by Krugman’s fellow NYT columnist, health economist Austin Frakt. Frakt reports on a new study that finds evidence that public debate on drug prices and measures to constrain the industry had the effect of slowing the growth of drug prices. In short getting out the pitchforks has a real impact on the industry’s behavior.

    The implication is that we need people like Senator Sanders to constantly push the envelope. Even if this may not get us to universal Medicare in one big leap, it will create a political environment in which we can move forward rather than backward.

  5. Bernie Sanders didn’t lay out the most progressive agenda on the debate stage – Vox Martin O’Malley did. But whatever completely mysterious element it is that causes a campaign to catch fire with voters, O’Malley’s campaign clearly lacks it.
  6. Bernie Sanders calls Jordan’s hereditary dictator a “hero” – Vox
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21 Responses to Hilary Clinton vs Bernie Sanders vs an unidentified gentleman

  1. 1
    John says:

    The most important question that I’d like to see the candidates discuss in depth is, how will they pursue their policies?

    That is an important question, but one that is secondary to the most important one: What policies will they pursue?

    From Sanders, I get that he thinks (and rightly so) that a change in the law is needed first in order to keep regulation on the right track toward accomplishing a defined goal. From Clinton I get ill-defined goals, which to me means all her “bureaucratic experience” could be used to either do little to further, or do much to retard what has already been accomplished. (Clinton denies, for example, Glass-Steagall would not have prevented the financial crises, but she’s wrong, a disturbing indicator of just how far her “shadow banking” regulations will — or rather won’t — go to curb Wall Street chicanery.)
    Sanders may not be able to accomplish all of what he wants to accomplish, but I don’t get from Clinton any hint that she really wants to accomplish anything at all of any substance. Which may be a viable strategy when thinking about facing hostile Republicans in the House and Senate, but not so viable when thinking about what the rest of us need to have happen from a President.

  2. 2
    pillsy says:

    I agree with the basic thrust of your argument, and also with Yglesias’ point that Sanders really needs to start acting like someone who can win the nomination if he wants to, um, win the nomination. I’ve also been really dismayed by the way that both Sanders and Clinton have been handling the debate over health care. Sanders’ plan is annoyingly vague, and Clinton’s attacks on it are pointlessly disingenuous. I’m about ready to throw in with Martin O’Malley like some kind of hipster.

    On a side note, the link to Dean Baker’s article is broken.

  3. 3
    closetpuritan says:

    I haven’t watched the most recent debate, but I’m really not convinced that Clinton and Sanders would govern differently WRT executive orders.

    When the Clintons were in the White House, executive orders were used much less than they have been during the Bush and Obama presidencies–so any special knowledge of how to use them from her time in the White House is probably badly out of date.

    Sanders has praised Obama for his use of executive orders on guns, has said that he would expand on Obama-style use of executive orders on immigration, and has described a plan for using executive action to break up the big banks.

    There’s a bit of a problem with those last two–they are rather uncertain of being successful. The current executive orders on immigration still haven’t gone into effect and are due to be heard by the Supreme Court soon. To bring his plan to break up the big banks through executive action to fruition, Sanders would still need some cooperation from Congress to confirm appointments they probably won’t want to confirm. Which is another reason why I doubt Sanders/Clinton presidencies would be much different as long as Congress is controlled by Republicans–I think the idea that a president will be able to make substantial accomplishments with executive orders is mostly wishful thinking.

  4. 4
    Ampersand says:

    On a side note, the link to Dean Baker’s article is broken.

    Thanks! The link has been fixed.

  5. 5
    Sebastian H says:

    Executive orders are difficult for me to get behind as a selling point–they are either relatively routine, or their importance stems from having trouble selling your project to the electorate. But to the extent that they are important, there are hundreds of Democrats with enough experience in them to help whomever wins.

    For me, much of the Sanders/Clinton decision turns on what I think their aims and focus are. Sanders is focused on revitalizing the middle class and shutting down some of the more egregious types of power/wealth concentration. That is a good focus.

    Clinton’s focus is mysterious. She has clearly wanted to be a Democratic power-holder her whole life, but at no point has it been clear what she wants to do with that power. She has been very close to the banks and financial interests for decades, so it is difficult to see her super-recent conversion on the issue as anything but an attempt to deflect Sanders’ popularity on the issue. That doesn’t inspire confidence that when executive order time comes along she will do the right things with it.

    I guess name the five most important executive orders that you expect from Clinton. Will Bernie NOT make those orders.

    Then look at it the other direction. Do you see her executive state playing up or down privacy issues/policing issues a la the NSA, CIA and FBI? Everything points to Sanders being better at that.

    Her foreign policy experience is indeed experience, but her direction is wholly negative. She only looks like less of warmonger when compared to W. Bush or Cruz. Trump might even be less of a warmonger than her. All of her foreign policy differences with Obama were in the warmongering direction. We would have troops on the ground in Syria if she had her way.

    There is literally no obvious way where she is better than Sanders. And I especially include ‘electability’.

  6. 6
    Ampersand says:

    Sebastian and ClosetPuritan, I don’t know why you think the President’s powers are limited to executive orders (or are arguing like that’s what you think). Executive orders can matter, but there’s a lot that can be done through the rulemaking power of the executive – there’s been very substantial environmental work done, for instance.

    Maybe this is unfair, but Bernie Sanders doesn’t seem to be a manager, and he doesn’t seem like a policy wonk. But most of the levers on domestic policy the White House has comes down to managerial ability and the policy details available through managing agencies. It’s not enough to say “Bernie will appoint the right people and they will take care of it.”

    Of course, arguably the most important thing a president does is appoint Supreme Court justices, and it’s very possible I’d like Sanders choices better than Clinton’s, although I’m sure I’ll like either of their choices much better than Trump’s or (even worse) Cruz’s.


    Which is another reason why I doubt Sanders/Clinton presidencies would be much different as long as Congress is controlled by Republicans

    Yes, I agree with this. Which is actually a major reason that (at least while the wind is blowing south or east) I favor Bernie – it might not matter much at all which one of them is President domestically, and there’s a plausible case that Bernie will be better on foreign policy.

    Sebastian H:

    Executive orders are difficult for me to get behind as a selling point–they are either relatively routine, or their importance stems from having trouble selling your project to the electorate.

    This makes no sense to me, unless you think Congress’ actions (or inactions) perfectly reflects the policy preferences of the electorate. And if that is what you think, you’re badly mistaken.

  7. 7
    Sebastian H says:

    “Maybe this is unfair, but Bernie Sanders doesn’t seem to be a manager, and he doesn’t seem like a policy wonk. But most of the levers on domestic policy the White House has comes down to managerial ability and the policy details available through managing agencies. It’s not enough to say “Bernie will appoint the right people and they will take care of it.””

    The President who most powerfully changed the scope of presidential powers since FDR was George W. Bush. He was not a master of managerial ability nor was he a master of policy details. He appointed people strongly committed to getting the things he wanted to get done.

    Honestly that should serve as a cautionary tale I would think, but many progressives seem to interpret that as “We could ram our things through against the will of the country just like Bush did!”

    But to the extent that you think it is a good idea to do huge amounts of things with little oversight, you have to trust the motivations of the person you are giving that power. Clinton is difficult to trust. On many of the important things to me (gay rights, foreign policy, anti-poverty measures, control of financial institutions) she has been highly unpredictable, or downright bad and always willing to betray allies for momentary political gain. So to the extent that we are going to rely on arguing for the importance of low-accountability Presidential ‘powers’ I’m not nearly as happy to put those powers in Clinton’s hands as I am in Sanders’ hands.

  8. 8
    closetpuritan says:

    Sebastian and ClosetPuritan, I don’t know why you think the President’s powers are limited to executive orders (or are arguing like that’s what you think). Executive orders can matter, but there’s a lot that can be done through the rulemaking power of the executive – there’s been very substantial environmental work done, for instance.

    From what I’ve seen/remember, most of the pro-Clinton arguments in that vein have focused on executive orders if they’ve gotten specific at all, so that’s why I focused on that.

    In addition to what Sebastian said, I expect Clinton will appoint more of the Larry Summers ilk crony capitalism people that are from the same crowd that’s already been recycled from Bill Clinton’s administration, so I trust Bernie more to appoint people I like (or dislike less), and not appoint fox-guarding-the-henhouse types.

    I haven’t addressed foreign policy yet, and I may be able to address it in more depth later, but I have to admit that, like Bernie, my focus isn’t so much on that. I do think it’s more important to know foreign policy and individual countries in-depth if you’re a more interventionist candidate. And I wonder if Clinton’s greater familiarity with foreign policy makes it harder to stay out of the trap of overconfidence/hubris about American intervention being able to fix things in conflicts like Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria, etc. [Not because it would be hubris for Clinton in particular to intervene, but for any president at this point in history to intervene.]

  9. 9
    closetpuritan says:

    I just happened to come across this–it doesn’t make an effort to hide its pro-Sanders point of view, but it’s a good example of the kind of crony capitalism that troubles me, and why I don’t think Clinton’s staffing picks will be preferable for getting my goals accomplished:

    The CFMA had been shoved into an omnibus spending bill at the last minute as part of a deal between Republicans and President Bill Clinton, and because this was a time when, you know, Congress actually did its job, Sanders bit the bullet and voted for the whole package – CFMA included – to keep the government open.

    …And so [Sanders] struck back hard in 2008, when President-elect Obama picked former Treasury official and Goldmans Sachs bankster Gary Gensler to head up the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, or CFTC.

    During his time at the Treasury, Gensler had pushed hard for Wall Street deregulation and even helped write the CFMA, something now-Senator Bernie Sanders found unacceptable. And so Bernie moved to block Gensler’s nomination. Sanders explained his actions during an appearance on Democracy Now.

    Although Sanders did succeed in blocking Gensler’s nomination, the victory was short-lived: The hold was only temporary, and the Senate ended up approving Gensler as head of the CFTC on March 16, 2009. He held that post until 2014, when he was succeeded by Timothy Massad.

    So what’s Gary Gensler – the guy who promoted the CFMA – up to today? Oh, you know, nothing big. He’s just the chief financial officer of the Hillary Clinton campaign

    These guys keep going from Bill Clinton to Wall Street to Obama to Wall Street to Hillary Clinton…

  10. 10
    Ampersand says:

    Closetpuritan, that’s a real telling point about Gary Gensler. That really does make me much more likely to support Sandler (not that my vote is likely to be meaningful).

  11. 11
    Ampersand says:

    Sebastian H:

    Honestly that should serve as a cautionary tale I would think, but many progressives seem to interpret that as “We could ram our things through against the will of the country just like Bush did!”

    I continue to wonder how you’re determining what “the will of the country” is.

    Also, your argument asks me to accept that progressives should prefer a situation in which Republicans alone use executive powers to pursue their policy goals, and Democrats never do, versus a situation in which both parties use executive powers to pursue policy goals. That seems like obviously bad advice; why on Earth would I favor that situation?

    You talk about “low-accountability Presidential powers.” But I don’t agree that the executive acts without accountability – or even with especially low accountability. The Executive is accountable in a few ways: First, accountable to the voters. Secondly, subject to the oversight of the Judicial branch. And third, the Congress could vote to change the law to block many executive acts.

    Admittedly, in practice, Congress won’t block many executive actions, because Congress is split. But that doesn’t seem undemocratic to me; just because the Democrats are a minority party doesn’t mean that they don’t count at all, and if the GOP is unable to get Democrats in Congress to vote with them, that’s hardly a subversion of democratic principles.

    I do think there are real problems with the use of the filibuster to block the Congressional majority. But, again, I’m not going to favor an alternative in which Democrats refuse to use the filibuster while it remains a central GOP tactic.

  12. 12
    Ampersand says:

    So What Would Happen if Bernie Sanders Won? – Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money

    The argument is that when President Sanders is forced to compromise with political realities and can’t get everything he promised done, the left will abandon him.

  13. 13
    Jake Squid says:

    I agree with LGM. The de Blasio experience at a national level. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t vote for him, though.

  14. 14
    Ampersand says:

    Okay David Roberts article in Vox (I’m quoting a little bit, but the whole thing is worth reading or at least skimming): It’s time for Democratic primary voters to focus on what they’re hiring a president to do – Vox

    Clinton seems more likely to forfeit opportunities through an overabundance of caution. Sanders seems more likely to forfeit them through cluelessness about how to run a giant administrative bureaucracy.

    Clinton seems more likely to appoint establishment-friendly figures to run her government and cautious centrists to the bench. Sanders seems more likely to get mired in endless, energy-sapping confirmation battles.

    Clinton seems more likely to surround herself with a bubble of insiders. Sanders seems more likely to rely on a “political revolution” that is unlikely to endure once he takes office.

    And to make matters more obscure for voters, neither is willing to talk about these things directly. Admitting that your presidency will mostly be a rearguard battle, a unilateral executive grind, is not attractive politics. It doesn’t make for fun campaign rallies.

  15. 15
    Ampersand says:

    Jake: “Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t vote for him, though.”


  16. 16
    Ampersand says:

    I’m just going to use this thread as a catchall for links about Clinton/Sanders that I think are worthwhile in some way…. As well as discussion, of course.

    Progressives Demand Answers From Clinton on Golden Parachutes for Wall Streeters-Turned-Government Officials

  17. 17
    closetpuritan says:

    @12 (So what would happen if Bernie Sanders won?)
    I’d independently been thinking that this would probably happen. I think that the pragmatists are going to stick with the Democratic nominee either way, though, so I see it mainly as a caution against thinking that unreliable voters are suddenly going to start turning out for the midterms, for example.

    Lots of comments on that article, but an interesting discussion of to what extent those types of voters matter, in terms of numbers, influence, turnout, etc.

    Also in comments:

    the overlap between strongly liberal/leftist values and a lack of political pragmatism is pretty pronounced when it comes to politicians. Sanders is an exception to a rule that is otherwise very reliable, so it’s not surprising that people who haven’t looked very hard into his record would make that assumption.

    I’ve made a similar point before–people want to plug Sanders into a pre-built narrative where because he’s challenging the establishment figure, he is inexperienced, impractical, unwilling to compromise in order to get half a loaf, and I just don’t think that this idea is based on evidence in his record.


    An example of Sander’s legislative experience that helps explain why I’m optimistic about Sanders doing as well as Clinton on some of the more technical leadership stuff:

    Sanders’s place in health clinic history will be remembered for his forceful role in the winter of the health reform debate. In December 2009, tensions ran high as Congress inched closer to a final health reform deal. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., tapped Sanders to help win support from liberals who thought the bill was too weak as well as from Democrats from rural states who were facing mounting pressure. More funding for community health centers, Sanders argued, was a win-win solution for both camps, since the program would ensure access to health care for even the most remote areas of the country while also helping those without insurance. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., among others, held out to the very last moment.

    Another turning point came several weeks later, when Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown won a special election in an upset victory, ending the Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority. Brown’s election brought Democrats close to despair, because lawmakers could only use a procedure called reconciliation to pass the law. Such a move would keep chances for passage alive while foreclosing any chance of enacting the much stronger legislation that originated in the House of Representatives through a conference committee. For progressives, it was a painful blow that not only sealed the defeat of the Public Option insurance program but also removed many robust provisions they had worked hard to include. Again called upon to work out a solution with House liberals, with whom Sanders enjoys a strong working relationship, the Vermont senator forged a deal to build support for the bill by focusing on health clinics.

    Daniel Hawkins, vice president of the National Association of Community Health Centers, recalls that in the end Sanders was able to negotiate with Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., to increase health clinic funding through a special technical amendment that could modify the reconciliation Senate bill through a simple majority vote. The technical amendment passed, with $9.5 billion targeted for health center operations and $1.5 billion for construction and renovation projects. The House passed the final Senate bill, and President Obama signed the legislation with $11 billion in health clinic funding into law on March 23, 2010.


    An examination of Sander’s claim that he helped write the ACA, with what seems like a reasonable explanation for why you get different answers from different people.

  18. 18
    Ampersand says:

    Thanks for that, ClosetPuritan.

    A couple of links from the upcoming link farm post:

    Bernie Sanders has the most realistic plan to boost wages and job creation – Vox
    In the past I’ve been going back and forth between favoring Sanders and favoring Clinton. This – that Sanders is willing to use monetary policy to push down unemployment – in combination with Clinton’s hawkishness, makes me favor Sanders.

    Ta-Nehisi Coates on Bernie Sanders and the Liberal Imagination – Ta-Nehisi Coates

    A Democratic candidate who offers class-based remedies to address racist plunder because that is what is imminently doable, because all we have are bandages, is doing the best he can. A Democratic candidate who claims that such remedies are sufficient, who makes a virtue of bandaging, has forgotten the world that should, and must, be. Effectively he answers the trenchant problem of white supremacy by claiming “something something socialism, and then a miracle occurs.”

  19. 19
    closetpuritan says:

    Re: Bernie and the liberal imagination:

    I think that there is a gap between Bernie’s “radical” status and his actual positions on everything but class/socialism. Hell, a lot of people have pointed out that it’s a bit of a stretch to call him a socialist. But anyway, it’s not just on race–I’d say on just about all of the non-economic issues, Bernie is in the left wing of the Democratic party, but not really a “radical”. (On gun control, obviously, he’s kinda centrist.) For example, he embraced gay marriage before Hillary Clinton did, but he wasn’t exactly on the forefront of it. I’m not sure whether this is spin/dishonesty savvy marketing on Bernie’s part, or if it’s actually fair to describe his positions as radical given the current Overton window.

    I did read Coates’ previous post on the subject before reading this one, and it is disappointing that despite basically including a disclaimer about Clinton being equally bad, he still got a lot of “Clinton is equally bad!” responses.

  20. 20
    closetpuritan says:

    Some more links:
    The Bernie Bros are a problem and the Sanders campaign is trying to stop them

    Why isn’t Hillary’s hawkishness a dealbreaker?

    Why Democratic foreign policy wonks are worried about the election

    All of them said that both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are more or less ignoring foreign policy in the primary. And while they saw different reasons for this, some sympathetic and some not, they generally agreed that this could create real problems for whoever wins the primary once it comes time for the general election — and that this hints at some deeper issues for Democrats on foreign policy.

    I think the 2nd one could use a little acknowledgement that Sanders does seem less comfortable with his foreign policy knowledge, but I agree with the gist of the argument in spite of that.

  21. 21
    Susan says:

    Clinton has received massive infusions of cash from Wall Street. The people directing this money to her are not motivated by patriotism, particularly. I am sure that she well understands the expected responses, and I do not doubt that when in office she will protect the interests of the moneyed class.

    Yawn. Same old same old. That’s what the Clintons and the Bushes and the rest of that group have been doing for decades, and we see the results all around us. I think expecting anything different from her is delusional. She will continue the destruction of the middle and working classes, and protect the interests of the 1%. Also, she is way too hawkish for my taste. There’s the money influence again. War is very profitable for some elements in this society.

    So what are Bernie’s downsides? Inexperience, some ineptness? Uncertainty? Frankly I’m inclined to take my chances, given that I am very certain what Clinton will do with the power of the Presidency.