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.
Some links I found interesting:
- 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.
- Case in point: Bernie Sanders’s single-payer plan doesn’t even address the hard questions about how it would actually work.
- David Dayen lays out the differences between Sanders and Clinton on reforming Wall Street.
- 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.
- 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.
- Bernie Sanders calls Jordan’s hereditary dictator a “hero” – Vox