One of the most striking contrasts between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the first Democratic debate is their starkly different theories of how change will take place. Yet it is this difference that is at the center of the Sanders surge, and particularly of the remarkable excitement that he has stirred among the young.
Virtually every reform proposed by President Obama has been blocked by the Republican Congress. The House majority is so dysfunctional that Speaker John Boehner had to fall on his sword simply to get the House to keep the doors of government open and the U.S. from defaulting on its debts. Republicans are now unable to agree upon his successor. They are so practiced in obstruction that they obstruct themselves.
So how does the next Democratic president overcome this? Gerrymandered districts make it very hard for Democrats to take back the majority in the House. What makes change come?
Yes She Can
Clinton’s answer is encapsulated in her response to Anderson Cooper’s question about whether she is a progressive or a moderate:
I'm a progressive. But I'm a progressive who likes to get things done. And I know how to find common ground, and I know how to stand my ground, and I have proved that in every position that I've had, even dealing with Republicans who never had a good word to say about me, honestly. But we found ways to work together on everything from reforming foster care and adoption to the Children's Health Insurance Program…
Clinton offers herself – her experience, her vision, her tenacity – as the difference. This was a consistent theme of her remarks. Her opening featured her commitment to “heal the divides:”
During the course of the evening tonight, I'll have a chance to lay out all of my plans and the work that I've done behind them. But for me, this is about bringing our country together again. And I will do everything I can to heal the divides – the divides economically, because there's too much inequality; the racial divides; the continuing discrimination against the LGBT community...
And she offered herself as the vehicle for change again in her closing:
What you have to ask yourself is: Who amongst us has the vision for actually making the changes that are going to improve the lives of the American people? Who has the tenacity and the ability and the proven track record of getting that done?
When pressed about why voters should choose an “insider like yourself,” she sounded the same note:
I'm running because I have a lifetime of experience in getting results and fighting for people, fighting for kids, for women, for families, fighting to even the odds. And I know what it takes to get things done. I know how to find common ground and I know how to stand my ground. And I think we're going to need both of those in Washington to get anything that we're talking about up here accomplished.
You Know There’s Gonna Be A Revolution
In contrast, Sanders argues that given the corruption of American politics, the only way needed change can come is with a “political revolution.” This theme was central to his argument:
But here's where I do disagree. I believe that the power of corporate America, the power of Wall Street, the power of the drug companies, the power of the corporate media is so great that the only way we really transform America and do the things that the middle class and working class desperately need is through a political revolution when millions of people begin to come together and stand up and say: Our government is going to work for all of us, not just a handful of billionaires.
Anderson Cooper remarked skeptically, “You don't hear a lot of Democratic presidential candidates talking about revolution. What do you mean?"
What I mean is that we need to have one of the larger voter turnouts in the world, not one of the lowest. We need to raise public consciousness. We need the American people to know what's going on in Washington in a way that today they do not know. And when people come together in a way that does not exist now and are prepared to take on the big money interest, then we could bring the kind of change we need.
When asked if Hillary had the “right stuff,” Sanders again argued that it wasn’t about an individual leader:
I think -- I think that there is profound frustration all over this country with establishment politics. I am the only candidate running for president who is not a billionaire, who has raised substantial sums of money, and I do not have a super PAC. I am not raising money from millionaires and billionaires, and in fact, tonight, in terms of what a political revolution is about, there are 4,000 house parties -- 100,000 people in this country -- watching this debate tonight who want real change in this country.
When asked how he could overcome Republican obstruction, Sanders was clear:
The Republican party, since I've been in the Senate, and since President Obama has been in office, has played a terrible, terrible role of being total obstructionists. Every effort that he has made, that some of us have made, they have said no, no, no.
Now, in my view, the only way we can take on the right-wing Republicans who are, by the way, I hope will not continue to control the Senate and the House when one of us elected President.
But the only way we can get things done is by having millions of people coming together. If we want free tuition at public colleges and universities, millions of young people are going to have to demand it, and give the Republicans an offer they can't refuse.
If we want to raise the minimum wage to $15 bucks an hour, workers are going to have to come together and look the Republicans in the eye, and say, "We know what's going on. You vote against us, you are out of your job."
And the Senator returned to this theme in his closing:
Now, at the end of our day, here is the truth that very few candidates will say, is that nobody up here, certainly no Republican, can address the major crises facing our country unless millions of people begin to stand up to the billionaire class that has so much power over our economy and our political life.
The Real Deal
Obviously, Sanders' call for “political revolution” is alien to beltway politics as usual. Jim Webb expressed the establishment disdain: "I got a great deal of admiration and affection for Senator Sanders, but I – Bernie, I don't think the revolution's going to come. And I don't think the Congress is going to pay for a lot of this stuff."
Waiting for a political revolution seems a bit like waiting for Godot. But ask yourself, which of these views is more realistic? Clinton’s claim is a less bumptious version of Donald Trump: “Trust me. I know how to do this. I can get this done.” How plausible is it to believe that Clinton’s experience and expertise can enable her to work with Republicans to effect the change we need? We know there are bad deals that can be cut. But real reform?
“Revolution soon come” seems like a fantasy. But Sanders’ view that nothing will change unless people rise up, demand change, go to the polls in large numbers and hold their representatives accountable is compelling. And by not raising money from millionaires and billionaires, by not setting up a super PAC, by raising stunning sums in small donations (nearly $2 million in the hours after the Democratic debate), he isn’t just calling for a popular movement, he is helping to build it.