Bernie or Hillary: Who Has The Right Theory Of Presidential Change?

Bill Scher

There are substantive differences between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Single-payer vs. individual mandate. Break up the big banks vs. regulate the big banks. Tuition-free college vs. debt-free college. “Leave it in the ground” vs. a more gradual shift away from fossil fuels.

But with Republicans likely to at least control the House after the 2016 election, none of these policy ideas will be on a glide path to clear Congress and reach the president’s desk. So which Democratic presidential candidate has the right approach to deal with the inevitable resistance?

Paul Krugman recently argued that “Mrs. Clinton is the heir to President Obama” as she is likely to follow President Obama’s lead and work the system from the inside as best as possible:

…as Mr. Obama himself found out as soon as he took office, transformational rhetoric isn’t how change happens. That’s not to say that he’s a failure. On the contrary, he’s been an extremely consequential president, doing more to advance the progressive agenda than anyone since L.B.J.

Yet his achievements have depended at every stage on accepting half loaves as being better than none: health reform that leaves the system largely private, financial reform that seriously restricts Wall Street’s abuses without fully breaking its power, higher taxes on the rich but no full-scale assault on inequality.

Sanders has been critical of Obama’s legislative strategy, saying in a September interview with the Des Moines Register that the president was naive in thinking he could negotiate with Republican leaders without a massive grassroots mobilization to secure leverage:

Given the powers of corporate America and the large campaign donors, you can not change America unless millions of people are standing behind you. And that’s the difference between Barack Obama and myself.

Krugman isn’t buying it. He countered:

…the question Sanders supporters should ask is, When has their theory of change ever worked? Even F.D.R., who rode the depths of the Great Depression to a huge majority, had to be politically pragmatic, working not just with special interest groups but also with Southern racists.

This has received a strongly negative response in progressive circles as being dismissive of movement-based social change. But Krugman wasn’t speaking to the value of movements generally. He was questioning the efficacy of a president relying on a movement to extract support from an unwilling Congress for maximalist versions of policy proposals.

The Huffington Post recently asked Sanders’ campaign adviser Tad Devine what the candidate would do once in office when Republicans balk at his ideas. He pledged: “We will turn the midterm elections in 2018 into the largest referendum in the history of midterms … We will take [Republicans] on frontally, and trust me, [Bernie] will be up for the fight.”

Clinton, in last Monday’s CNN town hall, took a decidedly different tack. She said she would do all she could to find “common ground” and cited her record:

…I did it as a First Lady when I worked, as I said, to get the children’s health insurance program. I did it to reform the foster care and adoption system with one of the most partisan Republicans in the house, Tom DeLay.

I did it when I was in the Senate. And, nearly every Republican I served with co-sponsored legislation that I introduced, and we worked to pass [them] …

Everything I want to do, I want to start from the belief that we can find common ground … you always have to hope you can find common ground. You got to bring people together like [Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin] did [with] the Americans With Disabilities Act…

…I have no problem in saying, yeah, we have political differences. We’re on opposite sides. But … I’m going to be just giving them all bear hugs whether they like it or not. We’re going to get together, we’re going to talk about what we can do. Maybe we can get something done together, if not, maybe I can find that slice of common ground to find somebody who will work with me on achieving a goal that we want.

So who’s right?

That depends on two variables. What’s your opinion of Obama’s output? And how much do you like to gamble?

Taking up the latter question first: There’s no getting around the fact that taking a two-year legislative battle with Republicans to the voters to settle in the 2018 midterms is a huge gamble.

Winning an election in 2016 is no guarantee of winning in 2018. Throughout history, midterms tend not to go well for the sitting president’s party.

There are exceptions. The Sept. 11 attacks buoyed Republicans in the 2002 midterms. Impeachment backlash helped Democrats in 1998. The Sanders strategy could be an exception, too. Having a fully nationalized midterm designed by the president as an up-and-down vote on his stalled agenda would be unprecedented. The strategy could buck the tide of midterm history and break the opposition party’s back.

Or it could utterly destroy the president’s agenda and obliterate his political capital for good.

Taking such a gamble is worth the risk if the alternative – working as well as possible with Republicans and right-leaning Democrats – is a dead end.

In turn, attitudes about the Obama presidency loom large.

If you believe that Obama pushed the political system as far as it could go, won as big a stimulus as that Congress was willing to approve; sacrificed congressional seats to pass Obamacare by a hair; got as much Wall Street reform as 60th vote Republican Sen. Scott Brown would have allowed; played astute defense once Republicans took the House – punting on Bush tax cut repeal, embracing deficit reduction to avoid blowback over the stimulus – so he could still win re-election; end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy; and tackle global warming and immigration by executive order … then you will likely be partial to Hillary Clinton’s approach.

Don’t assume compromise is impossible. Pocket as much as you can before the next election so you don’t go to the voters empty-handed. Only turn to executive action when all other options are exhausted.

But if you look at the Obama record as woefully insufficient – a stimulus that did little but stop the bleeding, health care reform that caters to private insurers, banks that are still unwieldy in size – then you will be more inclined to take your chances.

Moreover, Obama’s biggest legislative successes happened when Democrats controlled both houses in his first two years. The first two years of a Sanders or Clinton administration won’t receive any honeymoon phase from the all-but-certain Republican House. It’s either Clintonian scratch-and-claw or Sandernista revolutionary war from the get-go. With no hope for any “100 Days” of FDR-style reform, what is there to lose in going for broke?

If you believe there is something to lose – the possibility of smaller but worthwhile advancements, the ability to confirm nominations especially for the Supreme Court, electoral chances in 2018 and 2020 (after which state legislatures will redraw congressional district lines) – then you will want to hold on to your chips.

If you believe we face a wall of such complete obstruction that there is no way forward but demolition by mass mobilization, then you will bet it all.

Get updates in your inbox