A Case for Clinton (And Not Sanders)
If polls are to be trusted, Bernie Sanders is as close to the Democratic nomination as he’s ever been. This is, in itself, a remarkable feat. Bernie is that wonderful kind of doggish progressive eccentric with a dotted career of radical achievement. He has been a personal hero of mine for a long time. But behind this nomination campaign lie numerous unanswered questions – most notably on the issue of this administration’s legacy. Clinton is the predominant heir to the reins of Obama’s administration. Ezra Klein’s assertion that Sanders bears an equal claim in this regard is misleading and unfounded. To understand what Klein gets wrong it is first necessary to consider the context that surrounds the Democratic ticket race. By this I specifically refer to the past eight years.
First Consider the Obama Administration’s Significance
By all accounts this has been a hugely significant administration. James Fallows in his recent “Chessmaster, not Pawn” story, referenced a Tea Party focus-group study. The study suggested bitter far-right sentiment towards Obama is not on account of him being “feckless and weak” but rather because he has “so fully outwitted the Republican House and Senate majorities that seem so powerless to stop him”. Leaving aside the paranoid tone of the study, one should see this administration as fundamentally consequential. On account of its similarly unfortunate inheritance, it is Reagan’s administration that is usually held up as the baseline of economic comparison. Obama’s economy is now outperforming Reagan’s. True it retains elements of weaknesses – wealth inequality and a trade imbalance to cite just two – but there can be little doubt that the US economic path is robust and well directed. Resculpted relations with Iran and Cuba are hugely significant. Gay marriage is, for the first time, federally legitimised. The Paris climate change deal is a huge diplomatic achievement (anything signed by 187 countries is probably pretty important). Dodd-Frank is working better than anyone expected. And then there’s healthcare…
Healthcare is Where the Problems Begin for Sanders
Perhaps the landmark achievement of the Obama administration is its healthcare legislation. The uninsured rate has dropped dramatically. More or less all Americans now have access to healthcare. This has been a progressive goal of the past three decades. Teddy Roosevelt, Truman, Carter, and Clinton all tried to secure the status of healthcare as universally accessible and all fell short. In 2012 Obama succeeded – it is, indeed, a “big fucking deal”. On a basic policy basis this success represents a major problem for Sanders. Bernie wants to rip the Affordable Care Act up and start again with a single-payer system. Given this is the scheme he has been pushing for in Congress, no doubt worthily, since the 1990s, this is understandable. But Bernie’s plan, as presented, would rule out the role of private insurers (an unfortunate provision, but one that Obama realised had to be made) and create disturbance for millions who are, at present, entirely happy with their healthcare status.
Of course there are tweaks to be made to the ACA; Paul Krugman describes the “kludge” of an “awkward, clumsy device with lots of moving parts”. But Krugman goes on to wonder “whether these failings mean they should re-litigate their own biggest political success in almost half a century”. His answer, of course, is that they should not. Instead, they should seek “incremental change” whilst pursuing larger goals in other policy areas. Moreover, Sanders recently released his healthcare plan and, as has been widely pointed out in commentary, it lacked anything like the necessary detail of a legislative suggestion to overwrite Obamacare. It is befuddling. James Surowiecki highlights one example of the document’s misleading ambiguity:
“The Sanders plan also makes it sound as though Americans would never again have to worry about not having coverage for some treatments, or about not being able to see their preferred doctors… If a single-payer plan is to hold down costs, though, the government will have to make choices about paying for some things and not for others, which necessarily means that some treatments people really want won’t be covered.”
Even Ezra Klein admits:
“Sanders promises his health-care system will cover pretty much everything while costing the average American almost nothing, and he relies mainly on vague “administrative” savings and massive taxes on the rich to make up the difference. It’s everything critics fear a single-payer plan would be, and it lacks the kind of engagement with the problems of single-payer health systems necessary to win over skeptics.”
From a healthcare angle, Clinton’s campaign needs only to affirm an historic achievement. Sanders greatly exaggerates when he says he “helped write” Obamacare. He may have supported it at the time of writing (albeit with limitations), but his threats to uproot and replace the bill are undermining of a remarkable and unprecedented bill. This was also a bill passed with some crucial Republican support. It is unrealistic to imagine congressional Republicans granting a significant legislative redevelopment. Especially not with a supposed Marxist – in a recent interview Sanders refused to name a Republican Senator he liked out of fear that the endorsement would spell political suicide for that person – and especially not in a congress that is more partisan than ever before. Clinton has a far easier and more achievable case to make in simply wanting to “strengthen the Affordable Care Act”. Indeed, Clinton has a more achievable role as the political mediator that congress needs.
Clinton’s Claim Makes Political Sense
Of the contesting Democratic candidates (sorry Martin O’Malley) Clinton represents the natural heir to the management of recent liberal progress. Clinton is often upheld by Conservatives and progressives as an unsettling “professional politician”, but the status implicitly concedes certain principles. Having served in Obama’s administration she knows the mechanics of its policy-engineering process. If one faovurs the grand policy-making direction of this administration, one should expect Clinton to understand its inner-mechanics. The assumption follows that Clinton would, at least, be able to maintain the policy bearing of this administration.
In campaigning, Clinton’s awareness of this point has been entirely apparent. She has been the candidate foremostly defending Obama’s economic record. The irony of the Sanders campaign is that the tone of its rhetoric has far more in common with the apocalyptic nonsense-spreading of 2016’s GOP than with the banner of his own party (and yes, Sanders is a Democrat). Clinton’s case is convincing because it is a case made over the past eight years. She would maintain the steady path of progressive achievement.
The Wall Street Line is Not as Dividing as People Think
It is the looming notion of Wall Street which most immediately distinguishes Sanders from Clinton. He was able to wield the notion of “speaking fees from Goldman Sachs” as a point of attack in the last debate. Bernie Sanders is, with good reason, vocal and passionate about the proliferation of financial corruption in US politics. But that does not, at least in this race, make him the unique big-money antidote.
The reason for this is the same reason Elizabeth Warren opted not to run for president at all; Sanders, like Warren, is simply better positioned as a Senator than as a party leader. He can promote policy, and encourage his party to take positions. But when it comes to the mechanics of policy-engineering, a party leader needs to reach out across the congressional floor, to motivate reluctant players and to win over partisan committees – in short, to “play the game”.
What it is often perceived as Hilary’s biggest weakness, in this sense, is in fact a form of strength. Some progressives have been Fox-ish in their condemnations of her savvy, business-cosy political status. I’ll admit the fact Clinton is only outranked in Wall Street donations by Bush and Cruz doesn’t make for encouraging reading, even if the Democratic field is only two strong. But Clinton’s also vowed to “rein in” Wall Street, to go “well beyond” Dodd-Frank, to ensure the appointment of “tough, independent regulators” and to hold financial executives “more accountable”. We already know that Dodd-Frank is working. Just as with the Affordable Care Act, looking to improve and bolster the bill makes a whole lot more sense than Sanders’ bank-breakup concept. In fact, Sanders’ “Too Big To Fail, Too Big To Exist” bill may have made a catchy slogan, but the bill was only two pages long, was scant on detail to say the least and, inevitably, failed to pass. You can find more detail on what’s lacking with the plan here. The bottom line is that it isnt a “serious proposal”.
To come full circle, Ezra Klein’s recent estimation arrived at a tame conclusion that Clinton and Sanders could each claim heirship of Obama’s legacy in different ways. Undoubtedly, the Sanders campaign has been a brilliant democratic demonstration. One that bears echoes of Obama’s 2008 campaign. Even Chomsky’s been impressed. But what Obama found when he get into office was that policy-making is hard and tiring. And though I appreciate some progressives seem to despair of Clinton as much as hard-Conservatives do. This despair is unfounded. Clinton is not the dream candidate. She’s made mistakes in professional conduct (though far less serious ones than some would have you believe). But Clinton’s claim to the nomination makes political sense; Clinton is the logical heir to Obama’s legacy of policy-constructing, congressional mediation and consistent, bullish, progressive historic achievement.