« Book Report: The Buried Giant | Main | Time Tourists... nothing problematic about that. »

Saying that (for Bernie!)

I have been noticing a bunch of friends on various social media platforms acting excited about Bernie Sanders running for President of the United States of America. Excellent! I’m a big fan of Senator Sanders, have been for years. He’s been one of the folk in the legislature who have policy positions fairly close to mine, and we don’t have all that many of those. I liked him in the House, where gadflies really belong, and I have liked him in the Senate, where he has adapted his gadfly role surprisingly well. Go Bernie! I totally support his run for President! I’m happy so many other people do!

Having said that… I suspect that the Bernie social-media surge is a lot like the various Republican surges last cycle: people hear a bunch of great things about an unusual candidate who seems to embody and support a bunch of people’s ideas about the world, and get all excited. Eventually, those people hear more stuff about the candidate, including the negative stuff, including the stuff that the candidate supports that does not coincide with their own views, and support fades back to little or nothing. There is no way—no way—that Bernie Sanders will be the nominee of my Party, this cycle or any cycle. Al Gore is a likelier bet.

Having said that… Jon Bernstein is, I think, right in his note arguing that a Bernie Sanders campaign can have substantial effects on a putative Hilary Clinton administration. If supporters of Senator Sanders compel former-Senator Clinton to say that she will, for instance, cut federal aid to for-profit colleges, or support union card-check elections, or commit to not raising the Social Security retirement age, she will say it, as all of those are mainstream policy positions within my Party. And despite the conventional wisdom, making candidates say they will do a particular thing makes it much more likely that the officeholder will do that thing, or at least attempt it. No guarantees, but it helps. It makes a difference when the Other Party’s likely candidates make promises to their base in response to the surges of Michelle Bachmann or Ben Carson; it makes a difference when My Party’s candidates make promises to me in response to a surge for Bernie Sanders. So surge away, supporters of Bernie! Surge like the wind!

Having said that… I don’t want to be a jerk about this, but as much as Senator Sanders holds policy positions that are closer to my preferred ones than Hillary Clinton does, I don’t think that Senator Sanders would be very good at what Mr. Bernstein calls presidenting, that is, the actual daily job of choosing advisors and managers and delegating tasks to them, balancing priorities, cultivating and maintaining relationships within the various branches of government, evaluating all of the information available to the President of the United States, and basically just getting things done. Maybe I’m wrong! But over the last three administrations, I have increasingly gone off the idea that I care about how exactly Our Only President agrees with me on policy issues, and become increasingly concerned about how Our Only President does the job of presidenting. I think that Hillary Clinton would be quite good at most of the job of presidenting, and I don’t think that there would be enough difference between them on actual enacted policy that it would make up for the gap. In other words, if right now I had to choose whether I would rather have Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders as the next President of the United States… I would choose Hillary Clinton.

Having said that… the whole make-her-promise aspect to the Bernie Surge only works if all of us in the surge maintain that yes, we really want Bernie Sanders to be President of the United States. If we admit that it’s just about pressure, it won’t be any pressure at all. So I should shut up about my opinion that Hilary Clinton would be a better President than Bernie Sanders—tactically, that’s a terrible thing to say. True, but terrible.

Having said that… do y’all really think that some significant percentage of voters support the federal government breaking up JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley? A deficit-supported trillion-dollar infrastructure program? Abolishing private health insurance? The federal government paying to shut down old power plants? Federal money for fiber-optic broadband for the poor? Returning to the old restrictions on ownership of media outlets? Fully-funded Universal Head Start? I don’t even know if some large percentage of voters would support the Access to Contraception for Women Servicemembers and Dependents Act of 2014. To be clear: Your Humble Blogger supports every one of those policy positions. I would be thrilled to learn that they were popular positions. Electing Bernie Sanders—voting for Bernie Sanders in the primaries—is not the route to making those positions more popular. It might be the eventual result of it, were it to happen, but not the path to it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I wonder whether people see their support of Sanders as crucial to his inevitable Presidency, or as a protest vote (and/or a tool for moving the Party to the left). I'd sort of assumed the latter, and that no one really thinks he has a chance of actually winning either the nomination or the general election.

Obviously, having a President who is not good at Presidenting is a bad thing, and if you don't think Bernie Sanders would be good at Presidenting and Hillary Clinton would be, I can see that as a substantive consideration in choosing between the candidates.

What you haven't addressed, however, is why you think Ms. Clinton would be better at Presidenting than Mr. Sanders. Perhaps that argument is contained in your description of Sanders as a "gadfly," which is a term that might be applied to Sanders because he has had the role of being the lone voice in Federal Government for a democratic socialist political vision. It does not appear to me to be the case, however, that Mr. Sanders has advanced his political career by acting as an ideologue, as Sanders' opposites on the right, most notoriously Ted Cruz, have done.

So, how would we go about assessing if Mr. Sanders would be good at Presidenting? Here are some ideas I'd toss out:

Bernie Sanders has long experience at many levels of government, beginning with 8 years as the mayor of Burlington. He has served in a state legislature, in the House of Representatives, and two terms in the Senate. Although he has been an ideological outlier and independent by party, my impression has been that he has been an effective legislator--most recently, I associate him with getting the highly successful community health clinics provision of the ACA included in that legislation. Unlike Members of Congress at the opposite end of the political spectrum, who appear not to have an interest in governing as such, preferring to take ideological stands that are disruptive of good governance, Sanders' record suggest that he holds the ideological views he does because he is interested in helping people, and so he has adhered to a conception of politics and governance that adheres to that goal, and he has used his offices effectively to advance that goal. He's serious about policy, has long successful experience in working in the legislature with people who are not his ideological allies, and has executive experience.

Obviously, being mayor of Burlington and being President of the United States are executive roles of differing orders, but Mr. Sanders would enter the Presidency with much more executive experience than President Obama did and much more governmental experience at many different levels than Ms. Clinton. I don't see evidence that he lacks the experience, personal qualities of temperament, or political skills to be good at Presidenting.

What Sanders would lack, of course, is not personal qualities but a strong base of power within the party Establishment. He's running as a Democrat, but he is not a product of the Democratic Party, and his election to the Presidency would present a significant challenge to the Democratic status quo. If you think a politician has to be an Insider in that sense to be able to do Presidenting well, then that is probably a reason to think Sanders would fail. The counterargument there would be that there's a large number of very talented, dedicated people who are somewhat farther or much farther to the left than the Democratic establishment who have been unable to play significant roles in the Executive Branch for a generation. Sanders, I expect, would be able to tap that talent.

What do you think about these assessments?

On a different subject, I must say I don't get your final claim:

Electing Bernie Sanders—voting for Bernie Sanders in the primaries—is not the route to making those positions more popular. It might be the eventual result of it, were it to happen, but not the path to it.

Bernie Sanders will only be elected if his policy positions gain popularity. Supporting a campaign that advances those policy positions seems to be an obvious way to increase awareness of those positions among American citizens and to increase their popularity. I don't see how supporting a campaign that does not support those policy positions is a better route to making those positions more popular. Certainly, there are avenues other than presidential campaigns for building support for these issues, but there would be few opportunities to bring these policy positions to a national audience than a Presidential campaign, would there?

Well, and I'm certainly happy to be wrong in my assessment of Senator Sanders and his skillset. I have only recently learned anything about his mayoralty, for instance. I continue to be of the opinion that his legislative work has been more as a gadfly than as an active legislator, and certainly I have associated him for more with legislation that does not get passed than with legislation that does. So if I am underestimating his potential presidenting skills, that's terrific.

Your second point, though, that a Sanders administration would draw from "very talented, dedicated people who are somewhat farther or much farther to the left than the Democratic establishment who have been unable to play significant roles in the Executive Branch for a generation" is less persuasive to me. Jimmy Carter started with a group of outsiders (in his case, more conservative than the establishment) and Bill Clinton started with a group of outsiders (in his case, personally loyal and without experience in the tainted Carter administration) and both transitions were terrible. Just awful, and in ways that prevented them from getting things done in the first year, and affected the later years of the administration as well. Both Our Only President and Our Previous President went with experienced teams and had much smoother transitions. I thing those things matter. I do think "presidenting" is difficult without a strong base in the Party Establishment—I don't see how a putative President Sanders could conceivably enact, for instance, college debt forgiveness without such a base. Good presidenting is probably, more than anything, the ability to use such a base without being confined to it. Being an Insider while being able to judge the Inside from outside, as it were. Our Previous President was (seemed to be) utterly captured by the Inside, and was terrible at Presidenting because of it, but it does not follow that an Outsider would achieve policy goals, either.

Finally—I don't know that I believe, these days, that for such policies as I share with Bernie Sanders we would persuade people of their rightness by a national campaign of any kind. As I have quoted in other contexts: it's not what the candidates say about the issues, it's what the issues say about the candidates. Policy persuasion is (in my opinion) much slower, much more local, much more chaotic and unpredictable. So if I care about (f'r'ex) broadband for all, I'd be better off hollering about it in state legislative primaries than for a national campaign.

Now, it's helpful to have Senator Sanders use the Presidential run to articulate that stuff, certainly. That's terrific! And I am thrilled to know that people are supporting him, whether as a tool to move the Party to the left or out of belief he would be a good President, or whatever. Really, that was my point, that I should _shut up_ about any analysis comparing a Sanders administration to a Rodham-Clinton administration, because that's actually the least helpful thing I could do.


Comments are closed for this entry. Usually if I close comments for an entry it's because that entry gets a disproportionate amount of spam. If you want to contact me about this entry, feel free to send me email.