Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Case Against Bernie Sanders - and a Rebutal

The Hillary Clinton v. Bernie Sanders nomination contest is heating up as Sanders moves up in the polls against Clinton and the fall out is that opinion pieces that both make a case against Sanders and others that seek to rebut them.  Where the truth lies is likely open to debate, but it is important to try to get a handle on the competing arguments.  A piece against Sanders recently appeared in New York Magazine.  A countervailing piece appears in Commonweal that seeks to counter the New York Magazine piece.  First, here are highlights from the New York Magazine piece by Jonathan Chait:
Until very recently, nobody had any cause to regret Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. Sanders is earnest and widely liked. He has tugged the terms of the political debate leftward in a way both moderates and left-wingers could appreciate.

Sanders’s rapid rise, in both early states and national polling, has made him a plausible threat to defeat Hillary Clinton. Suddenly, liberals who have used the nominating process to unilaterally vet Clinton, processing every development through its likely impact on her as the inevitable candidate, need to think anew. Do we support Sanders not just in his role as lovable Uncle Bernie, complaining about inequality, but as the actual Democratic nominee for president? My answer to that question is no.

Sanders’s core argument is that the problems of the American economy require far more drastic remedies than anything the Obama administration has done, or that Clinton proposes to build on. Clinton has put little pressure on Sanders’s fatalistic assessment, but the evidence for it is far weaker than he assumes.  

At the very least, the conclusion that Obama’s policies have failed to raise living standards for average people is premature. And the progress under Obama refutes Sanders’s corollary point, that meaningful change is impossible without a revolutionary transformation that eliminates corporate power.

Nor should his proposed remedies be considered self-evidently benign. Evidence has shown that, at low levels, raising the minimum wage does little or nothing to kill jobs. At some point, though, the government could set a minimum wage too high for employers to be willing to pay it for certain jobs.

Sanders’s worldview is not a fantasy. It is a serious critique based on ideas he has developed over many years, and it bears at least some relation to the instincts shared by all liberals. The moral urgency with which Sanders presents his ideas has helped shelter him from necessary internal criticism. Nobody on the left wants to defend Wall Street or downplay the pressure on middle- and working-class Americans. But Sanders's ideas should not be waved through as a more honest or uncorrupted version of the liberal catechism. The despairing vision he paints of contemporary America is oversimplified. 

Even those who do share Sanders’s critique of American politics and endorse his platform, though, should have serious doubts about his nomination. Sanders does bring some assets as a potential nominee — his rumpled style connotes authenticity, and his populist forays against Wall Street have appeal beyond the Democratic base. But his self-identification as a socialist poses an enormous obstacle, as Americans respond to “socialism” with overwhelming negativity. Likewise, his support for higher taxes on the middle class — while substantively sensible — also saddles him with a highly unpopular stance. 

Against these liabilities, Sanders offers the left-wing version of a hoary political fantasy: that a more pure candidate can rally the People into a righteous uprising that would unsettle the conventional laws of politics. Versions of this have circulated in both parties for years, having notably inspired the disastrous Goldwater and McGovern campaigns. The Republican Party may well fall for it again this year. 

Sanders has promised to replace Obamacare with a single-payer plan, without having any remotely plausible prospects for doing so. Many advocates of single-payer imagine that only the power of insurance companies stands in their way, but the more imposing obstacles would be reassuring suspicious voters that the change in their insurance (from private to public) would not harm them and — more difficult still — raising the taxes to pay for it. 

[H]ere is a second irony: Those areas in which a Democratic Executive branch has no power are those in which Sanders demands aggressive action, and the areas in which the Executive branch still has power now are precisely those in which Sanders has the least to say. The president retains full command of foreign affairs; can use executive authority to drive social policy change in areas like criminal justice and gender; and can, at least in theory, staff the judiciary. What the next president won’t accomplish is to increase taxes, expand social programs, or do anything to reduce inequality, given the House Republicans’ fanatically pro-inequality positions across the board.  

[I]t seems bizarre for Democrats to risk losing the presidency by embracing a politically radical doctrine that stands zero chance of enactment even if they win. 

Against this criticisms, the piece in Commonweal offers counter arguments.  Here are excerpts:

The leadership of the Democratic Party, which never took Sanders very seriously, is finally starting to worry. So are center-left pundits. In this morning’s New York Times, Paul Krugman takes a shot at Sanders’s single-payer health-care plan, while New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait has a blog post titled “The Case against Bernie Sanders.” One gets the sense that Krugman is slightly more sympathetic than Chait to Sanders’s underlying ideology, but both argue that Sanders’s leftist platform is unrealistic in the current political environment and may even threaten the important gains made by meliorist liberals in the past eight years.  

To their credit, both Krugman and Chait try to avoid condescending to Sanders and his supporters, but there is some unavoidable condescension in their claim that Sanders is na├»ve in imagining single-payer health care could ever get off the ground in the United States. The title of Krugman’s column, “Health Care Realities,” suggests that supporters of a single-payer system—or what Sanders often calls Medicare for all—are, well, not quite in touch with reality. Krugman reminds readers that it was all a Democratic Congress could do to push through Obamacare, which was modeled on proposals originally advanced by Republicans. 

I think it’s still too early to say how large Sanders’s grassroots campaign may yet become. But putting that point aside, I’d like to offer an answer to Chait’s question. Obama’s passionate volunteers were drawn to his personal charisma and to the general promise of change after eight years of George W. Bush. Of course, Obama ran with a set of detailed policy proposals, but it wasn’t his proposals that created most of the excitement around his candidacy; it was his image and his rhetoric. Sanders’s only charisma is a kind of anti-charisma.  

Like Trump, Sanders is an anti-establishment candidate, but unlike Trump and a lot of right-wing populists, he does not run on his personality or promise miracles of leadership that will somehow overcome structural constraints on executive power. He is always reminding his supporters that he cannot do what needs to be done alone—no president can. It will require a new movement that motivates people who have become cynical about politics to organize and to vote. 

Chait describes Sanders’s politics as “fatalistic” and “despairing,” but this gets it exactly wrong. True, Sanders despairs of any significant progress being made before we change the way political campaigns are financed (his perseveration on this point has become a joke among the Beltway commentariat). But he offers voters the hope that, even after Citizens United, such change is still possible if enough of them care enough to vote for it. It is the other candidates who are “fatalistic” about the role of corporate money in politics, which is why, unlike Sanders, they are willing to accept huge amounts of it.  

Political scientists have a word for that: oligarchy. This is the central fact of American politics today, and it is the focus of Sanders’s campaign. His dissatisfaction with this state of affairs does not amount to fatalism or despair. At least, that is not the way most voters have understood it; they have understood it as outrage or indignation—and the challenge for the Sanders campaign is to get them to understand and embrace it as righteous indignation. 

Chait is right that, in functional terms, the most a Democratic president can hope to do in the immediate future is to serve as a bulwark against Republican lawmakers. But the presidency cannot be understood only in functional terms; it is also a bully pulpit. If the next president will not be able to change the tax code or curb Wall Street unilaterally, he or she will at least be better placed than any other politician to steer the nation’s political conversation toward subjects of real importance. That is what President Obama has done with gun control and immigration, and that is what Sanders would do with wealth and income inequality. If you believe, as many Democratic voters do, that those are the issues the country ought to be most focused on, then Sanders is your candidate. As Krugman might say, it is a question of priorities. 

Which brings me to my main point about Hillary Clinton. If, as Krugman and now Chait have argued, what we need most in the White House is a dependable bulwark against Republican mischief, then we should be voting for a candidate whose record demonstrates consistent opposition to Republican policies. That candidate is Sanders, not Clinton, who has been all over the place on many issues.  

If Sanders’s campaign is less about personality than Obama’s was, it is also true that his appeal to voters who don’t trust Clinton has something to do with character. With most issues, including the ones that ought to matter most in this election, you know where Bernie stands: it’s where he’s stood all along. He may lack polish and aplomb, especially compared with Obama, but he’s solid. And that’s exactly what you want in a bulwark.  
Both arguments have some merits.  That said, I don't know which side I fall on because my number one worry is making sure that a Democrat - or someone running as a Democrat - wins in November.  That is the most important issue before us.

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