Friday, February 26, 2016

Can Bernie Get Things Done?

One of the key questions of the Democratic primary is whether Bernie Sanders can actually get his policies enacted. Hillary Clinton has arguably made this the key issue of her campaign, arguing that she's a progressive like Bernie, the key difference being that she has a record of getting things done.

Of course, this ignores that their positions, and their adherence to these positions over the decades, are actually substantially different, and the Clintons probably have a better record getting conservative legislation like the crime bill and right-wing welfare reform done than they do getting progressive legislation enacted. Hillary would like to obscure these differences, painting Bernie's proposals as pie-in-the-sky dreams, whereas her current somewhat-more-moderate plans have a shot at being enacted, especially given her expertise.

But that's a failure on the Hillary side of the equation. I think Bernie's also failing to muster the correct argument for his side of the equation.

On Thursday's Hardball, Chris Matthews pinned Bernie down on this question. Matthews has been strongly skeptical of Bernie on this issue, and he hit Bernie hard during their hour-long interview. Matthews all but said he agreed with all of Bernie's positions, describing them as "moral," but he pressed on why Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn't treat a President Sanders the way he's treated President Obama: through a calculated policy of obstructionism.

Bernie's response focused on his call for a political revolution, for changing American democracy. He passionately described a million young people matching on Washington. He seems to have a vision of phenomenal turnout, and of rallying the people to mobilize. Bernie pointed out that he'd have the bully pulpit as president.

It's a great vision. But there's evidence that the presidential bully pulpit isn't particularly strong at swaying public opinion. And Matthews correctly pointed out that a lot of Republicans aren't scared of protesters; if they're from red states (or districts), they're scared of being primaried. I'd also point out that Obama in 2008 routinely said that he needed his supporters to keep going after election day; as much as people want to blame Obama for not delivering, he always said he couldn't do so unless people stayed mobilized, and a lot of his voters didn't.

So I'm skeptical that Bernie is going to spur this kind of revolution, even if he riles up the base, wins crossover voters from people alienated by Trump, and is elected in a landslide. I'd argue that Bernie would have coattails that would likely increase Democratic turnout, and that might be enough to win back the Senate (which might happen anyway). But even a big swing to a Democratic Senate won't give Democrats a veto-proof majority, and the DNC has effectively conceded the House. Perhaps Bernie would somehow buck history and spur a Democratic wave in the 2018 mid-terms, but Bernie's not running on maybe being able to get things done in 2019.

The real argument in favor of Bernie isn't that he can actually get his proposals done. It's that Hillary can't get hers either. Republicans hate Hillary, and those who might be included to deal with her are exactly those who might secretly wish to work with Obama -- but largely can't, for fear of alienating the Tea Party base. It's theoretically possible that Republicans will suddenly change their ways, but they've utterly failed thus far to purge themselves of their far-right cohort, which has only gotten stronger within their party. There's no reason to think this trend won't continue, and we can expect Republicans to oppose a President Hillary about as much as a President Bernie.

You could argue that Republicans might be especially reluctant to work with an avowed democratic socialist, but you could also argue that Bernie's election would be a shock to the system that finally gets the Republicans to realize they have to change and to confront the hard right that has taken over their party. At the very least, the Republican base has long had a special contempt for Hillary.

And if the chance of Bernie getting his plans passed is about the same as Hillary getting her plans passed, why not go with the plans we want?

Isn't this the lesson of Obamacare? Many Democrats wanted socialized medicine in 2008. Obama pitched us on insurance reform, with an exchange that included a federal option -- essentially, anyone could buy into Medicaid. This was actually a Republican proposal, designed to stave off socialized medicine. Obama won and started with this centrist position. Except the Republicans had slid right, Democrats wanted consensus. So we barely got Obamacare at all, and no federal option. Then it got chipped away by a right-leaning Supreme Court.

Given this, why didn't we push through socialized medicine again? Recently, Republicans have repeatedly argued that, if Democrats cared about one issue or another, they could have passed it during Obama's first two years, when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Indeed, that's how Republicans managed legislation, when Bush had both houses. They rammed legislation through, and they didn't care too much whether it had popular support. Democrats don't seem to have much of a stomach for returning the favor, but Republicans couldn't be clearer that this is how they think the game is played. They seem to expect Democrats to act the same way. So why don't we?

This ought to be the Sanders argument on this issue. Republicans are likely to obstruct anything Democrats want. So why not push for socialized medicine, or free state college tuition, rather than Hillary's more modest current positions? Republicans won't react much differently, and they won't spare the invective either way.

A President Sanders wouldn't magically be able to get things done. But a new President Clinton would need the same magic to get her plans enacted.

The great thing about unreasoning obstructionism is that it frees you to support what you really want.

But if they don't, and we're stuck with another Democratic president facing intractable Republican obstructionism, who do you want to be obstructed?

I suppose it could be argued that Hillary's proposals are a few percentage points more likely to pass, but the difference is negligible. Republicans have backed away from their own bills when Obama endorses them. I'd actually argue that it's more likely that Bernie's proposals would establish a starting position, which would influence what's seen as a compromise -- a dynamic we've already seen with Obamacare, where Democrats moving to a Republican compromise plan spurred Republicans to demonize that plan as a socialist takeover of America's health care system (precisely what the Republican plan was designed to avoid). I'd argue that, even if Republicans controlled both houses, they'd probably pass somewhat more liberal legislation, as they try to provoke or calculate around a Sanders veto pen.

Bernie should be free to point out these potential positives: maybe his more liberal positions would anchor any negotiations, pulling them left. And maybe he'd have coattails that would shift Congress a bit more blue than it otherwise would be. And maybe his voters will stay organized.

But above all, in a world in which Republican obstructionism is the new norm, why not vote your conscience? There's nothing left to lose. Republicans made sure of that.