The Clinton campaign will survive. In the abstract, even where a primary candidate’s efforts might compromise a likely nominee’s odds in the fall, if the candidate is still winning states and challenging the front-runner’s ideas, there shouldn’t be an automatic expectation to withdraw.
Concern that Sanders’ criticisms of Clinton will be snagged by the other team and used against her are understandable, but unnecessary. No general election candidate ever beat an opponent by quoting barbs thrown during the primary. A 2016 undecided voter (?!) won’t be drawn to Trump over Clinton because Sanders accused Clinton of being too moderate. And Trump didn't need Sanders’ complaint that Clinton isn’t trustworthy to get him started on that - he was already in line with the rest.
At this point, there is also no impetus on Sanders to unite the party. His thought is to reform the party, and we’re still in the primaries. For now, it’s a false analogy to judge Sanders as a Nader-like spoiler. So far, (5/17/19!) there’s no indication he’d do anything to sabotage a general-election Clinton campaign – in fact he’s explicitly promised to help defeat Trump.
There is, however, a glaring - a disturbing - reason why Sanders’ persistence does no service to the electorate, and may be doing harm. The entire Bernie Sanders for President campaign is based on a false premise.
It’s a premise that feeds the worst kind of political cynicism, typified by the misguided disappointment some on the left heaped on Barack Obama once he was in office.
It’s a premise whose central theme has gone largely unexamined by millions of voters. It’s routinely accepted by town hall hosts, debate moderators, and the anchors of Sunday morning news shows, who congratulate themselves for challenging Sanders’ assertions with a followup question or two.
It’s a premise that says Sanders’ proposals are so unfettered by the constraints of conventional thinking, his vision so soaring, his supporters so enterprising and committed, he is poised to forge a previously inconceivable transformation to our current system.
The Sanders campaign submits that the chief means of reform,
more important than experience or expertise,
more important than depth of knowledge or painstaking policy development,
is the courage to discard orthodoxical thinking and reject a philosophy of cumulative progress and incremental change. This premise insists that a combination of radical thought and political moxy can provide the locomotion necessary to overcome practical barriers to change, and that Bernie Sanders is uniquely qualified to employ such power effectively in the Executive Branch.
But here is the problem.
There is nothing ground-breaking or original about Sanders’ ideas. He is not a pioneer. He is not a revolutionary.
None of Senator Sanders’ overarching goals set him apart from the liberal mainstream. They can all be found in the Democratic Party Platform: access for all to college and healthcare, a living wage, the overturn of Citizens United, an urgent approach to solving environmental problems, and, especially, robust regulation of Wall Street.
Certainly, Sanders’ preferred models for these ideals in practice do sit to the left of what the country has so far supported. He wants single-payer health insurance, free college tuition across the board, a $15 federal minimum wage, a carbon tax and a ban on fracking. He hasn’t revealed how he is equipped to advance such policies in our current political climate, but his message is clear: liberals fail to achieve greater progress because of a lack of imagination and a shortage of political courage.
Meanwhile, though, throughout the years, across the Democratic party, many Presidents, presidential candidates, members of Congress, and other progressive leaders perennially raise and scrutinize such ideas. In a case where any one of them believes any one of these models to be ideal, they push it forward and fight for it.
There are no new ideas coming from the Sanders camp. And the barriers to liberal progress are not reticence or dispassion.
The most conspicuous weakness of the Sanders premise is exposed by the poor - or missing - articulation of proposals in areas of his central focus. While Sanders can passionately spell out all the ways Wall Street has devastated our economy, while he can vow to dismantle the framework of power held by financial institutions, actual strategies never materialize. In the absence of detail, his approach can’t be evaluated. Where he has occasionally shared rough ideas about how to move forward, Sanders does not differentiate himself from the average Democratic party leader or elected official, and certainly not from his opponent.
Elsewhere in America, Hillary makes plain her plan for Wall Street reform. Even within the constraints of interviews, debates, and speeches, she has provided more detail than Sanders, but she's ensured easy access to her financial reform positions by publishing them on her website. First of course, the brief, slightly canned, requisite policy summary on her “Issues” page. But just below that summary, there's a link for the the voter to click through to a detail-rich elaboration laid out on a supporting Fact Sheet. The voter may then embrace Clinton’s positions or not, but can make a judgement based on real information presented there.
Back to Bernie... On this, his key issue, the content on his website ends at the aforementioned brief, slightly canned, requisite policy summary on his "Issues" page.
At least their disagreement about whether or not to reinstate Glass-Steagall has made for lively debate. Here’s how that’s gone:
Sanders: We need to reinstate Glass Steagall! The big banks must be broken up to prevent another economic disaster!
Clinton (paraphrasing): Glass-Steagall no longer addresses our post-recession needs. It separated commercial banks from investment banks, but it didn’t provide deterrents to or consequences for exceptional risk-taking by either sector. It will take more than any one piece of legislation to prevent another economic disaster. I propose we introduce risk-fees tied to the size and type of loans and investments made by either sector; and better exploit the provisions in Dodd-Frank to empower regulators to identify which banks threaten to grow “too big to fail” and force them to downsize, reorganize, or disband. And we need new legislation that provides for oversight of financial industries like insurance, mortgage lending, and hedge fund management, which - through big-bank funding - actually created the recession.
Sanders: We need to reinstate Glass Steagall! The big banks must be broken up to prevent another economic disaster!
To be fair, when pressed, Sanders has mentioned some of the same ideas Clinton has proposed, but he hasn’t challenged her stance on Glass-Steagall besides saying he’s in disagreement. If he has a plan to address the questions Clinton raises, a more progressive and hard-hitting alternative, he might oughta produce it before June.
Sanders’ credibility as Top Minimum-Wage Champion is also in question. Both candidates have lauded the work of the Fight for 15 advocacy group, and supported efforts on state and local levels to raise their own minimums to $15 an hour. But on the federal level, Sanders' ostensibly hyper-progressive demand for a $15 minimum is deceptive.
Last year Secretary Clinton joined with President Obama in throwing support behind the most coordinated and widely-supported Congressional effort to push through a raise on the minimum wage in years. In April of 2015, 303 US Senators and Representatives came together and signed on to new legislation that proposes a raise for a federal minimum wage that the GOP has kept locked-in at $7.25 since 2007. This high-profile, popular bill, the Raise the Wage Act of 2015, provides for an increase to $12 per hour by 2020. Hard to say whether Republicans in Congress will budge, but the hope (and strategy) is that this groundswell of unified Executive and Congressional Democratic support will finally overcome some opposition.
Then... less than three months from the introduction of the Raise the Wage Act, Senator Sanders introduces a competing bill, which proposes to raise the wage to $15 by 2020, rather than $12 by 2020. His secret weapon – the thing that will propel his bill past the big one and right on through Congress? He doesn’t say, but the apparent thinking is this: contrary to the collective judgement of hundreds of Democratic Senators and Representatives, including the most experienced and successful veterans of Congress, the only useful tool in the negotiating toolbox that will break through and make headway - on this issue, at this juncture - is the use of a Sanders for President truism, “If you start by asking for a full loaf of bread, at worst you’re gonna get a half loaf. [?] If you start by asking for a half loaf, you’re going to get crumbs.”
This strategy doesn’t signal that Bernie is more progressive than Hillary, or that he would move faster to get workers to a living wage. It signals that Bernie is less collaborative than Hillary, and would move theatrically and impede progress towards a living wage.
These are just a couple of examples of the story behind the Sanders campaign's underlying premise that a President Sanders would conceive and execute reforms far more advanced than those of a President Clinton, leaping over her proposed baby steps to swiftly overhaul our system of government.
The premise is false.
Now, why again is all this so important? How can erroneous claims made by a primary candidate who is no longer numerically competitive do harm? Senator Sanders’ ongoing proclamations that he provides a bold, viable alternative to Secretary Clinton’s purposeful, measurable objectives are fodder for deep disenchantment by a whole contingent of voters on the left. They are a perfect fuel for the type of energy spent by true believers decrying and dismissing all practical efforts, even the good fight waged over hostile turf. They help grow the evergreen leftist inclination to malign liberal politicians who govern enthusiastically as facilitators, collaborators and diplomats, rather than as activists, agitators and zealots. They delay again the learning of lessons from our collective experience shifting from the heady exhilaration of the 2008 campaign to the realities of executive branch administration in a time of extraordinary Congressional opposition. They certainly beg the question of just how a Sanders supporter would view the sort of adjustments and concessions a President Sanders would have to make in order to function in the Oval Office.
Just like every president before him.
Just like the next Great Left Hope.
Of course the follow-up premise to the one that says Bernie Sanders is a revolutionary is the one that says Hillary Clinton is an incrementalist. Now, incrementalism as a political term actually refers to a sort of involved and specific philosophy, about developing policy and planning action steps. It doesn’t comport with the way it’s used in this primary. What’s funny about that is, it appears to be considered a good way to describe the kind of presidency Clinton offers. As though what is considered her incrementalism is less a response to circumstances across the political landscape, and more a proactively chosen involved and specific philosophy, about developing policy and planning action steps.
This premise says that Clinton embraces a style that is seen at best as grounded, pragmatic, and content with small gains; at worst a product of perhaps complacency? A too-careful, moderate, watered-down vision?
But a careful read of Clinton’s writings; a good listen to her speeches - not the stump speeches, but the more formal, sober ones; a review of her in-depth interviews; and a detached evaluation of her debate responses illuminate none of that. Her hopes for the country reflect no lack of conviction, no failure of imagination, nor any fear of conflict.
Incrementalism, the way it is understood currently, could actually be said to require more conviction and passion, coupled with the discipline necessary to bear through periods of heavy opposition, suspended action and fallen-through deals, to remain on a path towards progress.
So the final premise - that Hillary prefers this hard road, and Bernie alone knows the way to a path that is free and clear - is the least supportable of all.