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Is Nominating Bernie Sanders a Worthwhile Gamble?

Hillary Clinton's supporters have yet to make a persuasive case that Sanders is too great a risk.

Sean Rayford/Getty Images

For the better part of a year, Bernie Sanders enjoyed a polite if slightly bemused welcome from the non-radical quarters of the Democratic firmament. The wing of the party represented by Sanders and Elizabeth Warren had been ascendant for most of Barack Obama’s presidency, enlarging the potential constituency for a populist presidential primary challenge to Hillary Clinton. As a grumpy-yet-affable elderly Jewish socialist who wasn’t actually a Democrat, Sanders struck members of the liberal establishment as the least-viable tribune of the party’s insurgent wing.

One week from the Iowa caucuses, we now know their assessment was wildly inaccurate. Sanders is within striking distance of Clinton in Iowa, and leads her in most New Hampshire polls. He still trails badly in more ethnically diverse Southern and Western states, but the Clinton campaign and its allies are suddenly contending with the possibility that Sanders will convert victories in both of the first two contests into polling surges elsewhere in the country, imperiling Clinton’s nomination, or at least making her path to it much longer, costlier, and more divisive.

Where center-left liberals were once sanguine about the state of the Democratic primary campaign, or even grateful to Sanders for premising the debate on progressive assumptions, they are now alarmed that Sanders might pull off an upset and become the party’s nominee.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, for one, laments that “while idealism is fine and essential—you have to dream of a better world—it’s not a virtue unless it goes along with hardheaded realism about the means that might achieve your ends. ... [T]here’s nothing noble about seeing your values defeated because you preferred happy dreams to hard thinking about means and ends.” New York writer Jonathan Chait concluded his article “The Case Against Bernie Sanders” on a note of astonishment: “[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.”

Center-left liberals are jittery about Sanders for obvious and understandable reasons. But neither Krugman’s nor Chait’s case constitutes an airtight argument that Sanders should be defeated. To its chagrin, the Democratic establishment hasn’t made that argument either. And until that case is laid out fully, his supporters can make a persuasive counterargument that nominating Sanders is a worthwhile gamble.

The case against Sanders draws emotional appeal from the widely shared, and accurate, liberal premise that defeating the GOP’s eventual nominee is the central imperative of 2016. This state of affairs stands in stark contrast with the last time Clinton vied for the presidency. In January 2008, when Democrats were on the verge of winning sweeping control over the elected branches of government, the party was understandably preoccupied with questions of process and effective use of power. Today, the Democratic Party faces a more existential dilemma: Democrats are better-poised to win national elections than at any point in modern history—and yet they would be relegated to political Siberia if they were to lose the presidency later this year.

Thus, to be definitive, the case against Sanders must rest on more than pragmatic concerns about legislative bargaining or even the urgent, baseline need to fend off unified Republican control in Washington. It must demonstrate that he is likely to lose to a Republican nominee, where Clinton is likely to win.

A great many liberals and Democratic strategists share an unshakeable belief that a candidate who has self-identified as a socialist for decades will lose. That there’s little daylight between Sanders and other progressive Democrats, and that Sanders is probably better described as a Social Democrat than a socialist, are matters of little significance. Sanders will have to weather an onslaught of red-baiting Republican attacks either way, they argue, and the perception that he is more like V.I. Lenin than like Elizabeth Warren will create an insurmountable obstacle to victory.

This is a highly plausible thesis, but it is also in tension with the demographic arguments that have made many of these same liberals confident that only an economic recession or a military quagmire (or some similarly catastrophic development) will open a path to Republican victory. 

Does the socialist epithet rise to that threat level? What if it’s put up against rapaciousness and bigotry, should the Republican Party nominate Donald Trump? Or a paranoia-fueled Goldwateresque politics, should Ted Cruz win the GOP primary?

Polling this far removed from the general election means very little, which should chasten both Sanders supporters and critics. The polling that shows Sanders beating Republican candidates by wider margins than Clinton is just as suspect as polling that suggests a socialist is unelectableThe term “socialism” is highly unpopular, but it does far more damage when it’s deployed generically than when it’s rendered as an attack ad against a well-known candidate.

It is possible that a candidate who has called himself a socialist can’t win, no matter how compelling his campaign. Indeed, there are good reasons to believe that Sanders would be a weaker nominee than Clinton—a view reflected in the fact that Democratic powerhouses like Planned Parenthood are endorsing Clinton, and that Republican SuperPACs are tipping the scales on Sanders’s behalf by attacking Clinton from the left. But nobody has yet made a convincing case that Sanders would be more likely to lose than win. His critics, like Krugman, have argued persuasively that Sanders is being either too idealistic or too cynical (and his supporters too naive) about the scope of change he’s likely to deliver. 

But they stop short of suggesting that nominating Sanders would be tantamount to trading away many of the gains of the Obama era, and then some. “Just to be clear,” Krugman admits, “I’m not saying that someone like Mr. Sanders is unelectable.”

If we assume that both Sanders and Clinton are likelier to win the general election than lose it, the terms of the debate change dramatically: Which of then would actually be the better, more effective president? Clinton supporters are on their strongest ground when they note that Sanders’s agenda is both thin in detail and a dead letter in Congress. Sanders and his supporters argue that his presidency would be the consequence of a political earthquake so severe that it would upend conventional political expectations. This isn’t crazy thinking, but it is slightly magical, because magic is the only way to contend with the Republican Party’s viselike grip on Congress. It’s also a dangerous argument, because it carries a clear implication that getting Sanders elected at all will be more difficult than his supporters want you to think. (Since when has political revolution ever come easy?) 

But at the same time, it’s unclear how much work the pragmatism critique does for the anti-Sanders cause. It’s true that single-payer health insurance and free public college aren’t likely to become federal law even if Sanders wins the presidency. But by the same token, neither are Clinton’s plans to improve Obamacare, and provide debt-free college and paid family leave. 

Clinton’s agenda would become politically viable if Democrats were to somehow reclaim the House and Senate during her time in office–her proposals are designed to reflect party consensus, while Sanders’s platform reflects the consensus of just one of the party’s wings. 

But if we’re imagining both of their agendas as opening bids in negotiations with Congress, why fault Sanders for not negotiating with himself? Ask a future Democratic Congress for single payer and a $15 minimum wage and you might get laughed at… but you also might get the public option and a bump to $12. Ask it for the public option and a $12 minimum wage, as Clinton might, and you’ll get a fair hearing from the outset, but you might end up with advancements barely worth fighting for. President Obama, as Sanders is fond of noting, negotiated with himself, and progressives paid an unknowable price as a result.

Center-left liberals will remind us that Obama’s biggest legislative accomplishments were products of hard-nosed dealmaking, rather than mass action. And they’re right. When Clinton makes LBJ-like arguments about the importance of pairing social activism with political leverage, she is telling unlovely truths. But here it’s worth noting that for all the hyperventilating over Sanders’s self-identification as a socialist, he’s been a relatively effective and pragmatic legislator. 

The legislative argument for Clinton and against Sanders—just like the legislative argument for Sanders and against Clinton—runs headlong into the brick walls of constitutional impediments and Republican opposition. But advancing a legislative agenda is only one part of a president’s job. And it’s in considering the other realms of executive power that Team Sanders is on its firmest ground.

In addition to sending bills to Congress, and signing or vetoing the ones Congress sends back, presidents also nominate federal judges, make executive-branch appointments, and set U.S. foreign policy. On two of these fronts, Sanders is probably more attuned to the instincts of the median Democratic voter than Clinton.

We know very little about Sanders’s jurisprudence, or whether it differs from Clinton’s presumed preference for nominating more Supreme Court justices in the liberal mold of Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. But it’s reasonable to assume he’d select judicial nominees who are broadly acceptable to all liberals. If this (admittedly odd) Sanders tweet is any indication, his litmus test for Supreme Court nominees will be whether they think Citizens United was wrongly decided.

Clinton also thinks Citizens United was wrongly decided. We can thus safely bracket questions about the judiciary as a draw.

But Sanders and Clinton do have significant disagreements over regulatory and foreign policy, and as president either of them would have tremendous power to influence both. This is Sanders’s strongest non-idealized appeal to progressives: He would appoint tougher regulators and conduct a more cautious, dovish foreign policy than Clinton. Here his anti-establishment bonafides would pay concrete, rather than symbolic, dividends. Wall Street has genuinely more to fear from Sanders than from Clinton. Sanders would be less likely to invade a foreign country than Clinton, and would draw brighter red lines in trade negotiations with other governments.

Clinton’s grasp of regulatory and foreign policy is genuinely impressive. In each of the Democratic debates this cycle, Sanders has looked out of his depth by comparison. But presidents don’t micromanage federal agencies, and they aren’t full-time diplomats. Their values and vision shape policy in these realms more than wonkish insistence on this strategy or that measure. Sanders, ironically, talks less about the importance principles play in securing administrative success than Clinton does. But in a party that has become increasingly dovish and alarmed by increasing concentrations of income and wealth, he would have a strong claim to being a safer bet than Clinton—if he were to ever push the point.

The bad news is that, on balance, these arguments don’t lend themselves to a declarative headline. The fact that, over and above them, Clinton’s candidacy carries the huge but abstract promise of electing the first female president makes the calculation harder still. I share the worry that if Sanders is the candidate Republicans want to run against, and if key liberal stakeholders are nervous about his polling surge, then perhaps his nomination presents an unacceptable risk. But I also recall similar apprehensions about a black candidate with a vast movement behind him named something Hussein something who had questionable ties to a shady real estate developer, a black-nationalist preacher, and a man who was once a fugitive from federal conspiracy charges for his involvement in the bombing of government buildings.

The downside risk of losing this election is greater than it was in 2008, and for many Democrats, the desire to mitigate that risk is the decisive factor drawing them to Clinton’s campaign. But if Sanders’s candidacy is genuinely reckless, his critics must be more persuasive than they have been on that point. Otherwise, the fact that the Sanders bloc is large and growing simply reflects ideological divisions within a party that is structurally favored to win the presidency anyhow. And if that’s the case, going all-in for a progressive champion might just be worth it.