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Bernie Is the Pragmatic Pick for True Liberals

Hillary Clinton’s realism is overrated.

FREDERIC J. BROWN / Getty Images

Since the Democratic debate in October, where Hillary Clinton labeled herself as a “progressive who gets things done,” her campaign surrogates—such as her husband—and liberal writers like Jonathan Chait and Ezra Klein have argued that Clintons pragmatism is preferable to the “idealistic” proposals made by Bernie Sanders. As Chait writes in his case against Sanders, the Vermont senator “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.” In short: Clinton will be able to move the needle a little bit on progressive issues, and a little bit is better than nothing, right?

In truth, neither candidate has much of a chance of getting their desired reforms passed through Congress, at least not for the next several years. And when it comes to the use of executive power, Sanders’s moves would be more likely to satisfy liberal Americans. 

Consider healthcare reform. Clinton’s position is that with liberal reforms—such as lowering copays and out-of-pocket expenses, and adding a public option—will eventually get Obamacare to the place all progressives including Sanders want it: universal coverage. Sanders, on the other-hand, wants to scrap Obamacare in favor of a Medicare-for-all plan, theoretically getting to universal coverage much faster. Klein denounced this plan as “vague and unrealistic.”

The House of Representatives has repealed Obamacare over 50 times, and the last time, in January, the Senate sent it to President Obama’s desk for a veto. It wasn’t long ago that Republicans shut down the government over the law. Likewise, on the issue of Wall Street reform, Clinton has said that she wants to improve on the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law, rather than bring back Glass-Steagall, as Sanders proposes. But Republicans want to kill Dodd-Frank, a modest law that has been weakened since its passage. Tax hikes on the wealthiest Americans? Dead on arrival.

The notion that Clinton’s modest improvements are feasible, while Sanders’s proposals will be non-starters, ignores the reality of how Congress works in 2016. Nearly every Democratic plan put before the legislature will be stymied until either the national Republican Party controls its right wing or Democrats return to unified government. Neither is likely to happen anytime soon. Even Democrats accept that Republicans will hold onto the House of Representatives in 2016 even if their presidential nominee loses in a landslide. The Senate could flip under the right circumstances, but the Democrats’ path to hold onto it in 2018 looks even narrower than it did in 2014. Either way, divided government will be a reality for the foreseeable future. 

Clinton is a proud moderate who has championed bipartisanship and centrism since her first presidential run. “I think every piece of legislation, just about, that I ever introduced,” she said proudly in January, “had a Republican co-sponsor.” Her spokesperson later clarified what she meant to say, which is that “nearly every Republican senator” she served with co-sponsored at least one of her bills. Regardless, the point is that she can cooperate with Republicans. But today, there are very few moderate Republicans left to partner with (which isn’t always a bad thing: Third Way bipartisanship gave us the 1994 crime bill, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, and the Iraq War). Why would congressional Republicans be more likely to work with Clinton, whom many consider a criminal for her handling of the Benghazi attacks and for having a private email server? To them, she’d simply be another Democratic extremist in the White House, no different from Sanders: In his third-place victory speech on Saturday night, Senator Ted Cruz referred to “Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, or whatever socialist they decide to nominate.” 

The few areas where a Democratic president could make progress in Congress would involve libertarian allies in the Republican Party. Here, Sanders looks more the part of a change-maker, given his stances on reforming the criminal justice system, American drug policy, and government surveillance (although Sanders would have to do quite a bit of legwork to get Clinton-style Democrats on board with reining in the National Security Agency). Otherwise, a Democratic president will have to play nonstop defense to keep Republicans from further slashing Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, and although Sanders may not love those programs, he’s made clear that he prefers them to the alternative. 

The real power of a Democratic president, as Chait rightly notes, would lie in their use of executive power. But he’s wrong about the implications of this for Clinton versus Sanders. “Those areas in which a Democratic Executive branch has no power are those in which Sanders demands aggressive action,” he writes, “and the areas in which the Executive branch still has power now are precisely those in which Sanders has the least to say.” Those areas, he says, are judicial nominations, executive authority, and foreign policy. 

On this, Sanders deserves a bit more credit than Chait is willing to give him. Most liberals would agree that more progressive nominations in the judiciary are better, and Sanders would likely nominate staunch progressives, while Clinton could accept more moderate judges. Likewise, in using his executive authority, Sanders would push much farther to the left than the executive branch has been since, well, the Johnson or Roosevelt administrations. Both his judicial picks and the right use of executive power, in areas like racial justice and criminal justice reform, could radically transform the way those institutions currently operate. 

Sanders obviously has less foreign policy experience by virtue of never having served as secretary of state, but as he’s been apt to point out, he has historically exercised better judgment than Clinton, notably by voting against the Iraq War. In the Democratic debate in October, Clinton cited “the Iranians” as some of her biggest enemies, and although she came out in favor of the nuclear deal, it’s worth considering what our relationship with Iran would be today like if Clinton had won the presidency in 2008. 

A pluralist, centrist foreign policy, championed not only by neoconservatives like George W. Bush and John McCain but by Democrats like Hillary Clinton, led us into two wars in the last fifteen years—one of which gave rise to the Islamic State. If the “pragmatic” option is more military action to resolve intractable conflicts, then here’s hoping the next president avoids pragmatism altogether.