Just how will you wield enough power to get anything done?
When compared with Sen. Bernie Sanders’s, Hillary Clinton’s agenda for America is less transformative, more incremental, and more committed to the status quo.
The Democratic presidential debate last week made this clear.
Sanders is calling for free college education, funded by a tax on Wall Street transactions. Clinton, on the other hand, wants a means-tested system for debt-free college. Students, under her plan, would still have to contribute to their education, either through work or other campus activities.
Sanders wants to break up the largest banks, full stop. Clinton wants to focus the attention on other players in the financial system and break up big banks only if they pose a risk.
You can do this until the cows come home. Sanders says he wants to “end institutional racism,” and Clinton commits to “tackling mass incarceration” and “reforming criminal justice.” Sanders wants to “expand Social Security” for everyone and pay for it by lifting the cap on payroll taxes. Clinton? She wants to improve it for the people who “need it most.”
You could view the contrast between the two as a fundamental dispute over the nature of the American welfare state and the future of American liberalism. But you might be jumping the gun. Clinton and Sanders have serious differences, but on core issues of domestic politics—income redistribution, access to health care, immigration, civil rights, and the financial system—they’re pretty much on the same side, moving in the same direction. And because Sanders is a “democratic socialist”—basically someone in the mainstream of Western European politics—the core difference is of speed and scope.
All of this is fodder for partisans in both camps. Clinton supporters will shout down Sanders as ineffective. As she said, “We’re progressives who get things done!” Sanders’s allies, for their part, will attack Clinton as a sellout to the rich and powerful. But if you ignore this conflict and widen your aperture, you’ll see the degree to which both candidates are stuck in the same place, despite their approaches. If either wins the White House, both Clinton and Sanders will run into the same obstacle—barring an unprecedented shift in the rules and conditions of American politics, there’s no possible world in which they could achieve their core aims as president or what they’re promising.
Just look at a map of U.S Senate and House races. Unless Democrats win in a landslide, the House will be controlled by the GOP through 2016 and probably into the next election cycle, if not beyond. At best, Democrats win the White House and the Senate, which will leave them in the same place that they were in from 2011 until the end of 2014. With a Democratic Senate and a Republican House, Congress won’t move legislation except to fund the government and lift the debt ceiling, if that — given radical Republican uprising. If President Clinton or President Sanders wants to accomplish anything, she or he will have to use and utilize executive power to get just about anything done.
Twenty years ago, it was possible for a Democratic president to make law with a Republican Congress, or vice versa. Today, it’s virtually impossible. The only way either Sanders or Clinton will accomplish anything is through skilled use of bureaucratic power. So far, however, both candidates have been fairly quiet on how they would act as an executive. Instead, both of them are essentially running as legislative leaders, when the real challenge is how she or he would utilize the substantial power they will wield to direct and influence bureaucrats and regulators.
Sanders believes in a “political revolution” against money in politics, which tells you about his priorities as president. Clinton’s legislative incremental style gives you a good indication of how she’ll work with Congress. If Democrats hold the White House, they’ll hold an inverse presidency of sorts. Like a second-term president, Clinton or Sanders will have to focus on executive power. Legislative traction would require a broader shift to the electorate, as well as redistricting in 2020. Only then would big plans be feasible.
So, what’s next? For Democratic primary voters, the question is who is best equipped to be president in a time of gridlock, where the choice is executive action or nothing? Clinton’s bureaucratic experience, her skill with partisan conflict, and her clear willingness to work against the spirit of the law—as illustrated by her State Department email controversy—make her a prime pick for this era of political grinding. To that point, on guns, Clinton has already vowed to take executive action to close a loophole that lets private brokers sell guns without a background check. But this brand of politics is cynical, which is perhaps why Clinton can’t build enthusiasm like Sanders, who has a positive vision for political life, even if it’s unavoidably bound to structural realities.
As for the GOP? It doesn’t have this problem. Whether it’s President Rubio or President Cruz, the Republican Party will have unified control of government. In which case, the question for voters is more existential. Will this be the sober GOP of presidents past, or will it be the loons in the Freedom Caucus that will have the power?