Reflecting on the Sanders v. Clinton Question
As Sanders becomes a more real candidate, we see critique from a number of folks with progressive credentials. This is from Jonathan Chait.
I do not dismiss such critiques lightly. But I do think there is a serious question about what is the role of the President. Notably, are we looking for a movement leader or a problem solver.
There is no doubt that Sanders is a movement leader. He is trying to change the overall culture in the country, change the idea about the proper role of government in the economy, challenge many of the underlying assumptions of the last 40 years, and push for solutions usually dismissed as politically impossible.
Clinton positions herself as a problem solver. She will define issues as concrete problems within the overall culture. Her goal is not to radically change the culture, but to fix specific problems in implementation.
For example, Sanders wants Americans to view college education as a right the same way we view K-12. Clinton wants to make sure that people are adequately trained for the new economy.
Which is the better role for the President? We can point to examples of both styles in history, with various measures of success. For example, although Reagan ultimately did not succeed in repealing many of the New Deal provisions he campaigned against, he succeeded in creating a radically different culture of government. By contrast, (Bill) Clinton achieved a healthy, stable economy without altering the dominant framework of limited government.
And both styles have drawbacks. Those who support Bernie Sanders and his vision of reframing the role of government in our lives as something important and valuable rather than something inherently bad need to understand that electing Sanders is a prelude to a lengthy cultural and political campaign. Success will be measured in incremental stages and overall success in culture change rather than in dramatic policy victories.
On the flip side, the problem with a "problem solver" is that you don't change the culture that created the problems in the first place. The focus on narrow, incremental change for its own sake, without a broader goal in mind, tends to result in marginal improvements and changes at the edge, always subject to reversal with a change in the political winds, because the fundamental foundation that allowed the problems to develop in the first place. Pure pragmatism devoid of a guiding philosophy is therefore as ultimately empty as pure ideology devoid of pragmatism.
Whereas those who question Sanders wonder if he has the pragmatism and political smarts to make the right compromises that advance the culture change, the challenge for Clinton is to show that she is interested in doing more than solving the problem du jour. Sanders has captured those hungry for a movement. Clinton has captured those inherently suspicious of a movement.
For Sanders to win, he must satisfy those suspicious of passion and vision as antithetical to pragmatic achievement that he has the political skills and positive pragmatism to get things done even while building the broader movement to do what Obama did not -- make the case for the positive role of government. For Clinton to win, she must convince the portion of the electorate suspicious of "pragmatism" as a code for settling that she has the vision and passion necessary to transform a set of incremental wins into genuine cultural change that addresses racial and social justice at its core, not simply putting a band-aid on the symptoms.
If the President is purely a pragmatic problem solver, from where does vision come? If the President is the ideological standard bearer, who makes sure the revolution is actualized? It is a dismissive caricature to dismiss Sanders as the hopeless idealist that youth must set aside as a sign of maturity, or that Clinton is the empty pragmatist willing to cut any deal to claim a pyrrhic victory.
Sanders supporters need to ask themselves -- are willing to be part of a movement? Are we willing to accept that Sanders may not be able to deliver on his promises, but that the movement will continue to push to reshape the culture so that they become politically feasible? Likewise, Clinton supporters need to ask themselves, what is our vision and what are our red lines? Is this just about voting against Republicans and having a President we trust not to screw things up? Or is this about genuinely reshaping our vision of what we want America to be?