One advocates a single-payer health care system (Mr. Sanders), the other is attacking his plan to make it a reality (Mrs. Clinton). One refuses to raise taxes on the middle class (Mrs. Clinton), the other is O.K. with doing so in order to fund certain programs (Mr. Sanders). Mrs. Clinton is hammering her opponent over his previous milquetoast support for gun control measures. Mr. Sanders claims Mrs. Clinton doesn’t go far enough on Wall Street reform.
These are substantive, important differences. Democrats haven’t finished the debate over whether, and how, the country should have a government-funded health care system, for instance.
Continue reading the main story
RELATED IN OPINION
Editorial: Hillary Clinton for the Democratic NominationJAN. 30, 2016
Op-Ed Columnist: The G.O.P.’s Holy WarJAN. 30, 2016
Op-Ed Columnist: Trump, Sanders and the Revolt Against DecadenceJAN. 30, 2016
Op-Ed Columnist: Here’s the Beauty of TrumpJAN. 30, 2016
But the largest difference between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders is not over policy. (I should note that my spouse works on the technology team for the Clinton campaign, but is not involved in policy.) There is scant daylight between them on most issues and certainly almost all of the causes near and dear to Democrats’ and progressives’ hearts. The largest difference, and therefore what the Democratic Party is truly grappling with, is not about two different visions of the party. The choice is between two theories of change. It’s the difference between working the system and smashing it.
Mr. Sanders is promising to get a lot done: tuition-free college, breaking up the largest banks, health care for all, a $15 minimum wage, even guaranteed vacation time. None of these ideas have much salience among Republican lawmakers, and he doesn’t appear to be the kind of messenger who might inspire them to give in.
But these aren’t just empty postures for Mr. Sanders. He promises that as president he would bring them about through what he’s calling “political revolution.” The idea is that his campaign will be so inspirational to voters, particularly young people and others who might not otherwise vote, that they will not just sweep him into office. They’ll vote out intransigent Republicans and usher in a wave of legislators who will help enact his agenda. “The only way we can get things done is by having millions of people coming together,” he explained at the first Democratic debate in October.
He also promises to get things done because he is relying mostly on small-dollar contributions, so he wouldn’t be beholden to the moneyed interests that he believes are poisoning the current political system. In his view, it’s so corrupt that it basically needs to be scrapped for something better. “I believe that the power of corporate America, the power of Wall Street, the power of the drug companies, the power of the corporate media is so great that the only way we really transform America and do the things that the middle class and working class desperately need is through a political revolution,” he said at that first debate.
He made this even clearer in the most recent debate, claiming that the problem is not that “Republicans and Democrats hate each other,” which he says is a myth. The real issue, he says, is that “Congress is owned by big money and refuses to do what the American people want them to do.”
Continue reading the main story
Continue reading the main story
Mr. Sanders is reacting to a reality: Researchers have found that when the wealthy or organized interest groups — like banks or pharmaceutical companies — support a particular policy, there’s a strong likelihood that they will get their way. But when average citizens support something, they wield virtually no influence over lawmakers. Plenty of other studies have also found that government is far more attuned to the desires of the rich than those of the poor or middle class.
Still, Mr. Sanders’s revolution is somewhat far-fetched. Republicans currently control both houses of Congress, and Democrats’ chances of retaking both are pretty narrow. It would require an enormous mobilization to usher veto-proof majorities into both bodies. And even if that did happen, there is no guarantee that those majorities would all agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Sanders.
If Mr. Sanders embodies idealism, then Mrs. Clinton is pragmatism incarnate. Mrs. Clinton’s message of how to get things done takes the lessons of President Obama’s eight years in office — that Republicans will mostly unite against anything, even policies that they once supported — and, rather than change the system, she promises to work it. At the same early debate where Mr. Sanders explained his revolution, Mrs. Clinton was asked if she was a progressive. “I’m a progressive,” she responded. “But I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”
Part of that is continuing Mr. Obama’s practice, most evident in his second term, of calling for Congress to pass legislation while taking executive action when Congress stalls. On issues ranging from gun control to marijuana regulation to corporate tax policy, she has released policies that she would like to see enacted alongside outlines of executive action she would take on her own without Congress.
This approach is also reacting to a truth: The Republicans who control Congress have made a dramatic shift rightward. The body is extremely polarized, and according to some analysis, the G.O.P. is more conservative than it has been in a century. It’s all but inevitable that on the big policies that both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders agree the country needs to enact, a Republican-controlled Congress — or even one with partial Republican control — won’t lift a finger to help pass sweeping legislation. In its place, Mrs. Clinton promises to at least notch small victories on her own.
Executive action, though, comes with risks: What one president puts in place the next can undo, as can the courts. And focusing on the incrementally doable and pragmatic can mean losing sight of what might someday be possible. If a politician is too afraid to push for what she truly believes should happen, because it’s impractical, she won’t pry open the window of what could become be perfectly acceptable. What’s radical today can lose its edge the more it leaks into political discourse. But first it has to be leaked.
Here is a partial list of the policies that Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders largely agree on: The country should have paid family leave; the minimum wage should be substantially increased; college students shouldn’t have to take on so much debt; parents need more affordable, quality child care and preschool options; Wall Street needs further reforms; health care should be universal; the wealthy should pay substantially more in taxes. Many of these are new policies even for Democratic presidential candidates. Despite using the socialist label, Mr. Sanders sounds a lot like many prominent Democrats. Mrs. Clinton is a tried and true liberal.
The true contrasts are between what they want and what’s being proposed among Republicans, who want to hand tax cuts to the wealthy, repeal the Affordable Care Act and block most of what Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders support. Once the general election campaign begins, it will truly be a choice between clashing worldviews. Until then, Democratic primary voters are deciding between two theories of how to get things done.