An Important Consolation for Sanders Supporters

by Neil H. Buchanan

I do not generally think of myself as being in the prognostication business, but it turns out that I do often write down what amounts to predictions.  "If Congress does this, then the following good or bad things will happen."  "President Obama's decision on that other issue will have no effects one way or the other."  And, in my economist mode: "Given what we now know, the economy will tank within the year."

Sometimes these predictions are right, and sometimes I am wrong.  (On the economy, I tend to be very pessimistic -- or, to paraphrase Paul Samuelson's line from a famous Newsweek column, I have successfully predicted nine out of the last five recessions.)  I have rarely been as off-base, however, as I was on March 1 of this year, which was Super Tuesday.  In an essay that was mostly about Donald Trump's dishonesty and the Republican Party's dysfunction, I took only a few moments to comment on the much-more-predictable Democratic race:
"This year's Super Tuesday primaries will surely play out as planned on the Democratic side.  Bernie Sanders will not drop out tomorrow, but it is at this point all but impossible to imagine anyone but Hillary Clinton as the Democratic Party's ultimate nominee.  From this day forward, Clinton will be trying not to alienate Sanders's supporters, instead looking for ways to harness their enthusiasm for November, even as she cruises to victory.  The only interesting question left for Democrats is the choice of Clinton's running mate."
As Rick Perry would say, "Oops."  Although Clinton's big win earlier this week in New York removed all doubt about her eventual nomination, she has hardly been cruising.  Moreover, my supposition that Clinton would be spending the remainder of the primary season playing nice with Sanders and his supporters has turned out to be spectacularly wrong.  The campaign has become flat-out nasty on both sides, and I can only imagine that Clinton dreams of the day when the news cycle turns to her choice of a nominee for Vice President.

Based on everything that I have read, both the Clinton and Sanders camps think that their opponents are to blame for the unpleasantness.  Like everyone, I have my opinions about who is more to blame, but that is not ultimately very important.  I am, however, surprised by the intensity of the vitriol, because I do not see a big enough gap between the two candidates' substantive views to justify what we are seeing, and because neither candidate seemed inclined to be gratuitously negative when this all began.

To be clear, I would choose Clinton to be the party's nominee.  I say this not only with some reluctance, but with a genuine sense of surprise.  I have long been a critic of Bill Clinton's triangulating presidency, along lines similar to those that Sanders has been repeating during this campaign, and I have also worried that Hillary Clinton would be an even more enthusiastic triangulator than her husband.  If anyone was going to embrace a non-Clinton candidate in this year's race, it should have been me.

Moreover, the Sanders policy agenda is largely my policy agenda.  Attacking inequality (tax the rich, increase the minimum wage, and so on), criticizing big money in politics, supporting funding for higher education, reining in Wall Street, enacting single-payer health care, and opposing military interventions?  Sign me up!

True, I have criticized Sanders for playing footsie with the Rand Paul anti-Federal Reserve crowd.  (Professor Dorf and I co-authored a column on the Huffington Post on that subject, summarizing an argument that we have laid out in a forthcoming law review article.)  But as a statement of policy aspirations, Sanders should be an easy choice for a progressive like me.

Unlike the progressives who have gone with Sanders, however, I have been unable to convince myself that his candidacy would be good for the Democratic Party or for liberalism in general.  His answer to the question, "How will you get anything done?" is always, "We need a political revolution in this country."  Yes, we do, but it is not happening this year, and if Republicans win the White House and/or maintain control of the Senate, things will become much worse than they would under a Hillary Clinton presidency.

I actually can imagine Sanders winning in a general election (especially given his possible opponents), but even if he did, I think he would make it much less likely that the Democrats could re-take the Senate.  One of the key races is in Ohio, which has one of the Republican incumbents who is trying to position himself as a moderate who is out of step with the Trump/Cruz party.  Senator Portman would dearly love to be able to say, "We might have a socialist president!  Vote for me to keep him in check.  And remember, I support gay marriage, so I must not be a typical Republican."

That is purely a political calculation, and I might be as wrong about that as I was in predicting a post-Super Tuesday era of good feeling among Democrats.  On the substance of policy, however, I am genuinely concerned about Sanders.  Although I am strongly put off by Paul Krugman's tone, there is much to be said for Krugman's claim that Sanders does not really have much to say beyond his slogans.  There has been a nasty spat among establishment and non-establishment economists regarding the plausibility of Sanders's economic forecasts, and I am again surprised to find myself agreeing with the establishment economists when they say that Sanders is being far too optimistic.  (I would support the policies under more plausible forecasts, but I do object to Sanders's implausible claims.)

As a positive matter, I now think that there is reason to think that Clinton has changed her views in ways that I can confidently support.  She is appropriately being called out for her views in the past, and I am glad that she is not getting a free pass.  But the upside of criticism is supposed to be that the person who is being criticized is able to respond and update her views as appropriate.  And Clinton's current views are -- quite sensibly -- not the same as her views twenty years ago.

Again, I say none of this with naive faith.  Clinton comes with a lot of baggage, and I understand why many people have the uneasy sense that she will change her views again in the future.  Even if I am wrong in warily supporting Clinton, however, the fact is that she is going to be the nominee.  And at this point, there seems to be genuine uncertainty about whether Sanders's supporters will be able to support Clinton in the general election.  I honestly do not see why.

"The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore" has become a gathering place for Hillary Hate from the left.  Last night, for example, the discussion panel included Susan Sarandon, whose left-leaning views reasonably drew her to Sanders in this campaign.  But the acrid ugliness of her remarks was astounding.  Even Rory Albanese, the head writer for the show who has made his distaste for Clinton abundantly clear for months, ended up feeling compelled to challenge Sarandon and the others, asking if they would really say that they would let a Republican win rather than Clinton.

At this stage of the process, of course, emotions are still running high.  Sanders's supporters have not had time to process the end of their dream.  It seems very likely that most of them will be able to come around and deal with harsh reality, when the time comes.  The Clinton people have thus far not done themselves any favors in trying to smooth that transition, and lingering anger from their attacks on Sanders might well cause many of his people to sit on their hands, but much of the current ugliness is surely a passing moment.

There is, moreover, a paradoxical silver lining for the young people in whose hearts Bernie Love so understandably bloomed.  (Aren't mixed metaphors fun?)  The Obama years demonstrated what happens when we get excited about transformative leaders.  Obama was actually, as I have argued many times, a Clintonian triangulator extraordinaire.  On economic policy in particular, he disappointed over and over again.  The problem is that he was viewed as a genuine liberal, giving Republicans the opportunity to block his initiatives and then to say that every disappointing thing that has happened in the past seven years is proof of The Failure of Liberalism.

Hillary Clinton is not running as a transformative, revolutionary politician.  She is trying to make a virtue of incrementalism, and as far as it goes, I think she makes a good case.  But everyone knows that she (like any Democratic president) will face intransigent opposition from Republicans.  When things fail, it will be because -- and everyone will know that it is because -- Clinton could not get the Republicans to budge.

To put it differently, the only surprises during a Clinton presidency will be upside surprises.  She will likely accomplish a few things that progressives will like, but not many.  What she will not do is tarnish progressivism, because Sanders's candidacy has made it crystal clear that she is not a progressive.  Unlike Obama, Clinton cannot be held up as proof of a lie, because unlike Obama, Clinton's election will not have been built upon an unfulfillable dream of transformation.

Hillary Clinton will preside over something that is much better than any Republican alternative, and more importantly, any failures on her watch will not undermine the longer-term changes that Sanders and his backers support.  The country (and, it turns out, the Democratic Party) is not yet ready for what Bernie Sanders supports, but it will get there.

The best that we can do now is to get from point A to point B.  As uninspiring as it might sound, being the candidate who promises to be as good as the moment allows (and nothing more) is often exactly what we need.  Hillary Clinton is that candidate.