What Bernie Should Seek and What Hillary Should Give, Part 1: Policy

by Michael Dorf

Although Bernie Sanders has not officially endorsed Hillary Clinton, his recent statements clearly indicate that he understands that she will be the Democratic nominee. Nonetheless, coming into the convention with a large number of delegates, Sanders wants to use his leverage to influence the general election campaign, how Clinton governs if elected, and the rules for future presidential elections. In this post, I'll explore questions of policy. In Part 2 on Monday, I'll tackle the process questions for future presidential nominations.

In some sense, what we are now facing is a very standard scenario. A candidate who is farther to the left than the nominee (or to the right when we're talking about the GOP) hopes to use whatever leverage he has to pull the nominee closer to his position; the nominee wants to give enough to the runner-up to appeal to the runner-up's primary supporters, without moving so far from the center as to undermine her ability to "pivot" to attract centrist voters. Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, is to the left of Clinton on a variety of domestic and foreign policy issues, and so this dynamic looks familiar, at least superficially. And yet, closer scrutiny reveals that the Sanders-Clinton configuration is highly unusual, in a way that ought to make it relatively easy for them to come together on most policy questions.

For most of the primary season, polls showed that Sanders would do better than Clinton against any possible Republican nominee. It was not clear whether these polls were truly predictive, however. Whereas Clinton was a very well-known entity whose high negatives were driven partly by two and a half decades of Republican attacks, Sanders was relatively unknown. It was easy to imagine that if Sanders got the nomination he would be mercilessly red-baited by the GOP nominee, surrogates, and super PACs.

Maybe it would have worked; maybe it wouldn't have. But the key point is that what might have driven Sanders down would have been his past positions and the label "socialist," not the policies that he has been espousing during the campaign: skepticism of various free-trade agreements; much greater government financial support for higher education; single-payer health insurance; a higher minimum-wage; and greater reluctance to use force in foreign affairs. Although I have been skeptical of facile comparisons of Sanders to Trump, there is substantial overlap there, and the seemingly amazing fact is that these pretty clearly left-of-center policies are quite popular, not just among the core Democratic constituencies but even among many people who identify as Republicans.

Thus, by moving to the left on most of the issues Sanders cares about, Clinton could actually increase her appeal to Sanders supporters and to independents and some Republicans. What we have discovered in this primary season is that on areas of seeming bipartisan consensus--such as free trade and relative hawkishness on foreign policy--leading elected officials for both parties are to the right of the electorate as a whole. Accordingly, Clinton should be able to move closer to positions Sanders has espoused without fear of losing support from general-election voters.

And indeed, to some extent that has already happened. Sanders supporters might worry that Clinton only moved to the left to win the primaries in a classic example of a Democratic candidate running to the left in the primaries, then pivoting to the center or right for the general, and in a normal election year, that would be a fair worry. But if Clinton's team is savvy, they will realize that there is no downside to sticking with positions she may have taken simply to appeal to the Democratic primary electorate.

With respect to trade, one worry is that by moving closer to the Sanders position Clinton could lose the support of Republicans who are alienated by Trump's much more extreme anti-trade proposals. But this seems like a small effect. Decent Republicans who can't vote for Trump because he is a racist authoritarian are not going to turn around and vote for him because Clinton's trade policy inches a little closer to Trump's.

The bigger worry for the Sanders crowd should be that while Clinton might campaign in the general as a free-trade skeptic, once in office she'll be pro-free-trade agreements. This is indeed a real worry. Clinton's current views on trade could well be opportunistic. Like Obama and Bill Clinton, she probably does favor free-trade agreements, even when they lead to harm to various domestic industries, because she believes that they benefit the U.S. economy on net.

Yet, as Professor Buchanan has explained, much of our public debate about trade rests on the completely false notion that there is such a thing as "free trade." When one properly understands the differences between Sanders and Clinton as matters of emphasis and degree, it becomes clear that it would be hard to predict exactly which trade policies each would favor and oppose. To the extent that, other things being equal, Clinton's policy preferences would more often incline her to support a free trade agreement than would Sanders's policy preferences, that's a reason for Sanders to use his leverage for trade policy.

On most of the other issues that Sanders holds dear, he probably doesn't need to do very much asking. That's because on such matters as raising the minimum wage and expanding Medicare, Clinton already agrees (or will agree after thinking things through) that the Sanders proposals are good policies and good politics.

The one significant exception is foreign policy. Clinton really is much more of an interventionist than Sanders. In the general, she will emphasize her experience and the fact that Trump could easily start a shooting war because of a personal insult. But once in office, there could arise circumstances in which Clinton would be quicker to use force than Sanders would.

I don't see a good way for Sanders to use his leverage for a more dovish foreign policy. Perhaps his surrogates could get some language inserted in the party platform about the importance of moving U.S. foreign policy on the Middle East to be more critical of Israeli policy, which would be a symbolic victory for some Sanders supporters, but with the exception of briefly misstating the Palestinian death toll in the last Israel-Gaza war, the actual positions taken by Sanders on the Israel/Palestine conflict are not very different from those promoted by both Bushes, Obama, and both Clintons. Compromise language could likely be found for the platform, but this would not have any impact on the conduct of U.S. foreign policy more broadly.