The Case for Sanders (or Warren)

by Michael C. Dorf

As we wait for the Iowa Democratic Party to release the results of yesterday's caucuses, it is worth recalling that, whatever those results, nearly all of the Democratic delegates remain to be chosen. Even folks like me who don't vote until the New York primary on April 28 could still end up playing a role in selecting the party's nominee.

Suppose you are the sort of voter whose top priority is selecting a candidate with the best chance of defeating Donald Trump in November. You might think that you have no good way to know who that is, so you'll simply vote for whichever candidate among those who have a shot at the nomination you think would make the best president. In making that kind of choice, you would want to consider both personal style--Who would be best in a crisis? At managing the executive branch? Etc.--and the significant differences of policy among the remaining candidates.

Policy differences would need to be discounted somewhat by the fact that many of the proposals of the various candidates would need to get through Congress, so the difference between, say, Medicare-for-all right away, Medicare-for-all phased in over a period of years, and a public option for all who want it could end up being mere differences in starting points for a negotiation, rather than ultimate differences. Still, where a candidate starts probably has some correlation with where she or he ends up.

But policy differences also may be important with respect to electability. In this column, I'll explain why I think a candidate from the progressive lane (Sanders or Warren) has an electability advantage over a candidate from the centrist lane (Biden, Buttigieg, or Klobuchar, or whatever menu survives the winnowing of the early-state contests), with a special caution at the end about Bloomberg.

Conventional wisdom says that the choice between a centrist and a progressive trades off appealing to independents against mobilizing the base. If the conventional wisdom is correct, one would want to know which effect is larger. Accepting the conventional wisdom as a starting point, one might think that base mobilization is more important. After all, Hillary Clinton--the centrist in the 2016 race--suffered from lower turnout than Barack Obama four years earlier. But it's hard to say that her narrow Electoral College defeat was caused by her centrism. After all, Obama governed (and mostly campaigned) as a centrist. Depressed turnout in 2016 was due in substantial part to lower Black turnout for Clinton than for Obama and perhaps to some combination of Clinton's personal unpopularity and sexism. (Sexism was also a cause of some of her unpopularity.)

So one cannot say categorically that base mobilization is more important than appealing to independents based on one presidential election or even several, given how many moving pieces there are here. The conventional wisdom that a centrist appeals to independents and a progressive mobilizes the Democratic base seems like it's generally right, but how large each effect is in any given year will depend on a host of factors.

Moreover, while the conventional wisdom may be generally right, we have reason to think that we are in an era in which it should be doubted. The conventional wisdom is based on a model of politics as a one-dimensional left-right spectrum. That's always an over-simplification, because politics involves multiple issues. A candidate could be fiscally conservative and thus code as centrist in the Democratic Party but socially liberal and thus code as progressive. Etc. Still, in normal times, we might think that whether a candidate counts as progressive or centrist depends on a kind of weighted average of her or his views on a range of issues. My claim is that we are now in extraordinary times in which it is not even clear what counts as the conservative, centrist, and progressive position on various issues.

The point is easiest to see with respect to free trade. Since the early 1990s, the orthodox position in each major party has been pro-free-trade, but there is a dissident faction within each party as well. On the left, free-trade skeptics include a portion of organized labor and anti-globalization activists. On the right, free-trade skeptics also include a (disaffected) portion of organized labor along with nativists. The potential voters for a free-trade skeptic overlap the right and left, which is why Trump, sounding protectionist themes, picked up some of the same voters who went for Sanders in 2016.

If a challenge to free trade orthodoxy were the only place in which the "outsider" position is not clearly right or left, that would itself be significant, but free trade is just one site of a larger contest over the changing economy and demographics. It's easy to miss that fact by simply focusing on the US and treating the 2016 election as a perfect storm, combining idiosyncratic factors such as Clinton's historic unpopularity, the oddities of the Electoral College, Russians, the press's obsession with Clinton's emails, and James Comey. But seen in wider perspective, Trump is simply the local manifestation of right-wing populism in response to the perceived failure of neoliberalism, especially post-Great Recession. The Electoral College and those other local idiosyncrasies can explain Trump but not Brexit, Fidesz, Bolsonaro, AfD, and other manifestations of right-wing populism.

My hypothesis is that for left/liberal parties to defeat right-wing populists, they must offer programs and candidates who speak to the same concerns that the right-wing demagogues speak to. There is no guarantee that this approach will succeed. Demagogues have the advantage of being unconstrained by  the truth. And a progressive speaking to the concerns that drive right-wing populism must also craft an effective message and be an effective messenger.

A possibly useful cautionary tale here comes from the UK, where Labour was defeated badly in last year's election. Perhaps that defeat should dampen enthusiasm for any candidate who either calls himself or will be called "socialist" by opponents. But I tend to think not. For one thing, Jeremy Corbyn has a large share of haters in ways that seem more reminiscent of Hillary Clinton than of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or any of the current crop of Democrats. More importantly, despite being clearly a man of the left, Corbyn and Labour ran a Brexit-neutral campaign. On the signature issue of the day, in other words, Labour let the Tories occupy the anti-globalization field. Accordingly, I don't read the last few years of events in the UK as necessarily casting doubt on my hypothesis that a progressive who speaks to anxieties about globalization is the best hope of the Democrats to beat Donald Trump.

I close with a caveat and an extreme caution.

The caveat is that nothing I've said here necessarily reflects my substantive views. As a policy matter, my views on trade are generally positive. I favor free trade agreements with much more substantial environmental and labor protections than we typically see, but I do not support trade wars. In fairness, that might not even be any different from the official progressive position. E.g., Sanders says he wants to "Ensure that strong and binding labor, environmental, and human rights standards are written into the core text of all trade agreements." Likewise, Warren says she wants "to use our leverage to force other countries to raise the bar on everything from labor and environmental standards to anti-corruption rules to access to medicine to tax enforcement." In any event, whether or not I differ with the progressives on free trade, my analysis above is about the kind of candidate who is likely to win, not the substantive policy.

Finally, I come to my extreme caution. If I'm right about the need for a progressive candidate who speaks to the same anxieties that drive right-wing populism, then Mike Bloomberg would be a terrible nominee. He won't motivate the base and he won't appeal to the alienated voters who might be up for grabs. And the symbolism of his running as a billionaire--even against an incumbent who is also a billionaire--would be just awful. As I noted last week, Bloomberg's money could be helpful in the general election in support of the Democratic nominee, but he himself should not be that nominee.