My Big Beef with Bernie
Sure, Bernie Sanders has some valuable things to say about the often-ignored structural forces that are accelerating longstanding negative trends in the United States: the shrinking of our middle class, the hardening of barriers to economic and social mobility, the growing chasm of income inequality, the slow evaporation of educational pathways to opportunity, and the discernable tilt of policymaking toward the economic and cultural interests of the wealthy and well-connected, who benefit from a system that feeds on their campaign cash and is populated by their socio-economic peers. With great vigor, he’s bringing to the fore issues championed by earlier presidential candidates like Bill Bradley, John Edwards, Howard Dean, Jerry Brown, Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy, and George McGovern — issues that, especially since the 2008 economic collapse, have become increasingly urgent to Democratic Party voters.
But when it comes to actually managing the Executive Branch of the federal government, making progress in a Washington dominated by hard-right Republican Congressional majorities, or advancing American interests in a challenging and unstable world, Bernie Sanders too often comes across as underprepared, lightly-informed, and uninterested in mastering the complex machinery of government and the vast matrices of interests that undergird the politics of our enormous and diverse republic. (See, e.g., the text or lowlights of his disastrous NY Daily News editorial board interview.) The narrowness and shallowness of his thinking is especially striking given that he’s spent 25 as a member of Congress.
Accordingly, I’m (1) glad Bernie Sanders is running for president, while (2) firmly backing Hillary Clinton as the superior candidate with the strongest package of values, policies, experiences, insights, instincts, and team. I highly respect Sen. Sanders and his supporters, but Hillary Clinton’s ability to join liberal aspirations with hard-headed pragmatism and technocratic skill makes her by far the better candidate. That’s my entirely unoriginal thinking, anyway.
Since it’s the eve of the New York State presidential primary, though, I’d like to advance one further argument that I think strongly counsels in favor of a vote for Hillary Clinton. It’s my Big Beef with Bernie: He just doesn’t care about the Democratic Party.
In 2016, the Democratic Party has gotten so weak at every level — federal, state and local — that we’re losing ground on policy even as the country is shifting left. State legislatures in every corner are passing draconian restrictions on abortion, legalizing anti-LGBT bigotry, disfiguring public school academic standards, hobbling the ability of unions to push for wage increases, loosening environmental protections. For progressive politics to achieve anything lasting, we need a revitalized Democratic Party, especially at the state and local levels, and Bernie Sanders is not the guy to lead that.
Beyond the presidency, the Democratic Party is, by most measures, weaker than it’s been in a long time.
No surprise here: I’m a huge fan of President Obama and believe he’s going to go down as one of our great Presidents. But I have to acknowledge that the years of his presidency have been a disaster for the Democratic Party at every other level. Some of that is the result of forces well beyond his control, but it’s also the case that he has not given a ton of priority —measured in time, effort, attention — to electing Democrats up and down the ticket. To be sure, he has done his share of raising money, hitting the campaign trail, proffering endorsements, etc. — but it seems clear that leading and rebuilding the Democratic Party as an institution hasn’t been atop his to-do list.
The numbers are, to use one of the President’s signature words, sobering. Since January 2009, Democrats have lost:
- More than 900 state legislative seats.
- 12 state governorships.
- 69 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
- 13 seats in the U.S. Senate.
According to Politifact: “Republicans now control about 56 percent of the country’s 7,383 state legislative seats, up 12 percentage points since 2009.”
To be fair, Ron Brownstein offers an accounting of losses that’s more generous to President Obama, using 2007 as a baseline thus giving him credit for the November 2008 wave that dramatically increased Democratic numbers in Congress, and finding his tenure comparable to Presidents Clinton, Bush II, and Eisenhower, at least at the federal level.
If you care about progressive policies, you should care about the state of the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party is the only viable, national party with an ability to turn progressive ideals into policy. If you care about expanding economic opportunity, improving public schools, upgrading the nation’s infrastructure, protecting the environment, expanding affordable housing, combating discrimination, improving public safety and policing, fostering entrepreneurship and small business, protecting women’s access to health care, forging energy independence through renewables, improving transportation systems, reforming immigration, caring for veterans, etc., the Democratic Party is the essential institution, at every level of electoral politics.
Particularly as the Republican Party has gone off the rails, the future of the country depends in no small measure on the vitality and competitiveness of the Democratic Party. (I should note that the Democratic Party I mean here is not the federal DNC, which has come to operate as an adjunct to presidential nominees’ campaigns, but the sprawling collection of state, county, and municipal party organizations.)
Because the national Democratic Party has historically been such a sprawling coalition of coalitions, ranging from urban to rural, left to right, social liberals to economic populists, the exact nature of Democratic Party varies widely from state to state, region to region. Some Democrats work on Wall Street, some are pro-life, some anti-nuclear, some pro-coal. The policy agenda of the Democratic Party is always open to contest. It’s entirely legitimate for Democrats to fight, through primary elections, conventions, party leadership positions, platform development processes, local club activism, and so on, to move the party left, right, or sideways. Insurgent campaigns are important, and the Democratic Party benefits from being open to them, win or lose. (Take it from me: my first paid job in politics was working for Paul Wellstone’s improbable, upstart, joyful 1990 Senate campaign.)
But all Democrats should recognize that persistent minority status across most of our state legislatures means that exactly none of our collective priorities will get achieved in those states. And it also means that our farm team of future candidates and leaders is smaller and less experienced than the Republicans’.
To achieve meaningful and lasting progressive change, we have to win back legislative, municipal, and gubernatorial majorities throughout every region; and to do that, the Democratic Party needs a leader — a president — who cares about restoring the institution’s long-term health and competitive viability at the state and local, as well as the federal, level.
Bernie Sanders is not a good bet to revitalize the Democratic Party.
To state the obvious: Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat. He has never been a Democrat. In fact, Bernie Sanders has spent his entire career in active, and often contemptuous, opposition to the Democratic Party as an institution, selling his refusal to join or assist it as a talisman of his independence.
To be sure, Sanders has caucused with the Democrats in the U.S. Senate, and he has occasionally endorsed and campaigned for individual Democratic candidates both in Vermont and elsewhere. But he has loudly and consistently, for more than 4 decades, heaped scorn on the Democratic Party as an institution.
Some sample quotes from across Sanders’s career:
“You don’t change the system from within the Democratic Party.”
“My own feeling is that the Democratic Party is ideologically bankrupt.”
“We have to ask ourselves, ‘Why should we work within the Democratic Party if we don’t agree with anything the Democratic Party says?’”
“I am not now, nor have I ever been, a liberal Democrat.”
“The main difference between the Democrats and the Republicans in this city is that the Democrats are in insurance and the Republicans are in banking.”
“I am not a Democrat, period.”
Compare that with one the more famous quotes from my old boss, the unimpeachably liberal Paul Wellstone of Minnesota:
“I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.”
Sen. Wellstone shared many progressive beliefs with Bernie Sanders (they had plenty of disagreements, too), but he recognized and embraced the Democratic Party as the indispensable institution in the political fight for progress, and committed himself to working for it, as well as agitating within it.
Bernie Sanders might be a great president, he might be a debacle, but he absolutely will not be a president who works tirelessly to reinvigorate the Democratic Party from city council to the Senate.
That’s my Big Beef with Bernie, and, I think, one more compelling reason to vote for Hillary Clinton in tomorrow’s primary.