Monday, February 22, 2016

Milennials support Bernie because of what they've seen, and what they haven't seen

Lots of people are trying to explain why millennials like Bernie Sanders so much. Some of the explanations are terrible. But the truth is simple. Democratic millennials and their elders are responding to what they've lived through in a rational and well-intentioned way.

The two most formative political events in millennials' lifetimes are the Iraq War and the global financial crisis. So it's no surprise that their favored candidate voted against the war and defines himself as an enemy of Wall Street. They're understandably skeptical of a candidate who supported the war for way too long and receives large donations from the financial services industry. And since the scary overseas enemy of their time was Islamic fundamentalism, not a radical left-wing government, they're not so hesitant to vote for a self-described socialist.

All of this is perfectly reasonable, especially regarding Hillary Clinton's longtime support for the Iraq War. Millennials are understandably astonished that the Democratic Presidential nomination might go to someone who voted for the greatest foreign policy catastrophe of their lifetimes and spent a decade claiming that it was the right thing to do. Someone like that could trundle along in a red-state Senate seat, but in a blue state constant primary challenges would be warranted. The networks of pro-war foreign policy advisors they bring with them need to be kept out of power. This is why I gave Mazie Hirono $1000 to keep Iraq War supporter Ed Case from getting the Democratic Senate nomination in Hawaii. Iraq War supporters who didn't recant quickly are a threat to us all.

As for the economic issues -- I'm not optimistic that Bernie will actually be able to achieve any of his economic agenda with a Republican House and if Chuck Schumer is Senate Democratic leader. But millennials are right to see him as an ally against the economic forces that ruined the economy just when they were looking for entry-level jobs. And with the Cold War 27 years dead, their view that a self-described socialist could become President isn't implausible.

Their elders remember Newt Gingrich's Republican Party seizing control of Congress in 1994. The Clinton White House held firm against him through a 22-day government shutdown and saved the majority of the American social welfare infrastructure that he was threatening. Bill Clinton won re-election, while Gingrich's career collapsed in a futile effort to impeach him. It's not that everything went perfectly -- welfare reform was a loss. But it's a small loss compared to the broad cuts in Medicare and other social programs that Gingrich wanted, and which a Republican President who won in 1996 would've supported.

The Clintons' victory against the Republicans under circumstances likely to resemble the next Presidential term provides the best reason for choosing Hillary to do the same job again. She may not have been President herself, but she was at the core of the White House decision-making process, and no possible candidate is more experienced than her at dealing with the political challenges we're going to face. With Congressional district maps squarely against us, it's essential that our nominee be able to play good defense all the way through re-election, and Hillary is our best pick for doing that.

There's much more than this, of course. The abuse hurled at Hillary over those years, from bizarre conspiracy theories that had her ordering assassinations to the brutish misogyny of Rush Limbaugh, created a deep bond between her and ordinary Democratic voters. I don't think that such bonds are a good basis for voting decisions, which is why I emphasize her role in operating the White House as the main argument for her. But the thing about millennials is that they're too young to remember any of this or have formed these bonds. The youngest voters in this election won't remember Bill Clinton winning an election, because they weren't alive the last time he did.

Born in 1980, I'm at the millennial / Gen-X cusp. (I identify more with millennial earnestness than Gen-X sarcasm.) I was very interested in politics during the Clinton years and followed the budget battles as closely as any high school kid could. From the perspective of the 1990s, I can feel good about putting Hillary Clinton in the White House. From the perspective of the Bush years, I feel much better about Bernie Sanders.

Ultimately, I expect that I'll make my best electability calculation when I vote on March 7, and decide on that basis. I don't know yet what the result of that calculation will be, and I'm still undecided. The Supreme Court situation raises the stakes, making any Democrat far superior to any Republican. But if this post leaves you with any insight on the Democratic primary, let it be this: whether you support Clinton or Sanders, the people on the other side are being more reasonable than they're getting credit for.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Why I'm undecided between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders

Democratic primaries usually motivate me to do things. I've donated thousands of dollars to left-wing Senate primary candidates in places like Hawaii where I've never lived, and I was a committed enough John Edwards supporter in 2007 that a staffer informally offered me a full-time job with the campaign. (Fortunately, I turned it down and finished my PhD.) But here I am on Iowa caucus day, undecided between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

If this were January 2008, I'd be all for Sanders. Democrats went into 2009 with control of the House and a large Senate majority. That's when you can pass big things, and health care reform was Democrats' biggest domestic policy achievement in several decades. It's exciting to think about what Sanders would've done, coming into the White House amidst a financial crisis, with big majorities in the House and Senate.

Sadly, a future President Sanders isn't going to end up signing anything remotely as significant as the Affordable Care Act. Because of gerrymandering and the tendency of Democrats to cluster in urban areas, Congressional district maps give Republicans an impenetrable House majority until 2022 when the next redistricting occurs. Without some way of taking the House, we can't pass anything for a very long time, and single-payer health care or anything like that which Bernie is advertising is impossible. (This also diminishes the importance of the few issues where Clinton is to Sanders' left, like guns and immigration.)

I should explain how I came to be so confident in Democratic inability to take the House over the next six years. A while ago I had an opportunity to talk to the woman who guided Democrats through the bipartisan Oregon redistricting that led to Democratic victories in the state legislature in 2012. It's a pretty awesome story. Republicans thought they'd win because the traditional PVI measure gave them an advantage in the redrawn districts. But Democrats were using her more sophisticated regression models. Democrats won.

I was excited to ask her about Democratic prospects in the House. She impressed on me that Republican state legislatures have drawn districts to ensure a basically impenetrable House majority. You're basically stuck trying to win over people who trust Fox News, and they think all your sensible ideas are actually about death panels. Genuinely progressive and capable Democratic candidates occasionally show up in these districts, and they lose. You can win if you're really good and your opponent has some big gruesome scandal, but that's what it takes, and then you usually lose re-election. Right now if Democrats win all the seats leaning towards them, all the tossup seats, and all the seats leaning Republican, they still don't take control of the House. The total number of likely or solid Republican seats is 220.

As David Roberts has written, what we face in Congress from 2017 onward is the endless trench warfare of budget battles, with an occasional break or two for a Supreme Court nomination. (That's if a Democrat wins. Let's not think about the other possibilities for now.) The most important progressive work of a Democratic administration will happen through deft use of executive power that circumvents Congress, and through slowly putting Democratic judges onto the bench so that change can follow the form of Roe v. Wade and Brown v. Board.

Above all, the major task of a Democrat who wins in 2016 will be winning re-election in 2020. Maybe then we can actually pass things in the 2023-2024 session after redistricting, if it goes our way. But with the Republican Party getting more and more extreme, we can't afford to have Ted Cruz 2.0 inaugurated in January 2021. So the most important objective of the next term is preventing that. I wish I could say that the most important thing about the Presidency was the power to make the world a better place, but it's not really that powerful an office on domestic matters unless it's aligned with Congress. If you're a Democratic president and Congress is run by this decade's Republicans, you've got to just keep them out of the White House by any means possible because otherwise they can smash everything.

The one area where a Democratic president will have a somewhat free hand is foreign policy. And here Bernie Sanders has a clear advantage over Hillary Clinton. Certainly, Hillary has more experience. The trouble is that a lot of it is experience making and defending the worst American foreign policy decision that happened in my lifetime: the decision to invade Iraq. Spend a decade defending that decision, and the other beliefs you'll form to stay consistent with it will end up being very bad.

Just so we're clear on what the problem is, let me concede that voting for the Iraq War in October 2002 was excusable, because the clear signs that Iraq posed no serious threat came afterwards. These include Colin Powell's nonsensical presentation and especially the things Hans Blix was telling us after being able to inspect Iraq as he liked. The responsible thing for a Democrat to do after voting for the war was to loudly criticize the rush to war in February or March 2003 when all these signs had appeared. Failing that, a clear public apology like that of Edwards in 2005 would be a step on the road to not making that kind of mistake in the future. But Hillary instead kept defending her decision even her rivals for the 2008 nomination were all making clear that it was a mistake. She apologized only in 2014, and remains one of the leading hawks in the Democratic Party to this day.

While I'll allow that there are some situations where it might be a good idea to use the American military, these are few enough that we're safer just saying no to war every time. Perhaps the lone case where America really screwed up by not deploying troops was Rwanda, but as Hillary was part of the White House that got that wrong, it's can't really be a point in her favor. I think it was the right decision to bomb Gadhafi's tanks on the way from Tripoli to their mission of slaughter in Benghazi, but then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates says she was largely responsible for stepping things up to the more dubious mission of regime change.

All in all, the upside of American military action is generally limited while the downside is massive. I'd rather have a pumpkin in charge of deciding to go to war than Hillary Clinton, because pumpkins lack agency and thus will never decide to go to war. The great virtue of Bernie Sanders is that he will more closely approximate the behavior of a pumpkin.

I should finish with some thoughts on which candidate is more likely to defeat the Republican in the presidential election. The crazier the Republican Party gets (we are now contemplating a Trump Administration) the more this issue matters. In a primary you aren't voting to make your candidate president. You're voting to give your candidate a x% chance of becoming president, where x% is the chance of your candidate beating the Republican. You're also voting to give the Republican a (100-x)% chance of being president, where that's the chance of the Republican beating your candidate. Do you want to give Donald Trump, or Ted Cruz, or even Marco Rubio's madly pro-Iraq-War foreign policy advisors a (100-x)% chance of controlling the US military and nuclear arsenal? If you don't, electability matters. So with the candidates looking like very different but equally desirable Presidents, I have to choose. And I really have no idea which candidate is more electable.

Many people deeply dislike Hillary Clinton, but most of them wouldn't vote for Democrats. Most of the others will cast a grudging vote for her when faced with a clearly horrible alternative. She'll lose a few that Sanders would've won, even to the worst Republican. But she's been on the inside of campaigns that beat Republicans in two Presidential elections, as well as statewide races in both Arkansas and New York. Just as she has the most White House experience of any candidate who hasn't been President or Vice President before, she has the most Presidential election experience of any candidate who hasn't held either office.

And here we come to Clinton's biggest advantage over Sanders: she was on the inside of a White House that decisively won re-election when faced with a Republican House and Senate in 1996. Since the most important thing a Democratic president will have to do is to prevent a Republican from winning the White House in 2020, that experience is incredibly important. The next six years are going to look a lot like the six years beginning in January 1995. I don't think everything went perfectly then -- I wish we could have welfare reform back. But the Clintons did a lot better than Gingrich and Dole did during that time, and that's the skill we need now.

Back to electability in 2016: I don't think it's a major problem that Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist. Just as the Republican Party has spent decades turning its faithful into Hillary haters, it's spent decades making them think every Democrat is a socialist, so that's just par for the course. Bernie's hatred of Wall Street burns brightly enough that most undecided voters will get the point: he self-describes with extreme words like 'socialist' because he hates the big money guys that much. And that's not bad. Current polls have him running ahead of Hillary in general election matchups. While he'll probably sag down to her level once faced with Republican attack ads, I don't think it's obvious that he'll do worse. And maybe he'll do better.

I see two problems with Sanders as far as winning elections are concerned. First, he has less experience going up against Republicans outside the cozy environment of Vermont. So he may make missteps that a more experienced candidate wouldn't. But I don't think this is a huge problem -- he hasn't been a gaffe-prone candidate up to this point, and he seems generally competent in managing a campaign. Second, and more importantly: he's built for actually making change happen and not for endless partisan slugfests over tiny things, which is impossible given Republican control of the House. So if he becomes president, he might not focus properly on all the trivialities that bump down his opponents' poll numbers and make 2020 an easier win. And with Republicans controlling the House, that approach is more suited to our times.

Strangely, the candidates' advantages are advantages of omission. Hillary is good at doing small stuff that hurts her opponents in the polls instead of pushing for big change, so she's likely to do a better job of winning re-election in a time when big change is impossible. Sanders is likely to make better foreign policy decisions because he's less likely to use the military, which is always a risky thing to do. Static times demand static candidates.

If I don't think either candidate is as awesome as their supporters think, I think they're better than their detractors think. Maybe I'll write more about that in the future. But if the the primary season keeps running, I'd like to hear more about things like which executive orders the candidates might issue. Small ways to eke out progress remain important when grand measures are impossible.