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. 

8 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Very provocative post! I have two cautions:

    1. The tossup/leaning calculus seldom models the turnout variable effectively. This is a volatile factor that depends upon the performance of institutions which are largely invisible to the forecasters. A small change in turnout alters the results dramatically. If Democrats can re-energize progressive farm groups and motivate students on campuses in red areas, Republican strategies fail.

    2. Bernie has plenty of experience with Republicans outside of Vermont!

    February 1, 2016 at 9:06 AM

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  3. You have forgotten the formation of a Presidential Cabinet. Bernie Sanders will appoint an attorney general who, under existing laws, will prosecute Wall Street crooks.

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  4. I'm a bit surprised you talk so much about the importance of winning reelection, but never mention what may be the biggest difference between the two candidates on that front: Sanders is substantially more likely to die or have a serious illness during his first term (he's 6 years older than Clinton and he's male). If you really put such a strong emphasis on winning reelection in 2012, then it seems to me that this point alone should make you vote for Clinton.

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  5. Can't forget about appointments (executive and judicial). Bernie would likely be more progressive on many of those than Hillary.

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  6. one other thing to remember- everyone has been saying that Bernie has pushed Hillary to the left on issues(TPP, KXL, Wall St reform, etc,) so what's to stop her from returning to her original equilibrium if she gets in to the office? pressure from the people?
    if we get Bernie in office and *don't* take back both houses, Congress will get heat from the top *and* the bottom. if we get Hillary we'll need to pressure both Congress *and* the WH in that case

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  7. I always enjoy reading your opinions on things, Neil:) Did you watch the debate tonight? I think Sanders has the YouTube generation because the kids don't like scripted people. And "reality" TV explains Trump pretty well, too. Technology and cultural shifts are huge players in this election and I don't hear many people mentioning that.

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  8. I always enjoy reading your opinions on things, Neil:) Did you watch the debate tonight? I think Sanders has the YouTube generation because the kids don't like scripted people. And "reality" TV explains Trump pretty well, too. Technology and cultural shifts are huge players in this election and I don't hear many people mentioning that.

    ReplyDelete

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