Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Sanders, Clinton, and the Agonizing Process of Deciding Which One to Vote For

In 2008, I voted for Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the New York primary. It was a decision I couldn't help second guessing in subsequent years, as Obama floundered amidst Republican opposition. My mother had been right; he didn't have the experience for the job.

I wondered if Clinton would have done better, and hoped that she would run in the future so I could find out. Now that has happened, and yet I find I'm strongly drawn to Bernie Sanders in much the way I was to Obama. I have to wonder; if I follow my heart, am I going to regret it a second time?


Clinton seemed terrific when she was first lady, smart and progressive, but as my senator she was suspect, displaying a mushy moderation that suggested she was more into positioning herself than changing the world. Then she voted in favor of a preemptive war in Iraq, which meant, I thought, that she was either too stupid to recognize the Bush administration's bullshit (detailed in the run-up to the war by the progressive press) or was simply taking a spineless, politically advantageous position.

Obama had been against that war. He also promised that his universal health plan wouldn't include a requirement that people buy health insurance; as someone who couldn't afford insurance, I was worried about facing fines. He spoke beautifully and offered a vision of a better, more hopeful world.

Unlike his most ardent fans, I never expected Obama to turn the U.S. into a progressive paradise. He was, after all, a politician, and bound to break the hearts of true believers. But I was still hugely disappointed by his meekness; he seemed the sort who would bring Roberts Rules of Order to a knife fight.


So here we are again. A man full of fire and fury, promising great things that might be impossible, versus a far more experienced woman who voted for a terrible war and offers less ambitious but far more concrete plans.

For a lot of people, it's an easy decision. Either Sanders is an impassioned visionary who will lead a modern revolution and Clinton is a corrupt hack with no principles who will hand the country over to the billionaire class, or Clinton is a brainy progressive feminist with deep experience whose realpolitik approach will move us forward while Sanders is an unelectable, impractical gadfly whose nomination is a Republican wet dream.

What I see are two smart, progressive, and imperfect candidates, either of which would be a million times preferable to even the least crazy Republican. Philosophically, Bernie is almost a perfect match for me, a fellow progressive who looks at enlightened Scandinavian countries and asks, why can't we do that? But as annoying as practical considerations are, they cannot be avoided. I have to ask, which candidate is more likely to win the election, and which candidate, if elected, is more likely to accomplish good things? Also, which candidate is more likely to royally screw up?


Electability is a big consideration when choosing a nominee, and in a normal political environment, electability would be Clinton's best friend. She is better known than Sanders, with more political experience. Sanders is an elderly agnostic Democratic Socialist; which normally would make him the most unelectable candidate in the world.

But let's face it, this is a weird year. Voters are sick of a political system that doesn't work and seems custom made for a wealthy elite. The Republican nominee is likely to be Donald Trump, a no-nothing blowhard with a frightening ability to sucker people in with his big daddy authoritarian promises and his constant lies and policy shifts.

Against Trump, Hillary is certainly the adult in the room, and in a sane country where voters want the reasonable, thoughtful candidate over the ticking time bomb, she could easily beat him. But in a year where people are obsessed with "authenticity," and shooting from the hip, Clinton's carefully triangulated positions and coziness with Wall Street  are more damaging than in a typical year. And her history of Republican-manufactured scandals has given her low trustworthy ratings with voters (I'm not saying that's fair, since all the problems I have with her are not the problems the Republicans have created, but it's still a consideration).

Sanders seems better positioned to beat Trump at his own game, out-shouting him, mocking his stupidity, while also being blindingly smarter than him. If people really want big changes, Sanders versus Trump offers a clear-cut choice. Sanders could win over Trump-ites, although the be fair, the reverse may be true as well; a lot of voters seem to just want to disrupt the system but aren't that picky about how it's done.

While Clinton's downside is that she has been softened up by years of molehills turned into mountains by the right, Sanders' downside is he hasn't experienced any real attacks at all. The Democrats' primary campaign has been pretty civilized. While the candidates are increasingly snippy, there is no real mud-slinging - no questioning of citizenship, no spousal slams, no mocking of physical attributes. I don't think he's even been attacked all that hard for saying up front he's going to raise taxes (claiming this will be balanced out by health insurance savings) which he would get slaughtered with in a general election.

What happens when Sanders gets into a savage knife fight with someone like Trump or Cruz? Does Sanders have any terrible skeletons in his closet? I doubt it. Can the Republicans create one? Sure. These are the people who used John Kerry's military heroism against him. Can Sanders withstand the tremendous heat? We don't know. We know Hillary can; she's been living on the sun for years.

Of course, the increased polarization of the electorate means the candidates might barely matter at all, because almost all the Democrats and Republicans will vote for their party, even if they hate the candidate. This gives the final decision to those freakishly unpredictable independents. In this case, enthusiasm and getting out the base is really important, and Sanders seems to have the edge there.

It is also possible that either candidate will win in a landslide due to a third-party candidacy for the conservatives if Trump is the nominee or a third-party run (or just a lot of sniping) from Trump if he isn't. Although things could get patched up with a Cruz-Trump ticket, which would be ... interesting.


Then there's the question of who can get more done.

Think of it this way. You have a stone quarry in the middle of a swamp, and you would like the stones mined, carried to a faraway hill, and built into a mansion. One contractor tells you it's impossible, but she can get enough stones to the edge of the swamp to build a decent, reasonably dry home, and maybe you can build a better house later. She has detailed  blueprints.

The other contractor says he will build that mansion on a hill, guaranteed. He will move heaven and earth to make it happen. He has a bunch of notes on post-its.

If she's right then voting for him will get you a bunch of stones littered along the path to the hill. But if she's wrong, you're living by the side of the swamp when you could have one hell of a view.

Who do you hire?

The pro-Clinton argument is simply that she knows how to work the levers of power. She knows how to deal, how to compromise, knows when to hold them and knows when to fold them.

She will build on what's here. She will tweak Obamacare, trying to get it closer to what it should be. She will try and push through a few more financial regulations. She will navigate the treacherous path. She will be sensible

But she'll never even try for the mansion on the hill. She doesn't believe in it.

Neither did Obama. He always started with a reasonable position, something centrist and practical that deserved wide support, and then was slapped down by Republicans who painted his most modest proposals as the works of a wild-eyed, America-hating Muslim anarchist.

Obama tried to be reasonable, and that failed because the other side was unreasonable. Sanders would not make that mistake. He would make huge progressive proposals. And while he might not get free college or a single-payer system, not starting at the center could be a powerful negotiating tactic.

What worries me about Sanders is that when asked how he will bring these miracles to pass, he says we need people to rise up, we need a revolution. But how does that happen? Politicians casually ignore what the majority want (better gun control laws, for example) in favor of what donors and lobbyists want. Even if Sanders could get people to demand the same things he demands (and this country is so polarized that this is unlikely), politicians entirely concerned with their own little gerrymandered districts are not going to join the Sanders revolution. This is a big, unwieldy country; it can only turn so sharply.

Still, Ronald Reagan created a pretty major shift in this country, and if Sanders can't turn the U.S. into Denmark, he could still, in theory, push it as far left as Reagan pushed it right.

Sanders is worrisomely vague about how he's going to pay for everything. He claims that his policies will lower health costs and improve the economy, and if that's true then we might be able to afford Sanders' big dreams. But what is the difference between Sanders' claims and those of Republicans who say if they cut taxes on the rich the economy will improve so much that the government will have more money than ever?

Once again though, the point may be trivial; if Republicans keep control of congress, neither Sanders nor Clinton is going to get anything done. The Republicans are perfectly happy to obstruct the government forever if need be. The stones will never be mined, the house never built. The contractor won't matter.

On the other hand, if Democrats get control of both the house and the senate, Sanders' big dreams could make a better country than Clinton's little ones.


Presidents can do a lot of damage. George W. Bush managed to tank the economy, plunge us into war and destabilize the mid-east. Bill Clinton pushed through laws that vastly increased the racial disparity in prison populations. 

I'm on the fence in terms of Clinton's electability and her efficacy, but I am far more worried about her capacity to screw things up. Because while Clinton's supporters offer her vast foreign policy experience as a positive, it is what worries me most.

First off, she voted for the Iraq war. At the time, I saw that as pure politically expediency, but it could also represent her general inclination to muck around in other countries and hope for the best. After all, she lobbied for regime change in Libya, which just further messed up the midle east.

I strongly believe in Obama's foreign policy tenet: don't do stupid shit. The history of U.S. foreign policy is the history of screwing up other countries, breaking their governments and alienating their citizens. Clinton, alas, has the interventionist mindset that leads to doing stupid shit, sometimes for very noble reasons. Obama gets a lot of grief because he realizes that America cannot remake the world; Clinton doesn't seem to get that.

I don't think Sanders wants to recreate the world in America's image. I don't think he's interesting in nation building. My feeling about Sanders lack of foreign policy experience is best summed up by the satirical op-ed, Sorry Bernie Bros, Your Candidate Just Doesn’t Have The Foreign Policy Experience Necessary To Prop Up A Pro-Western Dictatorship.  

The danger of Sanders is the danger of  unintended consequences. The more powerful the pill, the bigger the side effects. The more radical the change, the greater the unpredictable ripple effects. Sanders' sweeping proposals are tricky. A $15 minimum wage in Los Angeles is likely to affect the local economy differently than in Podunk, Idaho. Sanders could find himself spending an entire term trying to make one change work the way he expected it to. It's a sizable risk.


Sanders versus Clinton is not an exact repeat of Obama versus Clinton. Sanders has more experience in government than Obama had in 2008 and he's a far more progressive candidate. But once again I find myself torn between a candidate whose positions are appealing but whose practicality is suspect and a shifting compromiser who has a plan for getting things done but may not want to do the things I want her to. 

Maybe I was wrong to vote for Obama in 2008, but maybe I wasn't. Could Hillary really have done any better against the anarchists of the Republican party? We'll find out if she becomes president, and then I might be able to decide whether my Obama vote was a mistake. But I'll probably never know for sure whether Bernie or Hillary was the right candidate for 2016. All I know for certain is, whatever happens, I'll always wonder about the path not taken.