Is Tonight a Battle for the Future of the Democratic Party?

Of all the takes I’ve read so far about the stakes for tonight’s debate, by far the most sweeping–and at the same time, very precise–is from TNR’s Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, who says “it stands to predict not just the Democratic Party’s immediate future, but the future—if there is one—of the American left.”

Aside from that ominous final note, which she never explains, my immediate reaction to the Bruenig hypothesis (which limits its scope, BTW, to the Sanders/Clinton dynamic) was that this debate is more about the past of the Democratic Party than its future. For one thing, HRC is an early Baby Boomer while Bernie will almost certainly be the last presidential candidate to be born before Pearl Harbor. For another, HRC’s positives and negatives (from the perspective of Democrats) are all tied up in the ideologically controversial presidency of her husband and the only slightly less ideologically controversial presidency of the man who appointed her Secretary of State. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders’ most distinctive trait is that he never ever supported the New Democrat/Obama heresies against traditional liberalism on trade or budget or welfare or any other topic I can think of.

Even the epithets Sanders and Clinton supporters tend to call each other (“socialist” for the former and “corporate Democrat” for the latter) are largely a product of past intraparty battles. So I don’t know that what happens tonight or at any point in 2016 is necessarily a template for the partisan or ideological future.

On the other hand–Bruenig has an unusually narrow range of vision when it comes to how she looks at the issues that define the future: it’s all about means-tested versus universal social benefits.

Clinton’s approach is one way to think about benefits: as tightly limited programs of last resort for people in extreme circumstances. This is mostly the way we talk about benefits now, in the parlance of a “safety net” for the precariously balanced and fallen. In this vein of thought, it makes sense to limit benefits to the extremely needy and to impose terms even upon those benefits, so as to prevent dependency—since the point is, after all, eventually ending one’s use of benefits.

Then there is the other way of looking at benefits: the social-democratic way. In his 1990 book Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, Danish sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen described firstly the “‘liberal’ welfare state, in which means-tested assistance, modest universal transfers, or modest social-insurance plans predominate,” and “benefits cater mainly to a clientele of low-income, usually working-class, state dependents.” Then there is the social-democratic world, which consists of “a welfare state that would promote an equality of the highest standards, not an equality of minimal needs,” thus promising “that equality be furnished by guaranteeing workers full participation in the quality of rights enjoyed by the better-off.”

Perhaps Sanders in every circumstance insists that social benefits have to be universal; it would certainly reinforce his preference for single-payer health insurance over the partially means-tested Obamacare model. But it’s not really fair to suggest that HRC’s basic approach to social programs involves means-testing. As Bruenig herself notes, Clinton would not choose to means-test Social Security and Medicare (both, especially Medicare, are already partially means-tested in that both taxes and benefits depend to some extent on means). Bruenig hints that HRC is more likely to “cave” on GOP means-testing demands, but the crucial unasked question is compared to what?

And that’s the troubling issue with Bruenig’s whole construction, which is that progressives are free to choice whether they want universal or means-tested benefits. Indeed, the only political factor she is willing to consider is the tired old “poor people’s programs are poor programs” argument that universal benefits are stronger because more people benefit. Of course they are. But does that really mean, as Bruenig says, that the big defining issue for the future is whether Democrats and progressives prefer that “state benefits be big and strong, or small and weak?” Of course not, because that’s no choice at all.

It should be reasonably obvious if you think about it for a few moments that an absolute insistence on making every conceivable benefit universal means that everyone–including the very needy–will be denied benefits if they cannot–for fiscal or political reasons–be made universal. That creates a real dilemma and all sorts of strategic issues more complicated than a choice of the wise and progressive path of “the social democratic way” and the miserly and reactionary Clintonian approach. That should be the starting point for real debate on a subject that is indeed an ever-present issue for left-of-center Americans.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.