How a Democratic president will deal with an intractable opposition fueled by a base committed to insurgency is an important question to ask. To simply critique Bernie Sanders’ proposals on the grounds that they’d never get through Congress is to ignore the question of whether Hillary Clinton’s agenda would fare any better. That can lead some people to suggest that the differences in what they are proposing don’t matter.
But in many quarters, it is raising the whole question about each candidate’s theory of change. What is interesting is how each side is laying claim to President Obama’s view. As I wrote yesterday, Sanders’ approach is to lead a revolution in which millions of Americans rise up to combat the influence of big money that he sees as the obstacle to change. For a lot of people, that is reminiscent of Barack Obama’s “hope and change” campaign in 2008.
On the other hand, Hillary Clinton is cast as the competent pragmatic incrementalist. I am reminded of how Mark Schmitt described her back in 2007 when he analyzed the various candidate’s theories of change.
I imagine her negotiating the fine points of a health care bill, having mastered every lesson from 1993 and every detail, and getting Senators McConnell and Grassley in the room, and them walking out having agreed to something they barely understand.
As I have noted before, that is exactly what President Obama did to Republicans in the negotiations over the FY2011 budget. The President leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind about his commitment to incrementalism. Here’s what he told Marc Maron about that:
It’s like steering an ocean liner and making a 2 degree turn so that 10 years from now we’re suddenly in a very different place. You can’t turn 50 degrees all at once because that’s not how societies – especially democracies – work. As long as we’re turning in the right direction and we’re making progress, government is working like its supposed to.
It is interesting to note that one of the people making the case for the likelihood of incremental vs revolutionary change is Paul Krugman.
The point is that while idealism is fine and essential — you have to dream of a better world — it’s not a virtue unless it goes along with hardheaded realism about the means that might achieve your ends. That’s true even when, like F.D.R., you ride a political tidal wave into office. It’s even more true for a modern Democrat, who will be lucky if his or her party controls even one house of Congress at any point this decade.
By contrast, here is what Krugman wrote about that back in 2007.
At the opposite extreme, John Edwards blames the power of the wealthy and corporate interests for our problems, and says, in effect, that America needs another F.D.R. — a polarizing figure, the object of much hatred from the right, who nonetheless succeeded in making big changes.
Over the last few days Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards have been conducting a long-range argument over health care that gets right to this issue. And I have to say that Mr. Obama comes off looking, well, naive.
All of that was prior to the time we learned about the sleeze factor with Mr. Edwards. But clearly, Edwards was attempting to ignite the same kind of populist uprising that Sanders is going for now. And Krugman was totally on board with that.
What has happened over the intervening years to inspire Krugman to change his own “theory of change?” I’d suggest that first of all, he has noted that – for all their incrementalism – the change President Obama brought has been pretty effective. And on the other hand, it seems obvious that all the screaming of millions of Americans isn’t going to affect Republican intransigence one little bit.