Personally I never bought the argument for Bernie Sanders’ candidacy that a lot of pundits made. Namely the one about how, win or lose, he has moved Hillary Clinton to the left. The way I see it, the Democratic Party moved to the left before this campaign took shape. For example, income inequality took center stage as the issue that needs to be tackled. On cultural issues, the emerging power of millennials and the diversity of the Democratic coalition ensured that elected officials would follow suit.
But after reading an article by David Roberts titled: Two ways of assessing political candidates, and how they explain the Clinton-Sanders conflict, I came away with an appreciation for the fact that these differences will likely get hashed out in this campaign.
To begin with, Roberts picks up on the case Sanders tried to make last week about the distinction between a progressive and a moderate. He says that the label “progressive” is an ideological category, while “moderate” is a practical question related to what we’ve been calling a “theory of change.”
Roberts then suggests that these two questions form the basis of each candidate’s campaign message:
The distinction matters, because it helps map out the terrain each candidate want to fight on. In a nutshell, Sanders wants the contest to be about ideology and Clinton wants it to be about practicality. He is the champion of ideological progressivism; she is the champion of practical moderation.
So when Sanders attacks Clinton over her progressivism, he is trying to pull the fight into ideology. Clinton defenders try to pull it back to practical matters, saying, no, it’s not that Clinton doesn’t share these big ideological goals, it’s just that she realizes the only way to get there is through modest steps built upon existing programs. Pushing too much change too fast is dangerous (one of many lessons Clinton took from her 1993 health care debacle)…
Similarly, Sanders proponents are quick to shift the discussion away from practical questions. All that’s been said in support of Sanders’ ambitious legislative plans is that there will be a “political revolution,” which presumably involves either historic turnout, a historic shift of working-class white Republicans into the Democratic camp, or both. Few supporting details have been offered.
The first thing we can take away from this analysis is that it would be helpful to push each candidate in the area they are working to avoid. The debates have done a better job of highlighting Clinton’s ideological positions than they have of pushing Sanders on questions about how his “political revolution” is supposed to work. So there is still some work to do on that one.
But secondly, this is a good debate for Democrats to have during the primary. Back in 2008, Barack Obama captured the party nomination because he was able to articulate a progressive vision, but combined it with the practicality of a pragmatic approach. Roberts points out that the opposite of moderate is radical…something that never described Obama. But what tended to happen is that the idealists heard the vision side of things and then became “disappointed” in the President when he went about implementing the slow methodical approach that our form of government requires. There tends to be a lot of overlap between those folks and Sanders supporters.
This time around, if we can get Sanders to be more specific with his vision of how change happens, we will have a primary where the two candidates lay out both their ideologies and their theories of change. If, as the polls indicate now, Hillary Clinton wins the nomination and then goes on to be elected president, everyone should be clear about what to expect from her.