I recently got an email from a young man I dearly love, a college freshman who’s a close friend of my son’s. This being the first election of his lifetime in which he can vote, he was researching the issues and candidates in the Democratic primary and asked for my views. I sent him an email back that was probably way longer than he was looking for. But the exercise forced me to articulate my own thinking about the stakes in this primary. So I thought I’d share an edited version of my email to that young man.
A key fact of this race is that Democratic voters my age lean toward Hillary Clinton, while voters your age overwhelmingly support Bernie Sanders. One of the reasons this is such a big deal is that there are a lot of voters your age right now—the Millennials, your generation, are the biggest birth cohort since the Baby Boom, my generation.
It’s not surprising that younger voters are, by and large, with Bernie, and passionately so. Young people almost always support the candidate who most forcefully expresses their ideals. In 1972, when many Baby Boomers were the age Millennials are now, they went overwhelmingly for George McGovern—who campaigned on ending Vietnam, cutting the defense budget, and other liberal causes—over more moderate candidates like Edmund Muskie and Hubert Humphrey. In fact, Bill and Hillary Clinton worked for the McGovern campaign in Texas.
McGovern lost forty-nine states to Richard Nixon.
A big part of Bernie’s appeal is his “authenticity.” He wears rumpled suits, lets his hair run wild, and scowls rather than plaster a fake politician’s smile on his face. That’s something I love about him, too—though as one of my favorite Millennial writers, the Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell, notes, no woman in politics could get away with that.
Another appealing factor about Bernie is that he’s intellectually consistent. He has a big, overarching, simple-to-grasp vision of what’s wrong with the country and how to fix it: the billionaire class is screwing it up for the rest of us, so let’s trim their political power by reforming campaign finance laws and tax them more to finance government programs that give average people a better life. It’s a vision he’s maintained for decades, there’s always been a lot of truth in it, and that truth is more apparent today than ever.
But intellectual consistency isn’t the same as intellectual honesty. He’s surely got way more of the latter than the buffoons running for president in the GOP (Ohio Governor John Kasich being an exception). And there’s a basic decency and candor about Bernie that I really admire. He says what he thinks and he doesn’t play word games or tailor his approach to different audiences. These are not qualities people associate with Hillary Clinton, I’m afraid.
It’s in the realm of policy, however, where I find Bernie intellectually quite dishonest, and Hillary pretty damned honest. When you scrutinize his policy ideas, as wonky liberals have begun doing (finally) in the last couple of months, those ideas don’t stand up, on a bunch of different levels.
One of those levels is political—as in there’s no way, in the foreseeable future, there will be sixty votes in the Senate, much less support in a likely GOP-controlled House, to pass single-payer health care, or break up the big banks, or reform the political campaign system, or provide free college tuition for every student. You can excuse that by saying, Well, that’s his vision, his end goal, maybe not achievable in his first term but possible over time, especially if we get the “political revolution” he calls for.
But there’s a deeper level at which these policy ideas are intellectually dishonest. Even if you could somehow get them passed, practically they either wouldn’t work or would be recklessly disruptive or both.
On health care, it’s not just that corporate interests would resist single-payer, as Bernie rightly says. It’s that given the fact that, for historical reasons, we’ve built out an employer-based system, any legislation that attempted to rip up that entire system from the bottom up would lead to logistical and economic chaos and to political backlash that would dwarf what the Democrats got hit with after they passed Obamacare. Why in the world would you do that, especially now that, with Obamacare, we’ve taken a huge step toward making the existing system work for those who’ve been excluded, and made at least some steps toward cost containment (though we need more, as Hillary is calling for)?
But even if you think it’d be worth all the turmoil and stress to at least try to get rid of our cumbersome and expensive health care system and replace it with one on a Canadian or European model—those systems are, on the whole, more cost-effective and of the same or better quality than ours—it’s hard to take seriously Bernie’s specific plan to get there. In fact, it’s pretty clear that Bernie himself doesn’t take his plan seriously. When he first rolled it out—hours before the Iowa caucuses—knowledgeable (and sympathetically liberal) health policy experts were shocked at how sloppy it was. For instance, he promised to save Americans more per year on prescription drugs than we currently spend in total per year on prescription drugs. (By the way, Donald Trump has made the same impossible promise regarding prescription drugs.)
On reforming the financial sector, it’s not just that the big banks will resist Bernie’s plan to break them up and to restore Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era law (since overturned) that kept federally insured banks from gambling with their depositors’ money by trading securities and engaging in other forms of high-risk behavior, as uninsured institutions like investment banks are free to do. It’s that breaking up the big banks and restoring Glass-Steagall wouldn’t accomplish the practical task of making the financial sector more stable and less likely to tank the economy.
Remember, it wasn’t the big banks we bailed out that caused the financial collapse of 2008. Rather, it was the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the mismanagement of AIG, and the subprime mortgages being peddled by firms like Countrywide. None of these companies were all that big. None had deposits insured by the government, and hence their behavior wouldn’t have been stopped even if Glass-Steagall still had been in force. They were part of the “shadow banking” system that Dodd-Frank has gone a long way to regulate and that Hillary wants, rightly and sensibly, to tighten the screws on. Big banks remain a problem, but mostly because we’ve allowed the financial sector, as with most industries, to consolidate in a handful of coastal cities (more on this in our next issue, out next week).
On the billionaire class, it’s not just that America has never, since its founding, been able to keep money out of political campaigns (though the problem has clearly gotten much worse in recent years). It’s that campaign donations are not remotely the most important way billionaires and corporations rig the system to their benefit. Rather, it’s through the money that flows into the Washington lobbying machine, and Bernie’s campaign finance reforms won’t do squat about that.
On our bloated prisons and abusive policing in poor and minority communities, it’s not just that progressives blame these problems on Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, and hence on Hillary, even though then Congressman Bernie Sanders voted for the bill. Nor is it that the crime bill, with its stress on community policing, helped lower the crime rate in poor communities while improving police behavior (though to get GOP votes it did increase sentences and incarceration). It’s that Bernie’s pledges to fix these problems are unserious and outright dishonest. At a candidate debate in February, Sanders pointed out, rightly, that America has more of its citizens behind bars than any other country, including China, then promised that “at the end of my first term as president we will not have more people in jail than any other country.” Even some of his strongest boosters, like the MSNBC host Chris Hayes, pointed out that Sanders was making promises he wouldn’t, as president, have the power to keep. States house 87 percent of the nation’s prisoners; even if a President Sanders were to pardon every inmate of every federal prison—the only ones he would control—the United States would still have more people behind bars than China.
And then there’s the issue—which few Democrats have even begun to grapple with, and Bernie certainly hasn’t—that his many big ideas (single-payer, free college) would be insanely costly and be coming at a time when federal deficits will start climbing because of the retirement of the Baby Boomers. Hillary’s many proposals will also hit that rising deficit wall, but hers aren’t anywhere near as costly as Bernie’s.
It drives me crazy that so many people buy into the idea that Bernie’s policies are the principled ones and that other people’s more “pragmatic” policies are compromised, watered down, and, ultimately, something to be ashamed of. I don’t see it that way at all. To me, selling policies that you know or should know won’t work is pretty much the definition of unprincipled.
And I haven’t even brought up the issue of foreign policy, because once I start there I won’t quit. But suffice it to say Bernie has had thirty-five years in Congress to get involved in and bone up on issues of national security and foreign policy. He’s chosen not to, while Hillary spent four years as secretary of state.
The one area where Bernie’s knowledge and ideas are truly impressive is veterans’ health care. That, I think, is because the VA actually practices (quite successfully) a form of socialized medicine, and hence is in Bernie’s ideological comfort zone (and if you think the “scandal” regarding wait times at the Phoenix VA disproved that, well, watch this space).
When I was your age and first old enough to vote in an election, in 1980, the country was beset by a host of problems (inflation, rising crime, Islamic fundamentalism in Iran) for which traditional liberalism seemed to have no good answers. Over the next twelve years I watched Democrats get beaten by Republicans with conservative policy ideas I thought were, for the most part, crackpot. So I devoted myself to the larger effort then under way (at, among other institutions, the Washington Monthly) to subject policy ideas, liberal as well as conservative, to tough, evidence-based scrutiny, and to try to develop a new policy agenda that could actually work, both politically and substantively. That more hardheaded, less ideological way of looking at policy served the country well in the Clinton and Obama presidencies, and its abandonment by George W. Bush’s administration led to multiple epic disasters. My greatest fear is that the Democrats will follow the Republicans in turning their backs on “reality-based” policymaking.
Of course, most people don’t have the time or inclination to learn the nuances of complicated policy questions. If you’re a young person who leans left, you’re probably engaged in a simpler thought process: establishment politics has left me with high student debts and diminished job prospects; Hillary Clinton is the ultimate example of establishment politics; Bernie Sanders has fought establishment politics for years on behalf of progressive goals I believe in; why the hell shouldn’t I vote for Bernie?
I get it. The simplest response I can offer is this: on policy, Bernie doesn’t know what he’s talking about; the policies that most damaged your life came overwhelmingly from the Republicans, not the Democrats; and the Democrat most likely to beat the Republican in November is not Bernie Sanders.