What would Hillary do?

A strange thing about the 2016 Democratic primary is that Hillary Clinton is having to make a case. It's been observed pretty much everywhere that nobody was expecting Clinton to face much of a fight. But more than that, whatever fight she did face - from Jim Webb, or Martin O'Malley, or Andrew Cuomo - would basically amount to a series of debates in which she didn't make a fool of herself, stood firm on important issues, and let her mountain of experience, endorsements and donations carry her through.

Instead, there's a serious fight afoot, and the Clinton campaign is being forced to make a positive argument for voting for her. In some ways that's a silly thing to say: there are a stack of reasons to vote for Hillary - she has a vast amount of experience as a senator and Secretary of State, she has a long history of fighting for liberal causes, and has a suite of progressive policies. But these are only reasons in the abstract, reasons to vote for her over any Republican, or to be content if she did win the nomination - not reasons to vote for her over Bernie Sanders. You can see the kind of thing I'm talking about here, where Zach Leven writes that "The case for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is mostly a matter of rebutting the case against her. Once that's done, you're simply left with the most qualified candidate." It's seemingly completely baffling that any positive reasons need to be offered.

When it comes to making that case, Clinton supporters have really struggled. One argument has largely come to the fore among people who are left-wing, care deeply about politics, but find their natural sympathy drifting towards Clinton rather than Sanders. I count myself in that group of people. But I find the argument desperately unconvincing.

It goes like this. Sanders is single-mindedly focused on income and wealth inequality; his answers to problems in other areas aren't serious. Unlike him, Clinton's "passion for change is leavened by a pragmatism - and a recognition of costs". So while she shares the goals of universal affordable access to healthcare and university education, she's happy to achieve those goals by an incrementalist strategy that slowly builds up coverage, rather than demanding a total government takeover. She has more thought-through and realistic plans to tackle mass incarceration than he does. Underlying all this is a recognition of the fact that Democrats will not control Congress after this election, and that sweeping legislative reform would be difficult even if they did (just as it was in 2009-10.) So we need someone who "thinks about the votes it will take to get elected, and the votes it will take to pass a law, and ... tries to figure out how to get those votes"; who "knows how to work the bureaucracy, defend against a hostile Congress, and find incremental gains where they exist"; who recognises the job of the President will be to fight a 'trench war' and be as pragmatic as possible.

The basic idea is that you shouldn't just vote on the basis of whose general outlook and policies you prefer - you have to consider what will actually get done. And it's true that Bernie Sanders would almost certainly not get any of his platform enacted. But this is a dangerous ploy, because it raises the question: what would Hillary actually get done?

If we're directing our attention to concrete political realities, they are that after this election Republicans will definitely control the House of Representatives and very likely the Senate as well. They will remain a highly ideological conservative-market liberal party with no interest in expanding government service provision, provision of welfare and financial support, or economic regulation. That is not a world in which even incremental moves towards universal healthcare or affordable university education are possible. (There's also the problem that on some issues, Clinton is so concessionary to political reality that the incrementalist plans don't even exist.) There is no chance that the careful compromise policy - which creates incentives for states to lower college costs and promises that students won't have to borrow to pay for their fees (though they still might for their living costs) - will pass; so why prefer it to the plan to make public universities tuition-free altogether and massively expand financial support for living costs? When neither stand any chance of passing, why prefer the promise to slow the growth of healthcare costs and reduce co-payments over the promise to get rid of them altogether, dramatically lower healthcare costs and make it freely available to everyone? None of this is going to happen.

Pushing the primary contest towards a zone in which policy ideas are rejected not because they're bad, or even because they couldn't happen in the normal sense of the budget maths not adding up, but because for political reasons they won't happen, is a really strange move. If you really engage in this way of thinking about the candidates, then you basically throw out detailed policy work as a part of the debate - after all, what does it matter? As Matt O'Brien puts it, that would be "like arguing what's more real: a magical unicorn or a regular unicorn. In either case, you're still running on a unicorn platform." Instead you're driven towards voting on the basis of who you think more truly grasps your problems, or has the ideology or long-term vision you most agree with, or is most likely to drag political debate in the right direction by arguing passionately for their (equally politically doomed) ideas. And any of those, it seems to me, would be a move away from the areas where Clinton has an advantage over Sanders.

Now there are reasons to prefer Hillary even on this basis. Paul Krugman thinks it would hurt Democratic election chances if the presidential nominee on their side was making promises just as impossible as their Republican opponent. Matt Yglesias points out that there might be a number of things Clinton could get done, by the incrementalist strategy, which Sanders wouldn't get done. None of those things, though - negotiating free trade deals, striking deficit-reduction bargains, reforming and lowering corporate taxes - are at all popular with the Democratic base, so even if you think they're good reasons to vote Hillary over Sanders, they certainly don't give Clinton any argument to make that will be helpful in the context of this primary race.

The basic fact is that Sanders is significantly more left-wing and progressive than Clinton on a range of issues which people who are left-wing care about a lot. It's not even like he's a Jeremy Corbyn-type figure who's untenably left-wing for a lot of people. He calls himself a socialist, but people say a lot of strange things; his proposals are all for policies in line with or somewhat to the right of existing political consensus in any given European country. If you vote Liberal Democrat in the UK, you're very likely ideologically closer to Sanders than Clinton on a large number of issues. The current argument Clinton sympathisers have settled on is that you have to think about the realistic political path of the next few years. But thinking about that inclines me to care less and less about the mathematical and political details of the candidates' policies. It's just not a good argument. Why not vote for someone who believes what you do and says it out loud, who'll push the Overton Window in the right direction and in practical terms achieve about as much (that is, as little) as Clinton would?

I don't like Sanders. I find his public speeches uninspiring and one-dimensional, he largely comes across as quite unthoughtful, and I'm perpetually confused by the tendency of young progressive people to identify as political saviours old white men who plainly haven't changed any major part of their politics since the 1960s. I'm very much in the market for an argument to support Hillary over him, particularly on domestic policy. But nobody really seems to have found one.


  1. I thought your last two paragraphs are pretty accurate. A vote for Sanders is a pretty explicit rejection of the political system and its special interest-driven incremental style. The young have way more incentive to see that overhauled more radically instead of spending the next 60 years picking the uninspiring person who results in less bad things over the next term.

    I very much agree about the old white revolutionary problem. To me it's baffling that, in America especially, the movement for radical change is being led by white people. It feels a bit false to say that you represent the underprivileged and oppressed if PoC are overwhelmingly voting against you. I don't think that means he is wrong, but my time on the internet tells me that a lot of the support for Sanders is more sexist and racist than I would like.


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