I Supported Hillary in 2008. Here’s Why I Support Bernie Now

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Photo Credit: Jason Reed via Marc Nozell/Flickr and AFGE/Flickr

Richard Phillips is a policy analyst from Maryland. He graduated with a Masters in Public Policy from American University and lives in DC. His goal is to become the real-life Josh Lyman from the West Wing, but fears he’s much more likely to become the more embittered real-life Toby Ziegler.

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Introduction

When people ask me why I supported Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama during the 2008 Democratic primary, I cite two reasons. One, I felt that Clinton was the more progressive of the two candidates on issues I care about. Two, I felt that Clinton would be a more effective president. Today, for those same reasons, I support Bernie Sanders for the nomination in 2016.

A year ago, the case for supporting for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was relatively simple: it would help to bring attention to income inequality, campaign finance reform and the need for the Democratic Party to move in a more progressive direction. In other words, the case for Sanders was the same made for Dennis Kucinich in 2004 and 2008. Shockingly, this case for supporting Sanders is now complicated by one simple fact: he is within spitting distance of actually winning the Democratic nomination.

To be clear, Bernie Sanders is still very much the underdog and the results on Super Tuesday could bring Hillary Clinton closer to inevitability. But it is worth taking stock of the fact that a staunch progressive, who has chosen to label his platform “democratic socialism,” is not polling at 2-5 percent of the Democratic primary vote as Kucinich did, but at 42 percent of the vote, with one recent poll showing him leading Clinton 47 percent to 44 percent nationally. The Sanders campaign has already far exceeded expectations and can declare victory in bringing progressive ideas to the forefront of American politics.

Because of Sanders’ sudden rise to plausibility as the Democratic nominee, there has been a growing backlash against Sanders based on the claim that Sanders would be a weaker general election candidate and less effective president. Given the evidence so far in the campaign and the record of both of the candidates, I believe that Sanders would be a significantly better president and better nominee in the general election than Hillary Clinton. Here’s why.

Sanders is as Electable as Clinton

Pragmatic progressives often argue that Sanders, a grumpy old man and self-avowed socialist, is not nearly as viable in the general election compared to the very electable and moderate Clinton.

But this argument grossly overestimates the viability of Hillary Clinton’s general election candidacy. Despite the extremity of the candidates and the damaging primary process on the Republican side, the scary reality is that current polls show Clinton losing in general election match-ups with Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich. In polls with dilettante Donald Trump, Clinton is only winning by an uncomfortable 45.3 percent vs 42.5 percent. In other words, the early polls do not indicate any kind of electoral slam dunk case for Hillary Clinton.

In contrast, the early polls show Sanders beating each of his Republican opponents and polling better than Hillary Clinton in the general election. The answer to this from Clinton supporters is that Sanders’ higher polling is based on the fact that he has not been vetted and that his support would shrink after a relentless negative campaign highlighting his more radical record, while Clinton’s level of support is unlikely to drop given her years of vetting.

While this sounds plausible, the reality of the campaign so far indicates the exact opposite. At the start of the campaign, roughly 50 percent of Americans had a favorable view of Clinton and 40 percent had an unfavorable view; now, those numbers have flipped. This substantial slide in favorability occurred even as Republicans have been mostly focused on attacking one another and Sanders has not waged a particularly negative campaign. There’s certainly reason to believe that the positive perception of Clinton could drop even further when the Republican Party spends a billion dollars reminding the American public of all of her faults. At the same time that Clinton’s favorability was dropping, Sanders’ favorability slightly improved. Sanders started off as relatively unknown with a net negative favorability of 3 percent; he now has a net positive favorability of 3 percent (41 percent favorable vs 38 percent unfavorable).

Sanders Will Fare Better In an Anti-Establishment Election

The second argument made to support the idea of Hillary Clinton as more electable is that her more moderate positions and experience would make her an ideal candidate against the extreme GOP. But Clinton’s experience and ties to the Washington establishment may actually work against her in an election focused on outsiders and change in Washington. Worse, Senator Marco Rubio’s youth, ethnicity and lack of a clear record make him a perfect candidate to ride the “hope and change” message to the White House. With Rubio as her opponent, Hillary Clinton could end up looking a lot like John McCain – an extremely experienced moderate – did when compared to Barack Obama. Furthermore, Clinton’s seriousness and involvement with the establishment plays exactly to the anti-establishment case that Donald Trump’s populist success is based on. Who better for him to wage an anti-establishment campaign against than Hillary Clinton?

In contrast, Sanders’ newness and anti-establishment candidacy puts him in a better place vis-a-vie the two most likely Republican candidates. Sanders’ message would resonate even more against Trump, a literal member of the billionaire class, and he could siphon off a substantial amount of Trump’s anti-establishment support for himself. Sanders might have more difficulties against Rubio. But in contrast to Clinton, Sanders is a fresher voice on the political scene and could not be pegged as a member of the Washington elite.

If Clinton Wins the Nomination, It Could Depress Democratic Turnout

It’s critical to consider what it would mean for the general election for each of the candidates to win in the current context of the Democratic Primary. Clinton winning would require Bernie Sanders to lose the nomination. The significant downside to this reality for Clinton is that it could mean alienating the millions of young people who have enthusiastically supported Sanders and who any Democratic candidate will desperately need as foot soldiers in the general election.

On the flipside, if Clinton lost the nomination to Sanders, this would indicate a deeper-than-expected lack of support for another Clinton among the public. Clinton should by all indications be a shoe-in for the Democratic nomination; she has the support of most of the leaders of the party, is very well-known and experienced, and has been making her case to be the nominee for at least 8 years. The fact that Sanders is doing as well as he is may already be indicative of the genuine unpopularity of Clinton within the party that she has been courting for so long. If Sanders were to win the Democratic nomination, it would almost certainly indicate that he is the more viable candidate simply because Clinton’s losing would mean that she is so unpopular that she cannot even win among what should be her base of support.

Clinton’s Deal-Making Is Exaggerated

Another element of the case for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders is that Clinton, given her experience and pragmatic approach, would be more effective at creating positive change as president. The underlying assumption is that either Sanders or Clinton would be face at least a Republican-controlled House, if not a Republican-controlled House and Senate.

While the assumption of Clinton’s effective incrementalism and Sanders’ ineffective idealism has become conventional wisdom, the reality is that there is not much evidence to back either claim. The greatest legislative accomplishments that Clinton’s own campaign can point to during her 8 years as First Lady and 8 years as a Senator were her efforts to pass a series of bills expanding healthcare for veterans, children and 9/11 responders. So while Clinton did contribute in part to the passage of some good legislation, she does not have any grand legislative accomplishments that would justify the conventional wisdom around her acumen at deal-making. In fact, her biggest legislative effort, leading the effort on healthcare reform in the 1990s, ended in complete failure.

Even if Clinton was a more effective dealmaker, there’s nothing to suggest that Republicans would be more willing to deal with her than with Sanders. For more than two decades, the Republican machine has relentlessly demonized Clinton. Just recently the GOP admitted that it had spent millions in taxpayer dollars through the special committee on Benghazi for the sole purpose of trying to bring Clinton down. Even with her moderate inclinations, why would the GOP suddenly turn around and decide to go along with a Clinton presidency?

The biggest legislative risk with a Clinton presidency for progressives is that Clinton may be willing to agree to changes that actually move the country backwards (not incrementally forward) in order to claim significant accomplishments. Time and again during Bill Clinton’s presidency, Hillary Clinton backed policies like welfare reform, tax cuts for the rich and NAFTA that actually moved the country in a distinctly less progressive direction. It’s not hard to imagine Clinton going back on her newfound opposition to trade deals like the TPP or the Keystone Pipeline once in office. It’s also not hard to imagine Clinton going for a grand bargain deal, possibly along the same lines as what Obama has proposed, that would disproportionately cut Social Security or Medicare in exchange for modest (or no) revenue increases.

Sanders own history of pragmatism and deal-making during his 25 years in Congress, even as he held firm to his principles, is significantly underestimated. One writer has dubbed Sanders the “amendment king” for his numerous amendments passed over the years to all matter of legislation. As President, Sanders would be more willing to veto and hold firm against any changes that would make the country worse off.

Clinton’s Foreign Policy is Too Hawkish

Given the likelihood of legislative gridlock under either a Clinton or Sanders administration, it’s important to consider who would be more effective at creating positive change as the head of the executive branch. The area where the executive has the freest range to act without Congress is in foreign policy. This would appear to be a big boost in the case for Clinton over Sanders, who admittedly is not the most comfortable when talking about foreign policy.

The problem is that Clinton is substantially more hawkish and interventionist in her approach to international affairs. It’s worth again pointing out that Clinton supported the Iraq War. Clinton has since admitted that support for the Iraq War was a mistake, but she does not seem to have actually learned the lesson about how counterproductive military intervention in the Middle East and elsewhere has proven. In fact, Clinton’s primary disputes with President Obama over foreign policy were driven by her belief that the US should take play a bigger military role in countries like Libya and Syria.

Unlike Clinton, Sanders has taken a consistently less interventionist position on foreign policy, voting against the Iraq War and expressing a great deal more skepticism about other interventionist policies in the Middle East. Sanders may not personally have the foreign policy chops of Clinton, but he can hire smart foreign policy wonks to get him up to speed and act on his behalf in a less militaristic way once he becomes president.

Sanders Would Be Better for the Executive Branch

Outside of foreign policy, the case for Sanders as leader of the executive branch is just as strong. Sanders would likely be more aggressive than Clinton or even Obama in using executive action to improve the lives of working people. Concretely, this could mean things like even more aggressive action on immigration reform and using executive actions to end a variety of tax loopholes that are within the Department of Treasury’s authority to close.

Just as importantly, Sanders is more likely to fill the executive branch with distinctly progressive appointees rather than the same old Democratic establishment figures. For example, you could imagine Clinton appointing centrist economists and executives from Wall Street (as Obama did), while a Sanders administration would likely tap progressive economists like Dean Baker, Joseph Stiglitz and Jared Bernstein. The appointment of more progressive individuals to the executive branch would work to undo the capture of regulatory agencies and the executive branch by corporate interests over the past few decades.

Conclusion

There is a pragmatic case to be made for Bernie Sanders. His populist campaign has already proven as politically potent as Clinton’s, while his willingness to stick his principles could be essential in fighting back a Republican Congress and shoring up policy in the executive branch. I am excited this election season to vote for a strong progressive who is not only pushing the Democratic Party into the future, but also someone who I believe could be elected president and make the world a better place.