The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The real differences between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, explained

(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

At last night’s debate, the simmering argument between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton over whether she is too beholden to Wall Street money to properly represent the interests of the American people — which, as I’ve argued, has not really been fully engaged — was forced out into the open in a big way.

The two candidates repeatedly clashed over Clinton’s insistence that Sanders’s proposals promise more than he can deliver and that building on Obama progress is more achievable, and over Sanders’s insistence that truly transformative change actually is possible, if we break the power of big money’s grip on our political  system — a problem, Sanders suggested, that is exemplified by her candidacy.

But threading through all the arguments was one overarching theme, which was summarized well by Jonathan Chait this morning:

Sanders believes the interest of the public is not divided, it is united, and only the corrupt influence of big business has thwarted it. He consequently vows to smash its power through a combination of a mass upsurge in political activism and campaign-finance reform.
That was the vision Clinton challenged tonight. She declared, pointedly, “I’m not making promises I cannot keep.” And her campaign blasted out emails attacking “Bernie’s Unachievable Revolution.” She tied her beliefs to those of the Obama administration, whose method of incremental progress and negotiation with business she embraced.

Another way to put this: Sanders believes that there is majority support in America for the goals of the “revolution” he is promising, and that the power of that majority can be unleashed if the power of the oligarchy is broken, and if the power of the grassroots is sufficiently harnessed.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

President Obama used to believe in some version of this, as the 2004 speech that rocketed him to national prominence attested. But Obama appears to believe it no longer. In his most extensive recent comments on the subject, Obama subtly put his thumb on the scale for Clinton’s views. He argued that while he understands that progressives are frustrated by the sense that we can’t get beyond “the terms of the debate that were set by Ronald Reagan 30 years ago,” ultimately Clinton is right to believe “that translating values into governance and delivering the goods is ultimately the job of politics, making a real-life difference to people in their day-to-day lives.”

What Obama means is that getting part of what you want is probably the best we can hope for, but that this actually counts for a lot. Or, as Paul Krugman puts it:

The reality of the Obama era, for progressives, is a series of half loaves. But after all the defeats over the previous 30 years, aren’t those achievements something to celebrate?

Sanders fundamentally rejects the very idea that this has to be the “reality.” He believes that Obama could have gotten more than half loaves, but failed to, because he didn’t sufficiently rally the power of the grassroots against Congress, and because the Democratic establishment continues to take oligarchic money.

To be clear, there are very legitimate, substantive policy disagreements between Clinton and Sanders on a range of issues. Sanders’s appeal is not just about his ability to make his supporters feel as if he understands the depth of the challenges facing them and the country, though it is partly about that. Many of his supporters surely side with him in the policy disputes themselves.

But the broader argument between the two ultimately is about bigger questions, such as what the American people really want and the deeper reasons for polarization, divided government and gridlock. Sanders basically has faith that there is a majority view in this country that supports much more aggressively redistributive policies (much higher taxes on the wealthy than Clinton can stomach) and a much more ambitious government effort to set a high minimum standard of living (single payer, a higher minimum wage) than Clinton can accept. Sanders believes that there is a majority view out there that understands this to be in everyone’s common interest, transcending racial and class lines, and that it can be accessed by adequately communicating this interest to the American people, thus mobilizing them, and by breaking big money’s distortion of the discourse and political system.

This is not necessarily a naive view. Sanders believes that we must essentially re-imagine American democracy, if only because so doing has at least the chance of broadening the scope of what is possible.

Clinton doesn’t necessarily believe in the latent majority view of the American people that Sanders envisions. She’s more inclined toward the view that forces such as “negative partisanship” ultimately cloud people’s views of their own interests, and that often there isn’t a perceived common interest between different groups. These problems and divisions, Clinton believes, are exacerbated by a system that is designed to frustrate change, and that these structural realities have to be maneuvered around and cannot be overwhelmed by organization and persuasion — though they can perhaps be mitigated by them. Clinton doesn’t believe taking Wall Street and corporate money has to skew policy outcomes, but more to the point, she thinks that giving up that money would probably compromise the Democratic Party’s ability to achieve short term advances in keeping with her view of what the American people and the system can tolerate.

It’s a good argument to be having.


* BERNIE STILL DOMINATING IN NEW HAMPSHIRE: A new CNN/WMUR poll finds that Bernie Sanders is leading Hillary Clinton by 60-31 among likely Dem voters in New Hampshire. It also finds that 64 percent of Dem voters say their choices are locked in.

Clinton might still be able to close the gap somewhat and deny Sanders a smashing victory, but it looks as if she’ll have to wait for the more diverse electorates to start racking up wins.

* HILLARY RISING IN NEW HAMPSHIRE? While the CNN poll looks grim for Clinton, the latest UMass Lowell Tracking Poll shows Clinton rising four points, and Sanders slipping by three, putting Sanders up by 55-40. But there are only four days until the voting, so…

* TRUMP AHEAD IN NEW HAMPSHIRE, BUT RUBIO RISES: A new NBC/WSJ poll finds Donald Trump backed by 30 percent of GOP primary voters, while Marco Rubio has edged past Ted Cruz into second place, with 17 percent.

There are multiple indications that Rubio’s rise is real. A second place finish in New Hampshire will probably help reinforce the impression that he’s the establishment lane candidate, shunting aside John Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie, all of whom trail Rubio substantially in the new poll.

* HOUSE DEMS SPEAK OUT AGAINST SANDERS: The Hill reports that as Sanders marches towards victory in New Hampshire, Congressional Democrats are increasingly making the case that he would imperil the party’s down-ballot candidates. Rep. Scott Peters, a swing-district Dem, says:

“I’m not comfortable with it at all. He certainly wouldn’t match my district very well. People in my district are looking for pragmatic, problem-solving leaders and he would not fit that bill.”

Look for Democrats in marginal or swing House districts to increasingly make this case if Sanders continues to pose a threat to Clinton.

* SENATE DEMS SPEAK OUT AGAINST SANDERS: Meanwhile, Politico reports that the number of Democratic Senators criticizing Sanders is growing:

They’re criticizing his platform as naive, taking exception to his criticism of Clinton as a fake progressive, and imploring the media to put the Vermont independent and self-described democratic socialist under the microscope.

Worth watching for: Whether top Dems will increasingly make the case that Sanders at the top of the ticket will imperil the party’s chances of retaking the Senate.

* WHAT THE DEM BATTLE OVER OBAMACARE REALLY MEANS: Paul Krugman argues that the case being made for single payer and against Obamacare by some Sanders supporters is flawed in substantive terms, and concludes:

The truth is that whomever the Democrats nominate, the general election is mainly going to be a referendum on whether we preserve the real if incomplete progress we’ve made on health, financial reform and the environment. The last thing progressives should be doing is trash-talking that progress and impugning the motives of people who are fundamentally on their side.

Yes. It’s worth reiterating that Sanders’s explicit argument is that the reforms of the Obama era are woefully insufficient.

* DEMS WANT MORE DEBATES: A new Public Policy Polling survey, taken for “The Agenda with Ari Rabin-Havt,” finds that 41 percent of undecided Democrats nationally want more debates, while overall, 30 percent of Democrats want more of them. This is yet another sign that the Sanders challenge is good for the Democratic Party — it’s awakening a desire for more argument among Dems, rather than an easy primary.