I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences between Sanders and Clinton, and what that would mean in terms of the kinds of legislation they’d be able to get passed. I mean, a Republican-controlled Congress isn’t going to roll over for either candidate while they enact legislation. Clinton has portrayed herself as more pragmatic, a “progressive that gets things done”, even if the things that she gets done are rarely progressive. I keep coming back to a quote from a book I first read back in high school, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, by an old labor organizer named Saul Alinsky:
“…to the organizer, compromise is a key and beautiful word. It is always present in the pragmatics of operation. It is making the deal, getting that vital breather, usually the victory. If you start with nothing, demand 100 percent, then compromise for 30 percent, you’re 30 percent ahead.”
From what I’ve read, Sanders has been pretty much a one-note tuba, railing about economic injustice even while caucusing and voting with Democrats. In other words, compromising on legislation in order to further his bedrock ideological goals, albeit incrementally.
Bill and Hillary Clinton (I mention them both because they essentially function as a single unit, for good or ill), on the other hand, seem to have been willing to compromise larger principles in order to gain the ability to maneuver politically. It’s hard to pin down exactly what they stand for, which makes them hard to trust. What is the Democratic Party about, anyway? What did Bill Clinton do for America, exactly? The Clintons (and much of the Democratic Party) moved the center to the right in order to take wind out of the GOP’s sails and win in ’92. Soon the Democrats were pro-Wall Street deregulation and tough on crime.
The Republicans gave no ground in response to this ideological retreat; why would they? Instead, it emboldened them – hell, forced them – to advance further to the right to distinguish themselves. This process has continued for the last 25 years. In fact, looking at the GOP’s current ugly implosion, one could argue that the Democratic Party gave the Republicans enough rope to hang themselves with. But that’s some expensive rope; I don’t buy a 25-year Democratic conspiracy to act like cowards, cowering behind the flag while neoconservatives and religious fanatics looted the Treasury and set the world on fire. I’m pretty sure it was just the Clinton’s myopic and selfish election strategy that started a nasty chain reaction.
Anyway, I think about likely scenarios with Clinton in office. Look at her platform. It’s pretty good. Much of the proposed legislation she has on her website, I would support as-is. But compared with Sanders’ very ambitious platform, it is a collection of half-measures, seemingly designed to gain bipartisan approval from the start. Which is to say, Clinton is coming out the gates yelling “I’m gonna compromise!”
And what will the Republican response be to the woman they’ve demonized for a generation? The party that has become known for filibusters, solidarity pledges and petulant obstructionism, attacking anyone who shakes hands across the aisle?
The Republicans will not yield, because they know they don’t have to; indeed, they have painted themselves into a corner where compromise is tantamount to treason. Clinton, barring a decisive Democratic majority in both houses, will be forced to heavily water down her legislation to get it passed. And they know she wouldn’t walk away from a bill with her name on it. She wants a legacy, badly. So she’ll keep coming back, just to get SOMETHING passed. And she’ll keep the rank and file Democrats in line. So they’ll vote for whatever steaming turd the Republicans pass back to them, regardless of how odious or what horrific riders they’ve stapled to it. That’s not pragmatism, that’s spinelessness.
What would be different with a President Sanders? Well for starters, he’ll come into the deal with a comparatively radical agenda with lots of planks, which gives him a lot more room to bargain. It will be possible to get a lot of tiny victories, rather than as in Obama’s case, spending a huge amount of time and political capital on a large issue like health care. If he can keep the crowds motivated on a by-issue basis, get people physically in the streets, he can start grass fires in every Congressional district. This will be absolutely necessary, particularly for the stuff that restricts lobbying and corporate spending. Sanders isn’t lying when he says:
…no matter who is elected to be president, that person will not be able to address the enormous problems facing the working families of our country.They will not be able to suceed becuase the power of corporate America, the power of Wall Street, the power of campaign donors is so great that no president alone can stand up to them.That is the truth. People may be uncomfortable about hearing it, but that is the reality. And that is why what this campaign is about is saying loudly and clearly: It is not just about elected Bernie Sanders for president, it is about creating a grassroots political movement in this country.
Ultimately, though it comes down to compromise. Sanders will meet with Republicans and other Democrats, and they’ll hammer out a bill. If Sanders starts with a bill that makes all public universities tuition-free and everyone gets a PhD and a pony, and through negotiation we end up with a bill that makes community college free OR puts and end to student loan profiteering… well, that’s a big win. Yes, fight for your principles. Aim high, if that’s where your principles really are.
So I keep coming back to that Alinsky quote:
“If you start with nothing, demand 100 percent, then compromise for 30 percent, you’re 30 percent ahead.”
It’s not as exciting as the campaign rhetoric. Sanders knows this; there’s a bit of idealistic theatrics going on, for sure. But you know what? If you’re aiming for 100 percent, and you’ve got a howling mob of pissed off voters outside your office, also demanding 100 percent, maybe you can negotiate a little further. Maybe you can get 35 or 40 percent. Maybe more, if you get the media on your side.
That’s not to say a Sanders presidency will be free of disappointment. It’s hard to remember sometimes that you’ve gained 30 percent when there’s so much more work to do. But that’s how the sausage is made, and Sanders isn’t being naive or starry-eyed with these proposals. He’s basing legislation on his principles and what he believes needs to happen, not what his ideological opponents will swallow with a smile.