practical pragmatism

I have a hard time imagining a more interesting presidential race than what America is faced with in 2016.  The Republican end of things is, of course, both fascinating and troubling in ways that no one could have foreseen, but the Democratic primary presents a deeply meaningful choice to voters that care about the issues.

Is it better to have an effective president who offers slim, but guaranteed gains for progress?  Or to have an authentic president who will pursue the most progressive policies currently viable in the country, with a significant chance of complete failure?

That, to me, is Hillary versus Bernie in a nutshell.

The Backdrop of Gridlock

It’s important to set the political landscape here.  We’re stuck with a lot of ugly realities.

In the last 10-20 years, Congress has become increasingly slow.  It’s not a problem of laziness or indolence – but the system of lawmaking and election in America is fatally flawed in key ways (currently the top of that list is gerrymanderingfilibusters, and campaign finance).  Polarization has vastly increased and the number of moderate conservatives and liberals has dwindled over the last few decades, leading to extended battles of attrition and short-sighted behavior over nearly every piece of legislation.

The time since Obama’s election has been the culmination of this.  Obama is a fairly progressive politician, and he’s introduced good legislation in his time – much of which has gone nowhere.  The fight for the ACA (Obamacare) was brutal.  Think about the absurdity in Ted Cruz saying with a straight face that it would be better to halt pay for all government employees, to shut down tens of thousands of related businesses, schools, labs, and parks solely in order to delay the ACA.  A bill that most Democrats were dissatisfied with because of how marginal its changes were.

Endless stalling of all types of legislation in Congress has encouraged state legislatures to take matters into their own hands – not a terrible thing on its own, but it turns out almost nobody pays attention to local or state elections.  The end result is that during 8 years of democratic presidency, America has actually lost huge ground on women’s health care and abortion rights while states implement laws to limit abortion providers and slash funding for all types of women’s clinics.  Obama has little power to stop this.

There’s always executive orders to consider, of course.  Recent presidents have used them less, but a huge part of FDR’s effectiveness was his absurd rate of executive orders of nearly one each day of his 12-year presidency.  Still, FDR’s legacy – most of the New Deal, Social Security, the minimum wage, and the Labor Relations Act – all of that went through Congress.  Of course, this ignores the huge quantity of his legislation that didn’t make it (and many of his executive orders were dismantled in lower courts), but it’s hard to imagine FDR accomplishing a tenth of what he did in the current political climate.

A lot of this goes back to Bush, too.  Bush was on top of his judicial appointment game (though he’s dwarfed by Reagan), and Obama has lagged in that department.  Judges are the first line of defense in upholding and enforcing legislation – they’re the ones that interpret the law, and their actions matter deeply at every level of government.  Judicial and cabinet appointments might be the most significant decisions the president gets to make.

Above all, the problem right now is Congress.  Republicans are likely to sustain a majority in both the House and Senate for the next few election cycles.  That makes strong progressive legislation really hard to pass – if not impossible.  Obama was still working with a majority when the ACA was passed, and that was a nightmare.

After the Inauguration

I could blather about Hillary and Bernie’s real chances at election – but this, to me, is the much less interesting and important question.  Remove electability from the equation – assume that either candidate crushes, presumably, Cruz.  What happens once they’re in the White House?  What does a Clinton administration look like compared to a Sanders administration?

We have a pretty decent notion of what Hillary’s presidency would look like.  Her stances are less liberal than Obama’s, but she’s more aggressive and outspoken, more willing to use all the tools at her disposal.  She’ll be exceedingly shrewd and one way or another legislation will get passed.  Her presidency will not fail.  It will never go as far as we want it to, it will make compromises we did not want, and she won’t be the leader on racial justice and social equity the country desperately needs.  But the march forward will go on.  Slowly.

This is where Bernie represents a tangible risk.  There’s a real chance that President Sanders would accomplish almost nothing in his first 4 years due to congressional gridlock and get the boot under a wave of backlash and a disillusioned base of support.  It’s not at all clear that Bernie will have the kind of support among moderates in Congress that Hillary does.  Ted Cruz was willing to shut down the government for the ACA.  The reforms that Sanders will pursue are going to trigger that level of resistance at every turn.  The collective voice of the people might carry him to the White House, but those voices hold a let less sway to safely-seated congressmen ravenously waiting to reject his bills.  If it played out like this, progressive politics would be set back for multiple election cycles.

A grim perspective – but even the most optimistic version is not as exciting as we might wish.  Bernie will not reincarnate FDR.  He will struggle, tooth and nail, to pass meaningful legislation, unavoidably flawed by the process of ratification.  It will be ugly business, and many of his supporters will turn their back on him for selling out or not doing enough.  He could perhaps accomplish more than Obama – who, I remind you, started with a supermajority – but it won’t be the fresh breeze of democratic socialism some dream it to be.

Making a Choice

I feel the gravity of the decision in this election, and it’s not often that we actually have a meaningful choice to make.  I constantly ponder the future of our world, and often too urgently sense the danger of our climate, the endless waves of technological and economic change, the delicacy and importance of governments and economies abroad.  It’s this urgency that, in the end, leads me to root for Bernie over Hillary.  I don’t think we can afford to wait 8 years for another shot at a serious progressive.  We have to try now, and if Bernie fails, to try again and again with the next candidates.  There’s really not a lot of time for half-measures.

However, if Bernie doesn’t win the nomination – as is likely to happen – I’m not going to feel bad voting Hillary into the presidency.

I write this because I’ve watched many of my friends and acquaintances whip into an ever-quickening flurry of polemics as the battle between Hillary and Bernie escalates. I suggest, simply, that there are rational reasons that someone might agree with Bernie’s stances, yet still have more confidence in Hillary’s ability to move the country forward.  It’s even reasonable for someone to like Hillary on her own merits.  Not everyone sees uncompromising idealism as the shortest path to change.  There are countless arguments to be made for safe bets and cold, hard, pragmatics.

I don’t buy into the idea that we’ll never see someone like Bernie again. It’s a severe underestimation of humanity to suggest that there is not another progressive alive today that could carry the mantle of single-payer health care, living wages, racial justice, strong infrastructure, carbon caps, intense investments into education and research, and dismantling Citizens United.  All of these are necessary, and they won’t stop being good ideas because one man didn’t get elected.