Hillary Clinton's progressive problem: The real policy differences between her and Bernie Sanders can actually be quantified

Both Clinton and Sanders are laying claim to the word "progressive." Trouble is, they both actually have records

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published February 9, 2016 5:55PM (EST)

Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton   (Reuters/Adrees Latif/Brian Snyder/Photo montage by Salon)
Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton (Reuters/Adrees Latif/Brian Snyder/Photo montage by Salon)

In the immediate aftermath of the Iowa caucus, both Democratic candidates and their supporters have become engaged in an argument over who's more progressive. That in itself would surely be a good thing—far better than competing over who's most moderate. But the way the Clinton team is initially pursuing their side of the argument is both inherently self-contradictory, and unlikely to sufficiently connect with and motivate voters in the general election, should she be the nominee.

The two problems are not unrelated. The self-contradictory argument is founded in her self-branding as “a progressive who gets things done.” When it's rolled out into an argument against Sanders it becomes: (a) she's really more progressive than Sanders, and (b) she can get things done, because she's not as wild-eyed—i.e. as progressive—as Sanders is. When Sanders challenges the obvious contradiction here, its unsustainability forces Clinton's fall-back into the second problem: Clinton's response is to treat anything Sanders says to challenge her argument as an attack against President Obama. That may be a savvy way to win the primary, but a profoundly counter-productive approach in the long run.

Don't let me put words in Clinton's mouth. Here's how she responded in CNN's town hall when Anderson Cooper asked her about being a moderate or a progressive:

I said that I'm a progressive who likes to get things done. And I was somewhat amused today that Senator Sanders has set himself up to be the gatekeeper on who is the progressive because under the definition that was flying around on Twitter and statements by the campaign, Barack Obama would not be a progressive, Joe Biden would not be a progressive, Jeanne Shaheen would not be a progressive, even the late, great Senator Paul Wellstone would not be a progressive.

Twitter chatter aside, when it comes to judging who's more progressive than who, political scientists have an app for that—at least for those who've served in Congress, as Sanders and Clinton both have. It's the DW-Nominate first dimension, scaled from +1 to -1, which explains the lion's share of how members vote. [Explanation|Data]. For the two years when they served in the Senate together, Sanders had a score of -.717, making him far and away the most liberal member. Number two, Sheldon Whitehouse had a score of -.507, while number 15, Hillary Clinton had a score of -.403. The difference between Sanders' score and Clinton's was greater than the difference between Clinton and Evan Bayh, the second-most conservative member of the Democratic caucus at the time. So in short, the difference between them in terms of who is most progressive is both objective and huge.

The difference can be seen internationally as well. Sanders identifies as a democratic socialist, and regularly points to countries that fully embody that philosophy, such as the Nordic countries of Denmark and Sweden. These serve as objective embodiments of what his politics aims to achieve—and they can be used to contrast with Clinton's objectives as well. In his groundbreaking book, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, Gøsta Esping-Andersen identified three distinctly different models for welfare state organization, each driven by a different logic. The socialist or social democratic model seen in Nordic countries is based on the logic of social solidarity, to provide maximal protections for all; the conservative model, typified by Germany and seen elsewhere throughout continental Europe, aims to consolidate the existing social order and its hierarchical relations in various ways; the liberal model, typified by English-speaking countries from Britain to the U.S., Canada and Australia, aims to deal with imperfections in the market system with minimal interference to the basic system. As I explained in an article here about Sanders' campaign last June:

Sanders wants to move the U.S. more in the direction of Scandinavia, just as he’s openly stated. Clinton, in contrast, with her market-oriented emphasis, simply wants to strengthen the existing liberal welfare state structure. We can best think of comparing where Sanders and Clinton would take us by looking at the results these two models produce, and when we do this, we find that the social democratic welfare states consistently outperform the liberal ones. Most notably, they produce the least inequality and poverty, and the highest rates of labor force participation. The dependency these robust welfare states are supposed to breed is simply a figment of the imagination.

At the time I was making the crucial point that socialist/social democratic welfare states produce objectively better results than liberal ones do. Here I simply add that they are objectively more progressive as well, across a range of issues. This is what reality tells us—not Bernie Sanders.

What Clinton was trying to do in the passage I quoted—and what she said next—was to wholly occupy the space of “progressive” and cast Sanders as a divisive voice. But Sanders himself, in that same town hall, struck a decidedly affable tone on the same subject

Some of my best friends are moderates. I love moderates. But you can't be a moderate and a progressive. They are different.

If it's somehow a secret that Clinton has moved left in response to Sanders, it's the worst-kept secret in D.C. When Sanders takes note of it, that's just what he's doing—taking note. He's not attacking her, he's not making things up, and he's not setting himself up as the world's sole authority on who is or is not a progressive Indeed, he's often said that he and Clinton share much in common, even as there are sharp differences as well.

Clinton's response is defensive overkill—entirely understandable, for someone who's been in the rightwing crosshairs for over 25 years. But overkill, nonetheless. More to the point, however, it's counterproductive in the long run, and she really needs to rethink her approach. Her plan seems to be to be ruthlessly effective in mobilizing elite party and near-party support, particularly with women and minorities, to maximize her existing advantages with such groups. When she gets endorsements from groups like Planned Parenthood, or large blocks of minority congress members, that's precisely what's she's doing But doing this all in a “How can you question me?” manner does not do a lot to attract first-time, marginal or disaffected voters, whose support will be absolutely crucial for Democratic success—not just in the general election, but beyond that, in getting anything done.

The idea that Clinton's policies are more practical than Sanders' flies in the face of the whole history of GOP obstructionism that Obama has faced. The real winner of the “get things done” contest will be whichever candidate can be most successful in weakening, and ultimately overcoming, the GOP's stranglehold in Congress—and that will mean mobilizing the constituency that Sanders is speaking to best, including women and minorities whose less alienated counterparts may favor Clinton, but who need a different approach to overcome their profound skepticism.

This is not just my opinion, drawn out of thin air, my hot take on the situation. It's a clear consequence of the argument made Democracy Corps pollster Stan Greenberg in his recently-published book, America Ascendant: A Revolutionary Nation's Path to Addressing Its Deepest Problems and Leading the 21st Century. Greenberg has a long history with Clintons—James Carville is his co-principal at Democracy Corps—so no one should think he's shilling for Bernie Sanders. But he does have a long history of paying attention to economical progressive voter sentiments that other pollsters routinely overlook. In fact, that's part of the reason Bill Clinton became president in the first place. And it's also why his arguments implicitly support Bernie Sanders' efforts in the current campaign—and could support Hillary Clinton, too, if she took them more seriously to heart, and shifted the nature of her argument.

When Greenberg's book came out Sophia Tesfaye wrote here:

Greenberg, whose new book “America Ascendant” argues that the nation will soon be “exceptional again” because of its cultural diversity, argued that the Democrats shouldn’t be afraid to now advocate for “very bold policy changes.”

In an interview with the Huffington Post, Greenberg said that he was pleasantly surprised by the degree to which the all the Democratic candidates had embraced such boldly progressive policy prescriptions thus far. But speaking of Vice President Joe Biden’s urging for Democrats to run on President Obama’s legacy as he announced his decision not to run for president, Greenberg argued that a third Obama term is not what voters want, despite the President’s recent proclamations.

“The Democratic Party is waiting for a president who will articulate the scale of the problems we face and challenge them to address it,” Greenberg argued. “The problem the president has had is that he’s not tried to educate the country on how deep the downside is,” Greenberg said, referring to Obama’s selling of his domestic agenda. “He was trying to tell the country that we’re on an upward path without being honest, leveling with them about how big a price we have [to pay] in the short term and how much government has to do in order to get us onto a different path.”

This is almost exactly the same way that Sanders views and talks about Obama's accomplishments. Again, in the CNN town hall, after first acknowledging differences he has with Obama—the TPP trade agreement specifically—Sanders went on:

On the other hand, let's be very clear. And I got a little bit upset that our Republicans friends suffer from a very serious illness called amnesia.


SANDERS: They forgot what the economy of this country was like seven years ago when we were losing 800,000 jobs a month, when we were running up a $1.4 trillion deficit, and by the way, the world's financial system was on the verge of collapse.

President Obama and Vice President Biden have taken us a very, very long way from those dismal days. Are we where we want to be today? No. But we have come a long way and President Obama deserves an enormous amount of credit for that.

So there you have it—the Clinton's first national pollster and Bernie Sanders have almost identical views of Obama's accomplishment—and what needs to happen next. And so could Hillary Clinton, if she choose a truly pro-active way of engaging in the primary debate that's now unfolding. Trying to defend her past, and wrong-foot Sanders with word games, relying on a framework of shared assumptions with the establishment pundit/media world may well be enough to win her the nomination—but not in a way that energizes and mobilizes the ascendant electorate that Greenberg writes about, and that Democrats absolutely must to have in order to govern.

Let me cite one other voice advancing the same argument, author Jedediah Purdy. He first situates Sanders' democratic socialism internationally, as I've done, as well noting “much of his 'socialism' is updated New Deal and Great Society liberalism.” He then explains what distinguishes Sanders' effort, in contrast—not opposition—to Obama:

The Sanders campaign, if it succeeds, will build both a movement and a cohort—a political generation—around the ideas and policies of this new American socialism. The voters, the networks and above all, the ideas that the campaign is cultivating will remain for other candidates to tap and develop, at all levels of government, from city councils and state legislatures to presidential elections.

This is very different from anything Barack Obama did.... Anyone who participated in the 2008 campaign can remember the heartfelt sense of being part of something, of moving history a little.

But the Obama campaigns were ultimately about the candidate: his intelligence, charisma, integrity, and almost preternatural rhetorical gifts. After the long darkness of the Bush years, he brought alive the wish for progress, solidarity, and unity around a better version of the country. Nothing he said was unfamiliar; it was just that he said it—embodied it—so well.

Those campaigns gave a generation knowledge of how a movement feels, but not what a movement is. Viewed hopefully, the Sanders campaign is the next stage of maturation in a rebirth of American progressivism. This time, people understand that no personality, however compelling, can ever change a country. Youthful progressive politics is growing up.

This is the deeper story of progress that Sanders has to tell—a story not just about progressive ideas, or policies or values, but a progressive development of progressive politics itself. It's just this sort of long-term story that's essential for helping to make sense of the struggle we're engaged in, and making sense of any struggle is always crucial for attaining victory.

The challenge for Clinton is not to engage defensively as she has been doing, but to really articulate her own deep story of how she sees us getting where we need to be. As long as Clinton focuses on turning hardcore Obama voters against Sanders, she may think she's locking up the nomination, but it's a tragically short-term way of thinking (doomed to fail when it comes to governance), as well as being disingenuous. In reality, Sanders has long been more in tune with their concerns—as reflected in a still-small but significant number of thoughtful supporters and endorses, like Keith Ellison, Raul Grijalva, Nina Turner, Ben Jealous, Shaun King and Killer Mike. Equally, if not more importantly, he realizes the need to empower & engage them beyond the election itself, just as Purdy described.

It should be noted, there's an element of truth in Clinton's argument. The reality is that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were ideologically quite similar—neo-liberals who strove to adapt to Reaganism rather than challenge it fundamentally. While both were able to get some things done and inspire intense personal loyalty, both produced historic midterm loses of power two years after their first elections. A discouraged, demoralized Democratic base and a shrunken electorate were the reasons why, and there's no reason—up to now—to believe that Hillary Clinton would do any better.

That's her real challenge: demonstrate how she'd build a stronger movement beyond herself than either her husband or Obama did. That's the standard that she has to meet in order for her argument that she'd be more effective to make sense. Because the existing Congress would not let her be any more effective than Sanders. Hence, the real pragmatism argument revolves around mobilizing voters and keeping them engaged for the long haul, which is what Sanders has made the foundation of his campaign. Unless Clinton finds her own credible counter-proposal to this—and begins living it—the argument over who's more progressive will not be rooted in reality, or directed to the future.

Future-focused. Reality-based. That's what Sanders' argument has been, notwithstanding all the establishment spin to the contrary. If Clinton wants to beat him, she should respond in kind. If she does, the party and the country will be better for it, no matter which candidate wins.

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By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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