The four policy reasons why I support Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Primary.
Subtext: Why I think you should too.
I will be voting for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic nomination contest. Of course, I won’t get to cast an actual ballot for her until June by which point it’s extremely likely that the question will have already been settled. Nevertheless, I am really looking forward to filling in that little bubble next her name. I want to tell you why.
But before I get into it, I should do a little throat-clearing. First of all, the views expressed here are mine alone. Second, reasonable people are allowed to come to different conclusions about all of this. I don’t actually expect anyone to change their minds if they disagree with me. I hope they will, but I don’t expect it.
Finally, some important disclosures about me. I am a Democrat. I am a liberal. I have worked on federal economic policy in various capacities since 2007. I have friends and former colleagues who are currently on the staff of each of the three Democratic candidates, though I know far more people who are working for Secretary Clinton than for either Senator Sanders or Governor O’Malley. I supported Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary. I supported John Kerry in the 2004 Democratic primary. I supported Al Gore in the 2000 Democratic primary and I still hold a burning, fiery grudge against Ralph Nader and everyone who voted for him. Feel free to take any or all of that into account.
Let’s also stipulate that, overall, all three candidates have put forward remarkably substantive policy agendas. There are gaps, there is the occasional hand-waving, and there are some asterisks to be sure. But, by and large, the Democratic primary debate so far has been admirably meaty even before you compare it to the train-wreck that is the Republican primary “debate.” That being said, there are several strong policy reasons for liberals and progressives to prefer Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders (apologies to Martin O’Malley, but I will be confining my comparisons here to Sanders).
Enough with the wind-up. Here’s the pitch.
We have to start with the simple fact that Clinton’s policy agenda is both progressive and aggressive. Some may want her to be even more progressive — a point I will get to in a moment — but don’t for one second allow yourself to believe that there isn’t a giant chasm between what Clinton wants to do and what even the most “moderate” Republican candidate for president wants to do. Clinton wants to raise the federal minimum wage to its highest level in fifty years. Most Republicans want to keep the minimum wage stuck at $7.25, or even scrap it entirely. Clinton wants to close tax loopholes that benefit the very rich and ask the wealthy to pay more into Social Security, whereas it is an article of faith among the GOP that taxes on the rich must always always always go down. Clinton wants to get rid of the Hyde Amendment, while the GOP wants to get rid of Planned Parenthood. If you hear someone say that there’s not enough difference between Clinton and the Republicans, turn and run as fast as you can lest you get some of their stupid on you.
But being way way better than the Republicans is A) not a high bar, and B) not enough to earn my support, especially since every Democratic candidate more than meets this basic standard. Instead, I think Clinton’s policy agenda is superior to Sanders’s for four main reasons:
- Clinton’s agenda pushes the boundaries of the possible, making measurable change more likely.
- Clinton’s proposals do a far better job of confronting trade-offs and setting priorities.
- Clinton’s policies are rooted in evidence and data, even when the more popular position might have been otherwise.
- Clinton’s ideas are based on building and improving, ensuring that risks to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged are minimized.
Just as it isn’t enough for a policy to be merely better than the Republican alternative, it also isn’t necessarily the case that the furthest-left policy is the most progressive. Policy is the means to an end, not the end itself. And if what we’re after is progressive change, then I think Clinton has the strongest policy case.
Good progressive policy ideas push the boundaries of the possible.
First, Clinton’s policy proposals generally push at the boundaries of what is possible, whereas Sanders’s policy proposals generally ignore those boundaries entirely, assuming they don’t exist or can be somehow bypassed. I can understand the appeal in the Sanders approach. The boundaries of the policy debate are often regressive and arbitrary, and it feels as if we’ve been pushing on them forever with only intermittent success. And especially after seven years of constantly leaning our shoulders into the fight to win every inch we can, I can understand why we might be tempted to take a running leap of faith instead.
But we would be wise to resist that temptation if what we’re really trying to do is make policy changes that will meaningfully improve people’s lives. Yes, that’s in part because a boundary-ignoring approach is less likely to produce actual policy change than boundary-pushing. You can be frustrated with the pace of that change and you can wish that our system allowed a president to enact the agenda that got him or her elected, but the historical fact remains that the few cases when federal policy really did take an enormous leap forward are the exception, rather than the rule. So until there is a plausible case that we are on the precipice of one of those rare exception moments, I prefer the approach that offers the possibility — however small — of real gains.
Of course, I have to acknowledge that given the likely makeup of the next Congress, it’s not as if Clinton’s agenda is simply going to sail through. But I don’t agree with the argument that none of this matters because Republicans will block everything that any Democratic president wants, so let’s just go really big. In the last year — one in which the GOP controlled both the House and the Senate — President Obama signed into a law a permanent improvement to the Medicare doctor reimbursement formula, a complete overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a budget agreement that lifted the caps on domestic investments, and a tax deal that included big progressive priorities like an expanded earned income tax credit. Though these were not all unalloyed progressive victories, there were meaningful improvements in each one, the product of President Obama and thousands of progressive champions pushing relentlessly on the boundaries of the possible. No, Clinton’s boundary-pushing agenda will not be enacted wholesale. But her approach is far more likely to leave us with material successes than Sanders’s.
Before going any further, I want to clarify that this critique should not be taken to mean that there is no place for seemingly boundary-ignoring policy ideas. Quite the contrary, there are times and places when boundary-ignoring actually turns out to be boundary-pushing. As it happens, I think a primary election can often be one of those times. So I’m glad that Senator Sanders and his ideas are in the debate. I think the Democratic party and the country are better for it.
But as the President of the United States, always going for the moon shot has real opportunity costs. Time, attention and political capital are all scarce resources. Spending those resources on policies that are far outside the confines of the current debate means you have much less to spend on everything else. The Sanders health care plan is a good example of this dynamic. Right now, it’s an eight-page document that outlines a broad vision for utterly reinventing the way we pay for and provide health care in the country. Think about how much time and energy it would take, not only to actually try to pass it, but even just to flesh out all the details, to iron out all the wrinkles, to solve all the many thorny transition problems it would entail. And now consider how many other — admittedly smaller — problems could have been tackled with that same amount of time, attention and energy. Perhaps that’s a trade-off you are willing to make in the service of a probably quixotic quest to create a single-payer health care system. It is not a trade-off I am willing to make.
Good progressive policies confront trade-offs and set priorities.
In fact, confronting and acknowledging real trade-offs is a serious weakness of the Sanders agenda, and it is the second reason I prefer Clinton on policy grounds. I don’t want to get too accusatory here, because campaign policy proposals have never been particularly well-known for boasting an unflinching willingness to accept limitations or to admit to the existence of both losers and winners. But constraints are real and so are trade-offs. Good public policy is all about balancing those trade-offs given the constraints. Individually, many of Senator Sanders’ policies may be good, even great. But taken together, they show a remarkable indifference to confronting trade-offs and an unwillingness to set priorities.
Sanders, for example, has proposed a trillion dollars in new infrastructure investment, a plan to make public universities tuition-free, universal paid leave, single-payer health care, and an expansion of Social Security, among other things. Individually, many of these are excellent progressive policy proposals, but by Sanders’s own estimation, he would need to raise taxes by roughly $1.8 trillion per year in order to pay for them. That’s a roughly 50 percent increase in total federal tax revenue. The top federal tax rate on ordinary wage income would go from about 40 percent to well over 70 percent.
Now, listen, I am not crying for households who make more than $10 million a year. And I am probably the last person who would complain about proposals to raise revenue to pay for needed national priorities (if you don’t believe me, or you think I’m exaggerating, google my name and “taxes”). But in a world where we were barely able to get the top tax rate for the top 1 percent back up four percentage points — and even then, the rich got to keep most of their Bush tax cuts — there’s no realistic chance of getting even a decent fraction of what Sanders has asked for. And if that’s the case, then Sanders has clearly not done the hard work of figuring out priorities, of operating within constraints, of balancing trade-offs.
I think this is what Secretary Clinton is getting at when she criticizes the Sanders proposal for free tuition at all public universities for all students. Since we will not, in practice, be able to raise $1.8 trillion in new annual revenue, that means we will need to make choices, and prioritize. What is more important to us? Paying the tuition of students who can definitely already afford to go to college, or helping those who cannot afford to do so? I think both Clinton and Sanders would say the latter should be the priority, but it is only Clinton who has actually embedded that into her policy proposals. The Sanders plan has the luxury of not prioritizing because he fails to acknowledge any real constraints. This same failing is apparent within many of his major policy proposals, but is an especially glaring weakness when considering his agenda as a whole.
Good progressive policies are based on data and evidence.
Another policy weakness that I worry about with Senator Sanders is that he sometimes takes bold, ideological stands even when the data and the evidence don’t support that position. This is a mistake we all make from time to time and to one degree or another. Sometimes an entire party ideology is actually dependent on ignoring facts and data (*cough* Republicans *cough* climate change *cough*). Other times, we simply edge a little further out on the limb than what the evidence actually supports, or we assume that if something is true in one circumstance it is true in all circumstances. Trickle-down economic policy is basically one huge string of these kinds of mistakes.
Sanders doesn’t make this kind of mistake nearly as often as do the Republicans, but he does make it more often than Clinton. The minimum wage is a good example. For the last twenty years or so, the preponderance of economic studies have shown clearly that modest increases in the minimum wage do not have measurable disemployment effects. In other words, raising the minimum wage does not lead to job loss, at least not in our historical experience. Moreover, many minimum wage experts believe, based on international and historical data, that minimum wages should beset at roughly half of median wages.
At $12 an hour, the minimum wage would be just over 50 percent of the national median wage, and that would restore its purchasing power to roughly the peak U.S. level. It would put our federal minimum wage in line with that of most other developed countries. In other words, $12 is the highest federal minimum wage level supported by data and evidence.
A federal minimum wage of $15 an hour, by contrast, has no historical precedent. At that level, the minimum wage would be roughly two-thirds of the median wage. None of the existing minimum wage studies included increases or levels remotely approaching the equivalent of a $15 federal floor. It’s possible that $15 an hour would be fine as a federal minimum wage (and it probably is right for some states and a lot of cities), but we just don’t have the evidence to support that contention the way we do for $12.
As progressives, we have to do our utmost to ensure that the policies we advocate will actually work as we intend them to. When a program, regulation, service or benefit fails to accomplish its goals, or worse has negative unintended consequences, real people get hurt and the failure is often used to discredit progressive policy in general. Of course, we will get it wrong sometimes, but we maximize our chances of success, and minimize the risk of blowback, when we build on a solid foundation of evidence. And because of that, Clinton’s approach is preferable to Sanders’s, from both a good policy and a progressive standpoint.
Good progressive policies build and improve.
Finally, I strongly prefer Clinton’s instinct to build on and improve upon the gains we’ve recently made rather than trying to wipe the slate clean and start over. The truth is that Sanders, too, mainly wants to build on the existing foundation rather than start over. His proposals for Social Security, for example, don’t scrap the system, but rather expand on it (as do Clinton’s proposals, though in a more targeted way — another example of confronting trade-offs and prioritizing…but I digress). But in the prominent case of health care, Sanders really does want to entirely replace, rather than augment or improve, the current system.
I understand that impulse, and there may be times when something that dramatic really is necessary. But even in those cases, we need to be extremely careful to think through the potential consequences, especially for communities who would bear the brunt of the transition from the old system to the new. And to be very frank here, I don’t think Bernie Sanders has thought through the enormous risks — especially for low-income people, families with children, communities of color, and people with disabilities— that come with entirely scrapping the current system in favor of a new one. Certainly, there is nothing in his existing plan or materials to suggest that he has considered how to move from here to there without causing enormous disruption and damage to vulnerable communities. To the contrary, it seems likely that many families currently served by Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program would pay more under his plan than they do now. Sanders could certainly fix that bug, but the fact that it’s in there now should concern progressives deeply.
I think Sanders has a point when he says that single-payer systems in other countries operate more efficiently than ours does and with great success. I think he may be right that, ultimately, such a system could offer us enormous benefits. And I know he is right that we can’t be satisfied with the gains we made under Obamacare. But, as in most contexts, we should be suspicious of claims that something must be destroyed in order to improve it.
Clinton’s is the stronger progressive agenda.
It is natural, in the course of a contentious primary, to accentuate the differences between candidates. And certainly, what I’ve done here is lay out four ways that Clinton and Sanders approach policy differently. But I don’t want anyone to come away with the idea that Sanders and Clinton are standing on opposite sides of vast canyon. They’re not. They’re different, yes, but their differences are absolutely dwarfed by the differences between them and the Republicans. They both believe that the economic playing field is titled heavily in favor of the very rich. They both believe in the power of collective action to create a more vibrant, fair, and prosperous society. They both see injustice embedded in our system at all levels and want to root it out. Both Clinton and Sanders are dedicated public servants with enormous vaults of valuable experience, and they should both be praised for running substantive, progressive, policy-focused campaigns.
But I’m voting for Clinton, and I’m doing so, in large part, because of her strong policy agenda. It is true that many of Sander’s proposals are further to the left than Clinton’s (though not on everything — see, for example, reproductive rights and guns). But as a progressive, I don’t judge policies based solely on how far to the left they are. I want policies that will push boundaries to make room for real gains. I want an agenda that has considered the trade-offs and identified priorities. I want proposals that are based on evidence and data. And I want ideas that will protect the vulnerable and disadvantaged as we build and improve. For all these policy reasons, Clinton has my vote, and I hope she’ll have yours too.