22 September 2015

The Sanders Presidency: a preview

At least Bernie Sanders has gotten a Time magazine cover out of his underdog campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Inside the September 28 issue, the Senator from Vermont offers an explanation for Barack Obama's shortcomings as a President and hints at what he'd do differently Unlike the notorious "community organizer," Sanders believes in a perpetually mobilized movement. "The biggest mistake [Obama] made," he says, "is that the day after the election, in so many words, he said, 'Thank you very much, but I will take it from here.'" Sanders expects that a movement capable of getting him elected would be capable of overcoming Republican obstructionism. Here's how:

How do I convince John [Boehner]? Is my personality that much better than Obama's? The answer is to say, 'Hey, John, take a look out your window. Because there are a million young people there that are in support of the legislation [a theoretical bill to provide free tuition at public colleges]. They are voting. They know what's going on. If you refuse to make college affordable, they're going to vote your people out of office.' That's the offer you can't refuse.

What makes Sanders so sure? Liberals and progressives have gathered in Washington by their thousands and millions many times before. How many more could Sanders bring in to make the impression he hopes for? Is he threatening Boehner's own seat? How many of the people out his window are in Boehner's own district? Leaving that number aside, didn't Republicans long ago reject the notion that mass gatherings of people who don't look like them represent anything more than themselves? On college tuition Sanders thinks he has a winning issue because he'd fund it all with higher taxes on the wealthy, but he almost certainly underestimates the cynicism of voters who take for granted that higher taxes trickle down to them as higher prices, and he definitely underestimates a likely resentment by older generations of the next generation getting a break they didn't get. But let's not get too specific about the theoretical. Is this how Sanders proposes to push through a legislative agenda? Tactically I don't get it. Maybe if he could stage demonstrations in all fifty state capitals it would make a deeper impression on Republican incumbents. But government by demo in Washington looks a lot like mere playing to the media, while to more hostile observers it will look like the first hint of "mob rule" and as such may only harden many hearts. Sanders seems to miss the heart of the problem with Republicans. He thinks he can get them to enact his agenda by intimidating them with mass demonstrations in the capital, but it's more likely that he won't have his agenda enacted until a more sympathetic majority is elected to Congress. If he isn't working now to get a sympathetic Congress elected alongside him in 2016, he shouldn't expect victories in Congress until he makes such a commitment. He probably overestimates what he can do as both President and movement leader, as if he and the million young people can make Congress vote their way no matter who's in Congress. He and they had better get their priorities straight, or else in the still-unlikely event of a Sanders presidency a successful presidency will be still more unlikely.

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