I’m a pretty liberal dude. But I’m not going to vote for Bernie Sanders.
Some of it is electoral mathematics. A drawn-out primary fight is a dangerous proposition for the Democrats, and one Senator Sanders is likely to lose. But say I’m wrong, and he wins the primary. Say I’m really wrong and somehow a Trump/Carson/Sanders three-way election breaks out and Sanders wins the general. Theoretically, I get what I want: a president with a strong progressive vision. And that is what I want; I just want presidents to be quiet about it.
The history of the presidency suggests that the most effective executives combine a radical vision with political pragmatism, acting publicly moderate while leading the country towards a transformation. Abraham Lincoln is a classic. He knew the country had to move beyond slavery, but realized it was politically impossible at the start of his presidency. To do so was to re-envision the economy, reconstitute the political relationship between the states, and reconcile the country to a prolonged Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation came out near the third year of the conflict, once Lincoln was sure he could direct the narrative. In the meantime, he was publicly moderate, advocating containment rather than abolition.
If we look at other transformative Presidents, we see a similar pattern. FDR was elected as a moderate; his reforms were iterative and forced by outside political pressure. His long run liberal vision was quietly implemented a piece at a time. Likewise, Reagan read the political headwinds, passing limited welfare reform and failing to fulfill his electoral promise to demolish the Department of Education. However, both reset America’s course, with FDR’s Keynesianism and emphasis on a strong safety net passing into Nixon’s Republican Administration and Reagan influencing Clinton to be tough on crime and severely limit welfare.
Not all candidates have to live up to the legacies of the most notable past presidents, but if Senator Sanders wants to make good on his promises, he’s going to have fundamentally change America’s course. To do so requires the cooperation of Congress and the consent of the American people to a radical political vision. Sanders is not an FDR; he’s a Walter Mondale or a Jimmy Carter, a Washington outsider with a progressive vision who will smash on the shores of political necessity.
President Obama makes a similar point during his interview with Marc Maron: “You can’t turn 50 degrees. And it’s not just because of corporate lobbyists. It’s not just because of big money. It’s because societies don’t turn 50 degrees. Democracies certainly don’t turn 50 degrees… As long as they’re turning in the right direction and we’re making progress, then government is working sort of the way it’s supposed to.”
It’s not our ideal vision of democracy, but the President is not a Philosopher-King. They have to make nasty compromises, sacrificing their agenda for the sake of current realities, both political and practical. And while Senator Sanders is an important liberal voice, and candidate Sanders will force the Democratic Party to care about its base, President Sanders would be a disaster.
Does this make me an enthusiastic Hillary Clinton supporter? Well, no. I have concerns. Her sloppiness with her e-mail does not inspire confidence in her managerial ability, though I doubt there’s a vast conspiracy at play. Furthermore, while her liberal credentials are not nearly as weak as the left believes (she’s to the left of Senator Obama by some metrics), there’s no pretending she is the reconstructive President I think we need right now. But even looking past the fact she’s more likely to win the general election than Senator Sanders, she is willing to compromise and capitulate. These moral sins are political virtues.