The last time I wrote about the Democratic primary, I was undecided. I’ve made up my mind since then. I’ve decided to vote for Hillary Clinton, and in this post I’ll explain why.
To start with (because, yes, some of my best friends are Bernie supporters), I still believe there’s no bad choice in this race. Both of them are solid candidates, and Sanders’ presence has been beneficial. He’s pulled Clinton to the left in ways that could have lasting relevance if she becomes president, and he’s proven the unexpected strength of a young, social-democratic faction that will be a force to be reckoned with in future elections. On a personal level, he seems like a genuinely decent person, passionate about the things he cares about and disdainful of political theatrics. I wish we had a hundred more hell-raisers like him in Congress.
However, the presidency demands a different set of skills and qualifications, and it’s in these areas where I believe Clinton is the stronger candidate. Let’s take the points in order:
1. Hillary Clinton is a known quantity. Choosing a presidential candidate is a high-stakes bet, and it’s better to pick candidates who’ve been vetted. As First Lady, as a New York senator, as a past presidential candidate, and as Secretary of State, Clinton has spent her whole public career in the spotlight. The GOP has spent years trying to destroy her and has already thrown everything at her, every scandal they could invent, and she’s still standing. It’s not likely that they’d have any novel line of attack.
Bernie Sanders has never faced a national audience. This year is the first time he’s run for office outside his home state of Vermont, and to most of the country, he’s an unknown. Is there anything worrisome in his background, any political stance or character flaw that voters might see as disqualifying? How would he fare if he became the nominee and came under the full assault of the GOP attack machine, something he’s never had to face? All we can do is guess.
This is why I’m not concerned about polls of the candidates’ favorability numbers right now. Not only do they mean little this far out from the election, it’s reasonable to believe that Clinton’s number is a floor, whereas Sanders’ could well be a ceiling.
2. Hillary Clinton’s support looks like the coalition that wins elections for Democrats. In the primaries so far, the pattern is that Sanders wins smaller, whiter and more rural states, while Clinton wins larger, more-diverse states and swing states (Nevada, Ohio, Florida, Virginia). She’s far ahead among black and Hispanic voters, which accounts for her landslide victories across the South.
Of the two of them, Clinton’s supporters look more like the Obama coalition that won elections for Democrats in 2008 and 2012. If she continues to outperform Sanders among this group, she can make a strong argument that she’s the better general election candidate.
The counterargument often made by Sanders supporters is that his inspirational message generates voter enthusiasm which will give rise to an unprecedented wave of turnout and sweep him into office in a landslide. However, proof of this is lacking. There’s no evidence that Sanders is activating a large bloc of formerly dormant voters; rather, his principal appeal is to mostly young, mostly white, strongly liberal voters who’ve always been a part of the Democratic-progressive coalition.
If vote count is a measure of enthusiasm, then the evidence is clear: Hillary Clinton is the candidate who draws the most voter enthusiasm, as she has a 2.5-million-vote lead over Sanders in the popular vote so far. Her vote count also exceeds that of all the Republican candidates, including Donald Trump. And just this week, a Gallup poll finds that Clinton supporters are more enthusiastic than Sanders supporters, 54% to 44%.
3. A Hillary Clinton presidency would be a historic first. Compared to the others, this is a minor point, but still worth noting. Bernie Sanders would be the first Jewish president, which would also be meaningful. However, the first woman president, especially as the successor to the first black president, would be a far greater milestone in America’s changing view of itself and a sign of its ongoing progress toward greater equality and egalitarianism.
You don’t have to be a Clinton supporter to see that she’s constantly been attacked with vulgar misogyny and insidious sexist stereotypes which denigrate women who seek power or hold them to an impossible double standard. Electing her as president would be an enormously powerful repudiation of this long-standing prejudice.
4. Hillary Clinton is best positioned to continue President Obama’s legacy. While Barack Obama hasn’t done everything we hoped of him, and while I personally think he’s been frustratingly naive about Republican obstruction, he’ll still be remembered as one of America’s great liberal presidents. The passage of Obamacare alone achieves a goal that eluded presidents from Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, and that will make him a “towering figure” in histories yet to be written.
I’d like the next president to govern in the same mold, and I believe Hillary Clinton is best positioned to do this, not least because she was part of his administration. Sanders, by contrast, implicitly dismisses most of President Obama’s hard-won achievements as inadequate and wants to scrap them and start over. For more on this, see the last point.
5. The differences between Clinton and Sanders aren’t that large, and aren’t all to Sanders’ advantage. The stereotype is that Sanders is a true-blue liberal crusader, while Clinton is a chameleonic career politician willing to say or do anything for her own advancement. In fact, their records are very similar: PolitiFact points out that Clinton and Sanders have the same percentage of statements rated “True” or “Mostly True”, and a New York Times analysis found that in the years they were both in the Senate, Clinton and Sanders voted the same way 93% of the time.
Granted, it may not be fair to count all votes as equal; some are clearly more consequential than others. But the differences in their records don’t all favor Sanders. For instance, he’s often voted against background checks, automatic weapons bans and other restrictions on gun sales; he’s also voted to immunize gun manufacturers from lawsuits. Clinton’s plan for Wall Street reform has also been endorsed as better than Sanders’ by someone who ought to know a bit about it.6. Hillary Clinton is doing more to build up the Democratic party and ensure progressive gains in America. The presidency is a powerful office, but not all-powerful. As long as Republicans control the legislature, it’s impossible to make genuine progressive advances. That’s why it’s so important for presidential candidates to use their visibility and fundraising prowess to build the party’s get-out-the-vote infrastructure and support Democrats in downticket races, to take back state legislatures and make gains in Congress.
However, as of January, Sanders’ campaign hasn’t done this. They’ve raised no money toward supporting Democratic candidates in competitive races around the country. Clinton’s campaign is doing this and has raised $18 million for other Democrats in that same period.
Given his talk of a “political revolution”, Sanders knows that the president can’t do everything alone. That makes it all the more baffling and frustrating that he’s not trying to build the legislative majority that would be essential to achieving his goals. And that brings me to my last point, namely:
7. I’m skeptical of Bernie Sanders’ ability to keep his campaign promises. This, for me, is the biggest sticking point. As appealing as I find Sanders’ political views in the abstract, I believe he’s making huge promises with no concrete or feasible plan for how he’ll keep them.
The best example is Sanders’ signature issue, national single-payer health care. As I wrote in “What is Bernie’s Plan B?“, Obamacare was only passed because Democrats briefly enjoyed unified control of Congress and a filibuster-proof Senate supermajority. Even with those advantages, it was a colossal battle, and the public option had to be dropped from the final version to secure the needed votes.
Single-payer is a vastly bigger, more ambitious, and inevitably more controversial plan. What’s more, it’d be facing a Congress that’s virtually guaranteed to be less friendly. In 2016, it would be a great victory for Democrats to take back the Senate at all, and control of the House is (almost) inconceivable. But even winning a bare majority wouldn’t be enough; President Sanders would need a majority big enough so that votes weren’t needed from Republicans or from conservative Democrats, bigger than the supermajority that passed Obamacare.
I haven’t seen any rhetoric from Sanders which indicates that he recognizes this or that he has a workable plan for how to do it. The most he offers is vague talk of a political revolution which will somehow overcome all opposition. This is pure Green Lantern Theory: the belief that the president can accomplish anything if he just tries hard enough.
This also comes through when Sanders promises things that simply aren’t within the president’s power. I’m thinking specifically of his claim that if he’s elected, by the end of his first term America won’t have more people in prison than any other country. That’s a laudable goal, but most incarcerated people are in state prisons! Even if he pardoned every single federal prisoner, it wouldn’t be enough.
As I said last time, the unglamorous reality is that the next president (assuming it’s a Democrat) is likely to have a defensive role no matter who it is. They’ll be safeguarding Obamacare and other liberal achievements from a hostile Congress, driving hard bargains to keep the government functioning, and eking out incremental gains where possible. I believe Hillary is well-suited for this kind of political trench warfare. I’m not at all certain that Sanders is, and I fear his coalition could collapse in disillusionment the first time he’s unable to keep one of his expansive campaign pledges.
What about the Iraq war, huh? There are some common liberal criticisms of Clinton’s voting record, and I won’t address them all since this post is long enough already. But I want to talk about the most serious, her vote for George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion in 2002.
The Iraq war was America’s worst foreign-policy disaster since Vietnam, and Clinton voted to enable it (although there are some nuances worth paying attention to). I thought that vote was a grievous error – I said so in 2007 – and I still do. If you refuse to support her because of it, I won’t argue with you.
But since I wrote that, I’ve come to believe it’s an error that’s unlikely to be repeated. I believe that she, like many other Democrats, was swept along in the tide of post-9/11 war hysteria drummed up by a Republican president using fake intelligence and warning of doomsday if he wasn’t given freedom to act. That doesn’t excuse her vote, but she wasn’t the driving force behind the war, and I don’t believe it tells us anything about what she would do as president. She’s also admitted the vote was a mistake, which she didn’t do the last time around.
I agree that Clinton’s record is imperfect, on this and on other issues, and I don’t think she’s above criticism. I fully expect that, if she’s elected, we’ll have to hold her feet to the fire on occasion (but that’s true of every politician, and expecting any candidate to be perfect out of the box is an unrealistic and dangerous illusion).
Regardless, I’d argue that the ideological differences between her and Sanders aren’t as vast as some believe, and that they’d be further compressed by the practical limits that either would be likely to face as president. More importantly, I believe she’s the stronger general election candidate and the one who will do the most to fortify the Democratic coalition. Considering who the Republicans are likely to nominate, the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been, so it’s essential that we choose a candidate who can lead progressives to victory. I believe that in 2016, Hillary Clinton is that candidate.
Reasons Why Hillary Clinton Has Earned My Vote, by Kate Harding