In the run-up to Monday’s Iowa caucuses, presumed Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton at last admitted something that has been clear for months: Sen. Bernie Sanders is beating her in this campaign. He may not lead many polls, but he’s climbing, and he’s making it hard for her. She won’t say this outright, instead resorting to a cliché, saying, “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.”
Setting aside the insult to both poetry and prose — I certainly hope this article, for instance, is more functional than Congress — Clinton is telling Democratic voters that she knows they like Sanders more but that they should vote for her anyway. And they should do so because, though she lacks the aesthetic appeal she grants him, she is a no-nonsense pragmatist who would get things done. “If you can’t get excited, be pragmatic,” she said. Influential liberals such as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman are much taken by her “hardheaded realism.”
But Clinton’s appeal to prosaic pragmatism is, alas, an empty one. True, her opponent for the nomination — who has captivated voters by pushing a “revolution” predicated on free college tuition, tax hikes on trust-fund millionaires, Medicare for all and a $15 federal minimum hourly wage — is something of a fantasist. But so is Clinton. Anyone who thinks a Democratic successor to President Barack Obama would bend Congress toward his or her agenda sounds more Robert Browning than Brookings policy brief.
No one gets things done in Washington anymore, at least not legislatively. Though Sanders talks occasionally about reaching across the aisle — on veterans’ health care, for instance — he doesn’t seem all that concerned about how his ideas would work in practice. Clinton, on the other hand, has made “Can do” her mantra. It is therefore she, more than the romantic siphoning her votes, who needs to be brought to earth.
This is not to say that if the next president is a Democrat, he or she will be powerless, but his or her influence would be felt principally in areas where congressional approval either is not needed or is customarily easier to obtain. Democratic voters are electing a vetoing, executive-ordering, Supreme Court justice–nominating, foreign-policy-making machine.
In the case of Clinton versus Sanders, the crucial differences really come down to the last of these.
Expect similar veto tactics from these two. Neither one would kill the Affordable Care Act, defund Planned Parenthood, make Mexico pay for a border fence or approve any other large-scale schemes emanating from a GOP-controlled Congress, which is curbed by Senate Democrats. As for executive authority, it is highly constrained. For all the bleating about Obama’s executive power grabs on issues such as immigration and environmental protection, his extralegislative activity has been less than extreme. Supreme Court appointments are critical, but neither Democrat would get away with a radical nominee. The Senate must still approve Supreme Court justices. Put Clinton or Sanders in the White House, and either way, the next Earl Warren is not walking through the chamber doors.
Given the inability to enact major legislation and the unlikelihood of appointing an especially progressive Supreme Court nominee, the only policy arena in which we can anticipate significant difference is foreign affairs.
On this score, the conventional wisdom is that Clinton has the advantage. Pundits have commented on how uncomfortable Sanders has appeared in debates when international affairs come up. It is an odd claim. Certainly Clinton, as a former secretary of state, has Sanders beat on foreign policy experience, but what is the nature of her experience? Her support for the Iraq War as a senator and her gloating over the increasingly ill-fated intervention in Libya, which she lobbied hard for as secretary of state, are enough to demonstrate her badly impaired foreign policy judgment. Both forays have advanced the cause of Islamic radicalism by destabilizing the Middle East and North Africa. Sanders voted against the resolution to invade Iraq — reprising an unpopular but principled choice he made years earlier, when the first Gulf War was before Congress — and did not, as Clinton claims, support the violent overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
When it comes to foreign policy, the one true presidential prerogative, the candidate who can’t stop boasting about her pragmatism has never been especially realistic. Clinton thinks about foreign policy as though it were a game of harsh words. Despite the Iraq disaster, she still believes regime change can be cheap and effective and has even criticized Obama for not intervening more thoroughly in Syria.
Meanwhile, Sanders unequivocally supports an Iran nuclear deal, on which Clinton wants it both ways. She gives the impression of grudging acquiescence to the settlement, lest the United States reject it and thereby find itself excluded from a new global status quo. Although she tepidly accepts the terms of the deal, she backs new sanctions and promises to “confront [the Iranians] across the board.” The aggressive rhetoric on the Iran deal fits easily alongside her wishful interventionist posture in Syria, tough talk on Russia and consistent support for the removal of foreign governments. She has always seen U.S. power as a tool for remaking the world. If his enthusiasm for the nuclear deal is any indication, Sanders sees the security won by that power as a tool for making peace.
Though Clinton’s foreign policy experience is as disqualifying as it is extensive, there may still be good reasons to vote for her. Let us not delude ourselves, however, into believing that a supernatural capacity to get things done in Washington is among them.