Despite what a lot of campaign trail journalism would have you believe, the 2016 Democratic primary contest isn’t about Bernie bros battling women voters allergic to mansplaining. Women — especially but not exclusively young women — are feeling the Bern, and plenty of bros are campaigning hard for Hillary.
Nor is this primary as simple as idealism versus pragmatism or political revolution versus getting things done. It’s about how we see ourselves and what we’re projecting onto the two Democratic contenders. A candidate who is pragmatic is apparently one who supports ideas and institutions the mainstream is comfortable with, while “idealistic” is now a catch-all term of opprobrium rather than an adjective applied to someone with a strong, passionate vision of how the world should be.
Clinton supporters want to make a virtue of their pragmatism. Even those who supported Obama in 2008 now see themselves as this election’s wise elder stateswomen. They’ve been around long enough to understand that calls for revolution sound inspiring but come to nothing in the end. Sure, they’re progressives but the kind who want to get things done. They’re not cool college kids; they’re tired, hardworking, uncool adults. In the words of Slate’s Michelle Goldberg — a Clinton supporter — “to defend Clinton is to defend middle age itself.”
Other Clinton supporters aren’t quite minivan-and-soccer-league-ready. Unwilling to cede “cool” to Sanders, they claim to be this year’s real radicals. What could be more radical, they ask, than putting a woman in the White House? Jill Filipovic recently argued in The New York Times that radicalism doesn’t belong exclusively to Sanders supporters. It can also be expressed by some women in their 30s who, angered by experience with workplace sexism that college-age women can only dread, are drawn to Clinton as “someone who shares both their political views and their experiences.”
But there’s no evidence that Clinton’s experience as a woman has distinguished her record on women’s issues. As Filipovic concedes, Sanders also supports paid leave and universal pre-K. Not mentioned in her piece is that he also supports closing the gender wage gap or that the specific policies he favors to address these issues are arguably more robust than those favored by Clinton.
Sanders is being branded this primary’s wild-eyed idealist. Many Clinton supporters have expressed sportsmanlike appreciation for his bracing oratory, crediting him with pushing their candidate to the left. But Clinton, too, gives inspiring speeches and possesses a clear vision of how the world should work. In this sense, she is also an idealist. She is idealistic on the subject of women’s and children’s rights, and her remarks and actions with respect to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, appear genuine and heartfelt. She also idealizes the use of U.S. military power, compromise and working within the system.
Many of her convictions appear to be sincere, especially when it comes to the use of military force. But the fact remains that, whether out of pragmatism or idealism, she espouses the wrong ideals. In the 1990s she chose getting health care done over getting it right and, given that the original goal was universal coverage, failed on both counts. In 2005, The New York Times characterized her attempt to sell an ambitious plan to “a public with no appetite for radical change” as the “major mistake” of her time as first lady, noting that she has since “stuck to … more modest initiatives.” In other words, she learned to trade in the critical goal of universal health care for the more achievable — and, according to Clinton supporters, more realistic — satisfaction of tinkering around the edges of a system that works well for insurance companies and badly for everyone else.
That’s the wrong lesson. Confronted with the same set of facts as the rest of us, Clinton consistently draws the wrong conclusions. She supported the invasion of Iraq, with devastating results. She supported welfare reform, ignoring the warnings of formerly trusted advisers that implementing it would mean plunging millions of children into poverty. She supported laws requiring teenage girls to notify their parents of abortions and is open to restricting women’s access to late-term abortions, with exceptions for the health and life of the mother. One of her signature legislative efforts as a senator was a deeply silly, if sincere, campaign against violence in video games. She supports the death penalty, in defiance of growing worldwide consensus that it is barbaric, racist and ineffective. She appears to believe or have believed in these decisions, not to have made them strategically in hopes of securing a greater good.
By the same token, Sanders is a pragmatist who has held elective office for a long time, not a member of the Weather Underground. He doesn’t fulminate for fun; he means to put his ideas into practice. Like Clinton, he often emphasizes the importance of bipartisanship and getting things done. He has a long and impressive legislative record, but he has also made compromises and taken positions — opposing the Brady Bill, defending Israel, failing to identify as an atheist — that have angered some on the left.
You don’t hold on to political power for decades by never compromising, and, on the basis of his track record, I believe Sanders is more effective than Clinton at wielding that power to advance a truly progressive agenda. Having a clear idea of what you intend to do and how you would do it is pragmatic. That Clinton’s plans are more detailed does not make them more workable, realistic, effective or popular with a Republican-controlled Congress. Clinton’s lesson from her failed health care proposal was to narrow her vision of what’s possible. The lesson Sanders drew from watching President Barack Obama handle similar challenges is that good tacticians do not allow corporate interests to defy the will of the American people.
Clinton’s supporters argue that sexism prevents her from taking similar stands. Perhaps that’s true, but there’s something else at play. Clinton simply doesn’t agree with Sanders that it is tactically wise to fight for sweeping reforms backed by large majorities of Americans. “I learned some valuable lessons about the legislative process, the importance of bipartisan cooperation and the wisdom of taking small steps to get a big job done,” she has said of her health plan’s demise. She has spent the last 20 years taking baby steps, and the big job of universal health care remains undone. It is only when it comes to military action that she favors large, undoable steps.
I sincerely hope that whoever wins the Democratic nomination will be our next president, because the GOP candidates are a terrifying mix of religious zealots, racist reactionaries and the proudly ignorant. But that person will be subject to the same limitations as every other president saddled with a hostile Congress and will face making the same sacrifices, compromises and decisions as every other person who attains serious power. When assessing Clinton and Sanders as job candidates, the more we rely on records, not false binaries, to guide us, the better off we’ll be.