Not Feeling the Bern

Great wish list. Too bad Santa isn't running for President.

Before I launch the rant, here are my qualifications:
1) I first realized I was a socialist in 1980, when a conservative friend asked me some leading questions to which the answer, for me, was obviously yes (I can't remember what they were, but I expect they had to do with federal regulations, labor unions, and the social safety net). "Congratulations," he said, his voice heavy with irony, "you're a socialist." "Huh," I replied, "if believing that government should protect the interests of ordinary people against corporate interests, then I'm all in!" Or something like that.
2) I'm no Hillary Clinton fan. There are many reasons, but the clincher was her evasiveness around the obviously political evolution of her views on marriage equality in a 2014 interview with Terry Gross. The rhetorical knots she tied herself in were eerily reminiscent of her husband's slipperiness when confronted about his mid-century rake approach to marital fidelity.

With those two qualifications well in place, I am now declaring my intention to vote for Hillary Clinton for President in both the primary and the general election.

But wait, you're asking, especially in light of the "top 10 list" that opened this post: why isn't Bernie Sanders your guy? Isn't every position on that list something you can get behind? And you're right: everything on there--free college tuition, single-payer healthcare, rebuilding America's infrastructure, parental leave, honesty in politics, the whole ball of wax--speaks to me as something to be working toward. I couldn't ask for a better platform.

What I could ask for, unfortunately, is a better candidate.

Bernie Sanders' talking points go everywhere he does. In every interview, he finds ways to steer all his answers to these points--even when the question is about dealing with ISIS. In that sense, he's being like almost any other politician running for President. Listen to Ted Cruz field a question he'd rather not answer: he'll deftly turn it into an attack on President Obama rather than admit his own lack of a good answer. In fact, none of the remaining Republican candidates can give anything approximating a thoughtful answer to the ISIS question. All they've got is "Bomb! Bomb! Bomb!" Bernie Sanders has to admit, in fact, that if he were to become President, his foreign policy would probably be just an extension of what his rival, Hillary Clinton, helped to craft during her term as Secretary of State.

That's not the real problem with Sanders, though. What turns me away from him is the lack of realism in his agenda. Every item on that list is outside the powers of the President to enact. It takes Congress to create funding programs for student aid, to raise the minimum wage, to decriminalize marijuana, to defund the Pentagon and increase funding for infrastructure, to move healthcare further along the path toward full nationalization, to regulate sales and ownership of firearms, to put teeth in parental leave legislation--in fact, to do anything on his agenda. A President can ask for such policies to be enacted, can meet with Congressional leaders to try and further that agenda, can use the bully pulpit to try and get the American people on board, but in the end, it takes majorities in both houses to propose and pass that legislation. As Bernie Sanders is very fond of saying, he's a promoter of democratic socialism. That means it's up to Congress, not the President.

And as the last seven years have demonstrated, Congress has a mind of its own.

Mind you, there's a strong possibility the Senate will turn over again in 2016 and have a Democratic majority--though I doubt it will be the super-majority necessary to avoid Republican filibusters of these items. But even if there's a Democratic Senate, the House is going to remain Republican for a very long time; and with the ironically named "Freedom Caucus" calling the shots, there is simply no way a "democratic socialist" agenda will see the light of day.

So the Sanders agenda--which is almost entirely domestic--is pie in the sky. What about the honesty question? Doesn't that count for anything?

Of course it does. Unfortunately, it's the opposite of what Bernie Sanders wants us to believe. As the two Democratic Presidents who preceded Barack Obama ably demonstrated, a principled President is almost always an ineffective President. The ideals of Jimmy Carter accomplished almost nothing during his term. The moral compromises of Bill Clinton, on the other hand, made him one of the most effective Presidents in recent history.

There's a reason the word "politician" is viewed with distaste by so many Americans: politics is the art, not of principle, but of compromise. Effective politicians are smooth, slippery, clever, cutting deals left and right to make sure legislation gets through. The principles of John F. Kennedy would have been for nothing without the political acumen of Lyndon Johnson to push through a civil rights agenda that transformed America--not to mention expanding the social safety net in ways even Franklin Roosevelt would've thought inadvisable. As a policy leader, President Obama has been far less effective than we who voted for him hoped, in large part because he has been incapable of reaching out to the right wing of the House of Representatives--something Bill Clinton excelled at, even as that same chamber impeached him.

I believe in all the changes Bernie Sanders wants to make in this country. But I don't believe he can accomplish them, even as President. I do believe, on the other hand, that as President, Hillary Clinton can move this nation further along the path to being a nation that cares for all its citizens. It won't be nearly as far as Bernie Sanders (and I) want it to go, but it'll still be farther than a President Sanders would be able to get it. The reason is simple: Hillary Clinton, like her husband, is a skilled politician who knows how to cut deals, knows how to give an inch to get a mile, to shift positions in ways that make change possible. After eight years of a President who, again and again, found himself hitting his head against an intractable wall of reactionary Congresspersons, we need a President who can work both sides of the aisle, negotiate compromises, and move the country incrementally in the right--or should I say, left--direction.

So there's the domestic side of the equation: in sum, I believe Hillary Clinton can move us farther to the left with her smooth politics than Bernie Sanders can with his lectern-thumping. The other side of the equation is an area in which there's simply no comparison--and ironically, it's an area in which the President's powers are concentrated. That's making international policy. There have been many embattled Presidents who felt far more capable at summits with rival nations than they did negotiating with Congress. Again, it takes political acumen to deal with foreign ministers and heads of state, fluency in the language of diplomacy, smoothness at the summit table. It takes the same adeptness with legal prevarication that turned me off in that Fresh Air interview.

I hate admitting this. I'm no diplomat, and when it comes to talking about principles, I wear mine on my sleeve. That's the main reason I'm much better suited to the world of elementary music teaching than I was to the Methodist ministry. (There are others, of course, but you'll have to dig into this blog's deep cuts to find them. Or wait for me to write about them again; like Bernie Sanders, I tend to revisit topics I care deeply about.) I would love to be able to vote for a politician who's as principled as I am, but time and again, such persons have proven themselves ineffective in Washington, DC--or in Salem, Oregon, for that matter.

So that's why I will be, without reservation, voting for Hillary Clinton in both May and November of 2016. Through her years of political service, whether as partner to a politician or in her own right as a Senator and diplomat, she has demonstrated that she possesses the intelligence, cleverness, and skills that make her ideally suited to be Chief Executive. In fact, she's better qualified than anyone else who might appear on either the primary or general election ticket. She's simply the best person for the job.

Now, if I was voting for "best person"--for someone whose principles and positions I could most readily connect with--Bernie Sanders might just have my vote. But that's not what he, Hillary Clinton, and all those other people are running for. They all want to be President. And that's a job for Hillary.


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