As their party’s caucuses and primaries get underway, Democrats face as stark a choice as any in modern times. They must decide between a revolutionary and an incrementalist: Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist who wants to transform the political system, and Hillary Clinton, a more cautious, conventional liberal.
For some voters, what matters most is ideology. For others, it’s electability – although that’s hard to predict before people actually start casting ballots.
But there’s another factor Democrats ought to consider: governability. How would President Sanders get his revolutionary agenda through a Congress in which at least one house will still be run by a counterrevolutionary Republican majority?
Take the issue on which the two candidates diverge most sharply: health care reform.
Sanders has an ambitious proposal for a European-style, government-run health insurance system. Clinton, meanwhile, merely aims to make the Affordable Care Act work a little better.
Abstractly, that’s an easy choice for most liberals and progressives: Most of them prefer single payer.
But as Clinton reminded voters during the Democratic debate on Sunday, President Barack Obama’s not-very-revolutionary health care law barely squeaked through to passage in 2010.
“There was an opportunity to vote for what was called the public option,” she noted – a government-run plan that wasn’t even as ambitious as single payer. “And even when the Democrats were in charge of the Congress, we couldn’t get the votes for that.”
In other words: You can’t get there from here. Clinton is probably right. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll last year found that only 26 percent of Americans want to expand Obamacare, and 42 percent want to scale the plan back or scrap it entirely.
Besides, Sanders hasn’t even begun to sell single payer to the American public – unless you count giving his plan the comforting title “Medicare for All.”
Sanders still hasn’t produced a full description of how his proposal would work. He released an eight-page summary before Sunday’s debate, but it focused on how he would pay for the plan, not how it would actually deliver care.
This lack of detail extends to other parts of Sanders’s agenda, including his proposals for free tuition at public universities and breaking up the nation’s biggest banks.
How does Sanders intend to enact his audacious program? He says the answer is simple: He’ll build a grass-roots movement so powerful that voters will sweep the GOP out of power.
That’s easier said than done, of course.
Barack Obama tried to turn his huge 2008 electoral majority into a grass-roots movement called Organizing for America and failed miserably. If Sanders doesn’t win an ever larger majority than Obama, his administration would encounter – or, perhaps, engender – four years of continued gridlock.
Clinton had a different answer on Sunday to the question of how she would govern: Come, let us reason together. Yes, that’s essentially what Obama tried to do – with little success once Republicans held the majority. Clinton is arguing, in effect, that she could do better, because she has a longer bipartisan track record.
For progressives, Sanders is the political equivalent of a Powerball ticket: The payoff is huge, but there’s only a small chance of winning. (For Sanders, the revolution requires the presidency and Congress.) Clinton is more like a money market fund: not very inspiring, but you’re less likely to lose the grocery money.
Like Obama in 2008, Sanders is saying: Yes, we can. Clinton is saying: No, we can’t – not all of it, anyway.