Let’s not turn the Democratic primary into an epic struggle between good and evil.
Clinton and Sanders have real policy differences, but they are differences of scale, not of direction or kind.
Recently, a blog post by Benjamin Studebaker has been making the rounds, appearing in my Facebook feed a couple of times (and probably yours, too). In it, he argues that the Democratic primary is not about choosing between, “flavors of popcorn,” but that, in fact, the choice between Senators Clinton and Sanders is really a battle for the soul of the party, with the candidates each representing two, totally distinct approaches to the central economic challenges of our time. There certainly are real and important differences between the two Democratic candidates, but to suggest that those differences amount to two opposing “paradigms,” as Studebaker does, is a dramatic and totally unsupported overstatement, blowing up legitimate disagreements over scale into nonexistent disagreements over direction and kind. Ultimately, while there is conflict between the vision and agendas of Senators Sanders and Clinton, it’s really not the once-in-a-lifetime battle that Studebaker thinks it is.
I want to put aside, for the purposes of this response, Studebaker’s brief thumbnail sketch of 20th century American economic history. I’m not an economic historian (neither is he), and while his description strikes me as oversimplified, I don’t think I necessarily fundamentally disagree with too much of the main thrust. Instead, I want to start by accepting the basic premise that the modern Democratic Party needs to follow the economic approach that Studebaker associates with FDR and LBJ. I agree with him that ever-rising income inequality is the central economic challenge facing us today — not just for moral reasons (though those matter too), but because historically high concentrations of income are actively economically harmful. I also agree with him that government has a strong and necessary role to play in creating a far more level economic playing field.
But Studebaker goes seriously off the rails when he asserts, in what amounts to his main thesis, that Clinton and Sanders represent two “distinct ideological paradigms,” with Sanders being the standard bearer for the good FDR/LBJ one while Clinton — and President Obama — is for the bad “neoliberal” one. Studebaker actually offers no real evidence of this split, a point to which I will return. And in fact, we can easily assess whether Sanders and Clinton really are on opposite sides of some deep ideological using the list of policies and programs that Studebaker himself helpfully lists as being emblematic of the good “paradigm.” Even a brief look at the views and positions of the candidates on each of these programs — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, strong union rights, high minimum wage, high tax rates on the wealthy — immediately reveals that the differences between Sanders and Clinton, while real, are ones of scale, not of kind.
Social Security: Clinton is for expanding Social Security, especially for individuals who are currently disadvantaged by some of the system’s more out-of-date features. It is true that Sanders is for expanding it even more than she is. But just because his policy goes to 11 (and I have objections to going to 11 on every policy, but that’s a different matter), doesn’t mean hers is at zero. The “neoliberal” approach to Social Security would be to privatize it, or to undermine its universality, or to otherwise shrink it. Clinton is for none of that. As we’ll see over and over again, the differences are of scale, not kind.
Medicare and Medicaid: Clinton is, of course, staunchly for both, and staunchly against policies that would cut benefits or fundamentally alter their nature as social insurance programs. Studebaker might object here that, while Clinton supports Medicare as it is, Sanders wants to expand it to everyone. Clinton, on the other hand, wants to build on the foundation of the Affordable Care Act. The ACA, Studebaker implies, is a neoliberal diversion from the example set forth by FDR and LBJ. He basically says as much: “The major economic legislation passed under Obama (Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act) did not address the structural inequality problem that the Democratic Party of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s existed to confront.”
The incredible irony here is that the ACA was probably the largest expansion of redistributive federal policy since 1965. One the one hand the ACA taxes high income households, and on the other, it provides subsidized health insurance to people near the bottom and in the middle of the income spectrum. That’s precisely the kind of policy that Studebaker should be applauding. Besides, if the ACA was just the latest step down a long and descending path into neoliberalism, why did Senator Sanders support it, work for it, and vote for it? That should be a clue that maybe, perhaps, the clear division between good (Senator Sanders) and bad (Secretary Clinton) is not exactly as useful a “paradigm” as Studebaker claims.
Finally, I have to mention the most galling part of Studebaker’s dismissal of the ACA: it directly expands Medicaid, which is one of the very programs he lists as being key to to the preferred FDR/LBJ approach. Again, Studebaker’s dismissal of the ACA is a huge red flag that his overall argument is fatally flawed.
Let’s move on to welfare, and I’ll just say it straight out: I believe the “welfare reform” of 1996 was a huge mistake. I also think it’s super weird to blame Secretary Clinton for every bad thing that happened during her husband’s administration (especially if we’re not going to give her credit for every good thing that happened — and there were a lot good things, a point to which I will return). But putting that aside, we also need to acknowledge that there is more to the social safety net than just Aid to Families with Dependent Children/Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. There is nutrition assistance, there is job training, there is housing assistance, there are work supports like the Earned Income Tax Credit. Neither she nor Senator Sanders have a section on their websites specifically addressing these programs, but I assume, based on their voting history and previous statements, that both strongly support them and want to protect them.
Strong union rights: This one’s a “gimme” since Secretary Clinton has been endorsed by 23 major labor unions.
High minimum wage: This one’s also easy. Secretary Clinton has called for a federal minimum wage of $12 an hour by 2020, and supports states and localities going even higher if they think it’s appropriate. And just to be clear, that would put the federal minimum wage up to its highest real level ever. It’s true that Senator Sanders wants to go even higher, to $15. I happen to think the economic evidence does not support a federal minimum wage that high, but that’s actually beside the point. The point is that while there is a disagreement between Sanders and Clinton about how high the federal minimum wage should go, they both agree on the need for a “high minimum wage.” Again, this is hardly “two distinct paradigms.”
High tax rates on the wealthy: Here is another place where Sanders wants to take this all the way to 11, but just because he wants to go the full Denmark doesn’t mean Clinton is some “neoliberal” who wants to cut taxes for the rich. She voted against the Bush tax cuts. She has proposed numerous specific tax loopholes to close, as well as new taxes on rich people’s investment income, as well as a high-income surtax. Scale, not kind.
Over and over again, on Studebaker’s own list of important policies and programs, we see that Sanders and Clinton have differences in scale, not in kind. Differences in scale are important, sure, but Studebaker fantastically fails to offer any evidence at all that “We are making a historical decision between two distinct ideological paradigms.”
In fact, if you read closely through the piece, Studebaker offers precious little actual proof that Clinton holds the “neoliberal” economic views that he claims she does. He simply asserts that Clinton, “doesn’t understand the pivotal role inequality plays in creating economic crisis and reducing economic growth.” Does he cite a speech she gave? A vote that she cast? A paper she wrote? No, no and no. Perhaps he’s had an extended conversation with her that gave him the certainty to judge what she — a public servant who has been part of the national economic policy debate for a quarter-century — does and does not “understand.” Somehow, I doubt it.
The best that Studebaker comes up with is that Hillary Clinton was the First Lady during her husband’s administration. And here we come back to the fundamentally strange implication that she deserves partial blame for anything bad that happened from 1993–2000, while ignoring anything good that happened during those years, even advances for which she was, actually, partially responsible (like the establishment of the Children’s Health Insurance Program).
It is true that Bill Clinton ran as a “New Democrat,” that several policies he supported and signed into law strayed from the progressive ideals of Roosevelt, and that inequality absolutely increased during his term. It is also true that Clinton signed into law very significant tax increases on the rich, as well as the Family and Medical Leave Act, a 20 percent increase in the minimum wage, and large funding increases for Head Start and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children. Median household income rose faster during Clinton’s two terms than it did right before or has since, and poverty fell across the board, with the biggest gains coming among children and communities of color. Furthermore, the top 1 percent actually captured a smaller share of income gains during Clinton’s term than they did in the overall 1976–2007 period, and that income inequality was also rising in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and even Sweden at the same time (suggesting that perhaps President Clinton was not entirely to blame).
This is not to say that President Bill Clinton’s administration was a model of LBJ-style domestic policy advances. But then again, neither was LBJ, who signed into law a tax cut that reduced the top marginal rates by nearly 20 percentage points, as well as the corporate tax rate. When the guy who you literally named your “paradigm” after signed a huge tax rate cut for the rich into law, maybe that should complicate your view of what is and isn’t a cleanly delineated “paradigm.”
After all of this, it seems to me the question is not, “How do we decide between these two distinct paradigms,” but rather, “How could someone honestly think that Sanders and Clinton represent two distinct paradigms?” The answer, I think, can be found in this other, very revealing line in Studebaker’s piece: “On economic policy contemporary establishment democrats have more in common with contemporary republicans than they do with the FDR/LBJ democrats.”
I honestly don’t know how anyone who has been paying even modest attention to the economic debates over the last seven years could possibly write something so obviously wrong. Take just about any major economic policy issue, and you will find enormous differences between even the most moderate “establishment” Democratic and the typical Republican.
Taxes? Democrats want to (and by the way, successfully did) raise them on rich people. Republicans want to cut them massively for rich people. Check out any one of the GOP presidential candidates’ tax plans for proof.
Minimum wage? Back in 2014, every Democratic senator supported raising the minimum wage to $10.10, and already 34 Democratic senators have endorsed raising it to $12. Many Republicans want to abolish it all together.
Labor rights? Banking regulations? Climate change (which has enormous economic implications)? The differences between the GOP and the Democrats are so vast that there is literally no common ground right now.
And on the defining issue of income inequality, even “establishment” Democrats believe it is a huge problem, while Republicans not only don’t worry about it at all, many actually deny that inequality has even risen at all.
No, Democrats do not have “more in common with Republicans” than they do with FDR or LBJ. But the fact that Studebaker thinks this is true explains a lot. There is a tendency among some ideologues (on both sides of the political spectrum) to demand purity from their elected leaders, and to dismiss as “no different from the other side” anyone who is perceived as falling short. The entire conservative movement has been one big “No true Scotsman” fallacy for the last five or six years. On the left, we’ve managed to mostly avoid this trap for the last 16 years (ever since Ralph Nader argued that there was ‘no difference’ between Al Gore and George W. Bush, to disastrous consequences). But if Studebaker honestly sees no difference between Democrats and Republicans on economic policy, then no wonder he blows up relatively modest differences in scale between Clinton and Sanders into a “historical decision between two paradigms.”
None of this is to say that there aren’t real differences between Clinton and Sanders. None of this to diminish Studebaker’s obvious passion for progressive economic policy. And none of this is to suggest that you can’t be excited by the scale of the Sanders agenda (though I happen think there are solid policy reasons for preferring Clinton’s approach). But not only does Studebaker not offer any actual evidence for the assertion that they represent two wholly different “paradigms,” even a cursory glance at Clinton’s agenda reveals that her proposals are solidly within Rooseveltian tradition. Yes, there are real differences between Sanders and Clinton. But there’s no need, nor any basis, for blowing those differences out of proportion. One can be for Sanders without resorting to the fiction that Clinton is somehow a closet-Republican. One can believe this primary election is critically important without turning it into an epic, generational struggle between good and evil. There are legitimate reasons to prefer one candidate over the other based on the reality of their positions, their history, their experience. We don’t need to invent fictional ones.