By James Kwak
I’ve written various generally supportive things about Bernie Sanders, but I hadn’t actually decided whether I preferred him or Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee. I’ve been concerned about the electability thing, as well as the effectiveness thing. (I haven’t given money to either candidate because of a promise I made when neither lifted a finger to help Larry Lessig get into the debates.) But I’m voting for Sanders.
Obviously, I prefer Sanders’s positions on the big issues. Government-funded health care for everyone, universal pre-K education, affordable higher education for everyone, mandatory family and medical leave, a higher minimum wage, higher taxes on people like me—what’s not to like? I have concerns about some things around the edges, like ripping up existing trade agreements (I won’t call them free trade agreements, because they are often far from it), but there has not been a serious candidate in my lifetime with such a bold and progressive vision for America.
Clinton, by contrast, stands for . . . what again? She is running as the pragmatic defender of the Clinton-Obama status quo—which is to say, slightly to the right of the Nelson Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party. Her message is basically this: I’m the only serious person in this race; it’s me, or the sack of Rome by the barbarians and one thousand years of darkness. And so, the Clinton side’s case boils down to saying, sure, we want the same things Sanders wants (lower inequality, higher wages for working people, affordable health care for everyone), but Sanders’s ideas are naïve, or impractical, or arithmetically challenged, or, worst of all, not acceptable to Paul Ryan.
So let me say a few words about that.
Do you remember Ronald Reagan? (OK, many of you don’t, but bear with me.) He ran for president in 1976 and 1980 promising lots of unrealistic-sounding things. In 1980, he said he was going to increase military spending, make government smaller, cut taxes, and balance the budget. I was eleven years old and I knew that didn’t add up. The Republican Establishment, which was still pretty strong in those days (not the punch line it is today), poked fun at him from every direction. George H. W. Bush called Reagan’s proposals “voodoo economics.” And it was nonsense: you can’t increase spending, cut taxes, and reduce deficits.
But Reagan won, and won, and won again. And even though his numbers didn’t add up, and even though he never had a majority in the House, he made huge gains for his cause. He passed one of the largest tax cuts in history and eventually reduced the top tax rate from 70% to 28%. He accelerated the deregulation movement begun under President Carter and began limiting non-defense discretionary spending; ever since then, increasing spending on domestic priorities has been an uphill struggle. He increased the size of the military. He never balanced the budget, but that was a feature, not a bug: the deficits he created only helped conservatives in the long term by creating additional pressure to limit and cut entitlement spending.
Reagan was also good for the Republican Party and for the conservative movement. He gave the party an identity it had been lacking since the Eisenhower years, one that appealed to the broad set of constituencies that has given the GOP a majority in the each house of Congress for most of the past twenty-two years. Since Reagan, every Republican presidential candidate (until Trump, perhaps) has had to pledge to continue the Reagan Revolution. No one did a better job (although many conservatives are mad about it) than George W. Bush, who slashed taxes, invaded the Middle East, and ran up deficits even further, creating the increasingly bipartisan clamor to cut Social Security and Medicare.
Now, I’m not predicting that Bernie Sanders will be as successful as Ronald Reagan. My point is just this: it’s the vision that matters, not the fine details of the campaign proposals. I have no problem with “left-leaning economists” or whoever pointing out flaws in Sanders’s proposals. By all means, let’s try to make them better. But if we want to move our party and our country in a certain direction, we have to start off by aiming in that direction.
Real change will take more than one or two presidential terms. Counting from Reagan’s first run, it’s taken the conservatives more than forty years, and they still have a long way to go. And even if Sanders turns out to be Reagan in 1976 rather than Reagan in 1980, it’s still the long-term direction of change that matters.
Also posted at Medium.