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How the Sanders Agenda Can Move Forward in a Hillary Presidency

Everyday political discourse commonly reduces the significance of elections to individual personalities: one candidate wins, another candidate loses. In legislative elections, this way of assessing an election is perfectly legitimate.

Matters are more complicated, however, when considering executive branch elections, whether at the mayor, governor or presidential level. The executive branch itself is a large army of people: administrators, program managers, analysts, researchers and all the other people who do the everyday work of government, and who turn broad policy priorities into concrete action steps.

What the election decides is who gets to be the general of that army. Consequently, voters do well to think not only about the individual general, but who that general is going to include on his or her team. Any Republican who wins the presidency, for instance, is going to have a very different set of economic advisers than just about any Democratic president, as well as significantly different appointees across virtually all the agencies.

But in comparing presidential candidates within the same party, there need not necessarily be the same stark contrast. Put more directly, there is reason to believe that Hillary Clinton might bring into her administration a number of the same people Bernie Sanders might have wished to hire, especially at the sub-cabinet positions that operationalize policy.

Why should we believe this might be the case? First, the Democratic Party platform itself is, as Bernie Sanders claims, a quite progressive document compared to party platforms of the past generation. And technically competent policy professionals interested in, say, crafting federal policy to expand child care subsidies for low-income Americans, are going to be equally interested in working under a Clinton-led administration as they would have under a Sanders-led administration.

Second, thoughtful, organized progressives have already anticipated this point. The Roosevelt Institute’s early efforts to identify and build a bench of technically competent professional staffers to work in a Clinton administration to operationalize progressive economic goals is one of the most hopeful.

Third, the words in the party platform in 2016 reflect not just words but a broader political current.

Put bluntly, national politics in 2016 are already very different from what they were in 1992, when Bill Clinton won the Democratic nomination — and 2017 and beyond is going to be different still from the years he was in office.

In 1992 Republicans had controlled the presidency 12 consecutive years and 20 of the previous 24. The view was widespread in Washington that to be competitive again, the Democrats needed to tack to the center to win back the proverbial “Bubba” (white working-class voters). The Party itself was increasingly driven by the party-within-a-party that was the Democratic Leadership Council in its pomp, dominated by southern Democrats, committed to policy centrism, and not above the occasional use of dog whistle politics to distinguish themselves from liberal Democrats.

Bill Clinton was of course the embodiment of this strategy. With no compelling national liberal figure like Jesse Jackson or Mario Cuomo competing in the 1992 primaries, Clinton made light work of lesser figures like Bob Kerrey and Tom Harkin in the primaries as well as the essentially regional candidate Paul Tsongas. Jerry Brown became the runner-up to Clinton simply by staying in the race longer than anyone else, but his message of political reform and challenge of a rigged system was premature for most of the electorate.

So Clinton was nominated (despite considerable warning signs from his Arkansas record) and with an assist from Ross Perot was elected president. Clinton was officially a just left-of-center moderate, but his announced policy agenda “Putting People First” was fairly ambitious and contained several progressive items, including a jobs program, investment in infrastructure, and of course health care reform.

Having started as a moderate, Clinton’s agenda became more compromised still once in office. Right out of the gate, the Senate killed his proposed stimulus package, preventing the new president from providing even modest new support for cities and job-creating infrastructure projects. Famously, a frustrated Clinton told his cabinet in his first year that his policy agenda was little more than Eisenhower Republicanism. Clinton put his most progressive marbles into the health care reform effort; but to get some kind of domestic victory, he chose to partner with Republicans on NAFTA.

Health care was a miserable failure whereas NAFTA passed over the intense opposition of unions and environmental groups. The embrace of NAFTA did Clinton and the Democrats no good in the mid-term elections of 1994 as the Gingrich revolution swept to power. Clinton devised and cleverly played the triangulation game to assure his own political survival, but with one significant chunk of collateral damage: a complete retreat on basic progressive principles embodied in the welfare reform law of 1996. While the reform had positive consequences for some women in the early years of implementation, over the long term, by eliminating the safety net without guaranteeing employment, it created a new class of desperately poor people living off virtually no income. In the second term, the administration also unwisely rolled back regulations on the financial sector, including signing the repeal of Glass-Stegall in 1999.

For many progressives this was and still is a damning record. Nonetheless, in my view it would be a huge mistake to think that because Sanders’s candidacy has ended, we have to wait four or more years for real change to take place. This Clinton presidency could, just possibly, be a lot different than the first one.

Why would anyone think that?

Before answering that, it needs first to be observed that the Clinton domestic record of the 1990s is not defined entirely by NAFTA, welfare reform, financial deregulation and the health care fiasco. Progress on the health front was made by the creation of the Children’s Health Insurance Program. The Earned Income Tax Credit was dramatically expanded. Smart investments to support urban community development were made such as the creation of the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund. Taxes were raised on top earners. Apart from taxes, most of these items generated only modest public attention. But they got done.

So it’s not as if there are no positive precedents from the 1990s policy arena to point to. But there are other reasons to think things might be a little different this time.

First is the simple fact that the neoliberal consensus of the 1990s was, to be blunt, blown up by the financial crisis of 2008 and by growing disgust with runaway inequality. There is little room left in the Democratic Party for politicians who think unrestrained “free trade” and deregulation are magical solutions to economic problems. In today’s post-Piketty world, it’s even possible to discuss capitalism as a system and not be considered beyond the pale.

Second, Clinton is fully aware that progressive politics will be working hard to keep her honest, and that Bernie Sanders will likely build an organization to do just that. Just not being Reagan or Bush will not be good enough — the pressure will be on to deliver the goods.

Third, there is much more organized progressive policy community today than in the early 1990s. During Clinton’s first term you had the nonpartisan but somewhat liberal-leaning Brookings Institution; you had the DLC-affiliated Progressive Policy Institute; and then on what was considered the far activist left you had the Institute for Policy Studies (where I worked for four years). While there were of course scores of issue-oriented or research-focused think tanks, there were not credible, influential multi-issue policy think tanks filling in the vast political space between a PPI and an IPS. At the same time, several well-funded and well-staffed conservative think tanks played a key role in operationalizing the Republican legislative agenda and creating an echo chamber around right-wing talking points.

The story is different today: you have the Center for American Progress, Demos, and the Roosevelt Institute among others addressing a wide range of issues and relating them to current policies in real time, in addition to research-based organizations producing solid, reliable information like the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the Economic Policy Institute, and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. (IPS is still going strong too, and is more focused and influential now than 25 years ago.) This is significant first because the flow of information and policy ideas is significantly more balanced than it used to be, but also because these policy networks can be put to use by a progressive administration — including, as noted, identifying strong candidates for policy roles (especially if under pressure from a progressive political effort organized by Bernie).

Fourth, the very failure of neoliberalism as well as the weakness of the American safety net makes possible broad policy alliances with both “liberal” and more radical components. For instance, there is now overwhelming consensus among scholars of inequality and poverty that attention must be paid to the early childhood years when young brains are evolving to eradicate the perpetuation of inequality, and strong consensus that child care in the U.S. needs to be more plentiful, better quality, and more affordable. But there is also growing understanding of the need to address vast disparities of wealth and interest in specific ways to do that — such as the profit-sharing model called for by both Hillary Clinton and the adopted Democratic platform.

Put another way, there need be no opposition between conventional liberal social programs of the kind associated with Hillary Clinton’s early career and more dramatic calls (associated with Bernie Sanders) to alter the basic distribution of wealth in our society. For the truth is we need both kinds of measures, and we need smart specific plans for making progress on both fronts.

Consider “profit-sharing” and broadening the distribution of wealth. The federal government could create a matching fund to support states and localities that provide technical support to emerging worker-owned firms, or encourage small businesses with retiring owners to convert the firms to worker ownership. “Baby bonds” could be created to provide all children at birth a savings nest egg maturing at age 18. Proper public financing of public college education could eliminate the debt incurred by younger people seeking an education — and an aggressive approach to relieve the debt burdens carried by adults adopted.

Again, none of these things, taken by themselves, amount to a revolution. But taken together, initiatives of the sort could comprise a substantial and impactful agenda. And they could well be within reach of accomplishment, if even a fraction of the political energy that Bernie Sanders directed can be sustained and steered towards the details of governing.

On the social program side today, too, even modest gains can make a big difference. In Richmond, VA I helped assemble a comprehensive community wealth building agenda for the city which audaciously seeks to cut poverty in the city 40% by 2030. The core policy elements Richmond has specified to achieve that goal are not complicated: early childhood education, connecting high school graduates to post-secondary education, more affordable housing, more workforce development and training, creation of more living-wage jobs, investments in public transportation, and challenging housing segregation. Clinton’s policy agenda and the Democratic platform specify investments, in some cases rather ambitious, in each of these areas, as well a deliberate attempt to target at least 10% of federal program dollars to high-poverty communities like Richmond. An extra say, $10 million a year, trickling down to a community like Richmond may not seem like a lot, but that investment could pay for full-time quality child care for 1,000 working parents, allowing those parents to stay employed and escape poverty.

Will any of this come to pass if Clinton is actually elected in November? No one can definitively say, but the possibility is open — if progressives stay engaged both in being sure she wins (the alternative is unthinkable) and in paying close attention to what happens next.

Consider two scenarios. The happier but less likely scenario is Clinton wins by such a large margin in November that Democrats regain control of at least one branch of Congress. In that case, progressives have a key role in being sure that the administration takes maximum advantage of the political opportunity and acts with genuine urgency.

The tougher scenario is that Republicans maintain control of Congress. In that case the challenges will be first, to keep Clinton from making the kinds of compromises with Republicans that sacrifice fundamental goals, and second, to find creative ways to meaningfully advance a progressive agenda even with limited new resources. In that case progressive engagement will be even more urgent — both on the inside and the outside.

In neither scenario will change be easy. It never is. But pessimism that the future must repeat the past just because some of the key players are unchanged can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If one really wants a “revolution,” the realistic approach is to stay optimistic and take advantage of the political opportunity that both Bernie Sanders’s campaign and the larger political climate have put on the table.

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Thad Williamson

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