Few political movements have experienced as quick and dramatic a fall from grace as what happened to the Sanders campaign between the Nevada caucuses and Super Tuesday. Over the course of 10 days Bernie Sanders went from the presumptive Democratic nominee to a very longshot.
In fact, things have gotten so bad that Sanders is running an ad that attempts to portray him as best buddies with former President Barack Obama.
Fact checkers have pointed out that the ad is deeply misleading. It jumbles together things Obama said over the course of a decade and leaves out important context.
But a frame-by-frame analysis actually understates how disingenuous it is for Sanders to try to tie himself to Obama. For Sandersism, as a philosophy, is all about rejecting Obamaism. That is, it’s about refusing to accept incremental, half-a-loaf-is-better-than-none politics and demanding go-for-broke maximalism instead.
The thing is, there is a case for the Sanders critique of Obama. But Sanders should own that critique, not pretend that he never made it.
So what is this debate about? It’s not about values, although Sanders and those around him have a bad habit of suggesting that anyone who questions their political strategy is a corrupt tool of the oligarchy. Obama was, and Joe Biden is, clearly in favor of progressive goals such as universal health coverage and reduced income inequality.
But Obama pursued those goals via incremental changes. Obamacare was designed to expand health coverage while doing as little as possible to disrupt the lives of people who already had health insurance. Obama raised taxes on the wealthy more than most people realize — by 2016 the average federal tax rate on the 1% was almost as high as it was pre-Reagan — but he did so quietly, without much populist rhetoric.
In the Sanders view, this incremental, low-key approach reflected a failure of nerve (or perhaps corruption by the “establishment”). Obama should have gone the whole way and (somehow) enacted “Medicare for All.” He should have made a frontal assault on inequality, with much bigger tax hikes for “millionaires and billionaires.”
And to be fair, I actually agree that Obama was much too cautious on some fronts. Back in 2009 I was very publicly tearing my hair out over the obvious inadequacy of Obama’s economic stimulus, which I predicted (correctly) would be a political disaster, because the failure to achieve dramatic results would play into Republican hands. And I believe that Obama could have gotten much more if he had been willing to use reconciliation to bypass the filibuster, the way Republicans did in ramming through the 2017 tax cut.
I was also very unhappy, in real time, when Obama began echoing Republican arguments for fiscal austerity despite continuing high unemployment.
And I still believe that Obama could and should have taken a couple of big banks into temporary receivership as the price of being bailed out. Obama definitely showed too much respect for the bankers who got us into the financial crisis in the first place.
But Sanders isn’t making a selective case, arguing that Obama should have been more aggressive on some fronts. He’s arguing for a maximalist agenda on all fronts: complete elimination of private health insurance and a vast expansion of government programs that would require major tax increases on the middle class as well as the wealthy.
The political theory behind this maximalism is an assertion that a bold populist program would transform the electoral landscape, winning over white working-class voters and bringing a surge of new voters, all of this on a scale sufficient both to win a smashing victory in November and to intimidate centrist members of Congress into accepting radical proposals.
There is, unfortunately, no evidence to support this political theory; in particular, the promised surge in young voters failed to materialize on Super Tuesday. So Sandersism is looking more than a bit like Green Lanternism — a belief that political miracles can be achieved by sheer force of will.
Of course, many Sanders supporters will claim that I’m only saying this because I’m in the pay of billionaires, or something.
In any case, we need to be clear about the nature of the argument in what remains of the Democratic primary contest. Again, it’s not about values: Democrats as a group have become far more progressive than they were, and even a “centrist” like Biden is advocating policies, like a major expansion of Obamacare, that would have been considered pretty far left not long ago.
That said, I do worry that if Biden becomes president he will compromise too easily; progressives will have to hold his feet to the fire, and make sure that incrementalism doesn’t turn into preemptive surrender.
Sanders, however, despite his last-minute attempts to link himself to Obama, is committed to a strategy of maximalism, without compromise. I understand that strategy’s emotional appeal, especially to his young supporters. But everything we know suggests that a progressive who insists on going for broke will end up, well, broke.