We're on to New Hamphire...
I just finished watching the recent Democratic debate there. A number of commentators have said it was the best debate of the campaign so far... I'll go farther and say it was perhaps the best debate I've ever seen. Both candidates were sharp and on point and focused on serious issues. The moderators did a good job of letting the candidates duke it out without getting overly involved. Their job was perhaps easier because the candidates were themselves both highly capable of cross-examining each other. I recommend watching it in it's entirety:
Multiple commentators called the debate a draw, both candidates probably accomplishing what they set out to do. Taeggan Goddard notes:
The real winners were Democratic voters. Anyone who watched learned a lot. It made the Republican debates look like over-produced game shows.
Speaking of which, the game show resumed last night... looks like Christie dismantled Rubio:
Ok, a few more thoughts on 'feeling the Bern'...
This from Josh Marshall:
I will put my cards on the table. I think Sanders would be cut to pieces in a general election. I think he's great. I'd support him like crazy if he were nominated. But I think he'd be cut to pieces.
This is where I'm at as well. I also really like the guy. Watching the debate I couldn't help but admire what he's doing. He's saying things that I've felt strongly since I first became politically aware. But, in a nutshell, this is what it comes down to. In the debate Sanders offered an electoral strategy that could have almost come verbatim from Ted Cruz, if you just switched the names of the parties. I believe it's equally impractical.
Kevin Drum offers a reality-check:
Is it really the case that we can't even agree on the following two points?
- Sanders is more progressive than Clinton.
I mean, come on. They're both lefties, but Sanders is further left. The opposing arguments from the Clinton camp are laughable. Clinton is more progressive because she can get more done? Sorry. That's ridiculous. She and Bill Clinton have always been moderate liberals, both politically and temperamentally. We have over two decades of evidence for this.
- Clinton is more electable than Sanders.
As for electability, I admire Sanders' argument that he can drive a bigger turnout, which is good for Democrats. But it's special pleading. The guy cops to being a socialist. He's the most liberal member of the Senate by quite a margin (Elizabeth Warren is the only senator who's close). He's already promised to raise middle-class taxes. He can't be bothered to even pretend that he cares about national security issues, which are likely to play a big role in this year's election. He wants to spend vast amounts of money on social programs. It's certainly true that some of this stuff might appeal to people like me, but it's equally true that there just aren't a lot of voters like me. Liberals have been gaining ground over the past few years, but even now only 24 percent of Americans describe themselves that way. Republicans would tear Sanders to shreds with hardly an effort, and there's no reason to think he'd be especially skilled at fending off their attacks.
Brian Beutler takes issue with Sanders' call for ideological purity, as represented in a typical tweet:
You can be a moderate. You can be a progressive. But you cannot be a moderate and a progressive.— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) February 3, 2016
One of the questions at the heart of the fight between Clinton and Sanders is whether Sanders’s promise to lead a political revolution that brings the United States closer to social democracy is credible or fantastic. The argument frequently pits cynics and pragmatists, who see Barack Obama’s high-minded-candidacy-turned-difficult-presidency as an object lesson in the unloveliness of governing, against idealists and counterfactualists, who say Obama never attempted to turn the promise of his campaign into progressive action.
Even if you side with Team Sanders on this question, the insight that gave rise to that tweet (that pitting progressives against moderates is an effective tactic in a two-person Democratic primary) is incompatible with the goal of uniting the existing Democratic base with the unattached voters and Republicans of the white working class. It may even be incompatible with building a majority coalition in a general election.
The list of reasons to worry that Sanders is unelectable is unusually long. To paraphrase Vox’s David Roberts: Sanders would be far and away the oldest president to take office; he has self-identified as a socialist for most of his career, undeterred by the media’s inability to distinguish between social democrats (what he is) and Leninists (what Republicans will say he is); he supports a higher tax on middle-class labor, which is politically and substantively the worst way to finance a welfare state expansion.
On top of all that, he is unabashed about his disinterest in party coalition building. He’s happy to represent one wing of it, but not inclusively enough to pick up endorsements from influential party actors. This is all exacerbated by the fact that he’s spent his congressional career as an independent who caucuses with Democrats, and has never plied his popularity into helping Democratic colleagues get elected. This increases the likelihood that down-ballot Democrats would run away from him in a tough race, rather than rally to unite the party.
But you can set all that aside, too, and just consider the ramifications of Sanders’s defeating Clinton by boxing her out of the progressive movement, and using the term “moderate” as an epithet to describe deviations from his agenda.
For the better part of a decade, liberals have gazed upon conservatives with perverse glee as they’ve limited their ranks to an ever shrinking number of True Scotsmen. Their increasingly stringent criterion contributed to the failure of the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, who at one point had to atone for perceived heterodoxies by describing himself as “severely conservative.”
Ideologues, at least, comprise a very large (perhaps the single largest) faction of the Republican Party base. The same is not true of ideological progressives in the Democratic Party. Most progressives are Democrats, but most Democrats aren’t progressive. There will be no Sanders revolution without moderates, and moderates are unlikely to join a revolution organized by someone who stigmatizes moderation.
The irony here is that this is one of the main reasons liberals of all stripes hope that Ted Cruz (if not Donald Trump) wins the Republican nomination. Cruz’s critics in both parties compare him to Barry Goldwater, who lost 44 states to Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Cruz is resolute in his opposition to ideological compromise. When he announced his candidacy almost a year ago, he framed it explicitly as a campaign of, by and for “courageous conservatives [to] come together to reclaim the promise of America.” Cruz’s vulnerability in the general election stems from this factional identity—which, again, represents a larger faction than the one Sanders leads.
If Sanders were to win the Democratic nomination, his best, and perhaps only, chance to win the presidency would be in a general election campaign against Cruz. Somebody would have to win! For those with a very high risk tolerance, there’s never been a better time for a Sanders candidacy. But to pull it off—to make up for the fact that there are more ideological conservatives than progressives in the country—he would have to reconstitute the Democratic base, including Clinton supporters and other nefarious moderates. That might happen. A modern-day Goldwater against a modern-day George McGovern (who lost 49 states to Richard Nixon in 1972) would be a fascinating race to watch. But when Goldwater ran, the conservative movement was in its infancy and when McGovern ran, he never called himself a socialist.
Matt Yglesias looks at the flip-side of the coin and says Sanders' framing may actually help Clinton in the end:
Yet the reality is that no matter how annoying Clinton, her team, and the dozens of senior party figures backing her may find it, Sanders's attacks are in Clinton's long-term best interest. That's because his framing of Clinton as a temperamentally cautious, ideologically moderate politician who tries to straddle the divide between progressive activists and status quo business groups is, for better or worse, exactly how she is going to want to portray herself for the coming general election.
After all, though this is obviously not what most of the Democratic Party base wants to hear, there's simply no evidence that the mass public in the United States is eager to mobilize on behalf of Sanders's vision of a drastic policy lurch to the left.
The writers at Vox interviewed six political scientists to see what odds they would give Sanders in a general election. Each of them found it highly unlikely he would be able to prevail, citing a number of reasons. One that we certainly saw play out during the last health care debate:
People have a strong psychological fear of loss — even when they know it might result in a better long-term outcome.
"If you offer people the opportunity for gain against the fear of loss, the fear of loss is twice as psychologically powerful as the hope for gain," Miroff said.
This phenomenon is called "loss aversion," and it holds true for political psychology as well as behavioral economics, according to Miroff.
There are many of good examples of this at work in our political system: the revolt against "Hillarycare" in the 1990s, the panic over George Bush's plans to privatize Social Security in the early 2000s, and, more recently, the public souring on Obamacare. (Obama's promise that people who liked their plan could keep it was dubbed the lie of the year.)
This dynamic could hurt Sanders, who proposes policies that promise a big upside — but only through serious disruption that the other side will portray as fundamentally dangerous and risky, Miroff said.
"Once the opposition starts saying, 'That may help some people, but most of you are going to lose what you already got,' the polls start plummeting," Miroff said.
In a general election, for instance, Republicans could effectively (and accurately) portray Sanders's single-payer health care proposal as one that would lead many people to lose what they already know and like. The long-term gains of reducing national health spending and increasing overall insurance rates would be abstract gains for many voters, and thus hard to sell against the fear of loss.
"Anyone who stakes out positions that will affect huge numbers of people — in that, the advantage goes to the opposition, because they can stoke fear," Miroff said.
I won't quote the whole article, but it's worth reading in full if you aren't convinced Sanders would have a tougher time in a general election than Clinton. The political scientists only differed on how much worse Sanders would perform: estimates varied between 2 and 10 points in the polls. They all agreed, however, that current polling for the general election is worthless:
In defense of their candidate's electability, Sanders supporters have often turned to general election polls that show him doing well in head-to-head matchups with potential Republicans.
Sanders himself has recently embraced this argument, telling ABC News that he was the most electable candidate in part because of a poll showing him beating Donald Trump in a general election.
"Take a look at recent polls in which Bernie Sanders is matched with Republican candidates Trump on down [and] Hillary Clinton is matched with Republican candidates," he said.
But it's regarded as blindingly obvious among political scientists that these findings are essentially illusory, and that general election polls this far out are about as predictive now as a weather forecast for Election Day.
"The impressions people have of the eventual nominees months from now will be so different from today," said McKee, the Texas Tech professor. "That's a nice thing to point to, but what does a head-to-head poll mean in early February? ... It's worthless. It's absolutely worthless."
What will Sanders numbers look like after months of wall-to-wall coverage of nonsense like this? (NPR adds context... which, you know, will really matter)
After the debate Ezra Klein offered more thoughts on the relative merits of each candidate:
Clinton's problem is that her mastery of the political system has been attained by decades of compromises with it, and by a thorough absorption of its mores and customs. Her best answer on her speaking fees was, in essence, everybody does it. "When I left the secretary of state's office, like so many former officials — military leaders, journalists, others — I did go on the speaking circuit," she said.
She's right that there was nothing unusual, for Washington, in what she did — save for the sums she commanded, which were astounding. But voters aren't placated by being reminded that so many ex-government officials pad their incomes by speaking to corporations. That's one of the things they hate about Washington.
Sanders's problem, meanwhile, is that his purity has been preserved at the cost of his effectiveness. Though Sanders has served in Congress for more than 20 years, he's only been the lead sponsor of three bills that have been signed into law. His carefully maintained distance from the Democratic Party — evident both in his refusal to call himself a Democrat and in his colleagues' refusal to endorse him — shows the difficulties he would have working with members of his own party, to say nothing of the climb it will be for an avowed socialist to find Republican support in Congress.
And where Clinton's experience gives her deep knowledge of virtually every facet of American policymaking, Sanders's career has let him focus on the issues he cares about, and left him poorly informed on international affairs.
Which is all to say that Clinton has the benefits and drawbacks of an insider, and Sanders has the benefits and drawbacks of an outsider. Her view of the political system is realistic, her knowledge of the issues is deep, and her social ties are strong. All these qualities would likely make her an effective president. But they also mean she's captured by the political system, and that she is implicated in virtually everything Americans hate about it.
Sanders's view of the political system is idealistic, his ideas are unbounded by pragmatic concerns and interest group objections, and his calls for political revolution are thrilling. All these qualities make him an inspiring candidate. But they also mean he'll be perceived as an enemy by the very system he intends to lead, and that his promises of sweeping change might collapse into total disappointment.
At least they would if weren't for that...
In the (unlikely) event he wins the nomination, we better hope so.
Finally, for a little perspective, a quote from astronaut Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon, who passed away this week, about his experience leaving what Sagan called 'the little blue dot':
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the Moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch’.”