The Progressive Case for Hillary Clinton

     The contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination is perhaps the defining choice for the future of the Democratic party. The candidates offer pretty stark differences in terms of policy.

     Sanders is perhaps the most liberal politician elected at the national level. A Democratic socialist, says Obamacare doesn’t go far enough and backs a 90% tax rate for the wealthiest Americans.

     In contrast, Clinton is cozy with Wall Street banks and voted for the Iraq war. While her campaign has definitely highlighted a number a progressive ideas, many liberal activists think she’s just saying whatever’s required to get elected and will end up governing differently.

     Sanders supporters think that if he became president it would result in fundamental changes in American Policy. While Sanders would make the radical change needed to reign in inequality and help everyday working people, Clinton would largely represent that status quo . But if Sanders ever won the presidency, he’d encounter an insurmountable obstacle: Congress.


     In 2008, Barack Obama was elected on a platform of hope and change which for many supporters, never panned out. Obviously, the severe economic downturn that accompanied Obama’s election took priority in the President’s agenda. But after passing the economic stimulus and handling bank bailouts, he returned to the other promises of his campaign. Universal healthcare barely passed Congress and was considered by many liberals as a sell out to the healthcare industry. Efforts to combat climate change, gun control and immigration failed in Congress.  

     All this happened in one of the most productive and liberal Congresses in history. Not since Jimmy Carter have Democrats had a filibuster proof majority in the Senate, majority in the House and a Democratic President. And not since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society has a Congress made so many new laws.

     Despite these facts, only 3 in 10 Democrats approved of Congress during this period. Many felt that the promises of Obama’s campaign were unfulfilled. Conor Friedersdorf’s declaration that “Hope and Change are dead” is representative of many formerly enthusiastic Obama supporters.


     Democrats should remember the lessons of this period as they consider the choice between Sanders and Clinton today. Certainly Sanders is more liberal than Clinton, and his positions reflect the opinion of a substantial part of the Democratic Party. But Presidents are not kings, and Sanders’ positions are not likely to be turned into actual policy even if he is elected.


     President Obama was gifted the most liberal Congress since Jimmy Carter when he took office. In all likelihood, the next President will have a very different situation. Currently, Republicans currently control the Senate by only four seats. It’s certainly possible that Democrats retake that majority in 2016. But don’t forget that a simple majority doesn’t really count in the Senate. Almost all substantial legislation requires not 51 but 60 votes to pass due to the filibuster, and a 60 vote majority in the Senate is highly unrealistic.

     The situation in the House is similar. Republicans currently have a pretty large majority, controlling 247 seats to the Democrats 188. While a simple majority is powerful in the House, there are many reasons to think that a Democratic majority won’t happen. Generally, there are only modest changes of 10 to 12 seats in the House every year, not nearly enough to take control of the House. The exceptions happen when the economy is doing poorly. Not only is another recession unlikely, but an economic downturn would likely be blamed on Democrats.

     Thus, we know the next President is very unlikely to face a Congress that is has Democratic majorities. And even if that Congress was beat all odds and did restore a strong Democratic majority, a Democratic president cannot get all that it wants. We know from the first two years of Obama’s presidency that even in the best of political conditions that Presidents are strongly constrained within the system.


     Unfortunately, American Presidential campaigns don’t like to acknowledge the constraints in which a President governs. Its typical to pretend as though being elected president licence to implement law as they see fit.

     Thus, the choice between Clinton and Sanders isn’t really a choice of policy. The policy differences between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are ultimately not significant given the context they will inevitably govern in.

     So instead of voting based on the policy differences of Sanders and Clinton, you should vote for the candidate that  will be most effective moving U.S policy in a more liberal direction given the constraints of the system. Without a doubt, that candidate is Hillary Clinton, not Bernie Sanders.


     Back in 2008, Clinton ran against then Senator Obama as a candidate of pragmatism. While his hope and change may of been uplifting, she argued that she would be able to work more effectively with Congress. While speculating about what would’ve happened if Clinton won the presidency is pointless, it is clear that a message of pragmatism and working with Congress was more relevant than Obama’s hope and change.

     And Clinton’s message of working with Congress is not all rhetoric. Her record in the Senate shows how she can work across the aisle to advance change and deeply believes in that approach as a more general governing philosophy. Vox’s comprehensive history of Clinton tells this story the best best:

“When Hillary Clinton entered the Senate with zero legislative experience but more name recognition than her other 99 colleagues behind her, she was determined to play the workhorse role. And even though it seemed like a poor match for the objective situation, she did it extremely well — plowing away on committee assignments and upstate New York economic development teams, earning praise from senior members on both sides of the aisle and the grudging respect of a press corps she was boring to tears.

If Clinton had wanted to serve as the champion for embittered liberals, she could easily have played that role. Her stint as senator from New York, like Bobby Kennedy’s before her, was pretty clearly intended as a stepping stone to the White House. Following in Kennedy’s footsteps as a national ideological spokesperson would have been a logical approach.”

     Bernie Sanders’ Senate record stands in sharp contrast. Rather than a behind the scenes workhorse, he has been more of a protest Senator. Before running for president, he may be best known for his filibuster on corporate greed and the decline of the middle class. It was so popular in crashed the Senate’s servers and was later made into a book.

     Regardless of what you think the merits of Sanders record, it is not good preparation for the Presidency. Presidents have to govern, not just draw attention to problems. Delaying votes for 8 hours may be an honorable ideological stand, but it does not foster the best relationships with Senate colleagues.


     The Presidency is not about making sweeping systemic change. While it’s always popular to think of Presidents as all powerful, they work within the confines of a frustrating system. If the eight years of Obama’s presidency have taught us anything about politics, it is that change is hard, even under the best conditions. So lets elect someone who will make progress towards the change Democrats want to see, not just represent it with lofty rhetoric. Let’s elect Hillary Clinton.


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