How Hillary Clinton can finally win over Bernie Sanders' supporters
Time for Clinton to get serious about earning their trust
Hillary Clinton scored a solid win on Super Tuesday. Her victories in major states like Texas, Massachusetts, Georgia, and Virginia granted her almost twice the number of delegates that Bernie Sanders won last night. The race for the Democratic nomination certainly isn't over, but Sanders' path to victory is looking more constrained by the day. It may be time for Clinton to stop thinking about whether she'll win, and start thinking about how she wants to win.
Basically, she needs to figure out how to co-opt Sanders' movement, earn the trust of his supporters, and solidify the Democratic coalition behind her.
An example of Clinton's difficulty can be found in her response to Sanders' call for a single-payer health care system. "I don't want [ObamaCare] repealed. I don't want us to be thrown back into a terrible, terrible national debate," Clinton told a rally in January. "I don't want us to end up in gridlock. People can't wait. People who have health emergencies can't wait for us to have a theoretical debate about some better idea that will never, ever come to pass."
Hiding in that second statement is a reasonable critique of Sanders that Clinton could do a better job fleshing out. Let's say Sanders wins, rallies his supporters, and brings a single-payer bill to Congress, but he just can't muster the votes to pass it. What does he do then? Moments of historical political opportunity don't just come along whenever you need them. Having gathered up all that political capital, would Sanders have a fall back position legislators could adopt to save face? What is Plan B? That's the smart version of Clinton's "people can't wait" argument.
Unfortunately, Clinton herself has the equal but opposite problem. Her platform is nothing but Plan Bs. She has no aspirational Plan As.
People don't just need to know what you can pass; they need to know what you'll fight for over the long haul. Worrying that politicians are "making promises they can't keep" is an easy but cheap critique, as it rules out any long-term vision that can't pass right now. Bernie Sanders' revolt doesn't just show that Clinton needs to move in a populist economic direction — he shows the whole vision of the Democratic Party does.
Furthermore, for someone whose brand is hard-nosed realism, Clinton seems to have embraced Obama's extraordinarily naive notion that the way to pass stuff through a recalcitrant GOP Congress is to bargain with yourself beforehand: Preempt the bargaining you'd do with them, and they'll just happily pass the initial, already-watered-down proposal you bring them. This is, of course, not how it works. What happens is the Republicans simply treat your Plan B as your Plan A opening bid, and then bargain you down to Plan C. You need to come to Congress with a Plan A, even if it can't pass, so that the bargaining process lands you on Plan B.
Now, it may well be that adopting Sanders' platform wholesale would go too far in the opposite direction, and torpedo any discussion with Congress before it can start. But there are some pretty obvious ways Clinton could split the difference between her and Sanders' aspirations.
The minimum wage is an obvious example: Clinton supports a national $12 minimum wage on the grounds that some economists believe Sanders' $15 is too high. But pitching $15 now would allow her to back down to $12 in negotiations, which the other side could claim as a victory. It also opens up indexing the minimum wage to the median wage in various regions as an alternative fall back.
Clinton could add capital requirements to her already-extensive financial reform platform. Higher requirements for systemically important financial institutions would drive the big banks to downsize to protect their profit margins, indirectly accomplishing Sanders' goal of breaking them up. Clinton could also amplify her call for currency manipulation rules in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And she should follow Sanders' lead in making looser, worker-friendly monetary policy a permanent, first-order goal of liberalism and the Democratic Party.
Sanders is proposing $1 trillion in new infrastructure spending, while Clinton is only proposing $275 billion, and most experts agree at least $1.6 trillion is needed. So Clinton ought to be able to land on to least $500 billion if not higher. And she should stop hemming and hawing and endorse the FAMILY Act to make national paid leave a reality.
Those last two issues bring up a larger theme Clinton could take on, and where Sanders has fallen short: That deficit spending right now is a good thing that we need more of. The bigger the gap between what the government spends and what it takes in as taxes, the more it boosts job growth. And things like infrastructure upgrades and paid family leave are exactly the sorts of investments in long-term productivity that debt is intended for. None other than Larry Summers, a Clinton administration stalwart, has been relentlessly arguing that historically low interest rates, combined with the looming threat of a stagnating global economy, are the perfect opportunity to go big on borrowing and investing for the country's future. If Clinton is concerned about the politics of tax hikes, that's one alternative avenue to increase spending.
There's evidence Clinton is already learning from the single-payer dispute: Her campaign recently added a new section to its health care platform, calling for more generous ObamaCare subsidies, for the federal government take more of the Medicaid spending burden off state budgets, and for a limited version of the public option. Adopting the full-blooded, 2008 version of the public option would be better. But the main point is Clinton needs to make these leftward shifts across the board, and she shouldn't be just slipping them into her platform: She should be trumpeting them from the rooftops.
Many left-leaning Americans and Sanders supporters distrust Clinton because they fear her Plan Bs are really all she wants. It's not the job of these voters to get over their worries. The people running to be president are running to be the country's top public servant. That makes it Clinton's job to convince Sanders supporters to come aboard.