The Democratic presidential campaign devolved into petty squabbling last week. There was a preposterous flap over which candidate was "unqualified," with both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at least suggesting the other was somehow not suited to the presidency, and partisans from each side fuming at the effrontery of the enemy. (Things have since calmed down.)
With stakes so high, tempers so raw, and candidates exhausted from the constant campaigning, such things are probably inevitable. But it still sucked up a ton of attention, and led to yet another deluge of articles from the "parts of the internet media that experience presidential elections as deeply personal flame-wars between rival factions of columnists and Twitter users," as Alex Pareene put it during an earlier silly dispute.
So let's try and remember something important: There are large, substantive policy differences at stake in this election. That, and not whipped-up grievance-fests over which candidate violated some supposed norms of political decency, ought to be what decides this primary campaign.
Foreign policy remains the major area of difference between Clinton and Sanders. Though Sanders is clearly less comfortable on this issue than he is on domestic ones, he has developed and strengthened a basically good foreign policy perspective. He believes in diplomacy, de-escalating conflict when possible, and only using military force as a last resort, arguing that recent history shows regime change to cause disastrous political vacuums. He supports the Iran deal, is skeptical of Saudi Arabia and its disastrous war in Yemen, and thinks Israel's occupation of Gaza and the West Bank must be wound down.
Clinton, while she can summon vastly more technical military detail than Sanders, shows no sign of having learned from the repeated failure of military interventions she supported. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya are all basically failed states in large part due to American intervention, but she remains an aggressive proponent of military force — and is in the tank for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a frankly embarrassing degree.
On domestic policy, Sanders and Clinton are quite a bit closer, but there are still some major differences. Contrary to carping from Team Clinton that Sanders' only proposal is to break up large banks, in reality Sanders also supports single-payer health insurance, $1 trillion in infrastructure spending, free public college, large reductions in incarceration, a $15 minimum wage, a financial transactions tax, comprehensive immigration reform, Federal Reserve reform, and a carbon tax (among many other ideas). Clinton supports $275 billion in infrastructure spending, a crummy little tax credit for carers, small-bore paid leave and universal pre-K, basically nothing new on healthcare reform, a continuation of President Obama's Clean Power Plan, and a few other little things here and there.
Obviously that brief summary isn't the entire story. But it's fair to say that comparatively, Sanders is the candidate of massive boosts in social insurance and taxation, while Clinton is the candidate of minor changes to the status quo.
Some of Sanders' ideas, like his decarceration and free college plans, aren't very fleshed out, or have even been sold on arguably misleading grounds. Sanders often highlights his basic principles and moral priorities without super-careful attention to backfilling the details properly. Technocratic Clinton partisans like Paul Krugman have seized on this tendency to pronounce Sanders a deeply unserious thinker whose policies are garbage. On Friday, for example, Krugman attacked Sanders' plans to break up the largest banks as naive, arguing that because the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy was not that large, breaking up the largest banks is pointless and stupid.
Technocrats would prefer to skip past the fact that they simply disagree about the moral ends (Krugman does not support single-payer, for example) and move the debate onto complex policy terrain where they have a natural advantage. But the quality of fine technocratic detail is simply not a good way of judging political proposals. By far the most important part of running for president is setting moral priorities and advancing ideas. The whole point of representative democracy is for ordinary schlubs who don't know the first thing about public policy to choose someone who can represent their interests. Having a proposal one can quickly work up into an actual passable bill isn't completely worthless, but it's something that can very easily be done after the presidential election is settled.
And as it happens, Krugman is quite seriously mistaken about large banks. As former Wall Street insider Alexis Goldstein explains, Lehman was the largest bankruptcy in American history, and its size did have tremendous knock-on effects throughout the financial system. And while small banks can start financial panics all by themselves, it is also true that very large banks are far more difficult to deal with politically if they run into trouble. During the financial crisis the government took over and wound down literally hundreds of small banks, and virtually nobody noticed — but should they have tried something similar with JPMorgan Chase, it would have been an instant howling political fight.
In the end, it's obvious which candidate I believe has the better plan. But I think portraying the contest as Team More Welfare and Fewer Wars versus Team Status Quo Is Good Enough is a reasonable summary. And it's perfectly legitimate to make the decision on those grounds. All the noise about decorum and gaffes and qualifications is just that: noise.