"Bernie would've won" has become something of a mantra among American leftists. Partially, it's just a pithy way to troll establishment Democrats. But it also suggests that Bernie Sanders' 2016 campaign represented a different form of politics: one that put ambitious ideas and a sense of public solidarity ahead of expertise and qualifications. And this alternative strategy would've beaten Donald Trump.
It turns out Hillary Clinton is having similar thoughts.
Her new memoir, What Happened, has set off a wave of takes and counter-takes on whether Clinton is helping the Democratic Party move forward, and whether she's taking enough personal responsibility for losing to Trump. None of which is terribly interesting.
What is interesting is the Clinton campaign that might have been. Because in What Happened, there is an absolutely astounding passage: Clinton almost made a universal basic income (UBI) a centerpiece of her campaign.
A UBI is a no-strings-attached monthly check, sent out by the government to every man, woman, and child in the country. The idea is to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality, but also provide everyone a base level of unconditional material security. In terms of maximalist demands, a UBI might be bigger than a job guarantee, single-payer health care, baby bonds, or a universal child allowance. In both dollar size and sheer ambition, Sanders' own push for a Medicare-for-all system pales in comparison. The whole thing runs utterly contrary to the image of Clinton as a cautious, hyper-self-aware technocrat.
To finance the UBI, Clinton would've used fees for extracting oil and gas from public lands, or for broadcasters and mobile companies using airwaves, plus taxes on carbon and financial transactions. The basis for this plan was the Alaska Permanent Fund, which already operates what is effectively a UBI for every Alaskan resident, financed by the state's publicly owned oil reserves. That approach, Clinton told Vox's Ezra Klein, "was really intriguing to me because in effect it was to argue that our natural patrimony really does belong to every American."
This idea ties into broader questions Clinton asks herself in the memoir, like what sort of policy proposals can build winning coalitions. Despite her reputation as the avatar of neoliberalism, Clinton actually suggests that the smaller, targeted, means-tested welfare programs Democrats usually push focus too much on benefiting a fractured collection of small and specific classes of Americans. That can actually undercut big coalition formations and doesn't galvanize large movements of enthusiastic voters. "Democrats should redouble our efforts to develop bold, creative ideas that offer broad-based benefits for the whole country," Clinton concludes in the book.
I actually made this exact argument for bold and universal programs back in February of 2016. It's also the very same political logic that underpins Sanders' push for things like Medicare for all, free college, and the like.
So why didn't Clinton ultimately run on this?
Messaging problems, for one: She called her UBI plan "Alaska for America," which seemed to just confuse people. She also worried (understandably) that relying too much on fees from fossil fuel extraction would encourage more carbon emissions. But mostly it sounds like the math just didn't work. Clinton wanted the amount of cash going to people to be "meaningful," and couldn't come up with a politically plausible set of taxes and funding sources.
On the one hand, I get it. But Clinton had other options than throwing in the towel: She could've expanded her definition of the national patrimony to include the overall wealth-generating capacities of the U.S. economy and financed the UBI through a government-owned portfolio of stocks and other financial assets. She could've made the entirely accurate case that America can afford way, way more deficit spending.
Clinton could also have just tried starting with a more modest UBI funded by whatever revenue she could raise, and treated that as a starting point. The Alaska Permanent Fund, for example, only pays people $1,000 to $2,000 a year. That's obviously not enough to live on, but the program is still very popular. Studies also show it has a real anti-poverty effect; Alaska has one of the lowest poverty rates of any state.
Nonetheless, Clinton ultimately scuttled the idea. “That was the responsible decision,” she concluded. Yet she second-guesses herself here, too: "I wonder now whether we should've thrown caution to the wind, embraced [it] as a long-term goal, and figured out the details later."
Indeed, the Democratic Party seems to be thinking the same thing. Senators are lining up to support Sanders' new Medicare-for-all bill, while at the same time happily endorsing more modest ideas that still push in the same direction.
Clinton had, in her hands, the sort of big policy platform that could've trounced Trump, and even one-upped Sanders in ambition. But she abandoned it out of what seems to be a genuine sense of obligation to getting the details right. There is a poignancy to that: Clinton isn't wrong that making sure you've got all your policy mechanics worked out, and that you're not selling a clunker, is the responsible thing to do. Yet now Clinton seems to be wondering if she miscalculated.
That's probably because beating Trump was also the responsible thing to do. Perhaps having a bold and expansive vision to rally voters — especially at a time when the country's socioeconomic fabric is coming apart — is more important than getting all the policy details nailed down. There is another notable passage in the book, in which Clinton writes, "I ran for president because I thought I'd be good at the job." It's only several sentences down that she gets into what the country's challenges actually are, and how or why she wants to help.
That ordering of priorities is telling. As The Atlantic's Russell Berman noted, it's clear in Clinton's memoir that she and her team thought caution was affordable because no one thought Trump could win. Which is another way of saying no one realized just how bad the socioeconomic rot in America actually was.
Needless to say, I too suspect "Bernie would've won." But I bet the Hillary Clinton revealed in What Happened could've won, too.