Now that Bernie Sanders has been universally declared the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination following his victory in New Hampshire, it is worth asking: What would a Sanders presidency actually look like?
Here it is important to distinguish between Sanders' rhetoric on the campaign trail, in which he presents himself as a grand coalition-building progressive in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, a president who will pass grand sweeping legislation that transforms American society and institutions forever, and his actual prospects for success. He talks about the Green New Deal as if it were going to be an actual series of bills passed by the House and Senate and signed by him into law.
This is about as realistic as the tricorn hat fantasies of Republican presidential candidates in 2012. To take only a single example, Medicare-for-all is not likely to win the support of Nancy Pelosi, to say nothing of Mitch McConnell. The revolution may be televised, but it won't be on Senate TV. All the dire warnings progressives have issued in the last three years about the scope of executive authority will have to be forgotten if Sanders hopes to accomplish even a fraction of the things he is talking about in this campaign. More so even than Trump, Sanders is someone who will have to rule by executive order — doing things like unilaterally redefining the scope of Medicare eligibility — or not at all. In the meantime, he and his supporters should feel free to continue pretending that it is "unconstitutional" for the president to move a congressionally appropriated nickel from one jar into another. But for heaven's sake, or at least Bernie's, please don't actually start believing it.
This is not a problem unique to Sanders. The concentration of quasi-legislative authority in the executive branch is something that is likely to continue apace regardless of who is in the White House. But there is another area in which a Sanders administration would distinctly resemble the present one: staffing. While I am sure that some of his enthusiastic young supporters dream of a Cabinet full of Verso Books editorial assistants and aging counterculture luminaries (Attorney General Angela Davis, here we come?), the truth is that most of the people who are willing to implement Sanders' agenda are not qualified to hold executive branch jobs. Meanwhile, the people who are will be just as likely as Trump's early Cabinet appointees were to sabotage his plans from within. Who, for example, does Sanders imagine will be capable of serving as his treasury secretary? Whom would he appoint to head the Federal Reserve? Some heterodox post-Keynesian economist from the University of Massachusetts Amherst? Is he going to put Dennis Kucinich in charge of the Pentagon? Or will his supporters be willing to accept the fact that Sanders too will likely have a secretary of defense who, because he is qualified for the position and has relevant experience, holds a number of assumptions that are at odds with the administration's most basic foreign policy goals.
Then there is the question of basic technocratic know-how. How comfortable would Sanders be governing via executive fiat? His biography suggests that the answer is not very. Despite what some of his supporters would like to think, Sanders is not a throwback to FDR or even LBJ but an authentic specimen of the (now hopelessly old) New Left, which emerged out of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam protest movements and the 1960s counterculture. He shares the New Left's basic Nixon-era skepticism of executive branch authority; indeed, his utterances over the years suggest that he takes about as expansive a view of presidential power as Ron Paul. Moreover, he is a lifelong backbencher, someone who is used to pulling stunts (like the hilariously named "Stop BEZOS" bill), and he has the typical backbencher's allergy to the actual compromise-laden business of governing. It is not impossible or even unlikely that he will somehow overcome decades of wishful thinking about how the country ought to be run. But that doesn't mean he will somehow spontaneously develop the ability to rule effectively from the Oval Office.
This is the most amusing tension in this campaign. The Obama-era technocrats may have lacked vision, but they understood perfectly how to accomplish the president's goals in the face of congressional resistance. Moreover, they were successful on the occasions when they were forced to defend the president's agenda in the Supreme Court. Some of these people might be willing to offer their services to a Sanders administration (which is one reason why I suspect that he has mostly refrained from criticizing the former president). But would they do so on his terms?
The reality of a Sanders administration would, I suspect, look something very much like Trump's. His opponents would inhabit a fantasy world in which they are the victims of a despotic socialist overlord, a would-be tyrant whose "purges" are simple firings of recalcitrant officials, whose "show trials" are simple refusals to cooperate with spurious congressional hearings, whose "socialism" is Medicare-for-a-modestly-expanded-range-of-the-population-via-executive-order (preserving, among other things, the generous health care benefits of federal employees, public and private-sector union members, and, of course, members of Congress), and whose "appeasement" of our enemies abroad is largely a matter of continuing to bomb the places we bomb now.
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