What does it mean to say that Bernie Sanders is too extreme to be president?
On the most straightforward interpretation, the charge suggests that he has endorsed policy positions that the median voter, or even the median engaged Democratic voter, would find politically unpalatable, or even politically dangerous.
Taken in this way, the criticism is obviously false. Sanders’ signature policy recommendation, a single-payer health care system now branded as Medicare for All, is in no way outside the current mainstream of liberal or centrist political thinking. For conservatives, repealing (or constitutionally invalidating) the Affordable Care Act remains a nihilist fantasy that rests on the secret wish that repeal never actually happens, lest Republicans have to propose a replacement they cannot and will not defend. For everyone else, the task is to complete the work of Obamacare, by providing truly universal and truly affordable coverage. To that end, every Democratic presidential candidate has proposed at least a version of the public option that failed to survive the original 2009 debate. Their rationale is not that private health insurance or a mixed system is superior on policy grounds, but that it will be too politically difficult to move to single-payer in a single step, asking everyone to abandon their private plans now. None of the candidates would object if the public option became the dominant one. In that sense, every Democrat is for Medicare for All; it is just that some are for Medicare For All Who Want It at This Point in Time.
For that reason, the Democratic primary “debate” over health care has had a fundamental absurdity. No one disagrees with anyone on policy grounds. No one is in any way opposed to single-payer insurance; after all, as the branding is meant to remind us, that is exactly what Medicare is. The only question is who else will get to be part of Medicare, on what timetable. That shifts the debate to the question of the timetable, which is absurd in its own way, because no president can enforce the timetable by announcing it in a debate or even in office. If he concluded that the votes were there, Obama would have included a public option in 2009, and no position Bernie or anyone else takes will force the Senate to pass or vote down any form of Medicare expansion.
The timetable debate thus amounts to a meta-policy and meta-political debate about the effect of presidential rhetoric on shifting the Overton window. To be for Bernie and against Pete Buttigieg (who Bernie’s staunchest supporters have determined to be a neoliberal tool) is to judge that being exclusively for single-payer now will make it more likely that single-payer comes about sooner rather than later. But realistically, sooner is not now, which means that what is likely to pass now is the public option that Pete supports and Bernie claims to oppose, but in practice will end up supporting, because he is a realistic politician who has supported every liberal half-measure for many years.*
Nothing in any of this suggests that Sanders is in any way outside of ordinary Democratic political discourse. In fact, it seems fairer to say that ordinary Democratic political discourse is now being conducted essentially on his terms, because the relevant question is just how to get to affordable and universal coverage, which is just what Sanders has been advocating for many years. Single-payer is just the direct way of getting there, and everyone else is left to explain why indirection is tactically necessary.
So what remains of Bernie’s extremism? A second possible answer is not his policy positions, but his description of them and of himself as socialist. Here again, however, Bernie’s main effect has been to normalize, at least for younger people, the idea of socialism as a name for public programs of the sort we already have. Public health insurance like Medicare (and really, even private health insurance) is socialist in the sense that costs are socialized, with the young and the healthy paying for the care of the old and the sick. Socialism, for Sanders, is not the scary or thrilling name for some radical alternative to capitalism, but simply a description of how capitalist societies finance public projects, through taxes that typically make the cost of a good free to an individual user. In this sense, roads are socialist, because they are standardly funded by taxes, and free for drivers. Sanders just wants to treat health care, and college education, like that. Given that we already have Medicare for some and already provide high school education for all (which used to provide something closer to the current college premium for graduates’ earnings), these positions are hardly radical. As Sanders never tires of pointing out, they are already settled matters in various European countries.
Bernie certainly has supporters of the sort found at Jacobin and n+1, who would like to see his socialism as a recognition of the rot of global capitalism. These are the people who shuddered when Elizabeth Warren said she was “a capitalist to my bones,” which they rightly understand that Bernie would never say. But he wouldn’t say it simply because he thinks capitalism can’t provide public goods on its own, not because capitalism is headed to its inevitable demise. Bernie has no interest in destroying capitalism. All he wants to do is tax it, to pay for the public goods he cares about. It used to be that conservatives would oppose tax-and-spend liberalism by calling it socialist, and liberals would have to explain why it was not. Bernie’s innovation is to say, fine, call it socialism, and see if I or anyone else cares. But he is still talking about tax-and-spend liberalism, not about an economic alternative to capitalism. He wants a political revolution, not an economic revolution. He wants a different political system, financed in a different way and open to a broader electorate, which he thinks will vote to tax and spend in the ways he prefers.
For most of Sanders’ political career, single-payer health insurance and describing liberal public programs as socialist were political non-starters. Now, they are not. The whole country, and not just the Democratic party, has moved to the left on economics. Bernie has played an important role in that shift, but so did Barack Obama, and in the end the shift is much larger than any individual. He has not acted on any of them, but Donald Trump’s declared views on economic issues in the 2016 campaign were to the left of any Republican nominee since Gerald Ford. Neoliberal tool or not, Pete Buttigieg will be running to the left of Obama. Bernie used to be too far left, but he is not that any more.
Unfortunately, the fact that he used to be too far left matters quite a lot, even now.
Though our politics have changed, Bernie Sanders remains a 78-year-old man who has spent almost all of his political career outside the Democratic party, staking out formerly extreme positions on a few economic issues. As for all other issues, like race or gender or war and peace, Sanders regards them as distractions, both politically and substantively. He is opposed to all forms of racial or gender inequality, and to almost every foreign intervention, because he thinks that racism and imperialism serve the ideological purposes of dividing or deflecting the poor from pursuing their common interest in reducing the political power of the wealthy. He is far to the left in cultural politics and foreign policy, but not because he finally cares about the details any of those issues. He is far to the left so that he and everyone else can get back to the issues he really cares about.
Given this history, although Sanders’ positions on his preferred issues are now part of mainstream Democratic thinking, Sanders himself has absolutely no connections to the vast majority of the experienced office-holders and policy advisors who would typically form the (quite rich) talent pool of a Democratic administration. In 2016, after losing much more narrowly than expected to Hillary Clinton, Sanders negotiated to nominate five of the twelve members of the convention platform committee. He chose one sitting office-holder, Keith Ellison, and four left activists who had never served in government: Bill McKibben, Deborah Parker, Cornel West, and James Zogby. The point of these choices, of course, was to move the committee to the left. But these were also his choices because these are the kinds of people Sanders knows and trusts. And he knows and trusts them because he has spent his entire political career to the left and outside of the Democratic party. Now that his policy positions are in the mainstream of the Democratic party, Sanders could, theoretically, run a mainstream Democratic administration. But there is absolutely no evidence that he will be able to do that, because he has never shown any interest in working with Democratic office-holders and policy-makers. There was no reason for him to do that, when his positions were far to their left.
But there is every reason for him to do that now, to unite the party for the general election and afterwards, and there is no reason to think he will do anything of the kind.** On economic issues, Sanders knows exactly what he thinks, because he has been thinking and saying the same things about his favored issues for many decades. It would be foolish to expect him to include a broad range of Democratic economic thinking in his administration. No one would expect a President Sanders to appoint Lawrence Summers as his Secretary of the Treasury, and no one should really want it, either. But if Summers wanted to call and offer his advice, I would want Sanders to take the call, and to take the advice seriously. On cultural and foreign policy issues, Sanders’ basic instinct is not to think through them, but to outsource them to whoever can burnish his credibility as being adamantly opposed to racism and sexism and imperialism, so that he can get back to economics. His staffing choices, as with the platform committee, will likely be made to check off left-wing political and identity boxes, not to engage with the range of Democratic thinking on the issues. On race, Obama would have talked with Cornel West and with Henry Louis Gates and with Glenn Loury. Sanders will talk only to West.
With that, we finally get to the real reason Bernie Sanders is too extreme to be president. He is not too extreme because he favors single-payer health insurance or even because he calls himself a socialist. He is too extreme because he is likely incapable of creating and running anything but an extreme administration. Nothing in his political history has prepared him for integrating his economic thinking, which has now become mainstream, with the mainstream of Democratic thinking not just about economics but also about every other political issue.
There is a vast pool of talent in the Democratic party and in the liberal, the left-of-liberal, and even the moderate conservative policy establishments. Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg would excel at identifying this talent and putting it to use. Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar would probably do fine enough. But Bernie Sanders will likely be terrible at it. And that is why, even though single-payer health insurance is good policy, and even though he would be just as good as any other Democratic candidate at compromising to move toward it, Bernie Sanders would likely be a bad president.
* Bernie can’t say that in the debate, though, without revealing it to be a meta-debate, and there is no meta-debate unless the candidates at least pretend to have an actual debate. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is outside the debate and who is also (quite unlike her Squad-mates Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib) a very skilled politician, has managed to say it quite clearly: she knows there will be compromise, but she is looking for a compromise that is faster and further to the left. When Elizabeth Warren tried to say it in the debate, the result was a disaster. Warren said that she was for Medicare For All but would also be able to manage the compromises and transitions better than anyone else – which is probably true. But in saying that she was taking a recognizable meta-position that also looked like two different positions about health care policy. That wasn’t really right; in fact, as she tried to explain, she had both a health care plan and a plan for what to do given that the plan would likely not pass right away. But all people took away from that is that she wanted to be on both sides of the debate between Bernie and Pete, and her campaign has never really recovered.
** This is what Hillary Clinton was saying, in the most unfortunate and counter-productive way, when she said of Bernie that “Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him.” By claiming to speak for all Democratic political and policy professionals without even naming them as a group, Clinton was received as speaking only for herself, and thereby expressing only sour grapes. The response might have been quite different had she said that “He doesn’t like or trust anyone who has served in a previous Democratic administration, and he doesn’t want to work with any of us,” even though the point would ultimately have been the same.