What Would A Sanders’ Presidency Look Like?

While most of the media understandably remains fixated on the horse-race aspect of the presidential contest (“Bernie’s surging!”), a few intrepid journalists are daring to think the unthinkable: what if Bernie actually won the election? What would a Sanders presidency look like? This is an important question, not least because how one answers it goes a long way – or should go a long way – toward determining whether one will vote for Bernie. In interviews with Vice’s Mike Pearl (that’s the website, not the anti-prostitution arm of the Vermont State Police), my colleague Bert Johnson and I engaged in some admittedly speculative musing about a possible Bernie presidency.  Of course, the immediate problem one faces in trying to anticipate what happens when the “face of grouchy stoicism” became “the first avowedly socialist president in United States history” is to understand how it happened. Obviously, if Sanders overcomes deep odds to become President, something entirely unprecedented in the political system occurred – but what? Did Hillary’s candidacy implode after investigators found the smoking email, leaving Bernie to win by default as the last candidate standing? Or did the American electorate exhibit a shift leftward, essentially deciding the time was ripe to adopt Bernie’s long-standing progressive principles? And if the latter, how big were his coattails? Did the Senate turn blue? (Possible, but unlikely.) The House? (Even more unlikely.) Answers to these questions go a long way toward determining the contours of a Bernie presidency. It is one thing to predict, as Pearl suggests (tongue-firmly-in-cheek) that in the aftermath of a Sanders’ victory “college students are taking celebratory bong rips” – quite another to know whether the new Congress is going to raise marginal tax rates on the wealthy, or pass Bernie’s education reform bill.

Of course, as both Bert and I suggested, we know a good deal about what Bernie’s domestic priorities will be, even if we can’t be sure how successful he would be in implementing them. As Bert notes, Sanders has been singing the same tune about the corporate overlords and income inequality for several decades. And he hasn’t missed a chance to hammer home those themes during his campaign speeches and on social media. As a result, I feel quite confident in suggesting that President Bernie will push to raise taxes on the wealthy and would try to address campaign finance reform. He’s also likely to work at raising the minimum wage. Bert pointed to efforts to address the student debt crisis.

I think it noteworthy, however, that when Pearl asked us about Bernie’s foreign policy, we quickly became far less confident, and far more speculative, in trying to predict what he would do in this realm. Both of us felt a Sanders’ presidency would be far more conventional in the foreign policy realm than domestically, but we didn’t provide much in the way of specifics. There is a reason for this, as Yahoo’s Chief Washington correspondent Olivier Knox points out in this excellent analysis of Sanders’ foreign policy record. As Knox writes, “The campaign website, BernieSanders.com, offers visitors access to the iconoclastic candidate’s thoughts on Income and Wealth Inequality, Getting Big Money Out of Politics, Creating Decent-Paying Jobs, Racial Justice, A Living Wage, Real Family Values, Climate Change and Environment, and Reforming Wall Street. But there’s no tab for Syria, the Islamic State, a rising China or strained relations with Russia.”

There are two reasons, as I suggested to Knox, for the paucity of foreign policy details on Candidate Sanders’ website. The first is that the race for the Democratic nomination, and for the presidency, is far more likely to turn on economic issues than on the foreign policy; the latter does not poll very highly among likely voters when asked what issues are most important to them. Second, Sanders’ views on foreign policy, beyond high-profiles issues like the vote on the Iraq War, don’t seem nearly as distinctive from Clinton’s as do his domestic views. But that doesn’t mean we are completely in the dark regarding what President Sanders is likely to do when it comes to foreign policy. I suggested to Pearl that “On foreign policy, I think Sanders is going to be more malleable; he’s going to be more willing to defer to the experts. Now if he has some basic principles that will guide him, I think he’s going to be more collaborative, more internationalist, less interventionist, than, certainly, George W. Bush, and perhaps Obama—less willing to engage militarily.” Beyond these basic principles, however, some clues to Bernie’s handling of foreign policy might be gleaned from his Senate record, something Knox does a very good job reviewing. I won’t repeat the details here – you should read Knox’s article – but suffice to say his stance on range of issues, from opposing the TransPacific Partnership trade agreement, to pursuing a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestine conflict, to voting against the use of force against ISIL, is consistent with my characterization. Knox summarizes Sanders’ foreign policy record this way: “The picture that emerges is less that of a firebrand antiwar radical than a pragmatic liberal who regards military force as a second choice in almost any situation — but a choice that sometimes must be made.”

The biggest clue missing from this attempt to forecast a Sanders’ foreign policy, however, is knowing who he will turn to for foreign policy advice, and how he will structure his national security advising process. As I suggested to Knox, the two questions I would ask candidate Sanders on this topic are: “Who are you going to listen to on foreign policy? How will your organize your foreign policy process?” In thinking about these questions, I am reminded of this excellent Washington Post analysis of the Obama foreign policy decision-making process (hat tip to Jack Goodman) which shows how, on crucial policy decisions, Obama increasingly sought to bypass the foreign policy establishment in favor of centralizing decisionmaking within his own White House Office.  As I’ve discussed in my book Bitter Harvest, this pattern of White House centralization did not start with Obama; it has been a growing trend among recent presidents. And while the propensity among recent presidents to want to exercise tight control of foreign policy is understandable, there are real costs to this strategy. As the WaPo critique of Obama’s foreign policy process suggests, White House centralization also makes less likely that presidents are going to hear dissenting voices, particularly from experts whose views may clash with that of the president’s closest political advisers.

When it comes to assessing presidential candidates’ preparation for the White House, issues of institutional organization and process typically take a backseat to journalists’ concern regarding where candidates stand on the issues. This is unfortunate. As the critique of Obama’s foreign policy process suggests, and as President Bush discovered in his effort to direct the response to Hurricane Katrina a decade ago, a president’s legacy often turns less on what he believes and what issues he pursues than it does on how well he chooses and manages the officials who work on his behalf. Let’s hope journalists push Candidate Sanders on these managerial issues, so that President Sanders doesn’t have to learn their importance in the heat of a crisis.  We will all be better off if Sanders gives these managerial issues some careful thought before entering the White House.


  1. Matt:

    Congratulations! You have a scoop about which no one else on the entire universe will be writing.


  2. Shelly,

    I confess that when the reporter asked me to talk about a Sanders’ presidency, I emphasized that this was a VERY speculative response!

  3. I’ve been intending to ask you for this for a while, but never gotten round to it.

    This monday, polling started for the new leader of the British Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn, and 66-years-old (relative) outsider with some refreshingly (if shockingly) left-leaning rhetoric, looks to be running away with the vote. Some decry the end of Labour as a national party capable of winning elections, others see a rightful return to the Labour values of yore, before Blair, Mandelson et al. moved the party closer towards the center of the neo-liberal consensus.

    While it is generally difficult to draw any kind of parallels between British and American political institutions beyond an explicit commitment to the democratic process, there are some basic similarities between where Corbyn and Sanders stand relative to their nations’ electoral history and how they seek to gain power to fulfil their respective political agendas. Corbyn’s socio-economic ideas go much further than Sanders’s, but play on a similar theme of frustration with wealth accumulation and distribution as well as the power and influence of financial institutions and big capital more generally. Corbyn’s socialist vision within Britain has been as marginalized as Sanders’s social-democratic outlook in the US over the last few decades.

    In the UK, none within the Labour Party or outside of it would have predicted Corbyn’s success, not even his closest political allies – he was helped literally last-minute in meeting the candidacy requirements by fellow MPs who felt he might contribute to the diversity of the leadership contest’s policy discourse, not because they supported his platform. His impending victory will be perceived as a political earthquake and perhaps unprecedented. As a white male and a rather old politician (by British standards) to seek leadership, he seems at first glance to be as ill-positioned to champion progressive values as Sanders. Yet, like Sanders, Corbyn has demonstrated strong appeal in particular among young voters.

    There are many reasons why it remains unlikely that Sanders will ever get as close to nomination as Corbyn is to his party’s leadership right now. But the reasons why are somewhat perplexing in US context. Corbyn benefits strongly from union endorsement – the unions make up the largest single voting bloc in Labour leadership elections and membership tends to vote near-uniformly for endorsed candidates. In contrast, US labour unions (with a far smaller share of the vote) have thus far broken mostly to Hillary Clinton, the centrist establishment candidate, even if Sanders platform is much more closely aligned with their interests.

    More controversial, however, is a change in Labour leadership election rules meant to make the process more inclusive and responsive to voters. Participation in UK party leadership elections requires party membership, which is a step above US party affiliation in that it comes with a party ID card and annual membership fees. As a result, UK party leadership votes tend to draw a much smaller electorate in proportion to the general election turnout when compared to US primary- and general elections.

    The larger electorate in US primaries is perhaps a stumbling block for altogether radical candidates and the political movements that drive their agendas. No level of organization or political groundswell by an outside group would seem capable of flooding the primary electorate sufficiently to sway the primary vote decisively against the party’s vetting mechanism. Labour’s experiment in opening up the voting process seems to have had the opposite effect, however. Party (-affiliated) membership has almost doubled over the last few months – with an influx of younger people in particular – and clear indications that the surge in membership is related directly to support for Corbyn’s message.

    Have you been following the Labour leadership election at all and, if so, what are your views on it relative to the Sanders (or Trump or any other true outsider) campaign?
    What would it take for Sanders to expand the Democratic primary electorate so significantly that it would dwarf the establishment / Clinton machine vote? This would seem practically impossible at this time but there must be some unusual set of circumstances that could trigger such a bonanza of new primary voters.
    To what extent is the absence of money as a variable in UK leadership elections responsible for a success that Sanders looks unlikely to replicate? Or the multi-candidate, one-time ballot, that assures that voters of Corbyn’s opponents cannot coalesce over time? Would american voters start behaving differently in forming their preferences under these circumstances?
    If Sanders’ (or Trump’s) actual policy views would be as strongly criticized as Corbyn’s have been in the British press, could Sanders similarly end up actually benefitting from the free publicity for his platform in a way that rallies his base and attracts formerly disengaged members of the public? And how much scrutiny would his policy ideas actually receive before his nomination appears imminent and the general population ‘freaks out’?

  4. Peter,

    Thanks for the detailed comment. I have not been following the Labour elections as closely as you, but my sense from this side of the Pond is that the established party leadership may yet rally support against Corbyn. But you are a better judge of this than I. In any case, I’m not sure how much parallels one can draw between the Labour elections and the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination. As you know, Americans generally are less likely to view politics and candidates through a class-based perspective (everyone is middle class in America – just ask my students!) So, while issues of economic inequality loom larger in this election than in previous campaigns, it’s not clear that this will translate into greater support for Sanders’ admittedly tame version of socialism. So far, despite the media claim that Sanders is surging, most of the polls show him at about 30-35% national support, which is pretty much where I pegged him to land several months ago. And most of his big rallies are in places – Seattle, Wisconsin – dominated by upper-middle class white professionals and college students. What this means, I think, is that Sanders is actually going to do better in contests, such as the Iowa caucuses, that have lower turnout dominated by more progressive issue activists and in states like New Hampshire whose Democratic electorate fits his core support. But as the electorate expands, I suspect Clinton will benefit more than Sanders. Now, it is possible that he will pick up support as his ideas get more airtime (and if Clinton gets indicted!) But I wouldn’t count on it. The other thing to remember about American politics is not only are unions less powerful here – they are also less ideological, and much more fixated on bread-and-butter economic issues. Electoral viability means a lot to unions (more so than it does to many ideologically-oriented SuperPacs) which is why Clinton is getting their support. Finally, although endorsements from party leaders are slow to come by this year, those that have been issued tend to favor Clinton – another sign that Sanders is not yet viewed as a viable candidate.

    To be sure, it is early in the campaign, Polls at this point aren’t very predictive. Lots of party leaders are withholding endorsements. Bernie may yet find his brand of socialism attracting more support as voters begin tuning into the race. But I wouldn’t look to Corbyn’s campaign for evidence that this is likely to happen here – there’s just too many differences between the political contexts.

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