A president needs to know how to articulate problems, detail solutions, and make those solutions a reality. It’s increasingly clear that Hillary is the only 2016 candidate with a lock on all three.
Inextricably tied to that zombie trope is the idea that Hillary isn’t an inspirational visionary—that she lacks the grand vision of her rival, Bernie Sanders.
This narrative is less obviously false, because Hillary genuinely doesn’t speak in broad aspirational sound bites, but focuses on specific policy detail—and says, plainly, that she does not want to promise anything on which she can’t deliver. She is, as she calls herself, a pragmatic progressive.
But she still has a well-defined vision, and her pragmatic approach strongly resonates with many progressives for whom incremental change feels safer than the upheaval of “revolution.”
Hillary is, bluntly, a policy wonk. And that nature is appealing to lots of her supporters, who want a president they can trust to know what she’s doing.
Bernie, on the other hand, speaks in sweeping promises, with far less detail. Still, it was presumed for much of the primary that he had a plan to enact those promises.
That presumption crashed headlong into the editorial board of the New York Daily News, where Bernie’s now-infamous interview showcased his inability to provide policy specifics around the central promises of his campaign, raising questions about whether he really did have a plan.
The editorial board of the Washington Post ran a biting criticism of Bernie’s lack of detailed plans under the blunt headline: “Mr. Sanders’s shocking ignorance on his core issue.”
Many voters share Mr. Sanders’s disdain for high finance and his nostalgia for an economy based more on manufacturing. But such prejudices, whether sound or not, provide an insufficient basis for remaking the world’s largest economy. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton has a banking-sector reform proposal designed to address the highest risks to the financial system that remain after the first round of reform. Mr. Sanders has yet to furnish anything of equivalent rigor.
And in the New York Times, Paul Krugman took him to task:
From the beginning, many and probably most liberal policy wonks were skeptical about Bernie Sanders. On many major issues — including the signature issues of his campaign, especially financial reform — he seemed to go for easy slogans over hard thinking. And his political theory of change, his waving away of limits, seemed utterly unrealistic. …On the rare occasions on which he was asked for more detail, he didn’t seem to have anything more to offer. And this absence of substance beyond the slogans seems to be true of his positions across the board.
Slow and steady change might not be exciting, but reliable change is deeply valued by people whose lives are affected by that change.
And here is where the rubber hits the road: At the Washington Post, Jeffrey Lazarus compares Hillary’s and Bernie’s effectiveness while serving in the Senate (as Hillary did for eight years and Bernie still does). He assesses legislative effectiveness by comparing how successful they were “at sponsoring legislation that is adopted by the Senate” and at amending bills sponsored by someone else.
By both measures, Hillary is more legislatively effective:
During her eight years in the Senate, Hillary Clinton sponsored 10 bills that passed the chamber. …By contrast, Bernie Sanders has been in the Senate nine years and has sponsored only one bill that passed. Clinton successfully amended bills 67 times in her eight years in the Senate. Sanders did so 57 times in nine years.
Bernie’s record in the House, where he served for 16 years, is similar: “There he didn’t pass a single bill. Granted, it’s harder for members to pass bills in the House than the Senate—the mean House member passes only 0.7 a year—but even so, one passed bill over a quarter-century in both houses of Congress is a very low number compared with his colleagues.”
However, Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University and Brookings Institution scholar, “said that the number of sponsored or co-sponsored bills signed into law isn’t a thorough measure of effectiveness or productivity for a member of the Senate.”
Offering amendments on the floor, holding hearings, contributing to oversight, helping to negotiate agreements, pushing federal agencies to be responsive to constituents back home — all of these might contribute to making a senator ‘effective,’ but none of these endeavors of course would show up in a count of bills sponsored or passed or enacted,” Binder said.
Thus, knowing how to work with people both inside and outside of your party is crucial for senators. It is also crucial for any president who hopes to accomplish anything in the era of Congressional gridlock.
And there is significant divergence on how their Congressional colleagues view Hillary and Bernie.
Hillary has received enormous amounts of praise from people who have worked with her, on both sides of the aisle. By comparison, Bernie has a reputation for being not quite as inclined to build natural alliances or bridge ideological differences.
Which is, of course, reflective of their respective approaches. Incremental and pragmatic versus revolutionary and grand. The problem is that not a lot of revolutionary and grand stuff happens in DC.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the choice isn’t really between incrementalism and revolution, but between getting lots of “boring old pragmatic changes” and getting zero sweeping changes.
If Bernie and Hillary were running for polemicist, Bernie would be the clear winner. But they are running for president. And a president needs to know both how to articulate problems and how to execute solutions.