What do you want a president to do?

Interesting piece from Dave Roberts on who would be a better president between Clinton and Sanders.  Here’s what he comes up with:

Clinton and Sanders are not nearly as far apart on policy as both sides would currently have us believe, as Jonathan Cohn argued in a recent column. And the differences between them pale next to their shared differences with any Republican in the race (hence electability becoming the dominant question).

What’s more, Cohn points out, both would spend their time in office staving off Republicans, not passing their dream bills.

The last point is worth expanding.

In 2016, barring some truly disruptive political event (which, who knows, Trump may prove to be), Republicans are going to keep control of the House of Representatives. They may keep control of the Senate as well, though that’s less certain, but all they need to block any hope of an expansive legislative agenda is the House, something Obama has learned over and over again.

So there will be no single-payer health care, no national carbon tax, no free college, no reparations. Given the current disposition of the Republican Party, it will be a miracle if regular-order business like budgets and debt ceiling bills can get through — if the government can keep functioning at all.

On legislation, the next Democratic president (if there is one) will mostly play defense, using the filibuster or, if necessary, the veto pen.

What progress there is on domestic policy will come from inventive, assertive use of executive power and smart appointments, both judicial and administrative… [emphases mine; big bold fonts/headings in original]

What it takes to succeed as a Democratic president these days

Obama’s success has required two things. One is the self-possession and confidence to weather the disapproval of VSPs and the mau-mauing of Republican opponents. (A big part of this is settling on the right advisers for the inner circle.)

The second is a good sense of the executive machinery and how it might be deployed to positive effect. Most of Obama’s second-term domestic victories have been bureaucratic: getting the military to sign off on LGBTQ soldiers and female combat troops, finding new ways to extend the Clean Air Act, raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers, and the like…

Time to compare the candidates based on how well they’d do what they could actually do

Which brings us back to Clinton and Sanders. If they are both serious candidates for president, then they should be treated like job candidates, evaluated on the qualities that are likely to affect their performance.

How liberal they are willing to talk during a primary is not one of those qualities. Their opinions on single-payer health care are not hugely relevant, nor are their stances on breaking up big banks, carbon taxes, serious gun control, or reparations for slavery.

How they talk about these aspirational issues can tell us something about their priorities, of course. But in practice, they are going to be hemmed in to the point that circumstances, more than priorities, will dictate opportunities.

Success, then, will come from seizing those opportunities when they arise, and making the most of them. It will come from understanding and manipulating the levers of the bureaucracy, from being ruthless about taking incremental wins wherever they can be found, from taking the long view and not overreacting to the hysterical, endless fluctuations in elite DC opinion…

Even though idealistic Democratic primary voters may not want to hear it, when it comes to domestic policy, the Democratic contest is about who will be best at securing Obama’s accomplishments against Republican attack, exploiting incremental advances when they become possible, and manipulating the personalities and power centers inside Washington.

It’s about who will be the best grinder. That’s not the job the candidates, the media, and the public are talking about, but it’s the job Democrats are hiring a president to do.

You read through that, up and until the last sentence, and you are just sure that Roberts’ endorsement of Clinton will follow.  Yet, somehow he comes down on “who knows.”  Seriously?  How can you write that and argue that Sanders could possibly be better suited for the type of presidency Roberts describes.  Give me strong Democratic majorities, and maybe we’ve got a different story.  But in this scenario?  Please, it’s almost hard to imagine a Clinton supporter didn’t write all that.

In a similar and more concise vein, Drum:

Bottom line: given the realities of American politics, they’d both be highly constrained in what they can accomplish in the White House. It doesn’t matter what’s in their hearts. What matters is (a) whether they can win in November and (b) what kind of deals they can broker with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.

Anybody who’s read my blog for a while can guess where I fall on this. I think Bernie has done a great job of pushing Hillary a bit to the left and demonstrating that she can expect continued pressure on that front. But the truth is that Hillary wins on both points A and B. She’s not the most charismatic politician in the world, but as we all like to say, we’re voting for president, not someone to have a beer with. What’s more, I’ve long admired her tenacity; her ability to withstand decades of crude invective and political destruction derby; and her very obvious, lifelong commitment to using politics as a way of improving people’s lives. There have been a million noxious compromises along the way, but that’s how politics works in the real world. Plus I’d love to see a woman in the White House.

I like Bernie. I like what he says. If I believed he could do all the stuff he talks about, he’d have my vote. But I don’t.

Pretty much totally agree.  There’s a reason that Drum has long been my favorite blogger.

Anyway, I’ve got no great PS insight on this matter.  The truth is, PS doesn’t really have a lot to offer on what it takes to make a good president.  That said, it does offer a hard-headed analysis of likely political situation as described by Roberts and Drum (and many others).  And it’s hard for me to see the case that Sanders is somehow better suited to this situation than is Clinton.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

11 Responses to What do you want a president to do?

  1. J. Palmer says:

    I wholeheartedly agree that if elected as President, Sanders would have an incredibly difficult time moving any of his agenda forward. However, anyone who thinks Hillary Clinton would have an easier time enacting liberal policies is greatly underestimating the odium the GOP has for her (as a female, as a symbol of her husband’s legacy, and as a symbol of Obama’s legacy). Also, noting the direction the GOP is moving with leading candidates like Trump and Cruz, a Democratic president in 2016 is sure to meet even more resistance than Obama has. But even if Hillary were to meet half the resistance that Obama did, nothing will get accomplished in Washington for another term—save the occasional government shutdown and Dr. Seuss themed fake filibuster.

    As far as the extremism of Bernie’s platform (vs. Hillary’s), it is important to realize that Bernie has already pulled Hillary so far left on the campaign trail that their policy proposals are becoming almost indistinguishable. Hillary just said this past weekend that her top domestic priority would be healthcare?!? Her debt free college proposal only came after Sander’s push for tuition free college. Their rhetoric on ISIS is nearly identical (although Clinton does have more credibility in the foreign policy arena). Outside of foreign policy leadership experience and differing votes on the war in Iraq, there are few major differences between the Democratic candidates, and only one that matters: money.

    If you can accept the harsh reality that neither Sanders nor Clinton has a chance of magically changing the hearts of the GOP congress and moving them towards enacting even watered down progressive policy measures, then a Sanders’ presidency at least proves that political candidates do not have to prostitute themselves to big money donors that fund their campaigns. This substantive outcome is something that the obstructionist GOP cannot stop, and the lasting impact it would have on politics would be–to quote both Donald Trump and Bernie–“Uuuge.” This is the best reason to vote for Sanders.

    (For the record, Trump’s popularity on the right is, at least to some degree, based on the fact that, like Sanders, Trump doesn’t need big money donors to fund his campaign. But the fact that he represents the interests of his own corporations doesn’t really change the longstanding nature of a corrupt political system.)

    This has to be the message from Sanders’ campaign: a vote for Sanders is a vote for a political system that restores at least some balance of power to people over money–as evidenced by a candidate who turns down donations from billionaires. A vote for Hillary is just a vote for Bernie’s lightly moderated policies–policies with no better chance of getting through a GOP congress and zero chance of pleasing her Wall Street benefactors who already have their sales receipts for less regulation.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Interesting points, but you are kind of ignoring all that about using the non-legislative powers of the presidency where there’s plenty of reason to think Hillary will be more effective.

  2. J. Palmer says:

    Yes, that may be true. But if Sanders is able to surround himself with the right kind of advisors, I think he could wield the power of the pen just as effectively as Clinton. If they were both operating completely on their own, then I would concede that, with her background in law, Clinton would probably be more effective with implementing executive action; however, that is not really the reality of the executive branch.

    • Jon K says:

      Except Sanders has given no indication that he would surround himself with pragmatic aides in those roles. He has shown himself to be quite inflexible as a Senator. What makes you think he’d be any different as POTUS? If Sanders tried to accomplish what he wanted by fiat it would just get tied up in the courts the same way Obama’s overreach on illegal immigration has been. We do have checks and balances.

      With a GOP controlled House of Representatives Sanders would be able to accomplish 0.0 of his agenda. His divisiveness would just increase the gridlock and polarization that is currently hurting the country. We need less extremist political leaders and more pragmatic political leaders. That’s how democracy works we must have leaders willing to compromise and accept that they can’t always get what they want, but they can usually get some if they make deals.

      • Jon K says:

        And you should remember that Bill Clinton was remarkably successful making deals with the GOP – and he had to deal with Newt Gingrich…. Obama never really even tried. He soured relations with the GOP when he had super-majorities and everyone was predicting the GOP was dead following his election in 2008.

        It turned out the GOP wasn’t dead. They proved it in 2010 and subsequent elections. Yes they are on the verge of committing suicide with their nominee for POTUS this cycle, but that is the very reason that Democrats should be smart and avoid falling in the same trap.

        I take Bloomberg seriously and if the race is Trump v Sanders v Bloomberg, Bloomberg could actually have a chance.

      • J. Palmer says:

        You are right that he has not given indication of who he would place in his inner circle. I would personally feel more comfortable supporting him if he would do that.

        As I wrote above, I agree that Sanders doesn’t have a chance to move his agenda under a GOP congress–but neither does Hillary. The vitriol directed at Hillary from Republicans is (and has been for years) far worse than the dismissive attitude they cast toward Sanders. Do you think Hillary’s executive actions would be any less opposed than Sanders’? If so, why? Because they might be more moderate? (Her campaign rhetoric certainly doesn’t indicate that, but I suppose you could make a good argument that her actual governance would be more practical (i.e. moderate). If that is the case, then Clinton is not trustworthy and her critics on both sides are right about her.

        Before you write off Sanders as inflexible, please check out his actual bipartisan accomplishments, including his bipartisan VA bill that passed (with John McCain), his work on govt. surveillance issues with Rand Paul, and his amendments to Dodd-Frank. Bernie is certainly less bipartisan than Clinton, but he is running as the answer to the ideologues on the right and that might be the best option for liberals since John Boehner’s congress murdered and buried pragmatic politics years ago.

      • Jon K says:

        The answer to extremism isn’t more extremism. Extremism is the problem. It wouldn’t make Hillary untrustworthy to think she’d be more moderate. It would make her an astute politician. All smart politicians pander to the base in a primary and then move to the center after the primary is over. There’s a couple of reasons for that:

        1) After you get nominated you have to win a general election. You can’t do that with just the hard core partisans that make up a primary electorate. You have to attract moderates in your party – who don’t feel comfortable with an extremist – and you have to attract independents and moderates from the other side. That’s why Donald Trump or Ted Cruz most likely can’t win a general election. Sure a majority of Republicans might support them, but a majority of Republicans doesn’t even come close to a majority of Americans. The same is true of very liberal candidates like Sanders. Sanders wouldn’t even call himself a democrat until he decided to run for the presidency. What independents or moderate Republicans are going to vote for him? I sure don’t know any. The word socialist is enough to disqualify him in the minds of many voters (including the one writing this blog comment).

        2) After you win a general election you actually have to govern if you want to be a successful president. That means making deals – and that means settling for things that you may not want to get other things that you do want. In a democracy the other side has just as much of a right to their say as you have to yours. If both sides are just going to pick up their toys and go home if they don’t get 100% of what they want then our system becomes dysfunctional. If the GOP nominates an unelectable candidate they very well may lose the Senate. The party will have to basically re-calibrate itself to remain viable. That opens up a whole new avenue for a pragmatic negotiator to actually lead and get legislation passed. Will it be everything liberals would like in a perfect world? No it won’t. Is making progress better than sliding backward? I would say absolutely. You can’t judge how the Republicans dealt with Obama as the standard for how they would deal with the next president. Obama never even tried to work with the Republicans. The first time they tried to meet with him he told them “elections have consequences” and basically told them to piss off. When Bohner was trying to negotiate the Grand Bargain against the wishes of many in his own party President Obama blew up a deal they had already agreed to. You can’t blame all of the Republican behavior only on them. After the election in 2008 Time Magazine was speculating on the end of the Republican party. Obama didn’t think he needed their support, so he didn’t try to get it. I don’t think Hillary would operate that way. Her husband didn’t, and she understands the game of politics much better than Obama.

      • Jon K says:

        The fact that Bloomberg has stated very clearly that if Sanders is nominated he is willing to spend a billion dollars of his own money to try and keep an extremist from either side out of the White House should make everyone supporting Sanders question what they are doing.

        Remember if you don’t get a majority in the Electoral College the President is chosen by the House of Representatives. Last time I checked the House of Representatives is controlled by the Republican Party.

  3. rgbact says:

    Interesting topic. Ideally you want a president thats the best representative of your ideology, in order that they’ll be able to persuade others to your causes.

    A president that wants to make deals is the worst thing to a partisan though. Bill Clinton was not good for liberalism, even thought the electorate liked it. But Its understandable that partisans have no interest in the “pragmatism” argument..I suspect liberals much prefer Obama’s “go it alone” approach to Clinton’s pragmatism. I would.

  4. Jon K says:

    Man I am up waaay past my bedtime… I’m not going to be up until after 9 tomorrow…
    All I would say about putting too much emphasis on any ideology is my favorite analogy of all time:
    “The map is not the territory”
    Getting stuck on an ideology is mistaking the forest for the trees. Ideology isn’t real. Its a tool or a framework that an individual uses to understand the world. Just like any other model it is only helpful as a tool when it is useful. When sticking to your ideological principles works to your disadvantage, or prevents you from achieving success, its time to abandon that model and try something else.

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