According to much of the mainstream media, Bernie Sanders’ recent interview with the New York Daily News was an unmitigated disaster. Chris Cillizza wrote that “Sanders struggled. Often mightily.” Jonathan Capehart argued that Sanders “seemed surprisingly out of his depth.” David Graham contended that Sanders “couldn’t offer a coherent answer,” Damon Linker said he “bombed big-time,” and the Washington Post Editorial Board complained that he displayed “shocking ignorance on his core issue.”
The problem with this media formulation is twofold. First, as experts like Dean Baker and Mike Konczal have explained, Sanders grasps the issues discussed in the interview much better than most of his critics do. With regard to Sanders’ much-maligned comments on breaking up big banks, for example, political economy reporter Zach Carter noted that “[t]he legal landscape Sanders describes is basically correct and not embarrassing to anyone who actually understands it.”
Second, a closer look at the interview reveals a crucial point about the presidency that is often overlooked: a candidate’s values, vision, and record matter a lot more than the specific policy proposals that candidate unveils during campaign season.
That’s true because literally “[t]housands of people work in the West Wing, the East Wing, the Cabinet, and the Executive Office of the President.” These are the people who actually write the granular policy proposals that come out of the President’s office; it is their job to “carry out the priorities of the…Administration.”
Neither Sanders nor Hillary Clinton, if one of them were to become President, would hash out all the details on the dozens of issues that cross the President’s desk every day. They’d both have staffs to do that. What they would do is guide the construction of those details: they’d lay out their goals, outline the broad contours of how to get there, appoint and/or hire staff who share their vision, and exercise final decision-making authority.
Sanders alluded to this point repeatedly during the Daily News interview, explaining what he wanted to do and describing how, when it actually comes time to do it, he’d need to gather more information and consult experts on the specific course of action to take. He’d rely on the Treasury Secretary and other staff “who know a lot about this” to figure out the best way to break up the banks. He’d direct his Attorney General to figure out how to aggressively prosecute wrongdoing on Wall Street. He’d need “paper in front of” him before deciding exactly what Israel’s withdrawal from Palestinian territory should look like. These statements make a lot of sense and shouldn’t disturb anyone – unless, of course, you worry about who the Treasury Secretary, Attorney General, and/or staff providing his briefing papers might turn out to be.
And therein lies a crucial difference between Sanders and Clinton: the people with whom they surround themselves. Clinton’s staff and donor list reads like a who’s who of Establishment Democrats, wealthy interests, and corporate lobbyists. She draws advice from the same foreign policy firm used by several Republicans and refuses to condemn corruption from close friends like Rahm Emanuel. One of her prominent surrogates, David Brock, is known for “scurrilous hatchet jobs,” including his attempt to discredit Anita Hill (who was sexually harassed by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas) during the 1990s.
Sanders, on the other hand, has a history of hiring social justice advocates to work for him. He plans to “shut the revolving door between Wall Street and the federal government.” His racial justice platform explicitly states that his policies would be developed with “input from a broad segment of the community including activists and leaders from civil rights organizations.”
None of that is to say that all of Sanders’ staffers would be perfect or that all of Clinton’s staffers would be cause for alarm. In fact, I’m sure you’d find a number of great people working in a Clinton administration. But while there’s undeniably value in having some people with financial industry experience in regulatory positions, for example, Clinton’s pool of possible advisers doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence among those of us concerned about the influence of money in politics.
Especially given Sanders’ superior record and bigger goals in areas ranging from Wall Street reform to the environment, it seems like a pretty safe bet that a team he assembled would push hard for change. They wouldn’t necessarily get their entire wish list, but they, unlike a Clinton administration, could be expected to fight tooth-and-nail for power-balancing policy.
Thus when Clinton jumped on the media narrative and used the Daily News interview to accuse Sanders of not understanding “the law or the practical ways you get something done,” her critique wasn’t just incorrect; it completely missed the point. What a presidential candidate wants to do, and that candidate’s credibility in advocating for it, is a lot more important than whether that candidate has memorized the minutiae of policy proposals. Technocratic knowledge can’t fix weak goals. There are, however, a plethora of policy experts around to help candidates who want to implement a bold, power-balancing policy vision.
So while Sanders does actually have a firm grasp on a lot of policy details, that’s not the main reason I’m voting for him. I support Bernie Sanders in large part because he would bring a new mode of thinking – and new people – to the White House.
One response to “A Less Wonky Bernie Sanders Would Still Make a Great President”
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