One important result of the Iowa Democratic Caucus is that Sanders appears to have a real possibility of winning the Democratic candidacy. This has left some breathless. Not only do many Democrats not think that Sanders could beat Trump, they also find Sanders’ vision of a Democratic-socialist state horrifying. Those with excellent health insurance would like to keep it, and more importantly keep the rabble out of our waiting rooms! (Isn’t that what it is really about?) But I think this focus on policy visions misses the primary role of the President in government and party politics.
Presidents certainly matter for the political, legislative, managerial, and popular leadership they provide. In crises this is most visible, but they are even more important for the leadership they provide in federal bureaucracy. This is perhaps the most corrosive feature of the Trump administration; it seems interested in actively destroying the ability of the federal government to provide the vital regulation and other services that are needed in modern states. I suspect that Trump has done this because of his history of fraudulent acts, and his plans to commit more of them. Without a well-managed federal state, rich people are often able avoid following the law. That is music to Trump’s ears.
Presidents also have discretion in how they manage the government in accordance with law, but the effects of these decisions are both temporary and limited compared to the effects of laws. One need only see the differences between the transformative Affordable Care Act and Obama’s various executive actions (like that to protect “Dreamers”). Laws have lasting effects on American life and norms, whereas the impacts of executive actions often do not last longer than the President who made them.
The American system is deeply conservative (in the broad sense). Large social changes typically happen slowly and only after a significant portion of the electorate approves of them. The Affordable Care Act, as limited as it was compared to the a socialized system, occurred only after a blockbuster victory by Obama that also brought huge majorities in the Senate and House. And even then the reform worked within the current system. It was relatively conservative. Reformers and radicals may lament this, but it is a feature of our system that distributes authority across three branches of governments, as well as within the states.
The basic point I am getting at is that the election of Sanders would not bring us socialized medicine or socialized education, or socialized anything for that matter. There is little popular support for any of these radical transformations, and no possible Congress would go along with them. His presidency would likely bring us nominally higher taxes on the rich (and probably corporations), but likely within the current system of taxation. And even there, nothing too radical would ever pass Congress. It is striking to see that although Trump has transformed the moral character of the Republican party (they are essentially a criminal set these days) he has done little to change the policy positions of Congress.
What a Sanders presidency would provide us is a vision (whatever its merits) of where our system should be headed in the long-term. Sanders, essentially, wants us to move toward a European-style system in which the government provides for much but also controls much. That is a worthy vision, though one that is problematic. One need only look at Europe to see how a group of states of unequal wealth and living standards can struggle to stay within a shared economy with an expansive welfare and regulatory state. There is also evidence that, because of racist attitudes and resentment, generous welfare states may be less sustainable alongside high rates of immigration. Given how important immigration is to the sustainability of American population and economic growth, that is concerning. In any case, there should be a debate about Sanders’ vision, and a Sanders presidency would give our country just such an opportunity.
Of course there are questions about how effective of an executive manager and legislative leader Sanders would be. He has spent his career taking rather uncompromising positions outside of the party mainstream (in fact he isn’t a Democrat!), and so one wonders how well he would lead effective legislative fights. And I don’t think we know much about how well he would lead the executive bureaucracy. I make no claims about any of this here. Nor do I think we have a good idea of how competitive he would be against Trump. However, I don’t think his immediate policy “plans” should be taken as serious visions of how he would change the U.S. in four (or even eight) years. He would advocate an ideal that would frame our debates. But it is up to Congress to decide what to do with that.
I probably won’t be voting for Sanders in the primaries, but I don’t think his radical policy views should prevent anyone from doing so.