January 27, 2016

Robert Reich is taking on the “Bernie skeptics.” Sadly, that includes me. Also sadly, Reich’s effort to rebut the conventional wisdom regarding Senator Sanders’ general election viability is all too easily debunked. Reich’s professorial presentation is filled with many logical and reasonable premises and claims. Unfortunately, there are also an alarming number of unsupported claims and flawed or flat out incorrect assumptions about the way voters behave and about how our electoral and policy making institutions are designed and how they function in real life.

Reich’s argument consists of what he sees as the six claims of “Bernie skeptics,” followed by his suggested rebuttals.

First, he rebuts the claim that Bernie would lose to Donald Trump or Ted Cruz by citing “match-up polls” that show Bernie does as well or better than Clinton against Trump and Cruz. There are two serious problems with this rebuttal. The polls he is relying on are complete garbage.National hypothetical match up polls conducted 10 months prior to a general election? Really? Reich is working as a poli sci prof these days, so either he’s pretending he doesn’t understand polling or he doesn’t understand polling. Another “huge” problem here is that he assumes that Trump or Cruz will be the GOP nominee.On the bright side, this assumption is at least consistent in that it too reflects a lack of understanding of how polls work. The real reason Reich has focused on Trump and Cruz is that these two GOP candidates are by far the least viable general election candidates in the GOP field. If one of them is nominated either Clinton or O’Malley would win in a walk.Nominating Sanders, on the other hand, would be like spotting a very weak opponent quite a few points, turning a contest Democrats should win easily into a nail biter that very well may result in total control of the federal government (all three branches) by a wingnut dominated Republican Party.

Second, Reich rebuts the notion that a Republican Congress would reject all of Sanders’ ideas, making it impossible for him to follow through on his promised reforms. Here he argues that the same would be true for Hillary Clinton, but that a strong progressive Democratic president can move forward using unilateral executive authority. If Bernie were president, Reich argues, there is less chance that the next president will face a Republican House and a Republican Senate. Because Bernie will turn out millions of new voters nation-wide, many Republican incumbents may be defeated in the 2016 election, and because the millions of new young voters inspired by Sanders wouldn’t just turnout in 2016 on Election Day, but would stay engaged between elections and turnout in the 2018 midterms, the GOPs hold on Congress would be reversed by a Sanders’ nomination and election. It’s hard to know which flawed or unrealistic assumption should be debunked first on this one. In the real world of 2016 presidential politics, there is little evidence that Sanders’ ability to turnout newly engaged progressive voters in the fall willing to vote a straight Democratic Party ballot is greater than Clinton’s, primarily because the partisan stakes are what will motivate voters and the partisan stakes are so very, very clear in this election. In fact, when Clinton does win the nomination, Sanders will be campaigning very hard for her election precisely because he understands the gravity of the partisan situation. The difference between Sanders and Clinton on this point (i.e. turnout & coattails) is that Sanders would motivate greater GOP turnout than Clinton would, and that Sanders would complicate, not compliment, the campaigns of congressional Democrats who would be hard-pressed to defend many of his claims and positions on the campaign trail. Clinton’s campaign is far better positioned to provide assistance and support to her fellow Democratic candidates. Sanders, and his supporters dislike conventional politicians. The down-ballot Democrats in 2016 will be just such folks. This is a recipe for tension and conflict, not effective vertical integration.

Reich’s faith-based assumption that Sanders has and will motivate an army of newly invigorated progressive activists that will not only turnout for Sanders and down-ballot Democrats in 2016, but that will also stay engaged between elections and turn out sufficient numbers in the 2018 midterms to advance Sanders’ oft expressed desire for political revolution, is pure fantasy. There is literally ZERO empirical evidence for this grand hope, though there is quite a bit of historical data to indicate the very long odds against it. Calling such developments unprecedented would be a serious under-statement.

Third, Reich rebuts the idea that Americans will never elect a “socialist.” On this point, Reich subtlety (and I assume intentionally) misconstrues the skeptics’ point by arguing that America’s most popular government programs are social insurance programs, like social security and Medicare. Therefore, American voters will not reject a candidate offering up such ideas. Of course the “Bernie skeptics” aren’t saying that Americans don’t support socialist programs. We are saying that way too many American voters do not understand that their most cherished government programs are socialist and way too many of these folks would be easily dissuaded from pulling the lever for a “socialist” because of what that label means to them. On this point, Reich is demonstrating his (real or willful) misunderstanding of voter behavior. He is essentially assuming that enough voters are sufficiently rational, attentive, and knowledgeable to be invulnerable to the GOP’s efforts to link Sanders with Marxism and/or Soviet-style communism. That is definitely not a safe assumption. Reich tries to prop up this rebuttal by claiming that these voters will agree with Sanders that the “real problem” is “socialism for the rich.” On this point, Reich is, of course, correct on the policy, but wrong on the politics.

Fourth, Reich rebuts the notion that Bernie’s single-payer Health Insurance system would cost too much and require middle class tax hikes. Here, he ignores the short and medium term impacts of such a change in the way we finance health insurance in America and argues instead that countries with such systems show that single-payer systems are actually much cheaper than what we now have, and therefore, Bernie’s plan would actually end up saving American taxpayers lots of money. On the merits of the health insurance debate in the abstract, Reich’s argument is sound and persuasive. In the context of the 2016 presidential election, however, it’s essentially a bait and switch. Once again, Reich is treating American voters like rational, attentive, and knowledgeable stake holders who will easily recognize that the massive up-front costs (and they wouldn’t just be higher taxes by the way) will prove a wise investment that will pay big dividends down the road. This is an absurd assumption regarding the general electorate, never mind the small portion of which remain “persuadable” voters. I wouldn’t give Sanders an even money shot at making this case successfully even if the GOP were prevented from opening their mouths in opposition. Without a free speech shattering gag order, this defense of a single-payer system as a 2016 campaign issue is little more than a pipe dream.

Fifth, Reich refutes the idea that Bernie’s “free college” program paid for by taxes on Wall Street would subject universities to unwarranted government regulation and interference. This was a curious argument.I haven’t seen this one prominently advanced. Nonetheless, like the others, it too crumbles upon scrutiny. First, Reich says that 3/4ths of college students go to state colleges and universities, which (he claims) are already “largely funded by state government.” The implication here is that federally funded free college would simply be more of the same. What does “largely funded by state governments” actually mean. My own state university gets 40% of its funding from the state. Does 40% mean the state of Connecticut “largely funds” my university? I don’t think so. On the question of intrusive government interference. There is certainly some state government interference now, but the greatest source of external pressure on state universities in my opinion is state budget politics, which constitutes an ever-present nuisance and threat to my state university’s ability to accomplish the particular mission of a university. Why should voters expect this type of interference would be reduced if the funding government were the federal government?Frankly, the idea that anti-education wingnuts in the U.S. Congress would have ANY leverage over how my university operates scares the hell out of me. Don’t get me wrong, federally-funded free college is a good and noble goal, but like all of Sanders’ prescriptions, it is a very long-range goal requiring persistent and patient advocacy in our political system under any circumstances. At a time when the GOP has control of both houses of Congress, pretending that it could be accomplished in the short term is naïve at best. Frankly, pretending this plan is achievable in the short run is irresponsible, in my opinion, because it requires one to ignore the many structural and institutional roadblocks to such a reform in our public policy process and our politics.

The sixth and final argument of “Bernie skeptics,” according to Reich, is that the 73 year old Vermonter is “too old” to be president. I don’t think this is actually a serious argument made by skeptics. I sure haven’t made it. I think Reich included it for two reasons. It allows him to frame “Bernie skeptics” as unreasonably throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Sanders, ostensibly because such folks are just “in the tank” for Hillary, and because it allows him to tout Sanders’ health and for those who worry about the health of presidents, it allows Reich to link Bernie to Democratic presidential Gods FDR and JFK both of whom earned deity status in the Party despite poor health.

What Reich never acknowledges is that because of the huge and crystal clear partisan stakes in this election, Hillary’s potential negatives will not take center stage in political narrative of this election. Everything the GOP has, is, or will throw at Clinton is about Clinton, not about the Democratic Party’s priorities or agenda. She can and will be able to deflect the GOP’s incoming fire by pointing out that the election isn’t about the candidates, it’s about preventing the party of Trump, Cruz, Palin, Limbaugh, and scores of other extremists from gaining control of all three branches of government, which includes the ability to solidify a conservative majority on the Supreme Court for generations. Bernie’s “socialism,” however misunderstood, will prevent him from being able to make the Democratic partisan case necessary to secure this election with as much force or as much credibility as Hillary Clinton. The 2016 presidential election will be a party-centric showdown. Nominating someone who isn’t even a registered member of their party would be a very foolish mistake for the Democrats in such a contest.

So, there it is. Bernie Sanders has the support of a lot of very smart and good people, but the common denominator between all of the liberal intellectuals who are supporting Bernie seems to be an unwillingness or inability to consider Sanders’ candidacy in proper context; to appreciate what we know about voter behavior (before, during, and after elections) and what we know about the workings of America’s electoral and public policy making institutions. Despite an impressive array of academics and intellectuals in his stable of endorsers, I’m not seeing a lot of career political scientists who study American government and politics coming out of the woodwork to defend Sanders’ ability to win in November or to achieve his policy goals if elected.

Once again, I find myself in the position of having to urge readers not to believe the hype.  A sober examination of the real stakes in 2016 will compel Democrats to nominate Hillary Clinton, who will go on to win in November.

Bernie Sanders, Robert Reich, Bernie Skeptics, Hillary Clinton

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