This past week, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont announced that he would enter the Democratic primaries to run for President. Given the amount of buildup, leaks, and hype before this in various sectors of the press, it was one of the least surprising announcements since Hillary Clinton’s announcement. In the build-up to this, and now after the announcement, various “progressive” sites have been swooning over it. One of the common threads through them is that even if – and they’ll admit it’s more likely than not – he doesn’t win the nomination, he’ll “push Hillary (or whomever is the nominee) to the left.” There’s also a lot of chatter about the need to keep pushing the nominee to the left, to make sure they stay there. All of which is fine, except for what they ignore: It doesn’t really matter how far to the left a presidential candidate is.
Now, I’m a liberal, albeit a pragmatic one. I actually agree a lot with Bernie Sanders, and there are many things he’s proposed that I’d like to see implemented. So why would I say “it doesn’t really matter?” It’s because I understand government, and additionally “how things work.” In reading through all the “progressive voices” on his candidacy, one thing kept standing out: They don’t understand how government and political parties work. The result is that they’re planning on spending a lot of time and effort pushing the Democratic Party’s Presidential candidate, when they should be focusing their efforts in a different direction.
In my post on cargo cult politics, I said:
When President Obama took office, one of the common quotes on liberal blogs was from President Roosevelt agreeing with the progressive activists of the time, and telling them “now make me do it.” What the progressives of today thought that meant, and put into action, was that they had to yell a lot at the President (“hold his feet to the fire”) and go on various news media to say how he would be a failure if he didn’t do it. When it didn’t happen fast enough, they had to “yell louder.” All of which ignored what Roosevelt really meant, and what the activists of the time understood. He wasn’t telling them to yell at him, he was telling them to go out there, marshal public opinion, twist politicians arms or lobby them, and get a bill through Congress that he would have to sign.
In other words, you don’t push down on the person at the top, you push up from the ground. The so-called “progressive voices” and most political pundits don’t grasp that concept. That’s why “pushing the candidate” doesn’t really matter, since while they might say – or even actively believe – all the things you do, and get you excited about their candidacy, the reality is that their ability to actually accomplish any of that is not controlled by them.
In the system of government we have, the President cannot pass legislation or dictate to Congress. He doesn’t have any control over state governments. The President can outline his (or her) priorities, write drafts of legislation that they want, but Congress has the job of writing the legislation, passing it and authorizing any funding for it. Until they do that, and the President signs it, it doesn’t happen. No, the President can’t dictate to Congress. It’s the same thing when it comes to the states. There are things which the Constitution leaves up to the states, and the President can’t force states to do things their elected governments don’t want to do if it falls into their purview. Just witness the battles over implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which does leave Medicaid funding and insurance exchanges up to the states.
So if you want to “push the President to the Left,” it means you have to get a Congress that’s to the left, and get state governments there as well. That creates the groundswell for progressive programs, which makes the President do it. If there’s no groundswell, or no progressive Congress, then it doesn’t matter how liberal a President is when they were running or are when they take office. Their ability to get any of that done is very limited. Get the states and Congress on board, and it will be amazing at just how “liberal” a middle-of-the-road Democratic President can be!
For the past 5 years, I’ve watched as the Left has spent enormous amounts of time screaming at this President, and pouting about what “the Party should do.” All of which has been meaningless, since they’ve stood by and watch Republicans actually get out and vote, and take over state legislatures, governorships, and Congress. The result? Progressive legislation has been dead in the water, Democrats have had to fight to keep existing programs from being gutted or repealed, and very little has been done. The thing “The Left” has in common with the Right is that they “blame Obama.” They should look in the mirror instead. If they don’t learn to push the right way, it wouldn’t matter if Bernie Sanders were to become President. He wouldn’t be able to accomplish his goals, and in 2018 they’d be screaming about what “a failure” he was, and how he “sold them out.”
We’ve all had the experience of trying to open a door the wrong way. It’s embarrassing, but usually we quickly figure it out. The problem for progressives is that they haven’t figured it out, and they’re like the person who stands there tugging away at a door that they should be pushing. They’re expending a lot of effort, but they’re still not getting into the building. In politics, if you’re not pushing the right way, you’re going to be left standing on the outside, wondering why you can’t get in. In this case, it means start pushing up from the ground, and then the top will move, but not before.