We need to consider the possibility of Bernie Sanders in the White House because the polls indicate that the independent socialist U.S. Senator from Vermont has become a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Tony Norman noted that Sanders now has the same level of name recognition that Barack Obama had in August 2008. Gallup reported that Sanders’ favorable rating among Americans doubled between March and July 2015, rising from 12% to 24%, while Hillary Clinton’s favorable rating fell to 46%.
Gallup also noted that Sanders has the support of 39% of all Democrats, 47% of Democratic men and 50% of white Democrats. He has significant support in the Party in addition to a large network of grassroots enthusiasts.
Most tellingly, a CNN/ORC International poll even found that Sanders could beat any of the current Republican candidates in a head to head race, meaning that there is now a possibility he might reach the White House.
Even the Democratic establishment is beginning to take notice of Bernie and to consider the possibility that Hillary could lose. Several news outlets, including The New York Times, are reporting that Vice President Joe Biden is about to throw his hat into the ring. It appears that Democrats are trying to find an alternative to Hillary to keep Bernie away from the Oval Office.
Therefore we need to consider what would have been unthinkable a few months: President Bernie Sanders. What would his administration be like, and how would it affect the country?
The most likely result of a Sanders administration would be to make the current political impasse in Washington far worse. Instead of a second New Deal, President Sanders would create more gridlock and political conflict in Washington than ever before.
Sanders’ Agenda Is a Blueprint for Gridlock
This would occur because Sanders’ campaign and his popular appeal are based on a few big ideas. Instead, of being a design for a better America, Sanders’ program is a blueprint for gridlock in today’s political environment.
His big ideas are more likely to spark destructive political battles than to bring people together. The contentious programs that Sanders plans to advance include:
- Medicare for all by creating a single payer national health insurance system for the entire population.
- Free college using a Robin Hood tax (a sales tax on investments) to cover costs for students at public universities and colleges.
- Protectionism – abandoning free trade deals and using tariffs to reduce the number of imports and increase the number of U.S. manufacturing jobs.
- Increased union membership by making it easier for employees to form unions.
- Increased taxes on the rich by implementing a wealth tax or increasing the income tax on persons in higher income brackets to reduce income inequality.
- Spend $1 trillion on infrastructure public works to create jobs and stimulate the economy.
- Expand Social Security by abolishing the $118,500 maximum earnings—the highest income level at which Social Security taxes can be collected. This would greatly increase the amount of money available to Social Security.
- Greatly increase the use of renewable energy in an effort to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and the threat of global warming.
These big ideas would generate conflict and create gridlock because President Sanders would need a substantial and very friendly majority in Congress to get them passed—the kind of majority that FDR had when he implemented the New Deal and Lyndon Baines Johnson had during the Great Society years in the 1960s.
Present political realities make such a scenario impossible. The best President Sanders can hope for in the current political reality is a weak Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. Since that majority would be composed mostly of moderate Democrats to the right of Sanders, he would have an uphill battle implementing those ideas. I imagine that many moderate Democrats would be just as likely to oppose or sabotage Sanders’ agenda as many Republicans would.
A more likely scenario is a divided Congress with one house controlled by each party. A Sanders agenda in that environment would be a perfect recipe for gridlock. A Democratic House of Representatives might pass one of Sanders’ more popular programs simply in order to get a Republican Senate to vote it down just to make Republicans look bad. Conversely, a Republican Senate might pass one of Sanders’ programs they know Democrats would vote down just to hurt the Democrats.
An even worse possibility and one that is likely given today’s political climate would be President Sanders and a Republican Congress. That could lead to constant political warfare between the Congress and the White House because a substantial number of the Republicans in Congress would be Tea Party types out to “impeach Sanders.” The warfare could grow especially bloody if large numbers of radical leftists get elected and form a sort of Democratic Tea Party dedicated to implementing Bernie’s agenda.
What Would President Sanders Do?
History shows that faced with such a situation, President Sanders would have two courses of action that presidents have followed in the past.
The first and most likely course of action would be accommodation and cooperation. Sanders would start cutting deals with Congress and abandon portions of his agenda in order to get others passed. He might abandon protectionism to get Medicare for all across for example.
This is what presidents usually do; Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama all followed this strategy. It can achieve results; Eisenhower got the interstate highways funded, and Obama got Obamacare across. The problem with the strategy is that it usually turns off the True Believers. The army of rabid leftists that Bernie has attracted would turn on him if he were to make a compromise with any Republican even if it achieved some of their goals.
Yet such a strategy is likely because Bernie is a pragmatist. He is a veteran legislator who has long worked with Republicans to achieve his goals when it served his interests. Bernie and U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) work closely on veterans’ issues for example. My guess is that Bernie would try to compromise and do what he can, like most presidents, and he would take a lot of heat for it.
Another pattern of behavior would be to use the White House as “the Bully Pulpit” as Theodore Roosevelt would say; that is, to stick to his guns and use the Oval Office and the attention it attracts to publicize and promote his agenda at all costs.
The last president to do this was Harry Truman, who stuck to his guns and used the White House to promote a variety of controversial proposals, including national healthcare and civil rights. The proposals went nowhere, but Truman became an American folk hero. He also ultimately succeeded 15 years later when most of his agenda was implemented under LBJ. Interestingly enough, Truman, now one of our best loved presidents, was widely seen as a failure when he left office in 1953.
Yet no matter what Sanders would do in the Oval Office, it would generate gridlock and controversy. The divided government that Americans claim to hate will become more divided than ever.
This, of course, brings up an interesting question: Do Americans want a divided government and gridlock? The answer seems to be yes because Americans distrust government and want it weak. The best way to achieve this is to elect politicians with widely divergent views and sic them upon each other; for example, conservative Republican Congress and liberal Democratic President Barack Obama.
That makes the possibility of President Bernie Sanders and a Republican Congress a more likely one than the media would have us believe. It also means that compromise and centrism are as dead in the United States as they are in the United Kingdom.