Bernie Sanders has an ambitious agenda, but he will have significant trouble getting it passed through Congress. Liam Glen evaluates the candidate’s chances of working through a hostile political environment.
On the eve of the Iowa Caucus, the nation gets ready for a vote that will formally kick off the race for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Barring an upset, the most viable candidates seem to be Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.
Biden is by far the more conventional candidate. While his campaign does have some particularities, his main goal is to return the nation to a pre-Trump era.
Sanders, by contrast, represents something completely new. The self-proclaimed democratic socialist is on a mission to radically change the country’s political and economic institutions. A fierce debate has emerged over whether he can win in November, but there is also a question of what he would do in office.
If he is elected, Sanders would face an array of challenges in implementing his agenda. This was problem was perhaps best summarized in a series of comments by his 2016 rival Hillary Clinton, which most infamously included the line, “nobody likes him.”
Sanders’s supporters were quick to push back. He may be unpopular among members of Congress and other political insiders, but he is well-liked by average voters. The fact that the political establishment hates him most likely makes him more popular among the general public.
If he is to get anything done, however, Sanders will need to work with those very same insiders. This could be the greatest challenge of his presidency, to which his best strategy may be to leverage his popular support.
No Backslapping or Pleasantries
There are some things that Sanders could do unilaterally. Already, he is planning executive orders to reverse Trump’s immigration policies, make it easier to import prescription drugs from Canada, and legalize cannabis, among other aims.
But his most ambitious proposals – such as Medicare for All, a $15 hourly minimum wage, or free public college – would need congressional approval. If Republicans retain control of the Senate, his agenda would be dead on arrival. But even if Democrats take the chamber, a significant amount of the caucus would be skeptical of Sanders’s agenda. Getting them on board would not be easy.
To make matters worse, Sanders’s personal style does not go well with wheeling and dealing. As he himself has admitted, “I’m not good at backslapping. I’m not good at pleasantries.” This no-nonsense attitude plays well in elections, but would make it difficult to navigate the countless factions he would have to negotiate with in the White House.
To be fair, there have been cases of Sanders working with colleagues across the aisle – most notably helping to pass a 2014 Veterans Affairs reform bill – but for the overwhelming part, he has based his stances on an uncompromising commitment to progressive values.
While his ideological fellow Elizabeth Warren has been willing make alliances with Democratic insiders, Sanders is more recalcitrant. Warren’s critics say that allying herself with the establishment will force her to dilute her progressive policies. However, Sanders’s opponents can just as easily claim that his stubbornness will doom whatever chance he has of implementing anything.
President Trump’s fraught relationship with members of his own party in Congress has led to comparisons with Jimmy Carter. But Sanders, who strongly disagrees with other Democrats on matters of both principle and policy, could face an even greater challenger if he does not change his current trajectory.
Sanders’s campaign is aware of all of these concerns. In response, he has said that he will function as an “organizer-in-chief,” using his grassroots support to push lawmakers into passing his agenda. This appeal to movement politics is a cornerstone of his campaign, extending to his slogan, “Not Me, Us.”
In this way, Sanders could be similar to the current incumbent. Republican lawmakers may not like Trump, but they are too afraid of retaliation to go against him.
However, Sanders would face a greater predicament. While many Republicans are uncomfortable with Trump’s vulgarity or with his stance on issues like international trade, they can get behind deregulation, tax cuts, and other conservative policies. Meanwhile, Sanders advocates a deep change to the status quo that threatens moderate Democrats.
To succeed, Sanders’s movement would have to be much stronger than Trump’s. Though, he has had success so far. Even his critics admit that he has already brought many policies that were fringe before the 2016 primary into the mainstream.
Sanders’s reliance on this growing, anti-establishment progressive movement may be a strength or a weakness. No matter what, there is little chance that he would be able to implement the entirety of his agenda during his time in office. But if his movement continues to grow and take over the Democratic Party, it may make lasting changes in the coming decades. However, if he fails and the movement withers away like so many before it, Sanders will be remembered as yet another failed politician.