Bernie’s endorsed Biden. But did his progressive policies really have a chance to become law?
After months of a smorgasbord of viable candidates, Democratic voters, following a tumultuous week of candidates dropping out, for about a month had only two candidates: Joe Biden, a long-time Senator and Obama’s Vice President and the standard-bearer for the moderate wing of the party, and Bernie Sanders, independent Senator from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats and has been the standard bearer for the progressive wing of the party since running against Hillary Clinton in 2016. It is a critical choice, since whoever wins the nomination will face off with Donald Trump in November in the most important election of our generation. And after a nearly 49% showing in South Carolina and nearly running the table on Super Tuesday (March 3), Biden went from middle of the pack to leader in a much smaller field. (On April 8, Bernie Sanders announced he was suspending his campaign; on April 13, Bernie endorsed Biden.)
With this sudden change of fortune for Joe Biden, Sanders supporters, who until Super Tuesday had been behind the candidate winning pluralities, if not majorities, were suddenly on the defensive. Many Bernie supporters are devoted to him for his long-time support for a number of very progressive policies from Medicare for All to free public college to the Green New Deal. Sanders supporters believe he will enact these and other progressive policies as President, and they are solidly behind him so that he can become President and do these things.
But Bernie supporters are forgetting that in our government, a President can’t get all, or even most, or maybe not even some, of his or her priorities passed into law, even if the President’s party controls Congress. Let’s talk about a few of Sanders’ most popular and well-known priorities, and how difficult it would be to actually get them done.
Medicare for All: Universal healthcare has been part of the Democratic platform for decades, with Bill Clinton’s effort that was led by then First Lady Hillary failing to advance in the mid-1990s, but President Obama was able to pass his Affordable Care Act in his first term, in 2010. The ACA was a compromise bill that faced not just the expected opposition from Republicans but also from Democrats. Passing this bill, even with Democrats controlling the House and Senate, was no sure thing and some key parts, such as a public payer option, were left out. Healthcare in the US is a $3.3 trillion industry; thinking that we can completely overhaul it in a single term, even if we flip the Senate and keep the House, is completely unrealistic.
Tuition-free college for all: As Democrats, we should work towards a society where anyone who wants to, and is capable of, education past high school should be able to and not have to worry about taking on debt. Studies have shown that investing in people through education is an effective way to not only improve lives but improves the economy by having more people who can contribute at a high level. And the Federal government has already shown how effective investing in Americans through making college more affordable can be; the GI Bill, which put millions of US military veterans through college, was a major factor in driving the massive post-WWII economic boom by making sure that returning service members were able to get a college education.
However, making college completely free throughout the US for anyone is much more challenging than even the GI Bill, which required veterans to also contribute. One key challenge is that the US does not have one system of public higher education, but rather, we have 50 — each state runs their own university system. And community colleges are run not by the state but by counties — and there are thousands of counties that have community college systems. Each system has its own costs and admission rules. For example, some state universities are less costly than others. If the Feds are picking up the tab, why wouldn’t less-costly states immediately match the highest tuition costs? And how long should a student be able to have tuition paid by the Feds? Four-year undergraduate degrees are increasingly being completed in 5–6 years. Should taxpayers have to pay for a student who is taking longer than expected? And as with the ACA-driven Medicaid expansion, which was refused by many Republican-led states, it would likely be that some states would simply refuse to participate in the program. I’m not saying that these problems can’t be overcome, or that ensuring college is an option for every American isn’t important. But there are significant problems that need to be resolved, and a President Sanders wouldn’t be able to make this happen on his own.
Green New Deal (GND): Here is yet another initiative that many Democrats support on principle but will be difficult if not impossible to implement by one President. Let’s be clear: I support the principles of the Green New Deal. Climate change is an existential threat not to Americans but to humanity on Planet Earth, and we are rapidly running out of time to change the current disastrous trajectory. But making changes of the type proposed by the GND are going to be difficult to make, they will cause economic dislocation, and due to that, will be strongly resisted. Multi-billion dollar transnational conglomerates that make billions in the fossil fuel industry are not going to change because a President, or a freshman Member of Congress, tells them to. Changes of this magnitude will take multiple terms of a President and Congress that largely agree with the approach and can work with the opposing political party, industry, and other countries to make the necessary changes to Federal and State laws, international law, and global trade and commerce. A President Sanders is not going to be able to implement this set of policies on his own.
Supporters of Bernie Sanders are unsurprisingly devoted to him, and he’s been remarkably consistent over the many years of his political career. However, he has shown over his career that he’s unwilling to compromise. Without compromise, these initiatives will not pass. Sanders will not be able to build enough of a coalition to get his signature policies passed. However, he’s done more than anyone else to move the “Overton Window” to the point that we can have a mainstream discussion about Medicare for All, or free public university education, and an end to fossil fuels. We may not get all the way there, but a President Biden will get us moving in the right direction. These policies are important to Americans and we must hold a Biden Administration accountable to achieving them.