David Roberts has a good point about the one of the two most important question of the Democratic primary race:
Which brings us back to Clinton and Sanders. If they are both serious candidates for president, then they should be treated like job candidates, evaluated on the qualities that are likely to affect their performance.
How liberal they are willing to talk during a primary is not one of those qualities. Their opinions on single-payer health care are not hugely relevant, nor are their stances on breaking up big banks, carbon taxes, serious gun control, or reparations for slavery.
How they talk about these aspirational issues can tell us something about their priorities, of course. But in practice, they are going to be hemmed in to the point that circumstances, more than priorities, will dictate opportunities.
Success, then, will come from seizing those opportunities when they arise, and making the most of them. It will come from understanding and manipulating the levers of the bureaucracy, from being ruthless about taking incremental wins wherever they can be found, from taking the long view and not overreacting to the hysterical, endless fluctuations in elite DC opinion.
These are dark arts. It’s difficult to predict who might master them.
Clinton seems more likely to forfeit opportunities through an overabundance of caution. Sanders seems more likely to forfeit them through cluelessness about how to run a giant administrative bureaucracy.
Clinton seems more likely to appoint establishment-friendly figures to run her government and cautious centrists to the bench. Sanders seems more likely to get mired in endless, energy-sapping confirmation battles.
Clinton seems more likely to surround herself with a bubble of insiders. Sanders seems more likely to rely on a “political revolution” that is unlikely to endure once he takes office.
And to make matters more obscure for voters, neither is willing to talk about these things directly. Admitting that your presidency will mostly be a rearguard battle, a unilateral executive grind, is not attractive politics. It doesn’t make for fun campaign rallies.
But these qualities matter far more, in concrete terms, than the boldness of the candidates’ plans or the inspirational quality of their rhetoric.
With Republican control of the House all but assured for the next six years, what matters most should a Democrat take the White House is who will be most effective at the things, like executive branch appointments and orders, that are largely within the president’s control. The problem for Democratic primary voters is that the boldfaced sentence is true and if anything understated.
During both presidential primaries, questions about “qualifications” tend to come up. This was, for example, the core of Clinton’s case against Obama in 2008: Clinton had more relevant experience and would therefore make a more effective president. I doubt that this is true, although it is of course unknowable (and won’t be answered if Clinton becomes president in 2016 because she’d be coming to office in much less favorable circumstances.)
Here’s the thing, though: is there any reason to think that cv comparisons really tell us anything about who will be an effective president? James Buchanan had among the most impressive ex ante resumes of American presidents, and Abraham Lincoln’s was among the thinnest. Jimmy Carter was not obviously less qualified than Barack Obama, and indeed I think traditional standards would favor a one-term governor over a one-term U.S. Senate backbencher. FDR had a little more relevant experience than Carter or Obama but if you were voting on resumes you’d definitely go with Hoover. Maybe you’d like more experience in executive or federal office all things being equal, but there are so many false negatives and false positives that I’m not sure such analysis really has much value.
Whether Clinton or Sanders would be a more effective leader of the executive branch is a very important question. The problem is that I don’t think it can be meaningfully answered.