If there was one moment in the Feb. 11 Democratic debate that crystallized the difference between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton for me, it was when Clinton name dropped Henry Kissinger, noting with pride that he approved of the job she did at the State Department. For most progressives, Henry Kissinger is a war criminal who has successfully evaded prosecution. If Clinton wanted to present her liberal bona fides, she undermined them with that off-hand remark. But for Clinton, Kissinger is a respected figure, an icon of the Washington establishment that she has been part of for decades.
Here’s the thing: even though Clinton is very much a creature of official Washington, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Governing is about making comprises and cutting deals. Ideology is important, but not if it gets in the way of progress. Clinton may be chummy with venomous snakes like Kissinger, Lloyd Blankfein, and Jamie Dimon, but I also believed her when she says she will fight for the rights of women, children and minorities. Her strategy is that of the insider, making small deals that will yield incremental improvements. In our current political landscape, that may be the most effective way forward. I remember when Obama was fumbling through the creation of Obamacare, and thinking Clinton would be much better at the horse trading it required.
Sanders, on the other hand, is an ideologue who has lived a political life on the fringes. I doubt he’s ever been invited to the same parties as Kissinger, which is why Clinton looks so compromised next to him. It’s hard to see him cutting small deals. He wants to burn the establishment to the ground, and given what he’s up against, he probably would fail. But were he elected, he would set a tone that could have lasting impacts. Through his appointments and executive actions, he could introduce fresh and radical new views into government, and begin the process of a slow political revolution. Voting for Sanders would be like a vote for Obama: you’re not electing a manager but an attitude (the same would be true of Cruz voters). But while Obama wanted to build a bridge, Sanders wants to storm it.
Ultimately, Sanders vision is so threatening to the establishment that I fear he is unelectable. The forces of Wall Street and corporate America will spend everything they need to to thwart him. The establishment can live with Clinton (as evidenced by their considerable support of her campaigns) and may in fact prefer her to Cruz.
Clinton and Sander represent two very different political philosophies, but both could be effective agents for change. I’m an independent and can’t vote in the New York primary (a subject for another day) so I won’t have a say in this debate. But whatever the outcome, we could do a lot worse.