A year ago, Hillary Clinton seemed to be on her way to a serene, obstacle-free coronation as the 2016 Democratic nominee for president. In an April 14, 2015, editorial, The Times bemoaned the fact that the Democratic race consisted of “exactly one candidate with a truly national profile” — the former secretary of state and U.S. senator from New York. The editorial did mention Sen. Bernie Sanders, but only as one of a group of second-tier figures that also included former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and former U.S. Sen Jim Webb of Virginia (remember them?).
Today, as California prepares for its primary on June 7, Clinton is again on the verge of victory. But what a difference a year has made. In the intervening months, so many Democrats and independents have felt the Bern that the self-described democratic socialist from Vermont acquired the national stature that seemed improbable a year ago. His passionate excoriation of a “rigged economy” and his call for a sweeping political revolution energized millions of Americans, especially young voters, and he put Clinton on the defensive about her ties to Wall Street, her support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the trade policies of her husband Bill Clinton’s administration.
Yet even though he has proved a far more formidable challenger than we — or Clinton — expected, Sanders lacks the experience and broad understanding of domestic and (especially) foreign policy that the former secretary of state would bring to the presidency. Although Sanders has tapped into very real and widespread anxieties about economic inequality, deindustrialization and stagnant economic growth, his prescriptions are too often simplistic, more costly than he would have us believe and unlikely to come to pass.
The Vermont senator has made the race more substantive and has forced his opponent to address issues that might otherwise have gone undiscussed, but in the end he has offered little reason to believe that he would be able to enlist recalcitrant Republicans in Congress in accomplishing his priorities. Rather, he told the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times, he would say to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell: “Hey, Mitch, look out the window. There’s a million young people out there now. And they’re following politics in a way they didn’t before. If you want to vote against this legislation, go for it. But you and some of your friends will not have your seats next election.” If only it were that simple.
By contrast, Clinton, for all her faults — and they range from a penchant for secrecy to a willingness to modify her positions to suit the popular mood to a less-restrained view of the use of military force than we are entirely comfortable with — is vastly better prepared than Sanders for the presidency. She has The Times’ endorsement in the June 7 California Democratic primary.
Clinton may seem inauthentic to some or to lack that drink-a-beer-with-me quality that voters often look for in a candidate. But she has a grasp of the complexities of government and policy that is unmatched by any of the other candidates who ran for president this year — or by most candidates in most years. She is sober and thoughtful, in possession not just of the facts she needs to make her arguments but of a depth of experience that undergirds her decisions. These qualities are reassuring in juxtaposition to a primary opponent who does not offer, at the end of the day, a serious alternative and, and a likely opponent in the general election who is unprepared, unsuited for the job and dangerous.
From her early days as a children’s rights advocate to her role as an activist first lady in pressing for healthcare reform to her public service in the Senate and as secretary of State, Clinton has demonstrated a steely persistence and a keen intellect. She and Sanders agree on many broad goals, including expanding healthcare, regulating the financial sector and reducing America’s reliance on fossil fuels. But where Sanders offers audacious, utopian solutions, Clinton adopts a more incremental approach that has a better chance of success during a time of divided government and political dysfunction when negotiation and compromise will be more important than ever.
For example, Sanders wants to establish a single-payer, British style health insurance system he calls “Medicare for all.” Clinton counters with the obvious: It was difficult enough for President Obama to win congressional support for the Affordable Care Act (which many Republicans in Congress still want to repeal) and the emphasis should be on building on and improving on the ACA, not tossing it out and starting from scratch. What’s more, some experts say Sanders’ proposal would cost twice as much as he estimates it will and could increase the size of the federal government by as much as 50%.
When it comes to financial reform, Sanders has proposed a bill to break up financial institutions that regulators have deemed too big to fail. But the measure, which offers no clues as to how the Treasury Department would go about doing so, seems aimed at exacting a punishment on companies at the heart of the last recession, rather than addressing the behavior that caused it. To that end, Clinton has called for strengthening the Dodd-Frank Act signed by Obama in 2010, which had many of the right concepts but not necessarily the right details.
The two candidates offer a stark contrast when they discuss the issues facing the country. Sanders focuses — often in an inspiring way — on grand causes and doesn’t sweat the details. Clinton is acutely conscious of the political and practical obstacles that must be negotiated in order to bring about change. In our view that’s an asset.
Clinton is by no means perfect. On foreign policy, for instance, Sanders has faulted her for voting to authorize President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and warns that she would be more likely than he would to involve U.S. forces in overseas operations.
He is probably right, and that is a serious concern about the former secretary of State. But when to use military force is a difficult question for any president, and the ideal commander in chief will be neither too hesitant to use force when necessary to defend vital U.S. interests nor so reckless as to regard military action as a first resort. Although Clinton has made mistakes — not only the Iraq vote but also in pressing for military action in Libya as secretary of State — we don’t see her as a reflexive advocate of military force. (Like Sanders, she opposes the use of U.S. ground combat forces in the war against Islamic State.) To the extent that she is less committed to restraint, we hope that she will keep in mind the lessons of recent U.S. escapades in the Middle East, which have been terribly expensive in money and lives and yet have repeatedly failed to achieve their goals.
Clinton’s campaign has been dogged from the start by issues related to transparency. Take the question of what Sanders called those “damn emails” — official messages Clinton sent and received on a private email server while secretary of State. It seems unlikely that she is in danger of criminal prosecution, but the fact that the FBI is investigating at all is embarrassing. The same self-defeating resistance to disclosure is evident in Clinton’s stubborn refusal to release the contents of speeches she delivered while out of public office to Goldman Sachs and other corporate audiences.
Clinton also has altered her positions in light of shifting political winds. She has come out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiated by the Obama administration, even though as secretary of State she referred to it (before the final details had been agreed on) as setting “the gold standard in trade agreements.” In 2008, she said that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare, and by rare I mean rare.” This February, after being endorsed by Planned Parenthood, she dropped the “rare.”
Clinton, of course, isn’t the only politician who adjusts some of her positions to suit the politics of the day. (Compare Obama’s “evolution” on same-sex marriage.) Still, the perception that she is malleable has been a disadvantage in her race against Sanders, whose message has been remarkably consistent for decades. If she is the nominee, she will need to remind voters — or convince them for the first time — that, while she is open to compromise and willing to consider new facts, she too has core convictions.
As all the world knows, Clinton would be the first woman elected president of the United States. That would be a joyous, long-awaited, landmark moment in American history after centuries of discrimination and second-class status for half the population. But the real reason to support her is that she is the Democratic candidate most likely to get the job done.
Compared to the intoxicating altruism of the Sanders’ campaign, Clinton’s candidacy might seem unexciting. But nominating a candidate for president is, or ought to be, serious business. As Obama himself likely would admit after almost eight years in the White House, there is more to being president than grand promises, whether they are about “hope and change” or a political revolution. We admire Bernie Sanders’ passion for progress and equality, but our endorsement goes to the candidate who is more likely to translate ideals into action.
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