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What would a Sanders presidency look like?

A president’s legacy often turns less on what he believes and what issues he pursues than it does on how well he chooses and manages the officials who work on his behalf.

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    Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont addresses the summer meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Minneapolis on Aug. 28, 2015. Sanders says international rivals would be mistaken to assume he wouldn't use military force if that's what circumstances required. He says the United States should have the strongest military in the world.
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While most of the media understandably remains fixated on the horse-race aspect of the presidential contest (“Bernie’s surging!”), a few intrepid journalists are daring to think the unthinkable: what if Bernie actually won the election? What would a Sanders presidency look like? This is an important question, not least because how one answers it goes a long way – or should go a long way – toward determining whether one will vote for Bernie. In interviews with Vice’s Mike Pearl (that’s the website, not the anti-prostitution arm of the Vermont State Police), my colleague Bert Johnson and I engaged in some admittedly speculative musing about a possible Bernie presidency.  Of course, the immediate problem one faces in trying to anticipate what happens when the “face of grouchy stoicism” became “the first avowedly socialist president in United States history” is to understand how it happened. Obviously, if Sanders overcomes deep odds to become president, something entirely unprecedented in the political system occurred – but what? Did Hillary’s candidacy implode after investigators found the smoking e-mail, leaving Bernie to win by default as the last candidate standing? Or did the American electorate exhibit a shift leftward, essentially deciding the time was ripe to adopt Bernie’s long-standing progressive principles? And if the latter, how big were his coattails? Did the Senate turn blue? (Possible, but unlikely.) The House? (Even more unlikely.) Answers to these questions go a long way toward determining the contours of a Bernie presidency. It is one thing to predict, as Pearl suggests (tongue-firmly-in-cheek) that in the aftermath of a Sanders’ victory “college students are taking celebratory bong rips” – quite another to know whether the new Congress is going to raise marginal tax rates on the wealthy, or pass Bernie’s education reform bill.

Of course, as both Bert and I suggested, we know a good deal about what Bernie’s domestic priorities will be, even if we can’t be sure how successful he would be in implementing them. As Bert notes, Sanders has been singing the same tune about the corporate overlords and income inequality for several decades. And he hasn’t missed a chance to hammer home those themes during his campaign speeches and on social media. As a result, I feel quite confident in suggesting that President Bernie will push to raise taxes on the wealthy and would try to address campaign finance reform. He’s also likely to work at raising the minimum wage. Bert pointed to efforts to address the student debt crisis.

I think it noteworthy, however, that when Pearl asked us about Bernie’s foreign policy, we quickly became far less confident, and far more speculative, in trying to predict what he would do in this realm. Both of us felt a Sanders’ presidency would be far more conventional in the foreign policy realm than domestically, but we didn’t provide much in the way of specifics. There is a reason for this, as Yahoo’s Chief Washington correspondent Olivier Knox points out in this excellent analysis of Sanders’s foreign policy record. As Knox writes, “The campaign website, BernieSanders.com, offers visitors access to the iconoclastic candidate’s thoughts on Income and Wealth Inequality, Getting Big Money Out of Politics, Creating Decent-Paying Jobs, Racial Justice, A Living Wage, Real Family Values, Climate Change and Environment, and Reforming Wall Street. But there’s no tab for Syria, the Islamic State, a rising China, or strained relations with Russia.”

There are two reasons, as I suggested to Knox, for the paucity of foreign policy details on Candidate Sanders’s website. The first is that the race for the Democratic nomination, and for the presidency, is far more likely to turn on economic issues than on the foreign policy; the latter does not poll very highly among likely voters when asked what issues are most important to them. Second, Sanders’s views on foreign policy, beyond high-profiles issues like the vote on the Iraq War, don’t seem nearly as distinctive from Clinton’s as do his domestic views. But that doesn’t mean we are completely in the dark regarding what President Sanders is likely to do when it comes to foreign policy. I suggested to Pearl that “On foreign policy, I think Sanders is going to be more malleable; he’s going to be more willing to defer to the experts. Now if he has some basic principles that will guide him, I think he’s going to be more collaborative, more internationalist, less interventionist, than, certainly, George W. Bush, and perhaps Obama—less willing to engage militarily.” Beyond these basic principles, however, some clues to Bernie’s handling of foreign policy might be gleaned from his Senate record, something Knox does a very good job reviewing. I won’t repeat the details here – you should read Knox’s article – but suffice to say his stance on range of issues, from opposing the TransPacific Partnership trade agreement, to pursuing a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestine conflict, to voting against the use of force against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is consistent with my characterization. Knox summarizes Sanders’s foreign policy record this way: “The picture that emerges is less that of a firebrand antiwar radical than a pragmatic liberal who regards military force as a second choice in almost any situation – but a choice that sometimes must be made.”

The biggest clue missing from this attempt to forecast a Sanders foreign policy, however, is knowing who he will turn to for foreign policy advice, and how he will structure his national security advising process. As I suggested to Knox, the two questions I would ask candidate Sanders on this topic are: “Who are you going to listen to on foreign policy? How will your organize your foreign policy process?” In thinking about these questions, I am reminded of this excellent Washington Post analysis of the Obama foreign policy decisionmaking process (hat tip to Jack Goodman) which shows how, on crucial policy decisions, Obama increasingly sought to bypass the foreign policy establishment in favor of centralizing decisionmaking within his own White House Office.  As I’ve discussed in my book Bitter Harvest, this pattern of White House centralization did not start with Obama; it has been a growing trend among recent presidents. And while the propensity among recent presidents to want to exercise tight control of foreign policy is understandable, there are real costs to this strategy. As the WaPo critique of Obama’s foreign policy process suggests, White House centralization also makes it less likely that presidents are going to hear dissenting voices, particularly from experts whose views may clash with that of the president’s closest political advisers.

When it comes to assessing presidential candidates’ preparation for the White House, issues of institutional organization and process typically take a backseat to journalists’ concerns regarding where candidates stand on the issues. This is unfortunate. As the critique of Obama’s foreign policy process suggests, and as President Bush discovered in his effort to direct the response to Hurricane Katrina a decade ago, a president’s legacy often turns less on what he believes and what issues he pursues than it does on how well he chooses and manages the officials who work on his behalf. Let’s hope journalists push Candidate Sanders on these managerial issues, so that President Sanders doesn’t have to learn their importance in the heat of a crisis.  We will all be better off if Sanders gives these managerial issues some careful thought before entering the White House.

Matthew Dickinson publishes his Presidential Power blog at http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/.

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