The "Moderate" and "Progressive" Fight Is the Defining Feature of the Democratic Campaign


What's in a label? Quite a lot, when it comes to Democratic politics today.

Over the past couple of days, ahead of Thursday's Democratic debate on MSNBC, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders have locked horns over what kind of liberals they are. The moment that sparked the battle was Sanders' response to a reporter's question Tuesday on whether he considered Clinton a progressive.

"Some days, yes. Except when she announces that she is a moderate. Then I guess she is not a progressive," Sanders replied. "I think, frankly, it is very hard to be a real progressive and to take on the establishment in a way that I think it has to be taken on when you become as dependent as she has, through her super PAC and other ways, on Wall Street or drug company money."  

At a campaign event on Wednesday, Clinton deemed Sanders' remarks "a low blow" and then catalogued various progressive policies from gay rights to children's health care that she's helped usher into law, which she called "good days" for progressives.

The back-and-forth continued on Twitter, with the Sanders and Clinton campaigns both slamming the other's policy record by tweeting out extensive lists of the least progressive policy stances the other has taken. For a debate that took place on social media, it was a remarkably substantive exchange. It didn't bring to light any new positions, but it did flesh out something of great importance nonetheless — their differing theories of change. 

As they clashed over the meaning of the word "progressive," they were also helping chart their distinct vision for how they would pursue reforms while in the White House — a dynamic that will be a key animating factor in Thursday's debate, the first head-to-head matchup of the campaign.

Clinton thinks being a progressive means getting results.

Stephen B. Morton/AP

The most critical thread from the stream of tweets by @HillaryClinton on Wednesday was the emphasis on concrete results. 

"An important part of being a progressive is making progress," her campaign tweeted, channeling the message of the candidate. "This shouldn't be a debate about who gets to define 'progressive' — it should be about who will get real results for American families."

Clinton takes pride in being able to list concrete policies that she had a hand in influencing, whether it's her role in lobbying for the State Children's Health Insurance Program in the 1990s or her hand in the American response to the Arab Spring as secretary of state. For her, moving the ball forward a little bit is far better than not seeing your fingerprints on anything at all. 

She rose to prominence as a New Democrat, a wing of the party spearheaded by her husband that viewed incrementalism — and sometimes outright conservatism — as the philosophy Democrats must adopt in an era that was still very much shaped by Reagan conservatism. Coming of age in a politically hostile environment, she views wheeling and dealing and even taking steps backwards as part of the deal of what it means to be in power.

We caught a glimpse of this last year, during a strikingly candid conversation between Clinton and Black Lives Matter activists. She expressed pessimism about changing people's minds but considered fighting for some kind of gain in any environment to be a worthy enterprise.

"Look, I don't believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate," she said in August. "You're not going to change every heart. You're not. But at the end of the day, we can do a whole lot to change some hearts and change some systems and create more opportunities for people who deserve to have them."

Clinton's presidency would in all likelihood resemble Obama's style of governance.

What does this mean for what kind of president she would be? Clinton's approach would likely resemble Obama's style of governance, a blend of New Democratic propensity for compromise with conservative ideals on major legislation, and an aggressive push for progressive layups in the form of executive actions wherever opportunities present themselves. While Clinton is more of a hawk than Obama, they share an inclination to frame foreign policy in ad hoc and non-ideological terms — consider the parallels between Clinton's foreign policy stance on "smart power" and Obama's "don't do stupid shit" maxim. 

Sanders believes in being the change you want to see.

Sanders' vision for how to change the country is fundamentally different. He views ideological consistency as important for building support for the kind of change one wants to see in the world. And he doesn't think that the Washington insider modus operandi of politicians like Clinton is easily reconcilable with his own attitude toward transforming society.

His most revealing tweet on Wednesday was when he said that he thinks Clinton's past conservatism on everything from the Iraq War to welfare to criminal justice disqualifies her from the "progressive" label.

"You can be a moderate. You can be a progressive. But you cannot be a moderate and a progressive," he tweeted.

Sanders' isn't interested in adjusting to the way the wind is blowing. Throughout the campaign, he's been saying the same things he's said for decades — as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, a congressman and then a senator. He's not keen on preparing himself for running the country — he's testing whether or not the country is ready for him. 

For Sanders, progressivism lies in what you fight for as much as what you actually gets done — and he thinks the agitation itself will help get those things done. Sanders doesn't have much major legislation to his name, but he believes that it's precisely his refusal to give in to the ways of the establishment that have helped create a political moment in which he's considered a viable contender for the presidency.     

Alex Wong/Getty Images

But Sanders is a bit more multifaceted in his Twitter theory of change than he lets on. As Mic's Luke Brinker notes, Sanders has recently "moved to bear-hug the president, jettisoning his criticisms from the left and declaring that 'by and large, over the last seven years, on major issue after major issue, I have stood by his side as he has taken on unprecedented Republican obstructionism.'" 

This is the same senator who made his name leading a filibuster after Obama agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts and called for the president to face primary opposition. When Sanders stands by Obama, he's not just trying to exploit Obama's popularity among Democratic voters — although that's surely a factor. He's also acknowledging that legislative possibility is defined in part by your opposition. Sanders is formally an independent senator, but he caucuses with the Democrats, and he's been willing to join a team that gets something done (or defends cherished things from being undone) even when he considers them inadequately ambitious in their vision.

It's hard to envision exactly what a Sanders' presidency would look like. If he was able to enter office with great voter turnout on Election Day, fueled by a grassroots movement that's even larger than the one he's grown so far, he might have an impressive mandate. But the Senate's fate is up in the air, and the House of Representatives will in all likelihood still be completely controlled by the Republican Party. 

While he may be able to continue relying on small donations to keep himself immune to Wall Street's wishes, the rest of Washington will enjoy no such freedom. The wave of energy he'd create with his campaign would have to crash against the realities of gridlock, powerful special interests, and the fact that many Americans hold beliefs about government diametrically opposed to his. In the end, his accomplishments might end up being more similar to Clinton's than he expects.