One of the hotter debates happening in the Democratic nominating contest is really a dispute about governing style. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has argued that she's best-suited to be president at a time when the legislature is under control of the GOP because she's an operator, a "progressive that gets things done." Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) counters by saying that Clinton's style too often leads to a watering down of liberal policy, or the easy acceptance of more moderate policies.
And yet, at Thursday night's debate, Sanders described an accomplishment of his that essentially validated Clinton's theory of how she'd govern as president.
How has Sanders presented his own theory of his presidency? He's repeatedly said that he'd overwhelm GOP legislative opposition by unleashing a grassroots movement behind his aims. He refers to this, often, as a mistake that President Barack Obama has made during his presidency -- the failure to use his coalition as a source of public pressure.
This is a fair critique of Obama, and Sanders is hardly the first person to make it. And one can certainly point to the tea party as a group that demonstrated the tidal effect of a grassroots revolution. Public pressure from the right definitely accomplished two things: It created an opportunity for a range of conservative ideas and policies to grow in acceptance, and it got enough people elected to change the complexion of Congress. Of course, it also created a situation in which GOP machers like former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) could no longer govern effectively.
It's still fair to say that the governing vision Sanders describes for his presidency is an abstract one. But what happens when Sanders describes how he's governed as a legislator? Suddenly, things get a lot more concrete. Here's how Sanders responded to MSNBC host Rachel Maddow during a discussion on privatizing the Department of Veterans Affairs (emphasis mine):
MADDOW: Sen. Sanders, you, as a congressional leader on veterans issues and the Veterans Committee, you've worked in a very bipartisan way with Sen. John McCain and others on veterans issues. Is the right contour of the fight, the way she's talking about this issue?
SANDERS: Let me agree. You know, as the secretary knows, I chaired -- I had the privilege and the honor of chairing the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs. And it is interesting to me, you know, Republicans give a lot of speeches about how much they love veterans. I work with the American Legion, the VFW, the DAV, the Vietnam Vets and virtually every veterans organization to put together the most comprehensive piece of veterans legislation in the modern history of America. That's what I did.
And I brought it to the floor of the Senate. Every Democrat voted for it; I got two Republicans. We ended up with 56 votes and I couldn't get the 60 votes that I needed. That is pathetic.
This was legislation supported by all of the veterans organizations, addressing many of the serious problems that veterans face in health care and in how we deliver benefits to them.
So Republicans talk a good game about veterans, but when it came to put money on the line to protect our veterans, frankly, they were not there.
What I did next, Rachel, is I had to retreat a little bit, I had to compromise. I did work with John McCain. I did work with Jeff Miller over in the House. And we put together not the bill that I wanted, but probably the most comprehensive VA health care bill in the modern history of this country.
As Jonathan Chait pointed out Thursday night, as a presidential candidate, Sanders "rejects ... the political model that treats pluralism as the normal model of political action" and "believes the interest of the public is not divided, it is united, and only the corrupt influence of big business has thwarted it." But by his own account of the process by which this legislation was passed, the public pressure failed, and he had to go back and cut a deal, the end result of which was nevertheless, to his mind, "the most comprehensive VA health care bill in the modern history of this country."
Now, perhaps Sanders is motivated to inspire a political revolution because he's seen bills fall short of the mark through this type of governance. And there is, of course, no guarantee that Clinton, were she in a similar position, wouldn't have settled for much less in the way of a piece of VA legislation.
But he sure sounds like he's proud of what he accomplished in this instance, and for a minute there, it sounded like he was similarly enthusiastic about the way in which it was accomplished. And it was accomplished despite the corrupting influence of corporate outsiders and the ideological opposition of the Republican caucus.
Sanders is right on the merits when he talks about the corrupting influence of money in politics, and history has proved that revolutionary populism can sometimes overcome those influences. But in this instance, what he describes validates the premise of Clinton's candidacy.
Jason Linkins edits "Eat The Press" for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast "So, That Happened." Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.