Bernie Sanders has said that Hillary Clinton is not a “true progressive” and many of his supporters seem to agree. It’s one reason that Sanders keeps performing well in primaries and caucuses, prolonging the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
But whether that assessment of Clinton is accurate depends entirely on what it means to be a true progressive nowadays.
Does it mean voting like Sanders has, and embracing his agenda? Or does it simply mean consistently pushing for policies that would significantly advance progressive causes, like a fairer economy and a cleaner environment?
By the first definition, Clinton clearly doesn’t qualify as a progressive.
By the second, she clearly does.
The ideological gulf between Sanders and Clinton is real, and it's easy to spot. Sanders thinks everybody should get health insurance from the government and be able to attend public universities for free. He thinks taxes must go up to pay for these programs, mostly on the rich but also on the middle class. Clinton has rejected those ideas as impractical, as policy or politics -- or simply ill-conceived.
Their histories are different too. Over the years, Sanders staked out a position so far to the political left that, until this year, he didn’t even formally identify as a member of the Democratic Party -- and preferred to call himself simply a “democratic socialist.” He was an original critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement. He gets his campaign funding almost exclusively from small donors, and has basically no ties to corporate America.
Clinton, by contrast, has on occasion called herself “moderate.” She has the support of all kinds of wealthy and corporate donors, and she may soon have more. Just this week, Politico reported that some of her fundraisers were courting traditionally Republican campaign financiers on Wall Street.
Statistics designed to measure ideological temperament, like the DW-NOMINATE scores by political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, suggest that Sanders has been among the most liberal members of the Senate. This includes the era when he and Clinton served in the Senate together. Their ratings aren’t particularly close.
“Take Sanders out of the equation, and suddenly Clinton looks an awful lot like a mainstream progressive”
But Sanders’ position on the outer ideological edges of the Democratic Party is also a reminder that context matters.
If Sanders is the standard by which you’re going to decide whether a politician is a progressive, then almost nobody from the Democratic Party would qualify. Take Sanders out of the equation, and suddenly Clinton looks an awful lot like a mainstream progressive -- firmly on the left side of the American ideological spectrum and maybe on the left side of the Democratic Party’s, as well.
One reason it’s easy to miss this is that Clinton’s domestic policy agenda doesn’t include one signature idea or position that’s going to dominate the headlines or get activists excited. Instead, it’s a series of proposals that, together, would fortify the social safety net, strengthen regulation of industry, and bolster public services. To the extent these programs require new spending, the money would largely come from new taxes on the wealthy.
Consider just a few key components of Clinton’s economic and energy agenda:
Minimum Wage: Clinton has formally proposed raising it to $12 everywhere, with the possibility of $15 in communities where living standards are already high. (She’s since said that she would sign a bill mandating a $15 wage across the country, with unspecified caveats.) It’s not quite as ambitious as what Sanders has in mind, but it’s close.
Relative to today’s minimum wage, the level that Clinton proposes would represent an increase of about two-thirds, which would make it the largest jump in the history of the federal minimum wage. Note that Clinton would also index the minimum wage to the median wage, as Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) has proposed, so that it maintained its value over time -- and that Clinton would eliminate the “tipped” minimum wage, which allows restaurants to pay food servers less on the theory that the workers will make up the difference in tips.
Climate Change: Clinton has said she opposes Arctic drilling, as well as oil and gas development off the Atlantic coast. (The Obama administration has since taken a similar position on the Atlantic.) Clinton has also said she would phase out fossil fuel development on public lands. She hasn’t rejected fracking outright, as Sanders has, but she’s taken increasingly tough positions on natural gas.
By 2027, Clinton has said, 33 percent of electricity should come from renewable sources. That’s short of what climate scientists believe is necessary to get a handle on global warming, but it’s also more ambitious than Obama’s goal, which is 28 percent renewables by 2030.
Paid Family Leave: Clinton, a longtime proponent for supporting working parents, has called for providing 12 weeks of paid leave for new mothers and fathers, as well as anybody taking care of an infirmed elderly relative. She would require this of all states, rather than simply putting up some money for states interested in experimenting. And she’d back that with enough federal funding to cover at least two-thirds of the cost in each state.
Unlike Sanders, who would finance his version of paid family leave with a small tax on all payrolls, Clinton has said she would probably rely on taxes for the wealthy or taxes on business. But the benefits would be the same.
Higher education: If Clinton has her way, students could pay for tuition at public four-year colleges in their states without taking out loans. The program to make this possible would be complicated, even convoluted: States would get money from the the federal government, on the condition they stop reducing and start increasing what they spend on higher education. In addition, students would have to work up to 10 hours a week, while families would have to make a “realistic contribution” -- conditions that Sanders would not place on aid.
But low-income students could use aid to pay for books and fees, as well as tuition. (Other living expenses, notably room and board, would still require payment or loans for most students.) Community college would be free, which is a big deal, since that’s where 38 percent of undergraduates are getting their educations. All told, the Clinton program would require $350 billion over 10 years, which is less than Sanders has proposed, but far more than Obama suggested in either of his presidential campaigns.
Taxes: Clinton has proposed a raft of new taxes that would fall almost entirely on wealthy individuals or corporations. Her agenda includes higher estate taxes and a minimum tax on incomes higher than $1 million, which has come to be known as the “Buffett Rule.” (It’s after Warren Buffett, the multibillionaire who publicized the loopholes allowing people like to him to pay lower income tax rates than their office staff.) Clinton would close the loophole that lets some investment fund managers get a huge tax break on most of their incomes. She would also make it more difficult for corporations to avoid taxes overseas.
The Brookings-Urban Tax Policy Center estimates that Clinton’s tax proposals would generate more than $1 trillion in revenue over 10 years. That’s a lot of money, even if it pales next to the new taxes that Sanders would seek. (Estimates have suggested his tax hikes would be more than $10 trillion and maybe more like $20 trillion, though the majority of that would be in the form of health insurance taxes displacing current taxes and private health insurance premiums.)
Note that this partial list leaves out whole categories of policies -- like immigration, gun violence, and abortion rights -- where Clinton also has staked out strongly progressive positions. In some cases, her positions are arguably more progressive than the ones Sanders has taken. (The list also does not include foreign policy, where Clinton’s interventionist instincts put her at odds with many progressives -- but where, as Max Fisher of Vox has noted, Clinton’s enthusiasm for diplomacy sets her apart from conservatives.)
Of course, sketching out a campaign agenda is one thing. Pushing to enact it is quite another. A big reason that Sanders and his supporters don’t put much stock in Clinton’s rhetoric is that they don’t trust her to follow through. They think she will pull back, because they see her raising money from corporate interests that oppose progressive policies -- and because they remember the 1990s, when she supported welfare reform, free trade treaties, and other policies that her husband pursued when he was president.
But Clinton's responsibility for her husband's agenda isn't always self-evident, because, as first lady, she had less ability to dissent than other advisers. A better indicator of her instincts is probably her subsequent record as a senator from New York. According to those same DW-NOMINATE ratings, Clinton was the chamber's 11th most-liberal member during her tenure. It's a crude statistic, but it suggests strongly that she was not just progressive relative to the Senate. It suggests that she was also progressive relative to members of her own party.
And if you can count on Clinton to be responsive to Wall Street, you can also count on her to be responsive to unions, environmental groups, advocates for children and for women’s rights -- groups that will continue to push her in a progressive direction if she ends up in the White House. The same goes for the hordes of progressive voters who have backed Sanders in the primaries. If they make noise, Clinton is going to listen.
That's arguably happening already, thanks to the strong campaign that Sanders has run. This is how political change happens! But once the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination is over, the dynamics are bound to shift. It's easy to forget now, but the right wing has spent most of Clinton's time in public life portraying her as a extreme liberal, or even a socialist. As soon as the primaries are over, those attacks will start again -- and some ambivalent progressives may decide they like Clinton after all.