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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

February 12: Sanders and Other Democrats Need to Answer the “Big Government” Question

While I was watching the PBS Democratic presidential candidates’ debate Thursday night, I noticed Bernie Sanders doing something a lot of Democrats do: changing the subject when asked the non-congenial question of how much government implementing his agenda would involve? I wrote up some analysis and advice on this at New York:

The very first question posed to Bernie Sanders in Thursday night’s PBS debate in Milwaukee is one that’s been asked in some form in every one of the Democratic debates. It was from Judy Woodruff:

Coming off the results in Iowa and New Hampshire, there are many voters who are taking a closer look at you, and your ideas, and they’re asking how big a role do you foresee for the federal government? It’s already spending 21 percent of the entire U.S. economy. How much larger would government be in the lives of Americans under a Sanders presidency?

Sanders “answered” by talking about the redistribution of income to the wealthy that’s been under way for a long time, and the health-care entitlement as it exists in other countries, and then started through his whole policy agenda, until Woodruff interrupted:

But, my question is how big would government be? Would there be any limit on the size of the role of government?

Sanders began his answer with “Of course there will be a limit,” but instead of saying what that might be he wandered back into his recitation of things that needed to be done. Finally Clinton decided to give him a hand:

Judy, I think that the best analysis that I’ve seen based on Senator Sanders’s plans is that it would probably increase the size of the federal government by about 40 percent …

And before anyone could ask her where she got that cruise missile of a statistic, Clinton went off on a criticism of the Sanders health plan.
Now it’s not entirely clear what “size of government” means without some context. Is it the size of the federal budget? The number of federal employees? The magnitude or intrusiveness of bureaucracy? The burden on taxpayers or businesses? Does it matter if “big government” is concentrated in Washington or power is shared with states and localities?
All these distinctions could be useful to Sanders in defending himself from charges of being an agent of Big Government, which a lot of voters (and not just conservatives) dislike more than Big Corporations or Wall Street. More progressive taxes aren’t necessarily more difficult to administer than less progressive taxes. Breaking up big banks may not be more complicated than trying to regulate them, and once they are broken up, regulation could become easier. Medicare For All would utilize an existing and relatively efficient federal program. Higher infrastructure spending would utilize existing intergovernmental programs that give states and localities some discretion.
The closest Sanders has come to counter-punching on the cost or size-of-government implications of his agenda is his argument that higher taxes for single-payer health care would actually represent net savings for many (if not most) people because they’d no longer have to pay private health insurance premiums (his exact claims are in dispute, but the idea is entirely sound). He could easily extend this argument by pointing out how much people hate to deal with profit-driven health insurance bureaucrats who routinely deny claims and micromanage the choice of providers and prescription drugs. Banks have bureaucracies, too, as anyone who has applied for a loan can tell you, and it would be smart for a candidate like Sanders who doesn’t exactly seem business-friendly to talk about the how the financial industry messes with businesses and investors as well as consumers.
You could almost imagine a Bernie-rific rap where the candidate lays out a vision of what life would be like for most people if his agenda were implemented, and then implicitly (or explicitly) asks if some abstract objection to Big Government is a good reason to reject it.
And beyond that, you would figure that given his foreign-policy views he could suggest some reductions in the size and cost of the very large part of Big Government represented by the Department of Defense.
So far, at least in the debates, he’s not doing any of that. Perhaps he thinks being identified with Big Government is just an occupational hazard for every socialist.
But the questions won’t stop. And Clinton’s drive-by suggestions that a Sanders administration would represent a choice between policies that can’t be enacted and a government that can’t be sustained provide a small, bitter taste of what Republicans will shovel out should Sanders be nominated.

Actually, all Democrats–including Hillary Clinton–will be asked some version of the “Big Government” question by the media and by Republicans. Changing the subject is a bad Democratic habit that needs to stop. Silence isn’t golden; the opposition will fill these gaps with their own version of what Democrats believe, and some voters will just assume the worst.

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