PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (AP) — Bernie Sanders promises voters a “political revolution” that will fundamentally remake the American economy and its education and health care systems.
“That’s what our campaign is about. It is thinking big,” Sanders said during a debate last month in Charleston, South Carolina. “We are going to have a government that works for all of us, and not just big campaign contributors.”
Often left unsaid by Sanders, but increasingly at the center of Hillary Clinton’s arguments against her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, is that the political reality of achieving such goals is likely to be a whole lot more complicated.
It would require Sanders not only to win the White House, but to sweep a wave of Democratic lawmakers into office along with him. While Democrats may be able to gain the four or five seats necessary to win back control of the Senate in November, they need 30 seats to recapture power in the House.
But even with majorities in both houses of Congress, Sanders would face challenges. Clinton’s advisers often point out how difficult it was for President Barack Obama to convince a Democratic-led Congress to support the Affordable Care Act in 2010. Sanders’ plan — called “Medicare for All” — would go significantly further by establishing a national health care system run entirely by the government.
Sanders also wants to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, break up the biggest Wall Street banks, pour $1 trillion into the country’s infrastructure, expand Social Security benefits and make college free at all public universities by raising taxes on Wall Street.
All of those ideas are nearly uniformly opposed by Republicans and would face strident opposition in Congress.
Many of those plans would require tax increases on corporations, wealthy taxpayers and middle-class families — a difficult political sell for lawmakers of both parties.
Campaigning at a union hall in Las Vegas on Saturday, former President Bill Clinton called Sanders’ ideas politically unviable, giving the realities of divided government and ability of the Senate minority to block proposals that lack the support of 60 members.
“You can’t get 60 votes!” he exclaimed. “Why, when we’ve got all this gridlock, would we waste any time trying to do something we know we can’t do when there’s so much we can do to get the show on the road? Don’t go down a blind alley.”
Sanders does frequently acknowledge that it will take more than just winning the White House to accomplish his goals.
“No president can walk in there and make changes unless millions of people become engaged in the political process in a way that we have not seen for a very, very long time,” he told more than a thousand supporters gathered in a community college gymnasium in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on Sunday.
He casts his “revolution” in a long line of social movements that have reshaped American society, citing the progress made by civil rights activists, feminists and gay rights advocates. He argues that if voters line up behind him and fight for his plans, their collective power can overcome political intransigency, big campaign donors and special interests.
“Every day the media asks: ‘Your ideas are so ambitious, how are you going to get them done?’” he said. “We will get them done because people are going to demand that we get them done.”
Clinton has tried to counter that message with promises to tell voters exactly what she’d do and how she’d do it if elected. Since launching her campaign in April, she’s rolled out dozens of policy plans, tackling issues from autism to the Islamic State.
“I’m not making promises I can’t keep,” she said during Thursday’s Democratic debate. She added: “Let’s go down a path where we can actually tell people what we will do. A progressive is someone who makes progress.”
Clinton’s ideas are also sure to face opposition from congressional Republicans. And should the GOP nominee become the next president, their promises to roll back the work of the Obama administration will face the same challenges from Democrats eager to protect his legacy.
But in a Democratic primary traditionally powered by the most liberal voters, pragmatism has been less appealing than big promises. Sanders’ aspiration message has struck a chord with progressive Democrats and younger voters, boosting him to a near-win in Iowa and a sizable lead in New Hampshire, which casts the first primary ballots on Tuesday.
“I want to give him a shot,” said Nick Ayoub, 22, of Cambridge, Massachusetts. “You’re never going to know if you don’t try.”
Derek Scalia, 33, of Keene, New Hampshire, said he knows that campaign promises don’t always come true, but he likes Sanders’ vision.
“Bernie is the only one that’s talking about health care as a fundamental human right,” Scalia said. “Every industrialized country in the world offers universal health care.”