Skip to main content
sanders_irvine010
FixGov

Can Sanders do for income inequality what Clinton did for healthcare?

As the Democratic primary winds to a close, it is clear that there are some hurt feelings. Judging by the experience of 2008, however, the intra-party incivility is unlikely to last or to matter. What does matter is the impact the Clinton-Sanders fight will have on the Democratic Party’s priorities.

A look back to the tenor of the 2008 primary should reassure any Democrats who have been avoiding their Twitter and Facebook feeds recently. 2008 was not a gentle campaign season; the fight between Obama and Clinton was called “divisive,” “ugly,” and full of “venom.” But all of the bitterness rapidly faded from memory. Even though half of Clinton supporters at one point claimed they wouldn’t support ObamaDemocrats voted for the Democrat in November.

With hindsight, it is clear what was important about the 2008 Democratic primary: the debate over health care reform. Going into the election season, health care was far from Barack Obama’s signature issue. Liberal observers described his plan as far weaker than Hillary Clinton’s. But once in office, Barack Obama, facing an extraordinarily narrow window in which to achieve any substantive policy victories, made health care reform his top priority. The result is one of the most significant pieces of social policy to pass Congress in recent decades.

The question, then, is whether Sanders can make economic inequality the priority for Clinton in the way that Clinton made health care the priority for Obama.

To do so, Sanders ’16 faces challenges Clinton ’08 didn’t. To put it mildly, Sanders’ connections to the institutions of the Democratic Party are not nearly as entrenched as Clinton’s were, though he has built an important base of support through the primary process. More significantly, health care reform was promoted by a well-organized set of constituencies within the party, some of whom had been organizing on this issue for literally decades. This groundwork was crucial, not only for building institutional power, but also to have policy proposals at the ready when a political opportunity arose. There is not an obvious framework of organizations ready to bustle and hector the Democratic Party to address economic inequality.

Perhaps a better analogy for Sanders, then, is the 2004 Howard Dean campaign. Dean was far less electorally successful than Sanders has been. But even so, the Dean campaign changed how Democrats do electoral politics. The Dean campaign was a model of online organizing, and Dean himself, speaking passionately against the Iraq War and the Bush tax cuts, helped set a new standard for the positions a mainstream Democrat could hold. His campaign paved the way for candidates, like Barack Obama, who built grassroots support online and firmly opposed the war. And, though criticized as an outsider too liberal, too “undisciplined,” and too willing to fight with other Democrats, Dean continued to shape the party as DNC chair.

Sanders, with his remarkable small-dollar fundraising and his immense rallies, has expanded on the Dean/Obama approach. And like Dean, Sanders’s appeal has been his willingness to push the party leftward. The question is how he will handle the coming months; so far, he seems focused on converting grassroots energy into power over the Democratic Party platform. Whether or not it is a successful strategy, it is an approach that seems fitting for an issue-based campaign and ideological candidate.

Whether via the party platform or simply by the example of his campaign, Sanders’ single-minded focus on economic inequality may help a new generation of Democrats speak the language of economic populism. Given that nearly half of Americans now identify as working or lower class, it’s a language that has the potential for widespread appeal.

Get daily updates from Brookings