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Hillary Clinton’s realism vs. Bernie Sanders’s idealism

Sanders’s new single-payer health care bill and Clinton’s new book, What Happened.

JEWEL SAMAD / Getty Images

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have remarkably different approaches when it comes to proposing policy changes: If Clinton is a realist, Sanders is an idealist.

No, we’re not relitigating the 2016 Democratic primary — we have two new interviews at Vox, with Clinton on her new book What Happened, and with Sanders on his new Medicare-for-all bill. And on the September 13 episode of The Weeds, Matthew Yglesias, Sarah Kliff, and Ezra Klein discuss both.

“I think Clinton thought about how she would get the promises she made actually passed,” says Sarah. “And I think you saw more of a focus from Sanders and Trump on what can I propose that’s great, and then once I get into office we will work out how to do that really great plan.”

She continues on Sanders’s new single-payer bill: “Sanders is proposing a universal coverage plan that would cover a very wide array of medical services — everything from hospital visits [to] doctors, vision, dentist visits, prescription drugs — and what stood out to me is that nearly all of it is 100 percent free.” As she points out in her explainer on the bill: “The plan is significantly more generous than the single-payer plans run by America’s peer countries.”

Financing a program like this would be extremely difficult, Sarah says, and the plan currently gives no details on how it intends to pay for such a drastic change in the health industry — but Ezra thinks that’s part of Sander’s strategy.

He posits that the reason Sanders did not immediately give a solution for how to fund a program of this kind is because the Vermont senator “is not someone who views his own plans in a technocratic way,” and that his ultimate goal is to change the moral debate around health care rather than actually get the bill to pass.

Clinton, of course, takes a contrasting approach when proposing policy, and in her interview with Ezra, she wonders if an approach more like Sanders’s could have been the right strategy for the 2016 election; after all, Donald Trump ran on big ideas and bigger ambitions, with no policy detail or experience.

Here’s Ezra discussing Clinton’s “Alaska for All” plan, a plan for a universal basic income that Clinton wanted to campaign on but didn’t because she couldn’t make the details work neatly:

EZRA: So I read Hillary Clinton’s book, What Happened, the other day because I was interviewing her, and that book has gotten a lot of coverage for things she said about Bernie Sanders, but it was nothing she hasn’t said before.

But there was something that really did surprise me in the book. She has this interesting chapter where she is working through what is clearly some uncertainty on her end as to whether or not she approached policy ideas in the campaign too technocratically. Whether or not she was too reticent on coming out with big galvanizing ideas like single-payer or college for all or the wall between Mexico.

In this section, she says she read a book called With Liberty and Dividends for All by Peter Barnes. She got interested in the idea of creating a universal basic income based around the revenues that come from shared public resources like fossil fuel extraction, public lands, etc., and tax revenues that come from taxing public harms like carbon emissions.

I don’t think Hillary Clinton is great at branding, so she got really literal on this and call[ed] it “Alaska for America,” because Alaska has an unusual setup where the money that comes from oil and gas extraction in Alaska gets put into a reserve fund and then every Alaskan gets a check from it every year. It is one of the few things that we have that really looks like the beginning of a universal basic income.

So Hillary Clinton looked at this idea and was like, “This is like Alaska for America,” and she really tried to put this in her campaign, but she couldn’t make the numbers work. No matter what she did, she says, either the taxes were too high in order to get a benefit of any real size or she was cannibalizing these other programs she felt were more important. So she did not put it in.

She says in the book that she wonders now if that was the wrong decision. “Maybe I should have made this an aspirational goal and let the details be worked out later,” which I think may well be right.

Show notes: