Super Tuesday winnowed the 2020 Democratic primary race to two candidates: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. So how would their presidencies actually differ? Who would staff their administrations? How would they handle Congress? How would they handle key foreign policy decisions? What are their likely points of failure? How would they change the Democratic Party?
I asked my friend, colleague, and Weeds co-host Matt Yglesias to join me for this conversation on The Ezra Klein Show, and it was a good one. We’ve both covered Biden and Sanders for a long time but come away with somewhat different impressions of each. The points where we differ here were, for me, even more helpful than the points where we agreed.
Here’s a lightly edited transcript of part of our conversation, which we released this week on The Ezra Klein Show.
Let’s start with the Biden and Bernie presidencies. Let’s say each of them won the presidency, and they have 51 Democratic votes in the Senate with Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House. What do you think would be different in their presidencies?
Foreign policy would be different, and that’s a big deal. Voters have indicated they don’t care about this, so the candidates don’t talk about it very much. But if you think about the degrees of freedom that a president has, there’s just much more in the national security domain than in the domestic policy domain. So who specifically the president is makes a big difference there.
Can you walk us through the different approaches they would offer on foreign policy?
Biden is very much a torch carrier for the internationalist tradition in American foreign policy. He strongly believes in the value of America’s traditional alliances. He is not a crazy hawk, but he is a believer in the global military footprint of the United States. So he doesn’t necessarily believe that we should start tons of wars everywhere but that we should have the capacity to start tons of wars everywhere. That’s really important.
People in that internationalist camp wind up having nuanced disagreements about exactly how should we be involved, like which civil wars should we put ground troops in? When should we do no-fly zones instead? And when should we do sanctions? But they’re in a consensus that it’s like everything should be our business. There should be military bases everywhere. There should be an American alliance system everywhere and governments who don’t want to be part of that system are really bad. They really don’t like Hugo Chávez because he’s an authoritarian, but they will be incredibly friendly to other authoritarian regimes like in the UAE and Qatar because it’s really about the alliance system.
Bernie doesn’t believe any of that. He is much less hostile to left-wing regimes that want to opt out of Pax Americana. He is much more hostile to authoritarian regimes that want to be part of the American alliance system. He thinks the defense budget is much too large — that it should be something more like an agency that defends the United States against military threats rather than this huge, sweeping global tool. We see time and again that every president delivers more continuity with his predecessor’s foreign policy than he said he was going to. So I don’t think like Bernie would necessarily deliver the full, total, sweeping sea change, but he really disagrees.
My intuition is that a lot of this foreign policy stuff will fall by the wayside since [Sanders’s] passion is in domestic reform, but still, he will respond to international events with a desire to not be getting into new wars. Whereas Biden will respond to crises with internationalist instincts and he will really care about how we can be more involved.
I think this is an important distinction. If you read Biden’s books, he’s, among other things, incredibly proud of the role he played in Bosnia in trying to push the Clinton administration to intervene. It’s something that informs his thinking on Iraq later, I think much for the worse. But Biden is somebody who is interested in the heroic idea of American foreign policy and the American foreign policy president: the person who stands there at the moment of decision and makes sure America stands up for its traditional role in the world and its values.
Whereas I don’t think Bernie Sanders looks at it that way at all. I think he would see his presidency as successful on foreign policy if it was non-interventionist, if it deemphasized the role of the military in American life and didn’t create any big disasters.
Sanders also has what I would consider a more realistic view of what America’s traditional role in the world has been, whereas Joe Biden has the very romantic view of it. Just imagine a generic foreign crisis X. Biden’s instinct is going to be that we need to bring the tools of American power to bear to fix this because America is good and our use of those tools is good. And Bernie is like the cranky old leftists who I grew up with — he’s always thinking about the coup in Iran and genocide in Guatemala and a million other things. So his response will be: Do we have to do something here?
Let’s talk about staffing these administrations. This is a big one because, first of all, both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are quite elderly. Biden is 77 and Sanders is 78. No president can do everything, but these candidates in particular are not going to be able to do everything. Talk a bit about the difference between how we might expect a Joe Biden administration to be staffed and how we might expect or even think about a Bernie Sanders administration being staffed.
Biden talks all the time about continuity with Obama, and I think that’s often exaggerated. But on the staffing point, I think he’s right. For any Democratic president, the most obvious thing to do [with staffing] is to go back to the well of people who served in important roles in the Obama administration and give them similar jobs. That’s really what you’re going to get with Biden. A lot of those guys are going to come back.
Biden’s campaign also does a lot of traditional bundler fundraising type stuff, where lobbyists who used to be senior staffers for congressional Democrats put fundraisers together. To the extent that the “establishment” means anything to me, it does mean that kind of nexus of Democrats who migrate back and forth onto K Street and other business community-type things. That wing of the party will have its share of the pie in a Biden administration.
I saw David Sirota, a Sanders speechwriter, tweeting about how what nobody will really say is that Joe Biden is a full employment plan for the Democratic establishment — and that’s why they all support him. Now, there’s a truth to that, but it’s a banal one. I think a lot of people will say this, actually: Joe Biden is likely to bring back the Democratic establishment. He’s very honest about the fact that he thinks the Obama administration and the Democratic establishment are good and that’s why he’s going to put them in all these top roles.
What is actually a little less clear is who Bernie Sanders will bring in. It’s much less obvious to me who his bench would be made up of.
I know people sometimes take Trump-Bernie analogies as offensive. And they are obviously different in many, many, many ways. But I think that these staffing issues in the Trump administration are illustrative of the kinds of problems that occur when you have a new president whose core team was motivated by a hostility to the mainstream. You can’t run a government that way. You need people who have done similar jobs before, which means mainstream people. You need people who are confirmable, which means both deferring to the views of the congressional party and in practice appointing some people who are friends and staffers of important members of Congress. Every administration does that. So, by necessity, a Sanders administration would wind up being a more mainstream group than you see on the campaign.