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Robert Reich on What’s Next for Bernie — And His Supporters

Sanders surrogate on whether Bernie fans will vote Hillary, and why we need a new third party (after November)

Robert Reich has known Hillary (Rodham) Clinton since he was 19. Heads of their respective college classes, the pair met, at Reich’s suggestion, for a “president’s summit.” (She remembers it as a movie date.) They went on to become Yale Law School classmates, along with Bill Clinton. Reich would later serve as Clinton’s Secretary of Labor. 

So it was particularly noteworthy when Reich, now a professor at UC Berkeley, endorsed Bernie Sanders for president in February. He cited Sanders’ commitment to addressing income inequality as a major motivating factor, calling him “the agent of change this nation so desperately needs.”

Reich added that if Clinton won the primary, “I’ll work my heart out to help her become president.”

With the nomination contest all but wrapped up, Rolling Stone caught up with Reich to ask how Clinton might get Bernie-or-busters on board, and where Sanders’ political revolution should go from here.

You’re not one of those Democrats who’s impatient for Bernie Sanders to concede the nomination to Hillary Clinton. Why is it a good idea for him to take this fight all the way to the convention?
Well, the minute he concedes and gets out of the race, officially he loses all bargaining leverage. I mean, he doesn’t have much bargaining leverage left, to be sure, but at least he has the hope of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee that he will get out of the race and endorse Hillary, and urge all of his followers to vote for Hillary. That hope and expectation gives him a little bit of bargaining leverage right now. I don’t know that it’s all that much, but it’s better than nothing.

How long do you think he can put off throwing his weight behind Clinton?
I think the real issue here is the Sanders supporters. Probably a third of them will vote for Hillary without any question. They will move their allegiance smoothly and effortlessly. Another third will not vote for Hillary under any circumstances, at least right now. They may change their minds as the election approaches. Right now they’re adamant; they’re Bernie-or-busters. That means the last a third who could be persuaded if Bernie made a convincing pitch and explained why they should throw their allegiance to Hillary, and [whether he’ll be able to do] that depends on how far Bernie feels she has come to embrace the ideas and policies he believes are important.

Does the split among Democrats feel more pronounced to you this year than in years past?
It’s somewhat different. In 2008, there were many Hillary supporters who did not like Obama right after he became the presumptive nominee and really were not enthusiastic. But in the end, I would say roughly 90 percent or more of them came around and voted for him. It’s different today in the sense that many of Bernie Sanders’ supporters supported Bernie Sanders not because of Bernie himself but because of his message: He is the candidate against big money in politics. He is the candidate who understands that wealth and power are completely imbalanced in this society, in our political economy. That great concentrations of wealth — whether they be individual wealth or big corporations or Wall Street — have distorted and undermined our democracy. If Bernie Sanders hadn’t run and Elizabeth Warren had run, it would have been the same message. If almost anybody with any name recognition had run with that message they would have attracted the same enthusiasm. I think Bernie has his own very strong attributes — I don’t mean to suggest that it didn’t matter who was running. He obviously has extraordinary passion and a very important degree of indignation about all of this. But Bernie Sanders supporters are not, generally speaking, overwhelmingly enthusiastic about who Bernie is [so much as] what Bernie stands for. And that makes it a different and more challenging transition for many Bernie supporters to throw their lot behind Hillary Clinton. I think most ultimately will, because the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency is so utterly terrifying.

With the leverage that he has, what kinds of things can Bernie ask for that might help continue this movement he started?
My guess would be that the biggest issue would be about money in politics, particularly big money. I don’t know if he’s doing this, but one thing he might do is seek from Hillary Clinton a commitment that, if elected, she would make electoral reform the centerpiece of her presidency. That she would appoint justices committed to overturning Citizens United. That she would push hard for public financing of campaigns with matching dollars for small contributions. That she would demand an end to the current revolving door between the government and Wall Street, for example. That she would push hard for full disclosure of all sources of campaign funding. In other words: make the issue of reviving our democracy by getting big money out of it the centerpiece of her administration, by which she would be willing to be judged, at the end of four years, in terms of the success of her presidency. I don’t know that Bernie would seek that, and I don’t know that she would agree to it, but it seems to me that it would be good for everybody if she did — good for Bernie and Bernie supporters, and good for Hillary. It might reassure some of the doubters of what she is about, what she stands for and what she cares about. It is a fundamental issue, because almost nothing can get done unless we get big money out of politics.

The whole premise of the Sanders campaign was, and still is, that our political system is fundamentally distorted by big money.

One of the other things he seems very focused on is electoral reform — getting rid of superdelegates, for example.
That could be part of it, too. It’s not inconsistent with what I just said to you. It’s about making our democracy work. Getting rid of superdelegates and having open primaries, that’s much easier than the points I listed. Getting rid of superdelegates and having open primaries can be done tomorrow. It doesn’t need any legislation at all; it can be done simply by the Democratic Party resolving to reform itself — changing the rules of the party. That’s low-hanging fruit, and I think he ought to seek that, and I think Hillary ought to oblige. But I’m hoping for something larger, and I expect that Bernie Sanders supporters would want something bigger as well. Again, the whole premise of the Sanders campaign was, and still is, that our political system is fundamentally distorted by big money.

One of the counterpoints that people on the left have against getting rid of superdelegates is: Donald Trump. If the Republicans had superdelegates, they wouldn’t be dealing with Trump right now. Does that argument resonate with you?
It resonates a little bit, but look: If you have a political party, like the Republican Party, that has for years been cultivating a kind of not-so-subtle racism and anti-Muslim bias and xenophobia, you’re going to have a Republican electorate that is susceptible to Trumpism. Donald Trump is just the Frankenstein’s monster that comes out of the way the Republican Party has been. They created him. The problem isn’t that they didn’t have superdelegates, the problem is that the Republican electorate is so easily persuaded by this bigoted demagoguery.

I don’t think it’s a question of superdelegates. The Democrats should have the courage of their conviction in terms of who the Democratic electorate really is, and the same goes for opening the primary to Independents. The Democrats ought to want to attract as many Independents as possible. And if Democrats believe in the Democratic message then they don’t need superdelegates, and they can afford to open up their primaries to Independents.

You said Sanders will have to make a case for Clinton to his supporters. Do you think there is a convincing case to be made in favor of her candidacy?
That’s a very open-ended question. She has at least four big things going for her. Number one, she’s not Trump. Number two, she’s very experienced. Number three, she’s extremely competent. And number four, she would be the first woman president. The real question is number five: What does she stand for? And I’ve gone through her individual policies in a lot of detail. They’re not bad. I think they’re very carefully crafted, carefully thought out, but there’s not a big idea that stands out as capturing the public imagination that’s nearly as large as the ideas Bernie has put forward. Even the ones that get close are kind of Bernie-lite. I think that, rhetorically, it is possible for her to come close to some of Bernie’s policies.

Her proposal with regard to the biggest banks would allow her as president to close down a bank that posed a direct risk, but she’s not going to bust up the big banks. She may increase the capital requirements a little more than are necessary under Dodd-Frank; she certainly will use the authority that she has under Dodd-Frank to monitor the banks, but her banking proposal is of a different spirit than Bernie’s, and although it’s rhetorically possible to make it sound as if there’s not that much difference between them, there is a fundamental difference in regards to whether a giant bank under certain circumstances poses the risk of being too big to fail. I think it does; Bernie Sanders believes it does; I don’t think she does. Can that gap be bridged? Again, it can be bridged rhetorically, but I don’t know if that will be enough for Bernie himself or, more importantly, for Bernie Sanders supporters.

The same thing with free tuition at public universities. She’s come within 100 yards: She has ideas for dealing with student debt, and her ideas are reasonable and carefully crafted, but they really don’t carry on the great American experiment that was done in the 19th century with free public education. Again, rhetorically, she can talk in ways in which it sounds that she’s pretty close to [Sanders on this issue], but I’m not sure that she will satisfy Bernie or Bernie Sanders supporters by simply staying where she is on that issue.

If you look at Bernie’s proposal for single-payer health care, Hillary Clinton can sound as if she’s fairly close to that. She wants to keep the Affordable Care Act. She’ll build on the Affordable Care Act, and she has some quite sensible reforms in mind with regard to incremental improvements in the Affordable Care Act. Maybe she would go so far as to say that single-payer is a worthy goal for sometime in the future. I don’t know if she’ll go that far. She seems to have come almost that far on a $15 minimum wage, but again, she’s hedged it. The problem in all of these areas is that there is a great deal of suspicion amongst this one-third of Sanders supporters that I’m talking about: They think she says what she has to say in order to satisfy various constituents, and she parses her words carefully.

Coming back to my central point, I think that cleaning up our democracy, making our democracy work, would be such a natural [fit] for her. She’s already been on the record with several of the points that I made. She just needs to signal that it’s her highest or near-highest priority and that she’s totally committed to it. I think that would help a great deal.

But is it enough to just signal that she shares Sanders’ priorities? That doesn’t necessarily help battle the perception that she’s an opportunistic politician. One of the things you said earlier is that you don’t have a sense of what she stands for —
I didn’t say that I don’t, I said that voters don’t. Most voters don’t know what she stands for because she hasn’t given her campaign a central theme or a large, bold idea that captures the public’s imagination the way that Bernie has. I’m a policy wonk, I’ve gone through her policies in detail; I know what she stands for. But whether I know, that’s not the issue. We’re talking about the public in general, and Bernie supporters in particular. And not the one-third that will naturally gravitate to her without any effort or the one-third that are adamantly opposed to her and won’t be persuadable or might be at the margin persuadable. I’m talking about this very important middle one-third that could be persuaded, but need to believe that she is sincere about some big important theme.

You’ve spoken recently about founding a third party, the New Progressive Party, to carry on some of the fights Bernie has staked his campaign on. You’ve also said you wouldn’t found it until after this election. Why wait?
I just don’t want to risk what happened in 1968, and in some people’s view what happened in 1980. We got Richard Nixon in 1968 partly because the Democrats were so split. And in 1980 we got George W. Bush.

I believe to this day that Ralph Nader brought a lot of people into the voting booth, but there were obviously some people who opted for Ralph Nader who might have otherwise voted for Al Gore. And the election was so tight that regardless of how many people you believe Ralph Nader brought, all you needed was a relative handful of people who voted for Nader who might have otherwise voted for Al Gore, and George Bush would not have been our president.

Vote for a third-party candidate if you are so moved, but… I’m not comfortable with even a 20 percent risk that [Donald Trump] is going to be our next president.

Granted, let’s not get into the details of the popular vote versus the electoral vote. I’m talking in terms of just how close these elections can get. It may be if Donald Trump continues to implode that it doesn’t matter. Vote for a third-party candidate if you are so moved, but I just think the man is a menace — I think he’s a serious, terrifying danger to the United States and to the world. I’m not comfortable with even a 20 percent risk that he is going to be our next president. Risk cannot be eliminated altogether, but I tell people: I’m not going to tell you what to do, obviously, but beware; make sure that your conscience is aware that if you’re voting for a third-party candidate, you might be, at the margin, increasing the odds that Donald Trump becomes our next president.

I am in favor of a third party after November. I think that what Bernie Sanders and Bernie Sanders supporters ought to be considering very seriously is a kind of new progressive party — post-November — that fields candidates, that supports progressives for House and Senate races, even considers putting up somebody for the 2020 presidential race. A party that dedicates the next four or eight or 20 years to building a progressive movement politically and focussing on the politics of a progressive movement. It hasn’t been done, and it needs to be done, and I think that the movement that Bernie Sanders began is the logical starting point.

What do you see being the central issue the New Progressive Party would take up?
Money. Big money. Money in politics. Single-payer, sure. Assault rifles, yes. Tuition-free higher public education, a higher minimum wage, building the middle class, ending mass incarceration. All of these things are part of it, but the central issue is the corrosive effect of big money in politics. And if the Democratic Party is not gonna do it, and is not gonna make it a central focus of it’s attention, and if Hillary Clinton is not gonna do it, then I think a new progressive party has got to do it, has got to take this on.

Are you feeling optimistic about the election?
I’m always optimistic. I’m a cockeyed optimist. I think over the long-haul, we in this country are pragmatic. We do what has to be done. We’ll do what has to be done here. I think the fact that Donald Trump is losing ground — is melting like the Wicked Witch of the West — is testament to how sensible we become when we have to be. I’m not sure the Democratic or even the Republican Party has learned how big, how strong this anti-establishment wave that expresses itself in 2016 really is. It’s not going away. Part of that wave succumbed to Trump authoritarianism, but Bernie Sanders won 22 states, and you can’t minimize that. My fear is that the Democratic establishment just wants to pretend it didn’t happen or to see it as some sort of an aberration, and that would be a disaster for the Democratic Party.

What message should the leadership of both parties take from this wave?
That a very large and growing percentage of Americans feel like the game is rigged against them. That big money is determining political outcomes and many of those political outcomes have to do with how the economy is organized. When I go out — and I spend a lot of time out in [middle America] — all I hear from Tea Partiers and Republicans is about crony capitalism and corporate welfare and how corrupt our political system is, and it’s a lot of the same things I hear from Democrats — particularly Sanders Democrats, but many other Democrats, even if they were not for Bernie Sanders. Everyone knows it, it’s no longer a secret, and if the Democratic Party doesn’t take this really seriously and make a dedicated effort to restore our democracy and get big money out of politics then the party is doomed. If it’s just a giant fundraising machine from the very wealthy — which is what it has become — it has no reason for being.

Do you really feel, based on what you’re hearing, that it’s money in politics people care about rather than, say, jobs?
The reason you can’t get real jobs programs in Congress, the reason you can’t raise the minimum wage, the reason we can’t have a sensible trade policy, the reason we’re seeing so much monopolization that is taking the money out of the paychecks of average people and redistributing it upwards to big corporations and major shareholders and top executives, the reason we have insider-trading on Wall Street, and we’ve got banks getting bailed out, and we’ve got subsidies to big agriculture, and the reason we pay so much for pharmaceuticals — more than any other nation — it’s all relating to the overwhelming dominance of money in politics. That’s setting the rules of the game against average people. This is the core issue.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A look at Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. Watch here.

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