Why Left-of-Center Wonks Are Skeptical of Bernie Sanders

(NY TIMES) Neil Irwin, February 19, 2016 — Bernie Sanders has a problem with the liberal wonkosphere — or, more precisely, the liberal wonkosphere has a problem with Bernie Sanders.

With every upward tick in Mr. Sanders’s poll numbers in the last few months, there has been a corresponding rise in a very specific type of commentary: Left-of-center policy experts and former staffers for Democratic officials questioning his plans as unwise, unrealistic or both.

On Wednesday, it took the form of a joint letter from four people who led the White House Council of Economic Advisers during the Clinton and Obama administrations. They criticized projections by Gerald Friedman, an economist who has advised Mr. Sanders, of what the candidate’s policy proposals would achieve. Their comments were quickly echoed by the liberal economists Brad Delong and Paul Krugman. The health care experts Kenneth Thorpe of Emory University and Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institution have also been tough on Mr. Sanders’s health care plan.

Behind the critiques: Mr. Sanders’s advisers have often worked off assumptions that their policies would sharply increase economic growth, reduce health care costs and create other salutary effects, making the policies in question look more affordable and desirable than they would with more cautious assumptions.

Most recently, Mr. Friedman projected a growth rate of 5.3 percent a year under a Sanders administration, compared with a Congressional Budget Office projection of 2.1 percent annual growth over the coming decade. Mr. Friedman, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, also estimates that Mr. Sanders’s policies would bring an unemployment rate of 3.8 percent (the lowest since 1969) and 3.2 percent annual productivity growth (more than double the C.B.O. projection).

The former White House economic advisers find these numbers implausible. After all, a lot of policies look great and affordable if you assume they will generate incredible growth. They equate this to Republicans who argue that large tax cuts will not increase the deficit because they will unleash extraordinary economic growth.

But there may be something broader going on here beyond the specific disagreements about growth assumptions, or cost savings from a single-payer health system, or how to regulate the financial system.

Behind closed doors, among the left-of-center policy types who populate the congressional offices, executive agencies and think tanks of Washington, I’ve seen enough eye rolls when Mr. Sanders’s name comes up to suspect something more tribal is going on.

The wonkosphere vs. Bernie clash is not just a story of center-left versus left-left. It is also a clash between those who have been in the trenches of trying to make public policy for the last seven years versus those who can exist in a kind of theoretical world of imagining what public policy ought to be.

Suppose, for a moment, that you worked as a staff member to a Democratic member of Congress, or perhaps in the Obama administration, or in the world of academics and think tank experts advising both.

You know the compromises that were made back in 2010 and why — uniting 55 or 60 senators with wildly different political temperaments and local politics was really hard. You had to come up with a bill that could get a “Yes” vote from both a centrist like Joe Lieberman or Joe Manchin and, well, a democratic socialist like Bernie Sanders.

You’re convinced that those laws — much hated by both conservatives and the industries they overhauled — made the United States a better place, helping millions more people afford health care and reining in the financial industry. You know the laws aren’t perfect — but also believe that future presidents and Congresses should build on them, much as Social Security and Medicare are now much expanded from their original charters.

Now comes a man who has had to answer only to voters in the most liberal state in the nation, who has never had the responsibility to actually pull together the disparate center-left coalition that is the Democratic Party to enact concrete legislation.

When Mr. Sanders argues for scrapping Obamacare’s intricately constructed mix of private health insurance with public subsidies for a single-payer government program, he’s essentially saying your efforts were useless, hopelessly corrupted by the health insurance industry. Same with Mr. Sanders’s call to break up the largest banks, as opposed to the current approach of just regulating them more intensively.

Then, if you criticize Mr. Sanders’s plans, or question their political feasibility, his supporters assail you as a member of a corrupt establishment.

This isn’t just armchair psychoanalysis. The former congressman Barney Frank, an eponymous architect of the financial reform law, made his own version of this argument in a recent article for Politico.

Mr. Sanders “presents himself as not only free of responsibility for anything that happened during his tenure, but vigorous in his insistence that nothing that was done while he was there had any value in addressing the problems that he discusses,” Mr. Frank wrote.

“Many congressional Democrats, myself included, feel deep resentment at this wholly negative portrayal of our efforts,” he added.

No one would suggest that huge numbers of Democratic primary voters are taking their voting cues from former White House economists and think tank analysts. But if Mr. Sanders wins the nomination, a fascinating test for how he will govern will be whether he mends fences with left-of-center policy wonks — or views them as part of the problem of establishment thinking he is trying to overcome.

Source: Why Left-of-Center Wonks Are Skeptical of Bernie Sanders – The New York Times