On Sunday, Bernie Sanders reiterated his commitment to ensuring that the new Democratic platform is the most progressive in history.
He’s well on the way to achieving this goal. The presence of professor Cornel West, Congressman Keith Ellison, tribal leader Deborah Parker, climate expert Bill McKibben, and other progressive luminaries on the Democratic platform drafting committee hasn’t just been symbolic. They’ve already had some “very, very important victories,” Sanders explained to CNN’s Jake Tapper—the initial draft of the platform includes planks that call for a universal $15 minimum wage, breaking up big banks, and the closing of private immigrant-detention centers, for example. The Vermont Senator assured Tapper that he’d bring his trademark tenacity to the remainder of the platform process: “We’re going to take that fight to Orlando, where the entire committee meets in two weeks. And if we don’t succeed there, then we’ll certainly take it to the floor of the Democratic convention.”
And so, for the first time in memory, the progressive movement is shaping the official policy framework of the party. This has real implications for the national legislative agenda. And it’s directly attributable to the leverage won through the historic Sanders campaign.
Still, the Democratic platform is only as good as the party’s ability to implement it.
Even with an increasingly likely landslide victory for Hillary Clinton against an outrageously flawed GOP candidate, the heavily gerrymandered House and 60-vote Senate mean that Democrats will still have to reckon with some degree of divided government. While the party platform matters tremendously for shaping strategic vision, a great deal of progressive change in the coming years must also come through skillful application of subtler instruments: executive actions, agency rules, and—crucially—personnel appointments. It’s here that progressives ultimately need to use their newfound leverage.
In the face of a GOP Congress that has explicitly hoped for his failure, President Obama has used executive orders, agency-level rules, and other tools like prosecutorial discretion to remarkable effect. But there’s clearly more to do. On the most pressing issues, including climate regulations, Wall Street accountability, the rights of undocumented immigrants, the drone program, NSA surveillance, and prison reform, Bernie has pledged to do more and better—and he’s consistently called on Hillary to do more and better if elected.
In addition to the high-profile executive orders and policy calls, many of the next president’s most consequential decisions will be unglamorous and generally unnoticed staffing decisions—like whom to appoint as the next Undersecretary of the Treasury for Domestic Finance or Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the FDA. It’s here that some upfront intervention could make a big difference.
In a New York Times op-ed in January, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren made a series of crucial points to this effect. Arguing that “personnel is policy,” she lauded the Obama administration’s executive actions in areas like climate change and consumer protection, while offering pointed criticism of the administration’s enforcement measures. In particular, she singled out the leadership at the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice for weak efforts in implementing financial-reform rules and imposing meaningful accountability on big corporate executives. The takeaway from Warren was simple: In policymaking, implementation and enforcement matter. And this depends hugely on the energy and interests of the officials whom the president appoints.
Early last year, Warren put these principles into action, leading a successful Senate effort to block the nomination of Antonio Weiss, a Wall Street executive, as undersecretary of the Treasury for domestic finance—a role with central responsibility for implementing the financial regulations in Dodd-Frank. The surprise success of her move put this kind of technical oversight of presidential personnel on the national progressive agenda.
Right now, Bernie is in a position to make some simple demands as a condition of his Hillary endorsement. For instance, no Wall Street players (like Antonio Weiss) as senior Senate-confirmed appointees at Treasury, Justice, the SEC, or other agencies with direct responsibility for policing the financial sector. Or, given Bernie’s commitments to antitrust, biodiversity, and the integrity of the food system, no Monsanto lobbyists heading up divisions of the EPA, Department of Agriculture, or the FDA. (Michael R. Taylor, the controversial multinational’s former head of public policy, is currently is the Deputy FDA Commissioner for Foods—a role with little public exposure but tremendous influence.) Or, given Bernie’s commitments to peace and government accountability, no more figures from the military-industrial complex serving in key Pentagon positions (there are too many to name).
This is the time for progressives around the country—from immigrant-rights organizations to drug-reform groups to peace campaigners—to start thinking seriously about personnel, setting parameters, and making specific requests of the next administration.
While presidential appointees and enforcement matters are essential to policy, there’s a simple reason they’ve never been a headline issue in presidential primaries before. In earlier decades, policy positions around the “assistant secretary” level were largely filled by seasoned civil servants who rose through the ranks of agency hierarchies rather than sliding through the revolving door of corporations and government. In the age of both extraordinary partisan competition and extreme money in policy, administrations increasingly fill the agency ranks with their own loyalists as well as people who can be helpful for broader political purposes.
Going after obscure personnel picks may seem like a roundabout way to actualize the political revolution. It lacks the gravitas and glamour of going after the party’s high-minded ideals through the platform process. But Hillary needs the Bernie coalition if she is to soundly defeat the short-fingered orange menace, and this means making verifiable promises—including on presidential appointments. “Personnel is policy,” and, right now, progressives have a window of opportunity to shape it.