How Different Are Clinton and Sanders?

Clinton Sanders

© Shutterstock

The Democratic presidential candidates could not be more diametrically opposed to each other.

We have all known Hillary Clinton since her husband Bill ran for president in 1992 against George H.W. Bush. After becoming a public figure, she carved out her own political career that saw her go from first lady to elected office, winning the New York seat in the Senate in 2000.

Eight years later, Clinton announced her candidacy for the 2008 presidential campaign, but was defeated in the Democratic primaries by then-Illinois Senator Barack Obama. The latter appointed her secretary of state, a position she held from 2009 to 2013 in one of the most critical periods of history.

Clinton is widely thought of as the pragmatic candidate for the Democratic Party whose hawkish posture on certain topics draws her closer to some in the Republican Party. She supported the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and actively endorsed the NATO-led intervention in Libya in 2011.

Many of her critics disparagingly argue that she has always been part of the establishment. Of course, she has. At the beginning, she was clearly facilitated by President Bill Clinton’s role and capitalized on his office as a springboard for her own political career. But Hillary succeeded thanks to her own capabilities—President Obama once called her “wicked smart”—reinventing herself from time to time.

Think about her support for the crime bill of 1994, which led to prison overcrowding and disproportionately affected African Americans, who face the highest rate of incarceration in the US. Now, she positions herself as a champion for black rights and obtained the endorsement of many black associations. Or consider her lobbying hard in favor of her husband’s 1996 welfare reform that gutted social services and had millions of people plunged into poverty, especially women and children. Now, she is an advocate of women and children’s rights.

A Step to the Left

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders made his way through the US political system as an independent, until turning to the Democratic Party in 2015. At the beginning of his political career, he was elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont’s most populous city, three consecutive times. After that, he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1991, where he served for 16 years, followed by election to the Senate in 2006.

During his career, Sanders has stood out to be a strong advocate of social democratic policies like income inequality, LGBT rights, racial discrimination and bank accountability. He was also an outspoken opponent of US wars in Iraq and voted against the use of force in that country in both 1991 and 2003.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders © Shutterstock

Sanders has brought a breath of fresh air to the US presidential primaries. He is positioning himself as the anti-establishment candidate that Clinton represents. He threw down the gauntlet against the foreign policy bipartisan consensus. By the same token, he is refocusing US foreign policy into a domestic issue. More than once, Sanders has advocated cutting down on defense spending in order to divert money to the public sector. His politics has always been driven by interest in economic inequality and wealth redistribution, as well as corporations and Wall Street’s stranglehold on politics in the United States. To Sanders, foreign policy is mostly a second thought.

However, the claims that Sanders espouses a socialist foreign policy are not supported by facts. For instance, even though he spoke out against deploying American troops on the ground in Iraq and arming Syrian rebels, Sanders supports the US bombing campaign against the Islamic State (IS). Even so, he is depicted by mainstream as pacifist and isolationist. If opposing regime change is enough to be called isolationist, then Sanders is one.

He can also be seen as an isolationist if this means insisting that America stops being the world’s policeman. Yet it is worth pointing out that Sanders, back in the 1990s, voted for a resolution supporting the air campaign in former Yugoslavia. Sanders actively supported the bombing of Afghanistan in 2001 and the Obama administration’s drone strikes policy. Bernie “the socialist” has not veered far from the Democratic mainstream during his tenure, displaying a deep streak of realism.

Sanders’ attitude on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict bears more of a resemblance with pro-Israel Democrats than with leftists. He supports a two-state solution, while being an advocate of Israel and its security concerns and actively calls on the Palestinians to fulfill its responsibilities to end terrorism against Israel and recognize its right to exist. Sanders’ posture over the Israel-Palestine question, despite added grievances toward him from the left of the Democratic Party, seems likely to tilt him more toward Tel Aviv than Obama.

During the 2014 Gaza War, Sanders excused Israeli actions—though calling them heavy-handed. Nevertheless, in 2015, Sanders decided to boycott the speech of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the US Congress, which was orchestrated in an attempt to derail the nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran.

Overall, we could try to frame Sanders’ position within a political realism attitude of restraining American forces abroad. The distinction between interests and vital interests, and the need to align the instruments of power with the intensity of those interests, led Sanders to vote against the invasion of Iraq in 2002, while judiciously supporting the war in Afghanistan in 2001 and the intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s.

Sanders advocates more commitment to diplomacy in order to avoid war and military action, and he endorses a great power cooperation within global institutions and international law. He is closer to the post-hegemonic vision of several scholars: He advocates that the US should forgo its dominant role, as the world has changed from the 1990, and share powers with responsible rising hegemons.

Setting Foreign Policy Aside

However, despite the fact that Sanders was able to lay down the line on domestic issues, turning the debate to topics such economic inequality and the shrinking of the middle-class, he abandoned—at least at the beginning—a likely and successful line of attack against Clinton, namely her hawkish posture on US foreign policy.


Unlike Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders is much more similar to Obama. He did not support the catastrophic war in Iraq, and he is highly skeptical over the use of military force “whenever and wherever” American interests are at stake.


Sanders has put himself in an awkward position more than once. When asked about IS, he cited the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan as a moderate Muslim country and then labeled King Abdullah (firstly misnaming him) as a hero for having called upon a regional Muslim coalition to defeat the Islamic State.

That was a huge gaffe. First, in terms of coalition airstrikes against IS, the role of Jordan was blown out of proportion. The kingdom escalated airstrikes in response to the execution of one of its pilots by IS, but a few months later, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter called upon Arab countries to do more. Also, hearing a self-declared socialist call a ruler of an absolute monarchy with limited tolerance for dissent and restricted freedom of expression a hero was an awkward step.

This is just one example, but it is paradigmatic of Sanders’ starting posture on foreign policy: He broadly let Clinton handle the topic and has played along with his rival’s narrative thus far.

On US foreign policy, Clinton has been considered overwhelmingly superior in comparison to Sanders. As former secretary of state, she is a safe bet. Unlike Clinton, whose campaign team is filled with several hundred foreign policy advisers, Sanders’ was not—until recently. Hiring several experienced foreign policy advisers is a must.

In the most recent Democrat debates, Sanders appeared more comfortable and unabashed in handling foreign policy issues. Bernie fired back criticism about his alleged inexperience and attacked Hillary. In fact, although he was depicted as a lightweight in US foreign policy and was frequently labeled a beginner, he has had a long tenure in the House of Representatives and Senate, which gives him more foreign policy experience than Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama by the time they ran for office.

When Clinton went on the attack against Sanders, boasting about her career, he struck back at her continuous approval of Henry Kissinger—“one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country,” according to Bernie. When Clinton came out criticizing Sanders for his words about Iran (“a huge step forward for warming ties with a powerful country”), he criticized her support for regime change and hawkish posturing. (Throughout her time in office, Clinton actively backed the United Nations resolution that led to airstrikes to oust Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, and she supported the 2003 Iraq War but later reconsidered her stance.)

Clinton is a tireless supporter of the use of military force whenever and wherever American interests are at stake. With Hillary in office, US foreign policy is likely to be similar to that of the Obama administration, but more hawkish. She is on the Democrat’s right-wing and believes in a government approach to world affairs that is committed to the strategy of liberal hegemony, where the US is entitled to global leadership and is vital to maintaining the stability of order.

Having served in the Obama administration for four years, she harshly criticized “the risk-averse and don’t do stupid stuff” foreign policy approach, arguing that the US should strike a better balance between overreaching overseas and being so restrained that conflict can spiral out of control.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton © Shutterstock

Unlike Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders is much more similar to Obama. He did not support the catastrophic war in Iraq, and he is highly skeptical over the use of military force “whenever and wherever” American interests are at stake. This position reflects the main concern of Sanders: that the real threats to the US are at home.

Indeed, without concerted efforts within international law to address the problems of the world properly, America will never be able to rebuild its strength at home—namely a growing economy and the resilience of its founding values. As emphasized, Sanders is not a pacifist, nor an isolationist. He is a sober realist whose rejection of deploying US troops across the globe is well-grounded in history and logic.

Sober Realism

First, US foreign policy is not going to take center stage. Despite a year of turmoil and new threats abroad, Americans are overwhelmingly focused on domestic policy issues. Clinton and Sanders follow suit. They are more concerned about state of the economy and unemployment, as well as the health care system and college tuition.

This could play in Sanders’ favor, considering his across-the-board appeal as honest and less embedded with the establishment, while Clinton is often associated with untrustworthiness of the establishment and Wall Street’s big shots.

Second, it is time for Hillary Clinton to take seriously the threat posed by Bernie Sanders. She should stop her “attack from the right” tactics, which already proved unsuccessful in 2008 against Obama. Her “warlike” posture is carefully thought out for drawing support from undecided voters, especially from white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and dithering Republicans.

But America has changed, and so have the votersDemographic shifts and the impact of black and Hispanic voters tilt the balance of power toward the more democratic candidate. For now, Clinton has more support among African American and Hispanic communities than Sanders, but she must not this take for granted.

Clinton should do more than keep on insisting that she is used to the nitty-gritty of politics or that she has a long story of support for women and children’s empowerment. The distrust of Hillary Clinton is due to her double-faced attitude over the years. On the one hand, she earned more than $600,000 in speaking fees on Wall Street, while on the other she asserts she will be tough on the financial sector. Private prison lobbyists have raised money for her campaign, while she positions herself as the champion against mass incarceration.

An obvious discrepancy between words and deeds can be costly. What sets Bernie Sanders apart in this political contest is that he seems to have stuck to his principled stance throughout his political career. Whether this will be enough to win him the Democratic Party nomination remains to be seen. With Hillary Clinton, we know fully well that she is capable of changing her colors any time it suits her.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Joseph Sohm / Juli Hansen / Photo StoryShutterstock.com 


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