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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

We Asked Two Experts What Would Actually Happen If Bernie Sanders Became President

We all know the American people would never elect a socialist. What this interview presupposes is: Maybe they would?

Mike Pearl

Mike Pearl

Composite of two photos via Bush Presidential Library and Flickr user Peter Stevens

Last month, we consulted an expert to find out whether or not a Donald Trump presidency would be as entertaining as it sounds (Answer: Maybe). This week, we tried that same exercise, exploring a different hypothetical: What would happen if Bernie Sanders, a curmudgeonly Independent Senator from Vermont, actually became the leader of the free world?

So imagine: It's Inauguration Day, 2017. Sanders is putting his 75-year-old hand on the on the Bible—for the first time, it's just the Old Testament. His grey flyaways are flying away in the wind off the National Mall. Everyone around him is smiling, but Bernie is the face of grouchy stoicism. He's about to become the first avowedly socialist president in United States history and he has work to do.

Who knows how this happened? Maybe someone finally found something in Hillary Clinton's emails that not only sank her campaign but also pushed the entire American electorate dramatically leftward on the political continuum. Maybe Rush Limbaugh reveals he's a robot created by Bill and Hillary to manufacture a vast conservative conspiracy, and Republican voters realize their entire political existence has been a lie.

Whatever. It doesn't matter. The important thing is that Bernie's finger is about to be on the proverbial red button. Billionaires are quaking in their boots; college students are taking celebratory bong rips; and the White House social office is contemplating a coup d'etat. Now, what happens next?

To find out, we called up the political science department of Middlebury College, a private liberal arts school in Sanders' home state of Vermont. Department Chair Bert Johnson, and professor Matthew Dickinson, who writes the blog Presidential Power, have been following Sanders' career as closely as anyone, and they were kind enough to bring us up to speed.

VICE: You've been watching Bernie Sanders as a politician for longer than most of us. What can you tell us about him?
Dickinson: The closest I've come to him is the annual [Memorial Day] parade [in Vergennes, Vermont] where he walked five feet in front of me and had this grimace on his face that said I'd rather be anywhere but in this parade.

Johnson: The first thing I would say is with a lot of candidates, you would have to speculate fairly widely about what would happen if they became president. But with Bernie, I think, you have to speculate a little less, because he's been remarkably consistent over his career about what he's in [politics] for. You look back to his 1990 campaign for Congress and he was saying almost exactly the same things that he is now.

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Early on in a new administration, presidents tend to talk about bipartisanship. Would Sanders do that?
Johnson: I think, in terms of whether he would talk about bipartisanship, I'm sure he would say, 'Let's hope to get some bipartisan agreements on stripping the privileges of the billionaires,' but I don't know that that bipartisanship would be forthcoming.

Dickinson: If Bernie Sanders wins, it will hugely be shocking, in the sense that he is not a mainstream candidate. Basically he's going to say, 'Listen. The message here is it's a new message—that things have really got to change, whether it's on campaign finance or income taxes. The people have said, you know, the status quo never works.' So I suspect there will be a little more edge. He'll have the olive branch, which is, 'We've got to work together,' but it's going to be tinged with a, 'Hey! Don't tell me that the same old political status quo is going to remain. The people clearly said we want to change that, and you better recognize that.'

Foreign policy hasn't been Bernie's strongest area. How would that shake out in a Sanders administration?
Dickinson: I don't think he's very comfortable in foreign policy and he'd be willing to—at least particularly in the beginning—rely on the advice from sort of Establishment military advisors and diplomats. On foreign policy, I think Sanders is going to be more malleable; he's going to be more willing to defer to the experts. Now if he has some basic principles that will guide him, I think he's going to be more collaborative, more internationalist, less interventionist, than, certainly, George W. Bush, and perhaps Obama—less willing to engage militarily.

Johnson: It's not [my area], but I think what we think about him on foreign policy is much less radical than on domestic policy. I think he's much more mainstream even then somebody like Rand Paul who is very non-interventionist.

So military intervention wouldn't be off the table?
Dickinson: Yeah, certainly in response to an attack on US borders. Otherwise, I suspect it's less likely to be on the table unless it's as part of a multi-nation coalition—some international, NATO or the UN, something like that. I don't think he's going to be doing any unilateral actions. Now, he may continue—this is what I mean by stick to the status quo—he may continue the drone policy, although under perhaps more stringent safeguards to make sure civilians aren't collateral damage. He may encourage or continue with some covert operations. You know, there would be some continuity there.

Would he have a big signature deal, like Obamacare?
Johnson: There seems to be, on the Democratic side, an understanding that dealing with student debt problems is important. So I imagine that's probably one of the first things he might do. Something might make its way through Congress. I think it would look very different after it came out of the House [of Representatives], but it could be a political winner because there's a lot of students in debt.

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Sanders has been adamantly opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but what do think he would do if he's elected president, given that the Trade Promotion Authority bill would still give him enormous power?
Dickinson: Rarely does a president who campaigns on a particular stance, and then is given power to do something against that stance, say 'Oh! Take that power away from me! I don't want that!'

People give him a lot less credit for being pragmatic than he deserves.

Could he use it to alter trade deals and introduce more protectionist policies?
Dickinson: I think it's very difficult—even if legally he had the power to sort of rework this pact—to just come in and say, 'Hey, I'm going to rewrite the whole darned thing. And maybe, by rewriting it, I'm going to blow it up.' You know, it's very difficult to do that because you've inherited a web of expectations, some legal, some not—it has ramifications that go beyond the immediate policy, in fact. But I would be less than comfortable telling you for a fact I know what he's going to do one way or the other without sort of looking more closely at what the pact entails.

If he didn't do something to scale back free trade, that seems like it would really let down his base. Could compromise hurt his career, and his administration?
Johnson: I don't think Bernie would compromise on those principles. He might compromise on finding, you know, a bill that only got you halfway, but he would sign that bill, and at the same time say, 'The ultimate goal remains the same as always.'

So say Sanders is president, is it safe to say that Democrats also took over control of Congress in that general election?
Johnson: Not as much as [it would have been] 20 or 30 years ago. [Congress] might have [a few more Democrats]—you might expect that there would have been a Democratic Party wave of some kind to get him into office. But coattails are a fleeting phenomenon these days. The House of Representatives, for example, is structured in a certain way that it's difficult to imagine it going [to the Democrats] anytime soon.

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During Bernie's administration, would he be able to make a dent in income inequality?
Johnson: Most major proposals in a presidency are accomplished within the first two years, so, like Obamacare or something like that. So he would have to act quickly and decisively. And it might be a situation where he would issue a proposal that got vastly narrowed. So something that maybe hiked corporate taxes a little bit in exchange for a reduction of the payroll tax, or something like that. So I think he could make a dent, [but] I don't think he would make much more than a dent.

Sanders is known for not being very friendly. Could that make his job hard?
Dickinson: This guy knows how to glad-hand. He knows how to get things done. Obviously his Senate record is not sterling in terms of lasting accomplishments, but we shouldn't dismiss the fact that Bernie likes to present himself as the man of the people. He's also an experienced politician.

Johnson: People give him a lot less credit for being pragmatic than he deserves, both when he was mayor of Burlington in the 1980s, and then also in Congress, but especially in the Senate. He has proven, at least on a few issues, that he's willing and able to work with people on the opposite side of the aisle on things like in the Senate, for example: veterans' affairs.

You know his career pretty well. Is he hiding anything from us?
Dickinson: The thing about Bernie that his stood him so well with local voters is his authenticity. He is who he presents—there's not a lot of guile there.

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