During the first Democratic debate of this cycle’s presidential primaries, the past Tuesday, moderator Anderson Cooper asked Bernie Sanders “how can any kind of a socialist win a general election in the United States?” Sanders replied: “we’re going to win because first we’re going to explain what Democratic Socialism is.” Sanders proceeded to set forth a critique of America’s economic inequality and incomplete social safety net, and concluded: “we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden, and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.”
Most pundits took Sanders’ remark at face value: Daily Kos described Sanders as “listing all the nice goodies in the Danish welfare state,” while Fox News duly attacked Denmark for high taxes. Those bromides, however, miss the real policy lessons for voters. Yes, Nordic countries have high tax rates, but so do dirt-poor countries such as Cuba, Lesotho, and Swaziland. Denmark’s trick has been in avoiding savage inequalities while also achieving national prosperity.
Unfortunately for Sanders, the policy lessons of Denmark look a lot more like Bill Clinton’s 1992 “new Democrat” candidacy than the “Democratic Socialism” Sanders advocates today. To be sure, both Clinton ’92 and Sanders ’16 sought to improve America’s safety net. Unlike Sanders, however, Bill Clinton recognized the policy work required to afford such social goods.
The first part of this hard work is fiscal discipline. For decades, according to World Bank figures, Denmark has maintained a sound budget. Aside from the Clinton Administration’s record from 1992 through 2000, the United States has been much weaker in this area. During those years of fiscal probity, balanced-budget advocacy group The Concord Coalition published an annual scorecard of the “Deficit Hawks” in Congress. Then-Congressman Bernie Sanders did not make the list. On the contrary, in both the House and Senate, Sanders has supported spending such as agribusiness subsidies, while opposing fiscal reforms such as earmark bans and balanced budget amendments. On the campaign trail, when challenged over his ideas for substantial new spending, Sanders claims the spending will be offset by economic growth and long-term cost reductions. That type of “dynamic accounting” was popular with Reagan and George W. Bush, and has consistently led to higher deficits.
A second key for Denmark’s effective social services has been market-oriented government reform. Denmark introduced market forces to improve government performance in the 1980s, and Denmark undertook dramatic welfare reform in the 1990s. Bill Clinton campaigned and governed in a similar vein, with the Reinventing Government initiative focused on creating market forces within government, and Welfare Reform passing in 1996. Sanders has not advanced any such reforms in either chamber of Congress or on the campaign trail this year (he voted against the 1996 reform).
Perhaps the most important element of Denmark’s success is creating wealth through a policy framework that includes business-friendly regulations and free trade. Immediately after the Democratic debate, the Danish Ambassador to the United States told Time Magazine that: “Denmark has a lot to offer in terms of how we organize our society,” he said. “Danes have a very flexible labor market and we are open for business.” On this, the Clintons have been consistently right, and Sanders has been a consistent foe. In the first debate of the primary, he equated capitalism primarily with greed, recklessness, and economic ruin. He has praised the communist Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the Castro regime in Cuba. He has repeatedly campaigned against free trade agreements, including Bill Clinton’s NAFTA agreement and Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership.
During most of her career, Hillary Clinton has been associated with the pro-business wing of the Democratic Party, one which learns the true lessons of Denmark and tries to apply them to the United States. For decades, she and her husband have been advocates of government reform, fiscal balance, free trade, and business expansion.
Hillary has moderated those views on the campaign trail, perhaps in memory of her upset loss to the more traditional leftist Barack Obama in 2008. That said, we know that Bernie Sanders rejects that approach in both rhetoric and practice. Thus, while we should be grateful to Sanders for his role in elevating the discussion, we should be clear that he would make a terrible President.