The Democratic presidential debate on Wednesday night drew Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton perhaps the furthest yet from their talking points and one-liners.
Topics ranged from immigration reform to renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba, the Puerto Rican debt crisis, foreign intervention, and climate change.
It was in this context that Univision's Maria Elena Salinas and The Washington Post's Karen Tumulty dropped a series of questions to Sanders, tinged with the realism sometimes missing from these debates: What if your authority to act as a president reached its limits?
What if your proposed expansion of executive orders on immigration reform were tied up in the courts, like what has happened to President Obama? How can you expand something when it's unclear whether it's constitutional in the first place?
Here's part of the first exchange:
SANDERS: … What I believe right now is not only that we need comprehensive immigration reform, if the Congress does not do its job, as president of the United States I will use the executive powers of that office to do what has to be done, to do what President Obama did, and expand on that.
SALINAS: But if you’re saying that you would…
… if you’re saying that you would expand on the executive actions, how do you that they’re not going to end up in a legal battle just like Obama’s executive actions?
SANDERS: Well, we do the best—we don’t know. … But to your point, we have to do the best we can. I applaud President Obama for his efforts on DAPA and DACA. And I think we have got to expand those efforts.
A similar question came up later, in a discussion of how each candidate would take action on climate change without bipartisan consensus:
TUMULTY: Senator Sanders, is it possible to move forward on [climate change legislation] if you do not get a bipartisan consensus, and what would you do?
SANDERS: Well, first of all, Karen, when you have Republican candidates for president and in Congress telling you that climate change is a hoax, which is Donald Trump and other candidates’ position, what they are really saying is, we don’t have the guts to take on the fossil fuel industry.
What candidates are saying is if we stand up to the fossil fuel industry, and transform our energy system away from coal and oil and gas to energy efficiency and wind and solar and geothermal and other sustainable technologies, you know what happens to that Republican who listens to the scientists? On that day, that Republican loses his campaign funding from the Koch brothers and the fossil fuel industry.
TUMULTY: So you’ve just described the problem, but how would you move forward given that this is the situation?
SANDERS: The way I would move forward in every other area. And what we are doing in this campaign is fighting not only to become president, but I’m the only candidate who says no president, not Bernie Sanders, can do it all. You know what we need, Karen? We need a political revolution in this country.
And when millions of people stand up and tell the fossil fuel industry that their profits, their short-term profits are less significant than the long-term health of this planet, we will win. That is the way change always takes place.
It was the only time Sanders uttered his often-used word "revolution" at the debate. And it was wholly inadequate.
Clinton, asked the same question, talked about implementing all the executive powers she could muster, but said that she feels keeping "the lights on while we are transitioning to a clean energy future" is an "an area we can get Republican support on."
That's hardly policy you can chew on, but it at least seems to acknowledge the limits of American politics and power, and a need to be diplomatic about things. Sanders' does not.
Sanders' call for a political revolution might be a surefire way to get applause—and it did—but it still left the question, which is central to the criticism Sanders has faced through his entire campaign, unanswered.
That critique: A revolution isn't a plan. And without a way to cut through the gridlock that makes people hate Washington so much, it's just a slogan.
Calling for political revolution may galvanize Sanders' base, get people to the streets, and even send him into the White House. But without more than a revolutionary ideal, we would get more of the same dysfunction—likely worse because his proposals are more drastic than Obama's.
It would put us where we were in 2013, when Obama won his second term, and Americans prepared themselves for four more years of screeching dysfunction. No one wants to go back.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.