Bernie Sanders has given Democrats what they needed and what many wanted: a healthy debate on issues. Not just stock positions on this or that, because he and Hillary Clinton agree on most goals. His willingness to take on the presumptive nominee has provided an exploration of philosophy and style of governance and a choice between leading with the heart and leading with the head.
In some ways, the 2016 primary race recalls the 1972 contest between Senators George McGovern and Edmund Muskie. McGovern was the passionate anti-war liberal with a willingness to tackle institutional entrenchment that stirred the hearts of the left-leaning part of the party, especially young people. Muskie was more middle of the road, supported by the establishment and resented by young people for being late on matters of war and social justice. In the November election, McGovern won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Either candidate would have been preferable to Richard Nixon.
Bernie Sanders’ passion resonates on many issues. In the recent Democratic Town Hall, he was well modulated for all of 30 seconds, then, his anger rising, his fingers jabbing, moving quickly to full-throated passion about his commitment to economic security, calling for a populist revolution and an end to government “by the billionaire class.” What pleasantly came through were more relaxed moments in which he was humorous, down to earth and had a mensch-like appeal. But one wonders if we could stand four years of his typical anger and intensity, and to what extent it would impede his ability to get anything done in Congress.
Hillary Clinton is the establishment candidate in the race, taking a more moderate position on any number of issues, including minimum wage, restoration of Glass-Steagall, determining who should get free public higher education, taxing the middle class. She is all about building on and going further than Obama’s accomplishments. While the former Secretary of State was particularly high energy in the recent town hall, her laugh, which can be appealingly infectious can sometimes seem forced. She is not the natural politician her husband is and has difficulty faking authenticity.
She is at her strongest when detailing her foreign policy experience, for example, how she had negotiated to halt Israel’s reintroducing group troops into Gaza. Her accounting suggests the strength she would bring to the role of Commander-in-Chief. Sanders’ foreign policy badge is having voted against the Iraq War, an affirmative vote that, with the advantage of hindsight, Clinton now regrets. She touts experience; he touts judgment.
Voters who have distrusted Hillary for any number of reasons (email practices and her refusal to release the content of her highly paid speeches to the likes of Goldman Sachs to name just two) wonder if she can be depended on to implement her evolutionary positions or if she is too closely aligned with powerful interests who might prove to be the devils in the details of issues she might champion. But those who are gung ho for Bernie’s self-described revolution need to ask hard questions about his proposals. It’s time to take him and his plans seriously.
Sanders, a proponent of expanding Social Security, free higher education, single payer health care, universal paid leave, should be pressed on how he’d really pay for all of that. He says he’d definitely raise taxes, starting with “super rich” individuals and corporations. Wall Street “will pay a tax on speculation.” He’d repatriate funds stashed in tax havens like the Cayman Islands to pay for infrastructure improvements, lift the cap on Social Security income, and other measures.
It’s hard to imagine that there is enough money from those proposals to cover his expansive program or enough billionaires and millionaires to cover the costs without increasing taxes for the middle class. How would his plans for universal free public higher education work if the states can’t afford their match to the federal share? (Just look at what’s happening with next year’s Massachusetts revenue shrinkage.) Do we really want to provide free public higher education for Donald Trump’s grandkids?
While single payer health care is appealing, how actually would it work, and what would be covered? Yes, eliminating private insurance could save more than their immediate tax increase. But economists warn he is underestimating the costs, which, they say, would lead to tax increases twice as high as Sanders projects, or blow out our deficit. Either way, the media should start delving into these substantive realities.
The clash between Sanders’ version of European socialism and Clinton’s realpolitik pragmatism has been called a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party. I’d like to see them go beyond discussions of minimum wage and the job impact of the Trans Pacific trade agreement and talk about the costs and benefits of unrelenting globalization and of technologies that make us more productive with fewer employees.
Beyond issue positions, however, voters and media have to compare the two on leadership skills and character.
Establishment Democrats want to avoid a Sanders-topped ticket, preferring not to repeat the George McGovern debacle of 1972. McGovern opponents dismissed him as the candidate of acid, amnesty and abortion. Today the country is liberalizing its marijuana policies, abortion is available to women choosing it (though it is certainly under attack) and amnesty today is not for Vietnam War protesters but for certain illegal immigrants well settled into this country. McGovern was ahead of his time in 1972, and Bernie Sanders may well be in the same position today. That said, he has moved and shaped the national debate in a remarkable and healthy way.
Bernie Sanders reflects Barack Obama the candidate, and Hillary Clinton represents Barack Obama the President. As late New York Governor Mario Cuomo often said, you campaign in poetry but govern in prose.
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