Bernie Sanders deserves credit for putting issues of economic inequities, Wall Street greed, Citizens United distortions, and the self-serving Washington establishment on the front burner. His cranky old man persona was even mildly endearing when he was railing against the rigged system, helping give voice to the unbridled aspirations of young people and the frustrations of the struggling middle class. He forced Hillary Clinton to deal with some issues her “pant-suited smugness” would have preferred to sidestep and made her a better candidate. But, at this juncture, stepping up his attacks on her and the Democratic Party (which he has disdained over the years), however tempting a target she and it provide, now risks helping Donald Trump.
It is true that the Democratic Party has treated him shabbily. Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz manipulated the debate schedule to advantage her candidate, Hillary, and, by all accounts, the Nevada party leaders at this past weekend’s delegate convention were similarly heavy-handed. That said, the national party rules have been in place for some time, and it was Sanders’ choice, as an Independent, not to involve himself in shaping them differently. So now he has to stop feeding his supporters’ anger at the party rules and look at the larger issues at stake.
This is not a call for Sanders to suspend his campaign, even though the delegate count makes a path to the nomination virtually impossible. He keeps winning primaries, including in Oregon just this week. His supporters have a right to be heard right up to the convention. But the anti-Hillary vitriol of some Sanders supporters is as toxic as that of some Trump supporters. And Trump will use that against Clinton in the general election. If not now, Sanders must make clear to his supporters no later than July 29th, when the delegates depart Philadelphia, they need to line up behind Hillary. Clinton’s 2008 embrace of party nominee Barack Obama should be Sanders’ model.
Bernie owes it to those animated by his call to join his movement to go beyond describing societal problems and prescribing pie-in-the-sky answers. Non-partisan economists put the costs of Sanders’ programs at $18 trillion over ten years, but he only calls for raising taxes $6.5 trillion over that period. Closing the gap would hit a lot of middle class taxpayers who think they’d be untouched.
Sanders and his supporters say we have to “think big,” and I get that he’s a more appealingly visionary than Hillary. But Sanders would increase spending by a jaw-dropping 50 percent as a percentage of gross domestic product in the first year alone. If Sanders disagrees with all the think tank analyses of the costs of his programs, he should explain why they’re wrong and he’s right. He should be held to no less strict a standard than Donald Trump, whose loosey-goosey numbers are, for other reasons, equally head-spinning.
Sanders also touts his current polling advantages over Hillary in match-ups with Trump, but the current 4-point advantage he has is illusory. He hasn’t yet been seriously scrutinized. The Clinton team rightly doesn’t want to alienate his supporters, whom they need in the general election. The media have given him a nearly free ride because his success was so improbable. And Trump and other Republicans have been playing kissy-face with Sanders because they’d rather run against him. You can be sure, if he were the nominee, they’d base a vicious smear campaign on stories of Sanders’ involvement in the youth wing of the Communist Party and a range of politically unsavory Socialist activities. Even mainstream conservative George Will has been playing up the “fact” that Bernie and Jane Sanders honeymooned in the Soviet Union.
Mainstream media could start to take a closer look at what Sanders actually accomplished during his career in Congress. The success of the Veterans Administration isn’t exactly a crowning achievement. And we may be hearing more about the closing of Burlington College, where Jane Sanders’ seriously questionable financial management has led to the shuttering of the institution. It is as legitimate an inquiry as any reporting on the finances of a Clinton spouse.
As a sign of respect for his candidacy, responsible journalists should scrutinize Bernie as vigorously as they do – and have done – regarding his flawed primary opponent. Ultimately, we look to Bernie himself to work on bringing the two Democratic factions together after Philadelphia. Otherwise we could see Donald Trump sworn in as President on January 20th. That would be a disaster.
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