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There’s a lot to admire about Bernie Sanders. He capably ran Burlington, Vermont, as mayor in the 1980s. He’s a man of integrity: fashioning a successful political career despite a principled shunning of both major parties, while amassing a credible campaign war chest from small donations. He’s sincere in his convictions, at least three of which -- full-throttle public works spending, free public college tuition and wariness about military adventurism -- are sound ideas. I’m on record that I could vote for him or Hillary Clinton should Republicans nominate a nut, which seems likelier with each passing day.
So I feel entitled to voice an unpleasant truth, and since Sanders finished in a virtual tie with the supposedly invincible Clinton in Monday's Iowa caucuses, I'll kick him when he's up: His most ardent enthusiasts are as cultish as Donald Trump’s. The founder of the left-wing Daily Kos blog was struck by their “irrational cherry-picking of news to convince themselves that victory is just around the corner.” If you don’t believe him, check out the comment threads on even respectful commentaries suggesting that maybe, just maybe, Sanders won’t win. His diehards demonize Clinton as a sellout and anyone who says a nice thing about her as a shill (an example of that in a moment). Sanders himself dissed Planned Parenthood, which endorsed Clinton, as “part of the establishment.”
Given this ideological rigor mortis, it’s no wonder some Sanderistas are clueless that on their man’s two signature issues -- reforming Wall Street and health insurance -- his ideas range from half-baked to bad...
Given this ideological rigor mortis, it’s no wonder some Sanderistas are clueless that on their man’s two signature issues -- reforming Wall Street and health insurance -- his ideas range from half-baked to bad, as smart progressives are pointing out.
Start with financial reform. Sanders calls for breaking up big banks and reenacting Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era law that separated commercial from investment banking activities. The small-is-beautiful shtick misses the real problem: poor regulation. All of Canada’s banks were too big to fail, yet that nation didn’t need a bank bailout, because wise regulation made them behave.
Meanwhile, our economy crashed because both commercial and investment banks trafficked in risky, mortgage-backed securities, something Glass-Steagall, for all its worthiness, wouldn’t have stopped. The real problem, economists say, was lack of oversight of such non-traditional, “shadow banking” activities. The Dodd-Frank financial reform began plugging that hole with some Canada-style regulations, including a consumer protection bureau and rules on derivatives that are working.
Sanders’s call for single-payer health insurance seems, at first blush, more reasonable. After all, it works in other countries. But pushing for it here would mean re-litigating Obamacare. Leave aside the brazen pipedream that that would be doable, when a Democratic Congress wouldn’t even add a public option to Obamacare. Ah, say Sanderistas, but Bernie’s proposed a superior alternative to Obamacare. Actually, he’s proposed mush.
“Sanders promises his health care system will cover pretty much everything while costing the average American almost nothing, and he relies mainly on vague ‘administrative’ savings and massive taxes on the rich to make up the difference.” That critique comes not from a Republican but from liberal editor/blogger Ezra Klein, in an extended takedown.
One telling detail: Sanders calls his plan “Medicare for all” while promising Americans would face no deductibles and co-pays. But Medicare does impose deductibles and co-pays. Indeed, Sanders has said his plan would cover services Medicare doesn’t, yet in other countries, single-payer works precisely because the government doesn’t cover everything, declining enough patient claims to keep health spending on budget.
“To be harsh but accurate,” the Nobel-winning and proudly progressive economist Paul Krugman writes, ”the Sanders health plan looks a little bit like a standard Republican tax-cut plan, which relies on fantasies about huge supply-side effects to make the numbers supposedly add up.”
To suggest we’ll get to universal coverage by improving Obamacare won’t excite Sanders enthusiasts goosed by the candidate’s call for a political “revolution.” Ignorant of history, they don’t know that progressive change in America typically is evolutionary, not revolutionary. And they don’t understand that that can be a good thing; progressives cheered it when Ronald Reagan’s most radical budget and tax cuts were defeated or rolled back by Congress.
If Sanders nevertheless is nominated and a majority of us choose him over an unfit Republican this November, what then? At worst, we’d likely get a placeholder a la Jimmy Carter or the first President Bush, his bad ideas thwarted by lawmakers unwilling to chase misguided reforms. At best, Sanders would run the country the way he ran Burlington: pragmatically, which means he’d occasionally tell his base to stick it.
"Why Bernie Sanders Matters," a new biography, recounts how anti-war activists -- including David Dellinger, the grand old man of the American peace movement --asked then-Mayor Sanders’s permission to protest General Electric’s weaponry work outside its Burlington plant, the entry to which they planned to block. Dellinger thought Sanders, who protested the Vietnam War, might be simpatico.
“I will have you arrested,” retorted the mayor, who felt the action would unfairly target GE’s workers. He made good on his threat.
His most ardent enthusiasts are as cultish as Donald Trump’s.
Having campaigned explicitly on his single-payer and bank planks, President Sanders would find compromising on them politically difficult but not impossible: Barack Obama has governed by settling for half-loaves. That’s what soured the utopian left on him, and the most extreme denizens of Sanders Land are as unforgiving of apostasy as the Tea Party. Krugman, lamenting the reaction of some Sanderistas to his Bernie criticism, writes, “Right now I’m getting the kind of correspondence I usually get from Rush Limbaugh listeners, although this time it’s from the left—I’m a crook, I’m a Hillary crony, etc., etc.”
Krugman, who blogs at “The Conscience of A Liberal,” assures his progressive readers that “only some” Sanders supporters are this extreme. I too know reasoning ones; some are friends, and some contribute to comment threads, along with their crankier compatriots. It might be helpful for the former to have a grown-up chat with the latter, passing along the wisdom Krugman offers dyspeptic Sanderistas: “You might want to think hard about why you’re not just sure that you’re right, but sure that anyone who disagrees must be evil.”
Sanders’s indisputable contribution has been to attract people, youth in particular, to participate in the political system. If he should lose, and if many of his partisans then drop out because they think the system is corrupt, rather than accept the fact that people disagree, part of the Vermonter’s efforts will have been in vain.