From the beginning, many and probably most liberal policy wonks were skeptical about Bernie Sanders. On many major issues – including the signature issues of his campaign, especially financial reform – he seemed to go for easy slogans over hard thinking. And his political theory of change, his waving away of limits, seemed utterly unrealistic.
Some Sanders supporters responded angrily when these concerns were raised, immediately accusing anyone expressing doubts about their hero of being corrupt if not actually criminal. But intolerance and cultishness from some of a candidate’s supporters are one thing; what about the candidate himself?
Unfortunately, in the past few days the answer has become all too clear: Sanders is starting to sound like his worst followers. Bernie is becoming a Bernie Bro.
Let me illustrate the point about issues by talking about bank reform.
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The easy slogan here is “Break up the big banks.” It’s obvious why this slogan is appealing from a political point of view: Wall Street supplies an excellent cast of villains. But were big banks really at the heart of the financial crisis, and would breaking them up protect us from future crises?
Many analysts concluded years ago that the answers to both questions were no. Predatory lending was largely carried out by smaller, non-Wall Street institutions like Countrywide Financial; the crisis itself was centered not on big banks but on “shadow banks” like Lehman Brothers that weren’t necessarily that big. And the financial reform that President Barack Obama signed in 2010 made a real effort to address these problems. It could and should be made stronger, but pounding the table about big banks misses the point.
Yet going on about big banks is pretty much all Sanders has done. On the rare occasions on which he was asked for more detail, he didn’t seem to have anything more to offer. And this absence of substance beyond the slogans seems to be true of his positions across the board.
You could argue that policy details are unimportant as long as a politician has the right values and character. As it happens, I don’t agree. For one thing, a politician’s policy specifics are often a very important clue to his or her true character – I warned about George W. Bush’s mendacity back when most journalists were still portraying him as a bluff, honest fellow, because I actually looked at his tax proposals. For another, I consider a commitment to facing hard choices as opposed to taking the easy way out an important value in itself.
But in any case, the way Sanders is campaigning raises serious character and values issues.
It’s one thing for the Sanders campaign to point to Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street connections, which are real, although the question should be whether they have distorted her positions, a case the campaign has never even tried to make. But recent attacks on Clinton as a tool of the fossil fuel industry are just plain dishonest and speak of a campaign that has lost its ethical moorings.
And then there was Wednesday’s rant about how Clinton is not “qualified” to be president.
What probably set that off was a recent interview of Sanders by the Daily News, in which he repeatedly seemed unable to respond when pressed to go beyond his usual slogans. Clinton, asked about that interview, was careful in her choice of words, suggesting that “he hadn’t done his homework.”
But Sanders wasn’t careful at all, declaring that what he considers Clinton’s past sins, including her support for trade agreements and her vote to authorize the Iraq War – for which she has apologized – make her totally unfit for office.
This is really bad, on two levels. Holding people accountable for their past is OK, but imposing a standard of purity, in which any compromise or misstep makes you the moral equivalent of the bad guys, isn’t. Abraham Lincoln didn’t meet that standard; neither did FDR. Nor, for that matter, has Bernie Sanders (think guns).
And the timing of the Sanders rant was truly astonishing. Given her large lead in delegates – based largely on the support of African-American voters, who respond to her pragmatism because history tells them to distrust extravagant promises – Clinton is the strong favorite for the Democratic nomination.
Is Sanders positioning himself to join the “Bernie or bust” crowd, walking away if he can’t pull off an extraordinary upset and possibly helping put Donald Trump or Ted Cruz in the White House? If not, what does he think he’s doing?
The Sanders campaign has brought out a lot of idealism and energy that the progressive movement needs. It has also, however, brought out a streak of petulant self-righteousness among some supporters. Has it brought out that streak in the candidate, too?