My Critique of Bernie Sanders’ Campaign

ted-rall-aaron-la-timesSkewed NewsFull disclosure: If New York’s primary were held today — not that it typically has a significant electoral impact, since it’s relatively late on the calendar — I’d vote for Bernie Sanders.

Why Bernie? Because he’s the best this system has to offer: a flawed candidate whose overall message is important enough, and his record free enough of corruption and evildoing, that I can overlook the things I don’t like about his record and fill in the bubble next to his name on the ballot without feeling like a terrible person.

Hillary Clinton is nowhere close to acceptable. She has no message, other than the dead end of liberal identity-politics tokenism: sure would be neat (for her) if there were a first woman president. Her corruption is spectacular: served on the board of Wal-Mart, where she signed off on union-busting, was paid by Goldman Sachs, ran a charitable foundation like a money laundry. Voted for both of Bush’s wars, which killed hundreds of thousands of people, then destroyed Libya and Syria.

A vote for Hillary is a vote against working people, for the plutocrats, and for genocide.

However, just because I plan to vote for Bernie — even though I wrote the book on him— doesn’t mean I can’t see ideological and tactical flaws in his campaign. With that in mind, here’s my report card on the insurgent from Vermont’s bid to date.

The Good

            Paris and San Bernadino aside, any political scientist will tell you that pocketbook issues — voters’ feelings about the economy, whether or not they’re prosperous, and how they perceive their future career prospects — usually determine the outcome of American presidential elections. Assuming there isn’t another 9/11-scale national security threat, the 2016 race will be about Americans’ sense that they’re working harder while earning less, and their anger that they’re still digging out of the 2008-09 financial crisis while the banks who created it are making bigger profits than ever.

No other candidate, left or right, can touch Bernie’s credibility on the economy. For decades, while no one paid attention, he shouted that the American economy was rigged in favor of the billionaire class at the expense of everyone else. Now most people agree.

Bernie owns the number one issue in the campaign.

That, as Donald Trump would say, is yuuuuge. Neither The Donald’s newfound openness to tax people like himself, nor Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s awkward attempt to co-opt Sandersism with words instead of policies, stands a chance at denting the Bern on the number. One. Issue.

The other major metric for voters is character. Love him or hate him, everyone knows Sanders has integrity, which is why the Clinton camp’s cut-and-paste attempts to portray him as an NRA shill are falling flat. “Sanders may be a dreamer, but he’s not dishonorable. Trying to sully him in this way only sullies her,” columnist Charles Blow of The New York Times observes.

For an American politician, being widely perceived as honorable is virtually unheard of. It’s worth a billion dollars in attack ads.

The Bad

            The biggest danger to Sanders’ campaign isn’t failing to get enough black votes in Southern states. (If he wins Iowa and New Hampshire, voters down South who haven’t paid much attention to the race yet will check him out — and he’ll do fine.)

Sanders’ third rail is being perceived as a Johnny One Note candidate obsessed with economic justice at the expense of everything else.

I’ve read everything written about and by Bernie Sanders. But his foreign policy prescriptions are as thin on the ground as U.S. troops in ISIS-controlled Iraq. Whether he’s disinterested in foreign affairs or simply cares more about all matters domestic, he doesn’t talk much about America’s role in the world. Big mistake. Voters expect a robust foreign policy agenda from their president.

As far as I can tell, a Sanders Doctrine is neither militaristic nor isolationist, deploying ground troops and aerial attacks more sparingly than either George W. Bush or Barack Obama. He told me he’d even continue Bush-Obama’s drone assassination program, which is illegal since it has never been authorized by Congress.

If I were running his campaign, I’d spin Sanders’ views as “real pragmatism” to take some air out of Hillary’s hawkish tough-broad sails. But I long for something more.

By 2016 measures Bernie’s foreign and domestic policy agendas are inconsistent. A self-described Scandinavian-style “democratic socialist” doesn’t usually favor wars of choice like Afghanistan (which Sanders supported) or drone killings. Voters assume he’s a pacifist or wish he were — why not become one? I wish he’d align his laudable desire for justice and equality at home for Americans with a push for freedom and self-determination abroad for citizens of other nations. Like: we don’t attack any other countries unless they go after us first.

Sanders is hobbled by some major communications problems. Hillary has exploited his failure to fully explain his healthcare plan by accusing him of wanting to increase taxes, outright lying. “If I save you $10,000 in private health insurance and you pay a little bit more in taxes in total, there are huge savings in what your family is spending,” Bernie tried to rebut at the fourth debate. Not clear enough.

Here, let me help: “Under my plan, your health insurance will be free. Free! The average American will save $10,000 a year. Your taxes will go up, but that tiny increase will be so much less than you’ll save. It’s the same deal almost every other country has, people all around the world love it, and you’ll love it too.”

The Ugly

            Capitalism is less popular than most pundits know; socialism and communism are more popular too. In a general election campaign, however, it is true that Republican SuperPACs will air so many anti-Bernie attack ads featuring hammers and sickles you’ll think you’re at an old May Day parade in Moscow.

Bernie has to do more than explain his “democratic socialism.” Post-Hillary, he has to own it. And sell it to the American people.

“[Democratic socialism] builds on the success of many other countries around the world that have done a far better job than we have in protecting the needs of their working families, the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor,” Bernie said in November. Nice start, but can he erase a century of anti-communist propaganda in 10 months?

To me, the term is political self-mutilation. Sanders isn’t a socialist. He’s a old-school liberal Democrat, like George McGovern was in 1972. It’s ridiculous to have to defend something that you said about yourself when it isn’t true.

Next week, I critique Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

(Ted Rall is the author of “Bernie,” a biography written with the cooperation of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. “Bernie” was released last week.)

For Skewed News, I’m Ted Rall.

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