When Bernie Sanders won election as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in 1981, I called his office to see if there was a story there about a socialist elected official. I was interning at The Washington Post (I didn’t mention the intern part!) and spoke at length to some assistant who answered the phone in the mayor’s office.
I asked about Sanders’ plans, and the aide kept answering with “we” – which I thought a nice glimpse of contagious office socialism. After half an hour, I had enough to check with my editor, so I asked the aide’s name. “Oh,” he said a bit sheepishly, “actually, I’m Bernie Sanders.”
Sanders’ lack of political airs has helped catapult him forward in the presidential race, overcoming a 50-point deficit to just about tie Hillary Clinton in Iowa. He comes across as winningly uncalculated: Other candidates kiss babies; Sanders seems to fumble for a baby’s “off” switch, so he can tell you more about inequality in America. Most politicos sweet-talk voters; he bellows at them.
I admire Sanders’ passion, his relentless focus on inequality and his consistency. When he was sworn in as mayor of Burlington, he declared: “The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer and the millions of families in the middle are gradually sliding out of the middle class and into poverty.” That has remained his mantra across 35 years. And yet, I still have two fundamental questions for Sanders:
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Can you translate your bold vision into reality?
On that, frankly, I’m skeptical. I’m for Medicare for All, but it won’t happen. And if it did, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a bipartisan group, found that Sanders’ sums come up short by $3 trillion over a decade.
Likewise, Sanders says he would prod America’s allies in the Middle East to lead the charge to defeat the Islamic State. Yes, but how? The United States has already been trying unsuccessfully to get these allies to do more against ISIS. What new leverage does he bring?
The Washington Post last month published a scathing editorial headlined “Bernie Sanders’s Fiction-Filled Campaign.” It derided his “fantastical claims” and added: “Sanders is not a brave truth-teller. He is a politician selling his own brand of fiction.”
I think that’s too harsh, for Sanders panders less than other politicians (a very low bar), and he has often staked out lonely positions that turned out to be correct — such as his opposition to the Iraq War. But there remains this open question of how he could achieve his ambitious agenda.
I also wonder if his age may be relevant here: Sanders would be 75 when he took office, by far the oldest person to become president (Reagan was 69; Clinton would be a slightly younger 69). Sanders now is indefatigable, but people often slow down in their late 70s and their 80s.
Another reason for skepticism is his congressional record. In 25 years in Congress, Sanders has been primary sponsor of just three bills that became law, and two were simply to rename post offices in Vermont; he did better with amendments. Clinton wasn’t particularly effective as a legislator, either, but to me Sanders’ record suggests that his strength is as a passionate advocate, not as a dealmaker who gets results.
Can you get elected? Or would your nomination make a President Cruz more likely?
When voters are polled about how they would vote in a general election, Sanders does pretty well. For example, he beats Ted Cruz in the RealClearPolitics average, while Clinton loses to Cruz. But at this stage that’s almost meaningless: Republicans are blasting Clinton while ignoring Sanders. If he were the nominee, he would be savaged.
One particularly sobering item for Sanders supporters: A Gallup poll last year asking voters what kind of person they would be unwilling to consider voting for. Six percent of Americans say they wouldn’t vote for a Catholic, and 7 percent wouldn’t support a black or a Jew. Some 24 percent wouldn’t vote for a gay candidate, and more than a third would refuse to vote for a Muslim or an atheist.
However, the most objectionable kind of person by far was a socialist. Fifty percent of Americans said they would be unwilling to consider voting for a socialist.
Maybe Sanders could convince them that a “democratic socialist” isn’t exactly a socialist, or maybe he could charm some voters into rethinking their beliefs. He has done just that very successfully in Vermont, a state where he now wins elections by overwhelming margins, and skeptics have been underestimating him for 35 years. But if a Democratic nominee starts off with half the voters unwilling to consider someone like him, that’s a huge advantage for the Republican nominee.
So can he accomplish his goals, and is he electable? Lots of us admire Sanders and we would like reassurance.