SAN­DERS OVER THE EDGE

The Economic Times - - Saturday Feature - Paul Krug­man

From the be­gin­ning, many and prob­a­bly most lib­eral pol­icy wonks were scep­ti­cal 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: Mr. 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.

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 cen­tred not on big banks but on “shadow banks” like Lehman Brothers that weren’t nec­es­sar­ily that big. And the fi­nan­cial re­form that Pres­i­dent 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 Mr. 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 Mr. San­ders is now 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 Mrs. 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 Mrs. Clin­ton is not “qual­i­fied” to be pres­i­dent.

Is Mr. 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?

SAY A LIT­TLE PRAYER

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