SANDERS OVER THE EDGE
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