San­ders’ siren song in Demo­cratic de­bate

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Jonathan Bern­stein E- mail Bloomberg View colum­nist Jonathan Bern­stein at jbern­stein62@ bloomberg. net.

Hil­lary Clin­ton, Bernie San­ders and Martin O’Mal­ley held their fi­nal pre- Iowa, pre- New Hamp­shire de­bate Sun­day night. It was sur­pris­ingly il­lu­mi­nat­ing.

Their de­bates have gen­er­ally been less in­ter­est­ing than those for the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion. Af­ter all, while the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion re­mains up for grabs, the Demo­cratic nod has been safely in Clin­ton’s grasp for a year now. The only thing at stake ap­pears to be­whether San­ders can win in enough places early on that con­tested pri­maries will con­tinue into the spring. If Clin­ton wins closely fought bat­tles in Iowa and NewHamp­shire— states in which San­ders has a de­mo­graphic ad­van­tage— the rest of the cal­en­dar will be sym­bolic at best.

And yet, Sun­day night re­ally showed two di­rec­tions the party could go af­ter Barack Obama.

Clin­ton and O’Mal­ley say: More of the same. It’s not just that Clin­ton ties her­self as closely as pos­si­ble to both Obama and to Bill Clin­ton. Af­ter all, both of those Democrats re­main wildly pop­u­lar with Demo­cratic vot­ers. It’s that both Hil­lary Clin­ton and O’Mal­ley for­mu­late their cam­paigns ex­actly the same way most lead­ing Demo­cratic can­di­dates have for gen­er­a­tions. Here’s my five- point plan, they say. Here’s my pro­gram for that. Here’s why bills Democrats have passed have helped work­ing and middle- class peo­ple and here’s how I in­tend do more and bet­ter.

San­ders— who, to be fair, did put out a new sin­gle- payer health- care plan over the week­end— is quite dif­fer­ent. Again and again Satur­day night, San­ders ba­si­cally said: None of any­thing any of us says makes any dif­fer­ence at all un­less we end the in­flu­ence of what he calls “mil­lion­aires and bil­lion­aires.” Re­gard­less of the ques­tion, for San­ders the real an­swer is cam­paign fi­nance re­form and a “political rev­o­lu­tion.”

Both Clin­ton and O’Mal­ley sup­port cam­paign fi­nance re­form. They sup­port it, how­ever, as one item on the list of spe­cific, pro­gram­matic re­forms they be­lieve are needed. For San­ders, on the other hand, what he con­sid­ers “cor­rup­tion” re­ally does take prece­dence over ev­ery­thing else.

The clear­est ex­am­ple of the two ap­proaches was at the very end of the de­bate, when the can­di­dates were asked if there was any­thing they had wanted to say but didn’t get a chance. O’Mal­ley had sev­eral is­sues. Clin­ton raised the tainted wa­ter in Flint, Mich. And San­ders? He sim­ply re­peated what he had said all night: “Very lit­tle is go­ing to be done to trans­form our econ­omy and to cre­ate the kind of middle class we need un­less we end a cor­rupt cam­paign fi­nance sys­tem which is un­der­min­ing Amer­i­can democ­racy.”

I’m no fan of that way of think­ing for many rea­sons. It ig­nores the pos­si­bil­ity that cit­i­zens can hon­estly dis­agree about things. San­ders re­peat­edly says that the Amer­i­can peo­ple agree with his sub­stan­tive agenda, not­with­stand­ing that Repub­li­can can­di­dates have been win­ning an aw­ful lot of elec­tions re­cently.

The worst thing about it, how­ever, is that it leads eas­ily to the mess the Repub­li­cans are in now with re­gard to pol­icy. Just as Repub­li­cans who win elec­tions are im­me­di­ately sus­pected to have “goneWash­ing­ton” and be­trayed True Con­ser­va­tives, it’s easy to imag­ine a fu­ture Demo­cratic Party in which Democrats who win elec­tions are sus­pected of be­tray­ing True Lib­er­als ( or per­haps even True So­cial­ists) be­cause they took money from the wrong groups.

In real life, all politi­cians in the U. S. political sys­tem are go­ing to come up short of their prom­ises— not be­cause they’re cor­rupt, but be­cause the sys­tem is de­signed to fa­vor of the sta­tus quo. In­cre­men­tal change is all that is pos­si­ble. And even that is so dif­fi­cult that a party must be ready with se­ri­ous, de­tailed plans when­ever it does get an op­por­tu­nity to en­act them. Plac­ing “cor­rup­tion” at the cen­ter of the party’s political agenda would be a ma­jor step away from ac­tu­ally get­ting things

done in the fu­ture.

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