Assessing Bernie Sanders

February 12, 2016

International financial markets are nervous about the prospects of either a Trump or Cruz presidency on the right, but one can find much about the Sanders phenomenon that is also worrisome.  His much bigger-than-expected victory in New Hampshire demonstrates that at minimum his candidacy presents a serious challenge to Clinton.

Here’s what to like about Sanders.  He’s a very skilled communicator.  He has raised truthful concerns and expresses them in an understandable way to voters.  He’s proven a successful underdog.  He seems authentic, not pretending to offer a better deal for everybody but rather arguing one for the vast majority of people for whom the American dream has been woefully elusive.  His narrowly repetitive message lacks cumbersome detail that could dull what he’s saying.  For campaigning, it’s a great strategy, and everybody likes to see an underdog pulling off an upset.

Here are the problems.

Sanders speaks truth but not the whole truth.

He presents issues that have multiple causes and complicated solutions in one-dimensional terms.

The presidency is an executive position.  He’s been mayor of the biggest city in a small, rural state, but most of his experience is legislative.

He’s 74 but generally healthy according to his doctor.  One really never knows.  Paul Tsongas, a cancer survivor, ran for the Democratic nomination in 1992 and was considered a favorite early in that race.  He claimed to be in full remission, also releasing medical reports, but died in January 1997.  Tsongas then looked hardier then than Sanders does now.  No president thus far has begun a presidency at nearly the age that Sanders would be.  Reagan was 69 and may have already had early Alzheimers before leaving office.  William Henry Harrison (68) died a month into his presidency. Nobody else was even 66; Sanders would be 75.

Sanders is full of facts when identifying problems but fuzzy with details when discussing the cost of his prescriptions and how he intends to get legislative approval for much of his agenda.  Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama were outsiders, too, and found congressional resistance to be much more formidable than they imagined as candidates.

Sanders joined the Democratic Party late in his political career.  His vote against authorizing the use of U.S. military force against Iraq in October 2002, which he brings up often, was cast as the sole “independent” in the House of Representative.  The label “independent” sanitizes Sanders self-identity as a Social Democrat in the mold of such parties in Europe.  As a Social Democrat, Eugene Debs, ran for president in 1900, 1904, 1908 and 1912.  It was the era of progressivism in the United States, yet Debs with a national name for himself much greater than Sanders had prior to 2015, captured just 0.62%, 2.98%, 2.82% and 5.99% of the popular vote in those years.

On foreign policy, Sanders oppose U.S. engagement in nation building and believes history shows that only bad things have come of such efforts.  He hasn’t spelled out what use of military force he might support, if any.  He claims to admire Roosevelt as a former great president, but it’s legitimate to wonder if he might have withheld support for Roosevelt’s Lend Lease-Act of March 1941 as 30 senators in fact did, including 21% from the president’s own party.  Sanders claims superior judgement for his “nay” vote on Iraq and frequently mentions that Senator Clinton voted “yes.”  So did 28 of the other 49 Democrat senators at the time, including Biden, Bayh, Feinstein, Schumer, Harkin, Edwards, Kerry, H. Reid, Leiberman and Cantwell.  When questioned on foreign policy in general, Sanders seems to fall back on canned stump speech language and avoids straying into the specifics of the question.  It sounds like he would require a steep learning curve in the area that U.S. presidents are mostly engaged.  More generally, Sanders actually appears to answer moderator questions less than the other politicians do.  That’s not being a straight shooter.

What exactly is meant by “political revolution?”  Are there such things as non-political revolutions?  The term generally means regime change usually accompanied by violence.  And like “nation building” bad things often result from well-meaning revolutions.  Examples include the French Revolution of 1789, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Iranian Revolution of 1979.  How have the spring revolutions of North Africa and the Middle East this century turned out?  ISIS claims its cause is political revolution.  In America, the Confederacy was an unsuccessful attempt at political revolution and dragged the union through its costliest war in population lives lost.  Political evolutions come and go each time power shifts from one party to another.  It’s doubtful that true political revolution can be waged without a bitter fight, major changes to the U.S. constitution, and consequences that no investor wants to be near.

Finally, there is the body language of Sanders.  He shouts, finger poking the viewer and face getting redder as he works himself up into a fit of righteous anger.  When someone else is speaking, he makes faces of great impatience.  He shifts his weight back and forth and does whatever he can to distract the audience from listening to what his opponent is saying including raising his finger to cue the moderator that he has something much more important to say.  There is an aura of passive-aggressive behavior about Sanders that’s unsettling to the citizens of the world, if not U.S. voters.  Imagine as commander in chief that Sanders, or either Trump or Cruz for that matter, are all that stands between another day or a nuclear winter.  That’s not a prospect that gives one comfort.

Copyright 2016, Larry Greenberg.  All rights reserved.  No secondary distribution without express permission.



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