The Unashamed Socialist Steps Up

As April was ending, as it does each year, Baltimore had eaten up all the news cycles. When the desperate and outraged people of a major American city have finally had enough, and when there’s the right precipitating event, riots in the streets would be the big news story of the day, and of the week. The earthquake in Nepal may have killed ten thousand people, and CNN loves to cover natural disasters – the only thing they still do well – but CNN was all Baltimore, all the time. So was everyone else. Nepal is far away, and the other big news story of the day, the surreal oral arguments at the Supreme Court about legalizing gay marriage, or not, was barely mentioned. That’s odd, because what happened there was odd – covered here, with a brilliant comment from Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta – not that it mattered.

It was all Baltimore. Mike Huckabee was shouting from the rooftops that the Supreme Court can’t overrule God – actually he was in Houston shouting to a crowd of Hispanic evangelicals – but no one noticed that he was saying that God’s law trumps man’s law, the Constitution in this case. Rand Paul said he’d look into whether the military is planning to take over the Southwest – joining Texas’ governor in that. They have heard things. The word is that that US Military is planning to put Texas under martial law and drop death squads into small towns to assassinate conservatives, or something or other. Rand Paul’s conspiracy friend Alex Jones has been saying that’s what’s going on. Obama’s like that, and he’s the commander-in-chief, after all.

One never knows. You can’t be too careful. And both these guys really, really want to be president. And they got lucky. The nation’s obsession with the events in Baltimore – there will be more riots soon, and people have taken to the streets in New York and Philadelphia and Cincinnati too – provided Huckabee and Paul with cover. Anyone could say anything. No one would notice.

That made it an odd day for this:

Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, announced Thursday that he was running for president as a Democrat, injecting a progressive voice into the contest and providing Hillary Rodham Clinton with her first official rival for the party’s nomination.

Avoiding the fanfare that several Republicans have chosen so far when announcing their candidacies, Mr. Sanders issued a statement to supporters that laid out his goals for reducing income inequality, addressing climate change and scaling back the influence of money in politics.

This does change things:

Mr. Sanders’s bid is considered a long shot, but his unflinching commitment to stances popular with the left – such as opposing foreign military interventions and reining in big banks – could force Mrs. Clinton to address these issues more deeply.

Hillary Clinton won’t be able to get by on likely sounding empty bullshit. Bernie Sanders will hold her feet to the fire, but he sees more than that:

On a patch of grass known as the Swamp outside the Capitol, Mr. Sanders later articulated before a horde of journalists and a few curious onlookers why he was running. He acknowledged that he faced big financial challenges but said that, as a politician with the “most unusual political history of anyone in Congress,” he was optimistic about his chances.

“We’re in this race to win,” he said.

Additionally, accessibility will be everything, along with sticking to the issues:

“This is not going to be, ‘I’ll give you two questions and see you later,'” an adviser said, in an apparent reference to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign style.

Mr. Sanders, 73, has said that he will not run a negative campaign and that he has never run an attack ad in his life. A self-described “Democratic socialist” and grumpy grandfather-type, Mr. Sanders has promised to steer the Democratic Party toward a mature debate about the issues he is passionate about.

But of course the real issue is money:

He has $4.6 million available for his 2018 Senate re-election campaign that he can use for a presidential run, and Mr. Sanders said he hoped to galvanize a movement of small donors to give himself a fighting chance. “We’re not going to raise $2 billion, and we’re not going to raise $1 billion,” said Mr. Sanders, who added that he did not intend to use the help of a “super PAC.” “I do not have millionaire or billionaire friends.”

In a speech at the National Press Club in Washington on March 9, Mr. Sanders said he fantasized about getting 3 million supporters to each donate $100 to his campaign. The total, he joked, would be about a third of what the billionaire Koch brothers planned to spend to elect a Republican president.

That’s fine, or what must be, but more than a few folks were happy:

“Having Bernie Sanders in the race, calling for populism, will help open the political space for people like Hillary Clinton and others to take bold stands,” said Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

Yeah, but this guy thinks bigger than that:

If anything, Mr. Sanders, who embraces his reputation for being gruff, abrupt and honest, promises to be bold. Recalling that he has defeated Democrats and Republicans with far greater financial resources in his long career, Mr. Sanders suggested that his campaign should not be taken lightly.

“I think people should be a little bit careful underestimating me,” he said.

Who is this guy? Linda Feldmann offers this:

Senator Sanders supports a Canadian-style single-payer health-care system, sometimes called “Medicare for all.” He wants to break up America’s six largest banks. He urges deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions through strict regulation. And he wants to get money out of politics.

“We can’t continue having a nation in which we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major nation on Earth, at the same time as we’re seeing a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires,” Sanders said in his announcement speech on Capitol Hill Thursday. “So, that’s the major issue.”

But he’s not a total leftie:

Last year, National Journal ranked Sanders as only the 37th most liberal senator for 2013, though that result no doubt says more about the ranking system than about Sanders’s politics.

More relevant is how Sanders stacks up against former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the front-runner (by a mile) for the Democratic nomination. In a Crowd Pac analysis, Sanders is more liberal than Mrs. Clinton on 14 out of 15 major issues. The two issues on which the gap is greatest are banking and defense/foreign policy.

The real difference is the money. More than sixty percent of his campaign contributions come in small-dollar amounts – between one dollar and two hundred dollars – while only ten percent of Clinton’s do. He’s not her, and he’s not exactly Obama:

Both men opposed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which Clinton voted to authorize; Sanders remains opposed to foreign military intervention, while Obama’s record in office is mixed. Sanders supports US sanctions against Russia over its meddling in Ukraine, and Obama’s negotiations aimed at preventing Iranian nuclear weapons capability.

Like Obama, Sanders is a liberal on social issues, such as gay marriage and abortion, and supports the president’s executive actions on immigration. Sanders opposes the Patriot Act and its reauthorization, and parts company with Obama on NSA surveillance, slamming “out-of-control intelligence agencies.”

On the economy, like Obama, Sanders favors more investment in infrastructure and a higher minimum wage. But on international trade, he and Obama are polar opposites – as the president is with most Democrats. Sanders calls Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership with Pacific Rim nations, “a disastrous trade agreement designed to protect the interests of the largest multinational corporations at the expense of workers, consumers, the environment, and the foundations of American democracy.”

He is who he is, and some of us can relate:

The National Journal profile of Sanders describes a classic child of the ’60s. Sanders grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of a Jewish paint salesman who had emigrated from Poland. At the University of Chicago, Sanders got involved in “radical leftist politics,” and moved to Vermont, where he worked as a carpenter. Soon he got into politics, where he ran for the US Senate as a candidate of the socialist Liberty Union Party and got just 2 percent of the vote.

After several more tries at political office, Sanders finally succeeded in 1981, becoming mayor of Burlington – Vermont’s largest city (population 42,000 in 2010) – by just 10 votes. Suddenly, T-shirts proclaiming the “People’s Republic of Burlington” were all the rage.

Some of us remember that with a smile, but this guy didn’t stop there:

Two years ago, Sanders wrote of the weekend he spent in Vermont with the Danish ambassador to the United States, holding town halls around the state.

“Large crowds came out to learn about a social system very different from our own which provides extraordinary security and opportunity for the people of Denmark,” Sanders wrote in a Huffington Post column headlined, “What can we learn from Denmark?”

Today, Sanders is the longest-serving Independent in congressional history. He is running for the Democratic nomination, he says, because gaining access to the ballot in all 50 states is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. He also wants to take part in the Democratic primary debates.

That’s fine:

“MoveOn members have cheered on Sen. Sanders for years as he’s stood up to the Wall Street banks and wealthy interests who have rigged the game in Washington and knee-capped our country’s middle-class and working families,” said Anna Galland, executive director of MoveOn.org Civic Action, in a statement.

Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz also welcomed Sanders and the contributions he and the other candidates will make to “a healthy dialogue about the future of our party and our nation.”

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza comments on that:

There is a plausible path by which Sanders becomes a nagging worry to Clintonworld. In a field absent Elizabeth Warren, Sanders will become the pet candidate of the most liberal wing of the party. There is little question that no matter what Clinton says or does as a candidate, there will always be a segment of the Democratic base that does not (a) trust her or (b) believe she means what she says on things like income inequality. …

Sanders will be the beating heart of the party while Clinton will, always, be its head. He will function as Clinton’s liberal conscience in this race – always pushing and prodding her to go further, to say more that will please the left.

She’s already doing that, but this might worry her:

Sanders will keep the Clinton Foundation in the news. Asked by reporters Thursday about the eponymous foundation that Clinton and her husband have run since she left the State Department, Sanders said: “The Clinton Foundation … that’s a fair issue.” In an interview with ABC’s Jon Karl before the announcement, Sanders was more definitive: “Do I have concerns about the Clinton Foundation and that money?” he said. “I do.”

When he talks about the Clinton Foundation, Sanders does so in the context of GOP mega-donors like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers – painting them all with a we-can’t-let-billionaires-buy-the-process brush. The more of that he does, the worse for Clinton.

And no matter what Clinton does in terms of campaign finance reform – and she’s signaled she is planning to make it a centerpiece of the campaign – she can’t (a) rewrite the history of the donations the Clinton Foundation accepted or (b) discredit Sanders’s long record as someone who has walked the walk on getting money out of politics.

And there’s this:

We like close contests. We are not a people prone to blowouts. And so, at some point in mid-November, is it possible that Clinton looks slightly less impressive than Democrats had hoped – or the media gets bored writing the Clinton juggernaut story – and there’s a turning to Sanders?

That’s possible, and that should worry Clinton:

When (and if) people turn to Sanders, what they will find is not a wacko but rather a principled liberal who has been consistently banging the drum on things like campaign finance reform and inequality for decades.

Add it all up and you see why the Clinton folks could actually have a conversation sometime late this fall that starts: “How do you want to handle this Bernie Sanders problem?”

Patrick Caldwell notes that the problems are starting already:

Unlike Hillary Clinton, his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders didn’t use a splashy, big-budget video to announce his campaign. Instead, the Vermont senator opted for a series of one-on-one television interviews Wednesday followed by a low-key launch event outside the US Capitol Thursday morning. “I believe that in a democracy, what elections are about are serious debates over serious issues,” he said Thursday. “Not political gossip, not making campaigns into soap operas. This is not the Red Sox vs. the Yankees. This is the debate over major issues facing the American people.”

Pundits are already dismissing Sanders – who has, in the past, described himself as a socialist rather than a Democrat – as a long-shot candidate with little chance of defeating Hillary Clinton for the Democrats’ 2016 nomination. But Sanders is already beating Clinton on one metric: Answering questions from the press.

He has nothing to hide:

Earlier this week, National Journal’s Zach Cohen counted all of the times Clinton has answered press questions since she announced her presidential campaign on April 12. Cohen counted just seven “answers” – about half of which ignored the actual question. When asked about whether a super-PAC would support her campaign, she said, “I don’t know.” When she was quizzed about her chances in Iowa, she said “I’m having a great time, can’t look forward any more than I am.”

Sanders, who needs all the press attention he can get, kicked off his presidential campaign by fielding a barrage of questions from TV news reporters in interviews Wednesday. Over the course of one five-minute exchange with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Wednesday, Sanders answered seven separate questions. The trend continued at Sanders’ campaign launch event Thursday morning, where he took six more questions.

What, she’s actually going to have to answer questions now? That hardly seems fair. Politicians don’t do that. This guy will be a pain.

At least he has often described himself as a democratic socialist, not really a Democrat, and she can hit him with that. Socialist is a dirty word, but at Slate, Michael Kazin thinks that may not work:

Bernie Sanders has decided to take the plunge into forbidding waters for the same reason earlier socialists campaigned for the office: to protest the current order and promote major reforms his rivals either oppose or support only when doing so juices their standings in the polls.

Sanders is going to compete in Democratic primaries so he can debate Hillary Clinton and attract media that would otherwise ignore a passionate, white-haired independent with an uncompromising left-wing agenda. Not that he has much choice: Since the 1950s, the United States hasn’t had a third party capable of disseminating its anti-capitalist politics to the public at large.

During the first half of the 20th century, however, radicals like Sanders could join the Socialist Party of America, which boasted more than 100,000 members at its height. The SPA ran thousands of candidates for offices both high and low. It even managed to elect a couple of congressmen as well as dozens of mayors in locales as diverse as Milwaukee; Berkeley, California; and the little railroad town of Antlers, Oklahoma. Many of the reforms the party advocated ended up becoming law.

There’s a history here:

Beginning in 1900, Eugene Victor Debs ran five times for president, never gaining more than 6 percent of the popular vote. The charismatic former union leader crisscrossed the nation, stretching out his long arms as if to touch the admiring crowds whom he urged to destroy “the foul and decaying system” and erect a “cooperative commonwealth” in its place. But Debs’ platform also included such “immediate” demands as women’s suffrage, a progressive income tax, an eight-hour day, a ban on child labor, and a vote for the residents of the District of Columbia that no longer seem radical at all.

After Debs’ death in 1926, Norman Thomas made six of his own quixotic runs for the White House, becoming the one homegrown socialist whom most Americans could identify. A former Presbyterian minister, Thomas preached the same utopian gospel as Debs had. “I am not the champion of lost causes, but the champion of causes not yet won,” he liked to say. But Thomas also stumped for reforms that were a great deal more popular than the abolition of private property. His 1932 platform included a minimum wage, government-funded pensions for the elderly, unemployment compensation, and national health insurance. By the end of the decade, Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Congress had enacted each of these proposals, save the last one, which the physicians’ lobby condemned as “socialized medicine.”

So there you have it:

Socialists can’t win, but they can change things, and Bernie Sanders can change things, like Debs and Thomas once did. Hillary Clinton has begun to talk, very carefully, about seeking solutions to four decades of economic inequality. The Republicans who aspire to be president mostly blame the problem on broken families and lousy public schools. But Sanders is perpetually on the attack, armed with an unvarnished class-conscious message that, until the emergence of Occupy Wall Street, had long been absent from the public square. “The true greatness of a country is not measured by the sum of its millionaires and billionaires,” his senatorial website announces. “Rather, a great nation is one in which justice, equality, and dignity prevail for all.”

Everyone knows what’s coming:

Count on Sanders to fight for reforms that will discomfort the comfortable. He will demand a minimum wage of $15 an hour, legislation to make it easier to organize unions, a big increase in Social Security payments largely paid for by higher taxes on the wealthy, the aggressive development of renewable energy sources, and an end to the dominion of big money in politics. The senator from Vermont is one of the sponsors of a constitutional amendment that would overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case. He might even call for prosecuting and jailing the people whom he blasted in a marathon 2010 speech as “the crooks on Wall Street whose actions resulted in the severe recession … whose illegal, reckless actions have resulted in millions of Americans losing their jobs, their homes, [and] their savings.”

Sanders won’t spare the Democratic front-runner either. “On the same day that Hillary Clinton visited three homes of wealthy Manhattan benefactors to raise an estimated $1 million in campaign funds,” his website announced this week, “Sen. Sanders gave a Howard University audience a sneak preview of a campaign platform that is squarely aimed at ‘the billionaire class.'”

She’d better not get comfortable with vaguely populist pleasantries:

As long as she runs far ahead in the polls, Clinton can avoid responding to such rhetoric. But as the unrequited longing for Sen. Elizabeth Warren demonstrates, many liberal activists thrill to tough, left-wing populist talk and endorse most of the policies Sanders favors. Just as no Republican can win the White House without the enthusiastic support of the Tea Party and the evangelical right it will be difficult for a Democrat to triumph without the kind of people who may not know much about Sanders but will like much of what he says. They may pressure Clinton to echo it, too.

That’s a good thing:

A century ago, Debs told Americans it was “better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don’t want and get it.” The raspy-voiced Vermonter, who still speaks in a Brooklyn accent, will base his campaign on that same logic. Bernie Sanders is not going to win. But in losing he may do more to advance his causes than if he had never run at all.

Of course Michael Kazin, who teaches history at Georgetown, wrote American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation a few years ago, so he’s very happy at the moment.

Hillary Clinton might not be – but there is something she can do right now. Talk about Baltimore! Everyone else is. But that’s not the only big news story of the day.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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3 Responses to The Unashamed Socialist Steps Up

  1. John Le Pouvoir says:

    Yes!

  2. Rick says:

    In the 2004 Georgia primary, I cast a vote for some guy from Vermont who had no chance of winning — in fact, he had already dropped out of the race by primary day. I liked Howard Dean because I agreed with just about everything he said, even though I knew he was saying it with the confidence of a candidate who had absolutely nothing to lose, confidence which only happens to candidates who have absolutely no way to win.

    Also, I knew full well that I’d be voting in the general election for John Kerry, who was by that time the front-runner. I liked Kerry because he was the first candidate of either party to suggest the Iraq War might have been a mistake — even though I felt he was being tagged by the Democrats for the wrong reason. They were backing him because they thought they could sell him as the “peaceful warrior”, someone who had courageously gone to fight in Vietnam, despite his doubts about the war — unlike his Republican opponent, who had wiggled out of having to serve in a war he was actually in favor of. I felt the Democrats’ reasoning — an attempt to win over Vietnam veterans who would ultimately turn on Bush, coming to see him as a rich-kid draft-dodger — was faulty.

    And I was right. Most of those guys are conservatives and would choose any unscrupulous draft-dodging conservative over a peace-loving veteran, especially one with scruples out the ying-yang, any day of the week.

    I suppose that, along with the votes of other Georgians who backed him in his lost cause, mine was a symbolic thank-you to Dean for bringing rationality and common sense to the race — and maybe one that Dean himself might even notice back home in Vermont — but was also a message to the Democrats to take what he stood for seriously. And now, thanks to this column, I’m thinking of doing it again:

    I just might vote for Bernie Sanders in the primary. In fact, the way I feel at this moment, I probably will.

    But only if I feel he’s not in danger of actually beating Hillary, since she, in my opinion, has a chance of winning the general election, and Bernie doesn’t. Odd but true, I think a black person has a better chance of being elected president of this country than any socialist does. After all, if you vote against a black man, you could be called a racist, but what nasty names can anyone call you if you vote against a socialist?

    There’s also been the suggestion that Hillary needs someone to practice debating with before meeting up with her Republican opponent after the conventions. Bernie can indeed offer that — even though most of what he would bring to the discussion would be unlike anything she’ll likely find in her general election opponent.

    I suppose there’s also the danger that, just as the Tea Party candidates might pressure Jeb Bush, for example, toward the right, Bernie could force Hillary somewhat to the left, and this could hurt her later. On the other hand, any movement on her part to the left might, first of all, align her closer to American public opinion polls on various issues, which are actually to the left of where she’s been standing, something that could not only strengthen her position with the base of her own party but stand her in better stead with the general electorate next year.

    And who knows that a flesh-and-blood opponent might not force Hillary to cut the arrogant cuteness act, and actually answer the press, instead of volleying a question the other day from a reporter who asked her if there’s anything to the charges of shady contributions to the Clinton Foundation, with a cocky remark that the Republicans have inevitably found a way to make her whole campaign about her. No kidding. Say what you will about her, but a great communicator she is not.

    But while I’m assuming that, when and if Bernie loses the nomination (he will), he won’t bolt the party and launch a third-party bid, I am a bit worried that too many of his disgruntled followers will go there instead and end up supporting some Ralph Nader-type spoiler, or even just decide to stay home on election day, which is the last thing we need. My point is, despite my lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton, I do not want the Democrats to lose this one.

    The thought of conservative Republicans, despite their well-earned national unpopularity, holding both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court and the White House, just gives me the hives.

    Rick

  3. I love this post — politically astute and fine takeoff on the latest media obsession (not that it doesn’t need a lot of attention)

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