Friday, October 09, 2015

The Promise Of A Bernie Sanders Presidency-- And The Threat To Hillary Clinton And To The Republican Party


No, Bernie is not rehearsing for the CNN debate with Hillary. Very much unlike her transactional political career, he's spent decades working on the policy agenda that is setting the part of the country that's paying attention on fire. He's an actual leader; she's a p.r.-driven weathervane.

Margaret Talbot's mammoth Bernie profile for the New Yorker this week, is the most extensive political biography of him I've ever seen. "There’s something admirable," she wrote, "about Sanders’s reluctance to attribute his political beliefs to autobiography: he doesn’t want voters thinking that his commitment to redistributive economics stems from anything other than a deep-seated sense of fairness. He has neither the conventional politician’s instinct for sharing relatable details nor the contemporary left’s reverence for personal testimony. Still, he’s running for President, and so he has reluctantly cracked open the door to his private life, even if his supporters are drawn to him, in part, because of that reluctance." I doubt she set out to make a compelling case for Bernie. But that's still how it reads, at least to this long-time Bernie fan.
In Portland, Sanders took the stage, a little hunched in a gray suit jacket. His flyaway white hair was largely subdued, but his face turned pink with exertion as he delivered an hour-long speech, during which he did not use a teleprompter and barely consulted a sheaf of loose yellow papers on the lectern. “America today is the wealthiest country in the history of the world,” he declared. “But most people don’t know that, most people don’t feel that, most people don’t see that-- because almost all of the wealth rests in the hands of a tiny few.” Sanders signals his moral ferocity by choosing words like “horrific” and “abysmal” and sonically italicizing them, as in “This grotesque level of income and wealth inequality is immoral.” He was born in Brooklyn, and his unreconstructed borough growl reminds voters that he stands apart from the “oligarchy.” His hand gestures are as emphatic as a traffic cop’s. When he delivers speeches, he’ll often jab his finger at the lectern, as though he were enumerating the plagues at Passover.

Most of his policy proposals have to do with helping working people and reducing the influence of the wealthy. He would like to break up the big banks, create jobs by rebuilding infrastructure, and move toward public funding of elections-- and provide free tuition at public universities. (This program would be subsidized, in part, by a tax on Wall Street speculation.) He wants to end the “international embarrassment of being the only major country on Earth which does not guarantee workers paid medical and family leave.” In the speeches I heard, Sanders rarely discussed foreign policy, though he spoke with conviction about climate change and the need for the U.S. to set an example for Russia, India, and China by using fewer fossil fuels. He tends to sound both doleful and optimistic, like a doctor who has a grave diagnosis to deliver-- and no time for small talk-- but is convinced that he can help his patient heal.

...Sanders’s message is particularly potent for young people who are struggling financially. Several weeks after the rally, I wrote to Dawn York, and she said that she had been thinking about “how refreshing it was to have someone point out to us that, as hardworking Americans, some things aren’t a privilege, they are a right. . . . I’m self-employed, I started my own business three and a half years ago, and my husband works full-time for Whole Foods--and we barely get by. We own a home, we both graduated from college, and we work more than forty hours a week, and we can barely put oil in our heating tanks in the winter. We have no savings and no way to financially handle any hiccups that may come our way. And I had to be reminded that it shouldn’t be that way.”

Garrison Nelson describes Sanders as being “more from the nineteen-thirties left than the sixties one.” In June, when NPR’s David Greene pressed Sanders on whether he embraced the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” the Senator got irritated. “It’s too easy for quote-unquote liberals to be saying, ‘Well, let’s use this phrase,’” he said. “We need a massive jobs program to put black kids to work and white kids to work and Hispanic kids to work. So my point is, is that it’s sometimes easy to worry about which phrase you’re going to use. It’s a lot harder to stand up to the billionaire class.”

Sanders does not argue that greater economic equality would end racism, but for most of his career he has subsumed discussions of race under class. Van Jones, a criminal-justice reformer and a former Obama adviser, derides that approach as “trickle-down justice”-- and told Salon in August that he had been “warning the white populists in the Party, behind the scenes, for several months, that their continued insistence on advancing a color-blind, race-neutral populism was going to blow up in their faces.”

On July 18th in Phoenix, Sanders appeared at Netroots Nation, an annual conference of progressive activists. Before he began his remarks, demonstrators flooded the room and began chanting “Black lives matter!”

After taking the stage, Sanders told the moderator, “Whoa, let me talk about what I want to talk about for a moment!” A few minutes later, when protesters again interrupted the proceedings, he addressed them directly: “Black lives, of course, matter. I spent fifty years of my life fighting for civil rights and for dignity! But if you don’t want me to be here that’s O.K. I don’t want to outscream people.”

A week later, in his Senate office, Sanders sounded chastened. “The issues these young people raised are enormously important,” he said. The video showing the arrest of Sandra Bland, the African-American woman who died in a Texas jail, had just been released, and Sanders seemed shaken. “It impacted my night’s sleep,” he said. “I don’t sleep that great, and it made it even worse.” He went on, “It’s hard to imagine if Sandra Bland was white she would have been thrown to the ground and assaulted and insulted.” Sanders, speaking more broadly about police violence directed at black people, said, “I plead guilty-- I should have been more sensitive at the beginning of this campaign to talk about this issue.”

On July 25th, Sanders addressed the annual convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in Baton Rouge. “I’m aware that many of you don’t know me very well,” he said. His tone was friendlier than usual, and he even made a joke: “I was the best and worst congressman Vermont had.” (Vermont has only one.) One of the convention’s listed sponsors was Koch Industries, and it was the first time I saw Sanders give a speech in which he did not inveigh against the company’s billionaire owners, who lavishly support conservative causes. He had folded in a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., though, which worked well for him: “Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”

In August, Sanders’s campaign issued a racial-justice platform that recommended police reform, federal funding for police body cameras, a ban on for-profit prisons, and the elimination of mandatory-minimum jail sentences. The platform also included a broad defense of voting rights. (Among other things, Sanders proposes making Election Day a federal holiday.) The document is divided into sections called “Physical Violence,” “Political Violence,” “Legal Violence,” and “Economic Violence,” strongly echoing the language and priorities of Black Lives Matter. At the same time, the platform reasserted Sanders’s core philosophy: “We must simultaneously address the structural and institutional racism which exists in this country, while at the same time we vigorously attack the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality which is making the very rich much richer while everyone else-- especially those in our minority communities-- are becoming poorer.”

Van Jones said of Sanders, “He’s shown tremendous character in his willingness to engage and grow and change.” But Vermont is ninety-five per cent white, and Sanders needed to establish stronger bonds with black voters. No African-American leader, Jones observed, would be surprised to get a call from the Clintons. Sanders was “a reliable civil-rights vote, but not somebody who has been connected to these communities, to these kids and their neighborhoods. He’s not showing up to the funerals.”

...[When Sanders was elected mayor of Burlington] “Monied interests were shaking in their boots at first. Yet Sanders turned out to be a popular and effective mayor, and more pragmatic than some might have predicted. True, he travelled to Nicaragua, where he met with Daniel Ortega and found a sister city for Burlington. (Vermont reporters dubbed the mayor and his coalition the Sandernistas.) But he also presided over economic development that transformed the city into a hipper, more forward-looking place-- one of those small cities that appear on lists of the most livable. And he did so without the kind of wrenching gentrification that he abhorred. His administration devised creative solutions for preserving affordable housing, including a community land trust that enabled low-income residents to buy homes. It became a model for other cities. Sanders also resisted a developer’s plan to turn the derelict Lake Champlain waterfront into a cluster of high-rises, promising instead public access and open space. Today, the waterfront has a park, a bike trail, a science center, a community boathouse, and limited commercial development. He created a youth office, an arts council, and a women’s commission, and during his tenure minor-league baseball came to Burlington. Business leaders learned, Nelson said, “not to fear him.” Jim Condon, a Vermont state legislator and a former reporter who used to cover Mayor Sanders, wrote of him recently, “He got a lot done, but not through the art of gentle persuasion. Bernie’s style was top-down and confrontational.” Still, he was reëlected three times.

...Sanders’s congressional career did not get off to a promising start. As an Independent, he had a hard time landing committee assignments. Garrison Nelson recalls, “Bernie shows up in Washington in 1991, there’s still a chunk of Southerners in the Democratic caucus, and they do not want Bernie in the caucus.” Sanders didn’t help matters by giving more than one interview denouncing Congress. “This place is not working,” he told the Associated Press. “It is failing. Change is not going to take place until many hundreds of these people are thrown out of their offices.” He went on, “Congress does not have the courage to stand up to the powerful interests. I have the freedom to speak my mind.”

Some of his colleagues returned the favor. Joe Moakley, a Massachusetts Democrat who was the chairman of the influential House Rules Committee, told the A.P. reporter, “He screams and hollers, but he is all alone.” Another Democrat from the Massachusetts delegation, Barney Frank, was even more blunt. “Bernie alienates his natural allies,” he said. “His holier-than-thou attitude-- saying, in a very loud voice, he is smarter than everyone else and purer than everyone else-- really undercuts his effectiveness.”

Nelson told me that, when he ran into Sanders in Burlington, he warned him not to keep “pissing in the soup,” adding, “You’re our only representative!” According to Nelson, Sanders said, “Gary, you have no idea how totally corrupt it is.” Nelson responded, “Bernie, I’m a historian of Congress. Give me a year, I’ll give you a scandal.”

In time, Sanders became slightly more discriminating in his criticism, and made some allies. He was one of the founding members and the first chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which has grown steadily over the years, from six members in 1991 to seventy-one today. The C.P.C. produces an annual progressive budget as an alternative to the one that actually passes; it tends to operate mainly as a conscience of the left. He worked hard with Democrats to keep jobs in his state and campaigned to strengthen federal regulation of milk prices, because it helped Vermont dairy farmers. (He once wrote that he’d developed “an almost emotional attachment” to these farmers, despite not knowing “one end of a cow from the other” when he arrived in the state.) In national matters such as curbing the excesses of the Patriot Act, Sanders found that he could at least try to make incremental changes through the amendment process; in 2005, a Rolling Stone profile dubbed him “the amendment king.”

At home, Sanders became a symbol of Vermont’s cussed uniqueness, as affectionately regarded as a scoop of Chunky Monkey. He was reëlected to the House seven times. And his ascent to the Senate, in 2006, was stunning: he trounced the Republican candidate, Richard Tarrant, one of the wealthiest men in the state, by thirty-three percentage points. But when Sanders has run for the Vermont governorship he hasn’t done well. Jim Condon, the state legislator and former reporter, notes, “That’s telling. People here like him making a lot of noise in Washington for a little state-- they’re happy to send a human hand grenade down there.” But they don’t necessarily want Sanders running the state.

Since joining the Senate, Sanders has received the most attention for his gestures of defiance-- such as his marathon oration against tax cuts for the wealthiest, which was published in book form as The Speech: A Historic Filibuster on Corporate Greed and the Decline of Our Middle Class. Still, he has been a very active legislator. An analysis by the nonpartisan Web site GovTrack shows him tied for sixth place among senators who introduced the most bills in the 2013-14 session of Congress, and in tenth place for the number of bills that made it out of committee. The site also noted that he tends to gather co-sponsors for his bills only among Democrats.

Yet Sanders has proved himself capable of bipartisan dealmaking. In the 2013-14 session, he was the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and though he did not serve in the military-- and typically opposes military interventions-- he has been a strong advocate for veterans. Last year, he worked with an unlikely ally, the Arizona Republican John McCain, to hammer out a compromise to reform the ailing V.A. health system. The bill provided five billion dollars in additional funding to hire and train new medical staff, made it easier to dismiss V.A. officials for incompetence, and allowed veterans to go outside the system if the wait for a doctor was too long. Sanders explained to reporters that it was far from the bill he would have devised on his own: “It opens up a fear of privatization, which I strongly, strongly am opposed to.” But he sounded pleased with his ball-passing skills: “When you become chairman, you can’t just say, ‘This is the way I want it.’”

...In mid-September, Sanders spoke before the weekly convocation attended by the student body at Liberty University, the evangelical school in Lynchburg, Virginia, founded by the Reverend Jerry Falwell. Unlike many liberal élites, Sanders does not seem to prefer talking to people who share his views; because he is not an especially convivial person, he does not require conviviality from others. Sanders relishes the opportunity to enter enemy territory, where he believes that he can find secret allies.

At Liberty, he began by acknowledging that his positions on women’s reproductive rights and gay marriage are strongly at odds with the views of many evangelical Christians. He did not make knowing jokes about these differences: as usual, Sanders was dead serious. The students were poker-faced but polite. He sought common ground by adding new valences to one or two of his standard arguments. When he called for federally mandated, paid family leave to bring America in line with the rest of the world, he dwelled a little on the preciousness of the bond between mother and baby. He was rewarded with applause. But the occasion also played to the prophetic side of Sanders-- the register in which he can sound like an Old Testament preacher. Unlike his slicker rivals, Sanders is most at ease talking about the moral and ethical dimensions of politics. “We are living in a nation and in a world-- the Bible speaks to this issue-- in a nation and in a world which worships not love of brothers and sisters, not love of the poor and the sick, but worships the acquisition of money and great wealth.” His voice broke-- all those stump speeches had been leaving deep scratches on the record. But his outrage was unmuffled. Staring at the crowd, he quoted the Hebrew Bible, his fist punctuating nearly every word: “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.”
Yestreday at Salon, Conor Lynch write about how Bernie is "exposing free market parasites" and transforming politics. That's not exactly what any of the more careerist-oriented candidates are doing in the presidential race. Young people are already convinced that "socialist" or "democratic-socialist" is not a dirty word that disqualifies anyone from leading the country. And the Hillary Clinton team has had no choice but to pay attention-- and to react to Bernie's policy agenda. This week Tuscon Congressman Raúl Grijalva and a small handful of progressive candidates endorsed Bernie for president. Believe me, Clinton noticed. And if other progressive leaders like Keith Ellison, Mark Pocan, Barbara Lee were to join them... she'd even notice more. Yesterday Greg Sargent wrote that Clinton would be immediately rolling out "a raft of new proposals to curb Wall Street risk-taking and boost accountability for financial misconduct. Among them, the Wall Street Journal reports, are a tax on certain types of short term speculation and an extension of the statute of limitations on prosecuting financial crimes" and that "[t]his comes after Clinton came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal yesterday, which Sanders has been attacking since he entered the Democratic primary. Clinton also recently came out against the Keystone pipeline, another Sanders target... Clinton seems to be working to ensure that there is very little policy distance between the two of them."
This prompted Joe Scarborough to remark: “He’s really good.” Yes, he is. Sanders’ message is clear: Skyrocketing inequality is an urgent threat to the country. It’s the result of deep and intractable structural problems with the economy that require correction through major government intervention-- via unabashedly redistributive policies that include big tax hikes on the wealthy to fund massive social investments. Our economic problems are enormous and call for major structural change. Nibbling around the edges just won’t do.

What is now clear from Sanders’ candidacy is that there is a very real and durable constituency inside the Democratic Party behind this diagnosis and the need for extremely ambitious policies to address it.

And yet, according to the Journal report, the new Clinton proposals will not embrace some of the key goals sought by Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, such as breaking up the big banks or reinstating a Glass Steagall wall between commercial and investment banking. Nor is Clinton likely to embrace a $15 minimum wage or $1 trillion in new infrastructure spending.
As for prepping for the debate, that's exactly what Clinton has to do, and do and do. Or she won't even know what she's promised and not promised. Even Chuck Todd seems to be noticing that her promises are not worth taking too seriously. He called her flip-flop on the TPP "unbelievable," and he meant it in a very literal way. "For starters," he wrote, "there was the time as secretary of state when she said TPP 'sets the gold standard in trade agreements.' In her book, Hard Choices (which she sent out to all the GOP candidates), she called TPP 'the signature economic pillar' of the Obama administration's strategy in Asia. And then there's the wiggle room she left for herself, as well as the fact that she hasn't even fully reviewed the trade accord because it's not public yet. 'I'm continuing to learn about the details of the new Trans-Pacific Partnership, including looking hard at what's in there to crack down on currency manipulation, which kills American jobs, and to make sure we're not putting the interests of drug companies ahead of patients and consumers. But based on what I know so far, I can't support this agreement,' she said in her statement yesterday. And because this opposition is so unbelievable, it feeds every negative stereotype about her-- despite the short-term political benefits." As Ann Coulter said, she's the candidate the Republicans want to run against. Bernie isn't. And if you'd like to help make sure they don't get what they want... here's where you can help Bernie and the progressives stepping out to back him.

Not Hillary's issues

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At 8:45 PM, Blogger tamtam said...

I'm a Bernie fan myself and while I would love to see him elected, I don't think it will happen. The establishment will cook the books any way they can to keep the status quo. Still, Hillary would be wise to pay attention to him. She can make Bernie her VP once she gets chosen for the nomination.

At 6:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Van Jones lost my respect a long time ago with his collapse on ecological advocacy. I happen to believe that Van Jones' favorite cause is Van Jones, and he's done nothing since he left his Obama-appointed office except promote Van Jones


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