More than a few Democrats I love and respect are considering supporting Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary election. The Democratic field is all of two people, and the other candidate is a household name with exceptional political pedigree—so the decision to vote for a relatively unknown “democratic socialist” Senator from Vermont is not the path of least resistance. If you’re a Bernie fan, I assume you’ve chosen to support him because you’ve read, you’ve studied, and you’ve differentiated. If you’re on the fence, I ask that you do just a bit more reading, studying, and differentiating before you buy into “feeling the Bern.” I respectfully submit the following six questions for your consideration in this effort.
A note before we jump in: I’m a proud Hillary supporter. I have a Hillary 2016 bumper sticker and I’ve contributed to her campaign. I hope to write more over the primary season about why I support her, and why I think she’s—hands down—the best person for the job. However, this piece is not about why I’m a Hillary fan. Instead, my objective is to challenge good Democrats—folks who I believe care about our chances of actually winning in 2016—on why Bernie.
Is he an effective politician?
Bernie has been an elected official for decades, but he’s worked in Washington, D.C.—where he’d arguably need to be most effective as our next president—since 2007. In that time, he has authored and passed one substantive piece of legislation. That bill, S.893, the Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2013, is a good one. But it’s only one bill in nine years. Per the political scientists who study these things, another measure of success on Capitol Hill is counting up how many bills an elected official cosponsors that actually become law. In these nearly 9 years, Bernie has cosponsored 33 bills that became law.
Not bad, but let’s contrast this to Hillary. She was in the Senate for about the same amount of time as Bernie—9 years—and passed 3 of her own bills, while 74 that she cosponsored became law. Of importance in this comparison, Hillary accomplished her legislative goals during W.’s tenure in the White House, and Bernie has had the privilege of working with a friendly president who would be way more inclined to sign his legislation. Speaking of Obama, he was in the Senate for 2 terms, passed 2 of his own bills, and cosponsored 29 that passed.
Bernie’s relative inability to pass legislation in Washington D.C. with a friendly president translates to a track record of ineffectiveness when you compare him to Hillary. He might be saying all the right things and you might align with his policy positions, but it’s all for naught if he can’t get anything done once elected.
Does he have friends?
After serving in one of the most prestigious institutions in American politics for nearly a decade, none of Bernie’s colleagues in the Senate have endorsed his candidacy for president. http://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/2016-endorsement-primary/ In contrast, 30 sitting Senators have come out in support of Hillary, added to a long list of governors and Members of Congress. Tellingly, Bernie’s own state delegation—both Senator Pat Leahy and Vermont Governor Shumlin—have endorsed Hillary. Bernie’s fellow Senators and his state delegation are the folks that he works most closely with—and the ones he’ll need to lean on to get anything done if his campaign is ultimately successful. With no endorsements and seemingly no friends among his colleagues, my read is that Bernie has not prioritized cultivating professional relationships that are vital to being effective as a president.
Now, I can imagine this lack of support could be perceived positively by some in the Bernie camp. Bernie’s an outsider! He doesn’t need friends in Washington, D.C.! The political elite support Hillary because they’re scared not to! Think back to Barack Obama’s first candidacy and how he created waves by “stealing” endorsements from Hillary among elected officials in Washington, D.C. Barack’s colleagues believed in his message, but they also liked him after working closely with him. They were willing to go out on a limb to endorse his candidacy because of the relationships he cultivated. All to say, it is possible to be a progressive “outsider” and also well-liked and supported by the insiders you’ll need to move forward your policy priorities as president. Bernie is not that candidate.
What do you know about him?
Even though Bernie has been on the national stage for a while, most Americans—including his supporters I’ve been talking with—know very little about him beyond policy stances and soundbites. I knew nothing, so googled “Bernie Sanders” and “family.” I found this Politico article that sheds light on Bernie’s early days in politics, wives, kids—and most importantly, disinterest in talking about his personal life.
His reticence to create a narrative around who he is as a candidate beyond the issue he cares about should be a gigantic red flag for anyone thinking this man can actually win a national election. It is unfortunate that a candidate’s personal life is important in presidential politics, but it’s our reality. The fact that Bernie has been married multiple times or had a kid out of wedlock doesn’t really set him apart from other politicians—or even most Americans—but it’s vital that he address it head on and craft a narrative that allows voters to get to know him and like him as a person. Policies are important, but they don’t win elections: people do. If you like Bernie, I’d ask questions about the man behind the message—come next year, the Republicans most definitely will.
Is he really your political kindred spirit?
If Bernie is looking good because the 2016 presidential election is all about the issues, then I’d urge you to take this short, online political quiz. It’s an over-simplified Internet game, and we can all acknowledge these aren’t exactly accurate going in, but in this instance, I think it’s an effective indicator of political kindred spirit-ness.
As an example, I’m a progressive feminist and a bleeding heart Democrat, and this quiz tells me I align with Bernie 97%… and with Hillary 96%. When there are major issues like effectiveness, character, and electability, my read is that 1% does not a kindred spirit make.
Perhaps your results see more differentiation and your Bernie score is 5% higher than Hillary. 10%? Fine. But the Democratic field is as thin as it is diverse on policy issues. We’ve got two candidates who really aren’t that far apart when it comes down to it. And policy stances being equal, I’m putting my support behind the candidate with a proven track record who is campaigning to win.
Why can he be inspirational?
He’s fired up. He’s on message. His daily emails include words like “political revolution.” I get it—Bernie’s a good, progressive candidate with a good, progressive message. And I fully admit that Hillary is often stiff and appears more scripted on the campaign trail. But could she really roll up her sleeves at a podium, hair all askew, spit flying from her mouth in a passionate rant and still be considered a viable candidate?
The answer is obviously no and the reason has to do with our different expectations of men and women politicians, particularly on the stump. Hillary is bound by expectations we don’t have of Bernie, and I think this is at play in how “inspirational” Americans are finding her as a candidate. It’s worth considering the impact of what the New Yorker’s Allyson Hobbs calls the “enthusiasm gap,” and how willing we are to consider Hillary’s candidacy in this light.
Keep in mind that great candidates can make lousy presidents, and less inspired candidates can be incredibly effective leaders. And because I can’t not say it, don’t kid yourself that well-attended speeches in progressive cities mean Bernie will win Ohio and Florida for us come November 2016.
It’s all about the money?
I’ve heard from a handful of Bernie supporters that one of the most pressing reasons to support him is his campaign against “big money” in politics and unwillingness to play the “big money game” considered necessary to win the White House. This in contrast to Hillary, who is accepting money from icky folks like lobbyists for the prison industrial complex. I could write pages upon pages about money in politics, so am offering very abridged thoughts here.
Let’s get one thing straight: it is illegal to accept a campaign donation in exchange for voting a certain way or making certain policy decisions. That’s unethical and politicians rightly go to jail for it. In addition, both Bernie and Hillary support overturning Citizens United, and both say they’ll use this policy position as a litmus test for choosing any new Supreme Court nominees. So, the real difference is how they’re fundraising.
There’s no denying that Bernie is raising lots of low-dollar donations and Hillary, while similarly fundraising amongst us low-donor types, is relying on bundlers and larger checks to hit her big time fundraising goals. She has these high dollar goals because she’s looking to win an election against a party backed by billionaires. We’re in a game of big money, and to get elected, you need to raise big money. Bernie wants to win the presidency on small-dollar donations? I want a pet unicorn and a free trip to Hawaii. Unfortunately, this election cycle, even Hillary’s efforts to fundraise via bundled contributions won’t touch the impact the other side’s super PACs will have on the race. It’s almost like Bernie is currently operating in a vacuum. While it may seem revolutionary now, in the long run it feels like either naivety or a lack of commitment to winning the race.
One other quick point: the evil prison lobbyists are professional fundraisers. They earn their paychecks in part by fundraising for candidates for elected office so they can tell their clients how much “influence” they have. But these guys aren’t really Hillary supporters. They’re just hedging their bets by contributing to the candidates they think will win—if you dig, you’ll see the same lobby shops are giving money to both sides of any given race. Right now, they’re donating to Hillary because they think she’ll win. If Bernie wins the Democratic primary, private prison lobbyists are not going to sit out the race—they will just start donating to his campaign. Will that mean that he won’t support prison reform policies? All to say, although we’d like it to be, it’s not as simple as judging a candidate by the checks they’re cashing.
My goal here was to respectfully raise the red flags I see in Bernie’s candidacy and pose questions that I’d want answered before casting my ballot for him. I’m sure there are issues I’ve missed, and positions I’ve perhaps mischaracterized. I look forward to feedback and, moreover, a robust political discussion as we move toward the Democratic debates this fall and early caucuses next year.
The Pleasant Progressive