So I like Bernie Sanders as a person quite a bit, and I love a lot of what he’s trying to sell. I wish we lived in a world where politics worked the way Bernie wants them to work. I wish we lived in a world where politics even had the potential to work that way. The problem is, when pushed on how he’s going to try to change the system from The Way It Is to The Way It Should Be, he’s really got nothing.
And this really became apparent to me last Thursday, listening to an extended interview he did with Chris Matthews. It’s a great interview that I would recommend reading the full transcript or watching the interview, even if you can’t stand Matthews (and much as I want to like him, I often find him a bloviating talking head).
Things start to get really interesting when Bernie is asked about how he would get a replacement for Justice Scalia appointed, given Mitch McConnell and his colleagues’ attempts to completely undermine the nomination process. Bernie first says that he would do what he could to see a nomination hearing for whoever President Obama nominates. Then he goes into a brief diatribe about working to “revitalize American democracy on issue after issue,” fighting “Republican obstructionism” and the fact that “[y]ou have a Congress that does the bidding of the billionaire class.”
Great. I’m with you on these ideals one hundred percent, Bernie. But, as Mathews then pushes - President Obama hasn’t been able to do a lot of the same things Bernie is now campaigning on, so can Bernie do it? Bernie responds by saying that the young people will demand these changes. That they’ll vote the Republicans and others out of office if they don’t flow with the changes. The Young will save us all!
But Bernie, Matthews asks, what evidence do you have that this will work?
And this is where Bernie falls apart. Because he says his evidence is that this is the way change happens. Which is right. But he cannot show how he will cause this monumental change to occur. How he will get 60 senators on his side. How he will solve the ever-increasing antagonism of politics. It comes back to the Youth and their turnout for him.
Only his turnout is less than Obama’s. The numbers at the polls, the only place the numbers matter, don’t have his back. And the Republicans simply don’t care about the Youth in any event. Obama had the Youth, more so than Bernie ever will. But the Republicans know the Youth don’t generally vote in their direction, so they didn’t need to cave to Obama’s policies and his Youth movement.
Unable to counter the fact of the decreased turnout, Bernie tries to analogize his revolution to the relatively fast change we’ve seen in attitudes towards gay marriage, but this analogy fails. That change happened at the state level, and only eventually worked its way up to the federal level after it increasingly swept from state to state. Bernie’s major policy initiatives, however - college debt, campaign finance reform, tax and welfare reform, true universal healthcare - are federal issues, and even where there are state-level initiatives that could start the ball rolling on these, they’re not initiatives that would ever come from the President.
And even putting that aside, except for the Church and religious nuts, there really wasn’t anyone financially incentivized to fight against the gay rights groundswell. The things Bernie wants to attack, however, have many with strongly vested financial interests who will fight back hard. So with that, how do you raise taxes on Wall Street and the billionaire class, Bernie? How do you get reforms that require additional tax dollars passed, Bernie? How do you get college debt reform passed, Bernie?
Chris, you and I look at the world differently. You look at it inside the beltway. I’m not an inside the beltway guy. I’m an outside the beltway guy…. I have no doubt that as President of the United States I can rally young people and their parents.
Again, the facts of Democratic voter turnout create nothing but doubt. Also, this “outside the beltway” thing? Bullshit. Bernie was in the House of Representatives for 16 years, and has been a Senator for 9 years. That’s over a third of his 74 years.
Now look. This is not to suggest that I like the state of politics, the animosity between the parties, the uncivil state of discourse and the increasing inability to reach compromise. I hate it with every inch of my being. And I applaud Bernie for trying to be above it and not of it. But absent a legitimate and true revolution, it’s nonsense to think that you can change the system any way but from within it. And Bernie does not, has not, and cannot play within this system. Which is why he has personally accomplished very little in the third of his life that he has spent in Washington. And which is why he can now offer nothing but pie-in-the-sky promises.
Meanwhile, in a recent Planet Money, the NPR folks took several presidential campaign initiatives, including some of Bernie’s, and put them to 20-odd economists on both sides of the political aisle:
It’s worth giving this piece 20 minutes of your listening time, but here are the relevant Bernie highlights:
Free College - one economist thinks this is a good idea while 20 think it stinks (with one undecided), because it doesn’t help poor students who can’t afford college as much as plans that specifically target those students without unnecessarily giving a windfall to the many who don’t need the financial assistance.
Infrastructure Bank - while strengthening our infrastructure is a good thing, only 10 economists thought this “bank” approach was a good idea, as opposed to more directly funding infrastructure, with 4 against it and 8 undecided.
Raise the Minimum Wage to $15 - while folks like the idea of raising the minimum wage, going to $15 across the board is “economically crazy,” and only 2 of the economists thought this was a good idea, with 4 undecided and 16 against it.
Tax on Financial Transactions - Bernie’s idea of taxing stocks and bonds transactions was another no-sell, even to economists on the left who are fine with multiple ways of using taxes to raise revenue.
Higher Taxes on Private Investment Funds - Here, finally, is a Bernie plan that has majority support from economists (“the panel loved this” with 20 in support, and only 2 undecided), closing a crappy tax loophole. Interestingly, Trump and Clinton also support this plan, so the one economist-approved plan of Bernie’s isn’t even unique to his platform.
So putting aside the fact that the Youth are unlikely and probably incapable of giving Bernie the backing he needs, many of his plans also don’t make economic sense. And he hasn’t come forward with any counter-argument, compelling or otherwise.
To be clear, this isn’t about Hillary. I like Hillary a lot, though I recognize her own faults and baggage. But if Bernie could back his rhetoric up, if he could actually show me why his idea are good ideas and more importantly how he would make these ideas come to be, he could have my vote. But I won’t throw my vote to someone who simply talks the talk with no ability to show how he’ll walk the walk.
That said, if Bernie were to somehow, improbably, win the nomination, he will have my vote in November (take note Bernie bros - it’s possible to be against a candidate in the primaries but still support them in the general). But it won’t be a vote of confidence. Because in a world where Bernie is running against (likely) Drumpf, it’s the same political hogwash on both sides. Drumpf can’t tell you how he’ll build his wall or kick out all the Muslims, because of course he can’t. And Bernie can’t tell you how he’ll make college free for everyone or fix our tax system, because of course he can’t. They’re both snake oil salesmen. Bernie will get my vote because the promises of what his snake oil will do, even if they’re just made up of turpentine and mineral oil, are promises I can at least get behind, unlike what Drumpf is selling. But make no mistake, neither emperor is wearing any clothes.