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opinion | Michael A. Cohen

Bernie Sanders will learn: Candor and winning campaigns don’t mix

Senator Bernie Sanders delivered remarks during a town meeting Wednesday in Portsmouth, N.H.
Senator Bernie Sanders delivered remarks during a town meeting Wednesday in Portsmouth, N.H.Getty Images

I like Bernie Sanders. Really, how can you not? He’s got a cool Brooklyn accent; he’s got that perpetually rumpled look and frankly, America could use more cranky, iconoclastic, and unabashedly socialist politicians.

But what I find less appealing is the hosannas being sung about Sanders since he announced his candidacy for president. Bernie is a “straight shooter. He is the rarest of Washington animals,” writes Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone, “a completely honest person” . . . “who cares.” Even Ted Cruz, whose politics could not be more different says of the Vermont senator, “I’ll give him credit for candor.”

Over at Daily Kos, Sanders is the only “candidate who has never been wishy-washy about campaign finance reform” — not like that Hillary Clinton who is raising millions, even billions to get elected president.

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While I don’t doubt that all of these nice words about Sanders are true, they are their own form of political contrivance — the public persona of a politician in one of the most liberal states in the country, who is in a safe Senate seat and, as he begins his presidential run, has virtually no chance of capturing the White House.

The fact is, when you don’t need to get 60 million Americans to vote for you — and you don’t need to raise tons of money to be competitive — it’s pretty easy to be a straight shooter. It’s even easier to take popular policy positions — like free college education, single-payer health care system, more taxes on the wealthy, breaking up banks, publicly-funded elections, and higher Social Security benefits — when you don’t have to worry about passing any of them into law. Quite simply, being a politician is easy when you don’t have to worry about getting elected, which puts a damper on being a “completely honest person.”

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has a far better chance of making progress on all these issues. But she needs to get elected first.

For better or for worse, good national politicians are opaque, not direct. They portray themselves as uniters, not dividers, and try to be accessible to as many voters as possible. That often means having to shade, obscure, even occasionally mislead. None of this will be unfamiliar to Americans who must navigate the minefield of office politics — as well as “politics’’ at home.

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It’s why success in politics is not about winning the award for being the most candid. “I’m a politician. That is my profession,” the thrice-failed aspirant for the Republican presidential nomination, Nelson Rockefeller, once noted. “Success in politics, real success, means only one thing in America” — and that’s being elected president.

Again, this isn’t a criticism of Sanders. I think he understands pretty well that he is the longest of long-shots to win the nomination. He’s running to raise issues that he believes are important and that he wants to see the Democratic Party embrace. There are few better places to do that than the presidential campaign trail – and I applaud him for it. But enough with the over-the-top praise. Sanders is doing what insurgent candidates have the freedom to do.

Ultimately, he won’t have much ability to do all the things he’s promising. Clinton, on the other hand, may very well get that chance — but to do that she’ll have to make dozens, nay hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of political decisions that are necessary to get elected in the first place. And that’s fine. She’s a politician. It’s her job.

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Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.

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