Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail is quite good. His rap on income inequality and the distorting effects of big money in American politics is persuasive and effective. But as I listened to him speak in Nashua last week, I couldn’t help notice there was something missing from his stump speech: Republicans.
It’s a bit of an odd omission, seeing as Sanders is running for the Democratic nomination for president. But it also speaks to one of the fundamental problems with Sanders’ campaign and his theory of political change.
Now to be sure, it’s not as if Sanders fails to criticize Republicans (he does); it’s that his focus lies elsewhere.
He says, “What we’ve got to do is create a political revolution which revitalizes American democracy; which brings millions of young people and working people into the political process.” In a recent speech on Wall Street, he listed the iniquities of the One Percent, but never mentioned the GOP.
This language is at pace with a campaign message that views money, not Republicans, as the true impediment to transformative political change. But just a cursory review of the past seven years of American politics suggests that Sanders is wrong.
First and foremost, to say that nothing real will happen until we have a political revolution is refuted by history. Since President Obama took office, Congress passed a health care law that expanded access to 20 million people, reformed the student loan program, made massive investments in clean energy and infrastructure, and strengthened financial regulation. What allowed this to happen wasn’t a political revolution. It also wasn’t even the election of a Democratic president. The simple fact is that much of this happened because Democrats, for a brief period, had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and control of the House.
Democrats have enjoyed far less success now that Republicans control Congress. GOP opposition on Capitol Hill is not simply a result of campaign donations from Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers, and Wall Street — three of Sanders’ key bogeymen. It wasn’t these folks that had the most to lose from health care reform; and indeed many on Wall Street and in the business community disagreed with Republican opposition to immigration and watched in horror as Republicans in Congress played chicken with the debt limit. The driver for these efforts is politics and the ideological preferences of Republican politicians and voters.
But the second problem here is that Sanders, though running as a Democrat, is diminishing, even disrespecting, the accomplishments of Democrats. Implicit in Sanders’ call for single-payer health care is that Obamacare is simply inadequate to the challenge of ensuring greater access to care and cutting costs. Implicit in Sanders’ call for greater financial regulation is that Dodd-Frank is inadequate reform. Implicit in Sanders’ call for free higher education is that Democratic efforts to improve the student loan program and ensure free tuition for community college is that these measures are insufficient.
Now of course Sanders would likely suggest that one needs a political revolution to ensure the kind of changes that go beyond these half-measures. But if one believes that, why is Sanders running for president?
Surely, because he serves in the Senate, Sanders knows that a public option in Obamacare didn’t fail because Obama didn’t advocate for it; it failed because Democrats in Congress refused to go along with it.
If it is Congress — particularly Republicans — that has blocked reform, shouldn’t Sanders’ focus be on electing more liberal Democrats to Congress?
I asked his campaign how much time he’s spent over the years helping Democrats get elected to Congress. I didn’t get a response. But it bears noting that Sanders isn’t even a Democrat, and from my admittedly crude Google searches I couldn’t find much evidence that he’s actively campaigned on behalf of Democratic House and Senate candidates.
That stands in contrast to his opponents, Martin O’Malley and Hillary Clinton. O’Malley criticized Sanders during the last Democratic debate for not campaigning on behalf of Democratic candidates in South Carolina. For her part, Clinton campaigned in 20 states at the tail end of the 2014 midterm election. In fact, while Clinton helped to raise $18 million for Democrats in 2015, Sanders didn’t raise a dime for the DNC — and she’s identified helping down-ballot Democrats and rebuilding local Democratic parties as top priorities.
As Sanders, who has been in Washington for decades surely must know, Congress today is a dysfunctional mess, one in which Republicans block pretty much every single reform effort proposed by Democrats. Why would President Sanders be successful in overcoming Republican obstructionism? If he believes the key to creating a political revolution would come through overturning Citizen United or ending the influence of super PACS or moving toward public funding of elections or ending redistricting, how exactly would he accomplish that?
The point of course is that he wouldn’t, not without a solid majority of Democrats in Congress and even then much of his agenda would be open to negotiation.
Now, in fairness, lots of presidential candidates talk about legislation on the campaign trail that has no chance of becoming law. Clinton is just as guilty of this, but she’s not the one talking about a political revolution or being indifferent about electing more Democrats to Congress.
If anything, political change in America rarely begins with the actions of presidents — it usually ends with them, as political leaders, pushed by activists and social movements, are often the last group to jump on a political bandwagon. This has been true from enacting laws to protect workers and the civil rights movement to more modern fights in support of same-sex marriage.
Sanders’ focus on the presidency as a spark for massive political change is a particular affliction that affects the Democratic Party, where more emphasis is placed on electing a president than on the hard work of electing Democrats not just to Congress but at the state and local level, too.
In a sense, this is what is so troubling about what Sanders is doing. It’s not just that he is presenting his supporters with a simplistic understanding of how political change happens, he is merely setting them up for crushing disappointment. If, by some outside chance, Sanders became president, his agenda would be dead on arrival. We’d see four more years of gridlock and four more years of dysfunction. If Sanders really wanted to push his agenda, he would have spent the last few years electing like-minded Democrats to Congress. But I suppose that’s less fun than running for president.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Foll0w him on Twitter @speechboy71.