Rarely has [Sanders’] thinking translated into actual legislation or left a significant imprint on it, according to Democratic lawmakers and staffers who have worked with him.
Several top Democrats say the difference is a complete contrast to another progressive, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has had a much clearer impact on the financial and inequality discussions in just the three years she’s been in the Senate.
As for taking on Wall Street, one of the issues Sanders is most identified with on the campaign trail, former Democratic Rep. Barney Frank said Warren’s done much more to protect the landmark Dodd-Frank financial regulation law in the years since its passage.
“She has been more effective at blocking efforts to weaken the bill. [Sanders’]mind-set is that there’ll be a revolution,” said Frank, adding that he doesn’t remember Sanders being involved in any of the affordable housing work he did in the House. “He plants his flag and expects that someday everyone will see he was right.”
In the House, leadership aides say Sanders was generally off on his own, essentially ignored by leadership and largely invisible on the floor. In the Senate, where policy discussions are held weekly during conference lunches, Sanders has consistently pushed for more attention to income inequality. Senators and leadership aides say that’s influenced their thinking and, to an extent, their actions.
“On the issues that are his bread and butter issues on the campaign trail, he’s certainly altered the conversation, but in terms of the change and the result, I haven’t seen a lot of it in three years,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who serves with Sanders on the Budget Committee and has endorsed Clinton, though he also describes himself as a Sanders fan.
That’s the same amount of time Kaine has served with Warren. Kaine said the contrast is clear. She’s influenced the debate “dramatically.”
The Sanders Problem became even more obvious when he sat down with the New York Daily News for an in-depth interview.
It did not go well for the senator from Vermont.
Time and again, when pressed to get beyond his rhetoric on the evils of corporate America and Wall Street, Sanders struggled. Often mightily. (The Daily News published the full transcript of the interview today so you can check it out for yourself.)
Sanders’ basic theory was that, as President, he’d advocate for a change and then large groups of people would show up and force the Republican Congress to vote for Sanders’ position. Wow! How come no one ever thought of that before! I knew guys in the Sixties who had pretty much the same theory except that they weren’t running for President.
Secretary Clinton’s interview was quite different.
[Clinton was asked about her plan to reduce college debt:] What follows is an extremely detailed back-and-forth about how states and the federal government coordinate college funding, why tuition is increasing across the country, how families receive student aid and what her plan would do to change all this specifically.
And it’s not just that. The transcript shows Clinton going into similar levels of detail about her plans for economic policy, mass incarceration, and banking regulations, among other topics.
That’s nothing new. Clinton has always been a wonk’s wonk, but in this case, she’s also looking to one-up Democratic rival Bernie Sanders, who was tripped up by questions over policy details when he met with the Daily News editorial board earlier this month.
To Clinton’s detractors, the more collegial tone of the questioning here is a giveaway that the editorial board is not feeling the Bern. To Clinton’s defenders, the exchange shows that she’s paid attention to the policy enough to understand—and explain—the reasons behind her plan as well as the specific details behind how it works.
And, for many women, Senator Sanders’ single-minded focus on class struggle, to the exclusion of intersectional issues such as sexism, reproductive issues, racism, etc. reinforced their memories of those young men in the 1960s who kept saying we had to end the war in Viet Nam FIRST and then, maybe, we might have time to talk about those “less important social issues” that really mattered to women. Preferably after we legalized pot. We’ve lived long enough to see that even women with lots of money are subject to sexism and that even well-to-do African American men can’t get cabs and get hassled by the police. We know enough history to understand that, even as America’s middle class was growing during the 1950s and 1960s, women and people of color suffered. We understand the class struggle, but we also understand that it’s not the answer to all the problems. Senator Sanders never seemed to learn, even after months of this criticism. At the very end of his campaign, he was asked a question about sexism that left him sputtering and mansplaining.
Senator Sanders never seemed to learn, even when it became clear to everyone else, that his campaign was floundering because of its inability to attract the votes of #notall women and people of color. For years the Left has believed that if someone would only run a “real” populist economic campaign, Democrats would win. So Sanders offered free college, $15 minimum wage, single-payer health care, etc. And he lost. By a large margin. Among Democrats.
From beginning to end, Sanders did well with young voters, white voters, and Dem-leaning independents, while Clinton did better with older voters and dominated among African-Americans. Unabashed populism held little magic beyond his core base of support.
We should at least acknowledge that people are risk-averse. Psychologists tell us that people hate the idea of losing what they have. They hate it more than they like the idea of gaining something new. We celebrated Sanders’ big ideas, like single-payer healthcare, and pointed to polls showing that it’s really popular, at least in the abstract. But when it comes down to it, a policy that takes away people’s crappy insurance policies is a hard sell.
And maybe we shouldn’t spit on “incrementalism.” It got us Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and those have worked out pretty well. It might be easier to grind out progress than it is to foment revolution.
We can’t abandon the left-populist agenda in this new Gilded Age. Most of the policies Sanders championed represent a necessary prescription for runaway inequality. But maybe the problem isn’t Kansas — maybe it isn’t the 99 percent voting against their economic interests — but our embrace of a flawed idea of what motivates people to come out and vote. We should at least consider the possibility.
It’s been clear since before George Bush stole two elections that you can’t win a national election and, after this primary season it should be clear that you can’t win the Democratic nomination, unless you can appeal to women and people of color. There are too many of us and too few white men.
In what should have been his concession speech, Sanders, like the out-dated Sixties radical he is, demanded “process” changes: the Democrats must replace convention leaders, adopt open primaries (which studies show actually produce less progressive candidates), and get rid of Superdelegates. (Notably missing from his list of process reforms was a call to discard caucuses, which everyone recognizes are anti-democratic. But, then, Sanders did better in caucuses than in primaries. Which says a lot about his zeal for real change.) Similarly, Sanders wants changes to the party’s platform, more process that has almost no impact on real people’s real lives. When was the last time anyone said, “Gee, I’m so glad we made that a plank in the party’s platform; it ended war/fed children/improved education/etc.?” Never. Debates over the platform remind me of the endless, and completely wasted, hours spent hammering out Principles of the Revolution, Pagan Ethics Codes, and a zillion corporate mission statements.
I recognize this guy. I’ve been working around him ever since the 1960s.
I hope the next progressive candidate learns the lessons of the Sanders campaign. But that will involve shutting up and listening and not lecturing people.
(To be fair, I’ve spent long hours sitting in feminist and Pagan meetings discussing process until I wanted to poke out my eyeballs. But like a number of women my age, I lost patience decades ago with Senator Sanders’ style of white, male, purity politics where the revolution is always just around the corner and will arrive just as soon as we throw all of our support behind this next guy who imagines himself the Next Great Man of History.)
Picture found here.