Bernie Sanders: The Most Disappointing Senator
Posted by Kevin on February 15, 2010
Many people on the Left would probably look at me like I’m crazy for saying this, but I think Bernie Sanders is a major disappointment as a Senator. I don’t mean to suggest he’s a bad Senator, on the same level as, say, Joe Lieberman, from whom I doubt many progressives expected good things. I hate Lieberman as much as anyone else, but it’s not exactly shocking when he’s an asshole. Sanders, on the other hand, is someone for whom I had high hopes, and it therefore hurts to watch him fall short, as he did most recently in the healthcare debate.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Sanders is a hero to much of the Left, well-known even far from Vermont. That’s why Robert Greenwald gave him a web series, for instance. I noticed this most recently on my trip to back home to Illinois over winter break, when I visited my friends in the Peoria Area Peace Network. Every time his name came up, half the room would gush over him. At one point, I would’ve done it too. I agreed with (and still agree with) his positions and thought it was awesome having a socialist in Congress. As a supporter of third-party and independent candidates I liked that Sanders was an Independent and would potentially be less beholden to the Democratic leadership that so successfully corrals other progressives.
And yet I’m increasingly frustrated with Sanders. He seems more concerned with maintaining cordial relations with the Democratic Party than with supporting progressive policies. Like most progressives in Congress, he talks a good game but doesn’t really follow through on it.
This was something I first noticed in 2008 with his vocal support for Obama. I thought it was odd that Sanders was coming out so strongly for one of the primary backers of the Wall Street bailouts, of which Sanders was one of the primary opponents. And in fact I have yet to see any criticism from Sanders directly targeting Obama on that or any other issue. Instead, he frequently goes out of his way to avoid criticizing Democrats, or pulls his punches with them.
For instance, take this article by Sanders in The Nation. I more or less agree with the recommendations in the article, but notice who Sanders blames things on: the Republicans. The problem with the Democrats, he says, is that they “have absurdly continued to stumble along the path of ‘bipartisanship’ at exactly the same time the Republicans have waged the most vigorous partisan and obstructionist strategy in recent history.” In this and other public statements, he isn’t afraid to mount a frontal assault on the GOP, but when it comes to the Dems the problems get blamed on someone else: Wall Street, lobbyists, Republican obstructionism, and so on.
I question how much of Sanders’ support for Obama and the Dems is calculation versus what he really believes. If he were more hostile to the Dems, it would probably cost him a lot of support from the progressive movement; indeed, his coziness with the Dems is probably a necessary component of his hero status with the movement, as opposed to the outcast status of someone like Ralph Nader.
Also, it’s pretty much an open secret that Sanders has an unofficial deal going with the Democratic Party: he doesn’t overtly antagonize them, and they don’t run anyone against him. Nader discussed this issue in Crashing the Party, his memoir of his 2000 campaign. Sanders had agreed to introduce Nader at a campaign stop in Montpelier (although he wouldn’t give an endorsement). However, Nader also invited Anthony Pollina, then the Progressive Party candidate for governor, to speak at the event. Sanders apparently wasn’t happy about this. From the book:
When I arrived at the bustling high school auditorium, with its tables, volunteers, and incoming audience, Bernie Sanders took me aside and in grave tones expressed his concern at my having invited Pollina to speak with us. Clearly he was worried that the Democrats, who had agreed no longer to seriously challenge Bernie (with one exception in 1996), thereby sparing him a three-way race, would see his association with Pollina as a hostile act to their party and their governor.
I expressed surprise. “Bernie,” I said, “Anthony was once your staff member, and there are no positions that I know where you are in disagreement.”
He acknowledged that but repeated his displeasure nonetheless. Going up to the stage with Bernie, I thought to myself that an Independent should not have to worry about such matters. Bernie graciously introduced me and described our work together. But he left the stage and departed in the middle of my speech before I asked Pollina to come up and give his precise, factual stem-winder. [...]
[Brief aside: As I've written before, Pollina ran for governor again in 2008 (as an Independent, but for all intents and purposes still aligned with the Progressives). Sanders refused to endorse a candidate in that race, saying that he was too busy working to get Obama elected. Pollina came in second, ahead of the Democratic candidate.
Also, I couldn't think of a way to work it into this post, but I stumbled on this 2008 video featuring some sharp criticism of Sanders from Nader. It also features a defense of Sanders from Vermont Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, who inadvertently did a great job of convincing me not to vote for a Democratic Party hack like him if he gets the Dem nomination for governor this year.]
I tend to prefer courageous politicians, and my frustration with Sanders stems from the fact that he isn’t one. Many progressives would disagree with me; they admire “practical” politicians like Sanders and accuse people like me of being naive dreamers. They are adamantly opposed to drawing lines in the sand and instead say things like “We have to take what we can get,” or “We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” They frame the conflict as one of pragmatism versus idealism. Often, though, I think it’s better framed as a conflict of courage versus cowardice, with all too many progressives ending up on the latter side because they won’t stand up for their beliefs. I would argue that all of their “practicality” hasn’t accomplished very much, instead empowering the proponents of fake reform (who, unlike progressives, aren’t afraid to play hardball).
In the healthcare debate, such “practicality” might have sanded a few rough edges off of a terrible bill, but nothing more. A few dials will be fiddled with, but the same system will stay in place; the insurance industry gets a massive subsidy, the pharmaceutical industry gets a sweetheart deal, and we’re no closer to single-payer than we ever were. (Oh, and preserving the Hyde Amendment became the official position of the Democratic Party. That’s one of the less-noticed but most-important parts of the healthcare debate: how the Dems basically dropped all pretense of being a party that supports reproductive justice.) “Practical” progressives shrug and say that it’s the best we can do. My response would be that this is a self-fulfilling prophesy; as Cenk Uygur put it, progressives “got rolled on healthcare because they had no intention of putting their foot down – and everyone knew it.”
Regarding courage, Dennis Kucinich’s conduct in the healthcare debate contrasts starkly with that of Sanders. Kucinich was one of only a couple progressive Dems to vote against the House bill because he thought it was a giveaway to the insurance industry disguised as reform. For the grievous crime of voting his principles instead of his party, he took a lot of shit from progressives. I remember seeing comments on his Facebook page actually accusing him of being right-wing and in league with the GOP. However, he can’t be accused of not trying to improve the bill. If the Kucinich amendment had been part of it (which would have made it easier for states to enact single-payer), I might have been willing to grudgingly support it. But Nancy Pelosi decreed that the amendment be taken out, and “practical” progressives didn’t protest at all.
Another interesting comparison can be drawn with Howard Dean. I was never a huge fan of Dean; I didn’t think he was as liberal as advertised. I did respect how he opposed the war in Iraq before it was fashionable to do so, but didn’t support his campaign. And my from what I’ve heard of his time as governor of Vermont, he was virtually indistinguishable from a moderate Republican. Oddly enough, one of the best descriptions of Dean comes from Bernie Sanders, quoted in David Sirota’s book The Uprising: “If there’s a lesson of the Howard Dean campaign, it is that the younger generation’s definition of ‘progressive’ is anyone who rips apart the other side. Dean was a moderate, yet he became the progressive candidate for president because people get off on stridency.”
So imagine my surprise to find Dean to the left of Sanders on healthcare. Dean, of course, was probably the most prominant member of the “Kill the Senate Bill” movement. And, like Kucinich, he took a lot of shit from progressives and from the Democratic Party.
Sanders, on the other hand, seemed unwilling to take a serious stand on much of anything. One positive thing I’ll say about Sanders is that he was one of the only progressives in Congress that actually extracted something tangible in return for his support, in the form of increased funding for community health centers. And according to that article, he was pushing a version of the Kucinich amendment, although I don’t know what ever became of it. Still, he voted for a bill that forces people to buy private insurance with virtually no cost control mechanism. No amount of money for community health centers will change that fact. It doesn’t change the fact that he backed down from a threat to vote against a bill without a public option. And it definitely doesn’t change the fact that Sanders cowardly withdrew his single-payer amendment in the face of Republican obstructionism (because heaven forbid he inconvenience the Democratic leadership by delaying passage of the bill).
People like Sanders are progressive in their beliefs, but not in their actions. It doesn’t matter very much how progressive a politician’s beliefs are if he or she won’t stand up for them. This is what makes Bernie Sanders no different from most of the other progressive Democrats in Congress who promise great things and then predictably cave in the end. That doesn’t mean I think progressives should never compromise, but the reason no one in Washington takes progressives seriously is because everyone knows that they will accept a bad deal rather than stand and fight for something better. Sometimes it’s better in the long run to fight for what’s right and lose than to cave and pat ourselves on the back for our “pragmatism.”