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My Critique of Bernie Sanders' Campaign

A Commentary by Ted Rall

Full disclosure: If New York's primary were held today, I'd vote for Bernie Sanders.

Why Sanders? He's the best this system has to offer: a flawed candidate whose overall message is important enough, and his record free enough of corruption and evildoing, that I can fill in the bubble next to his name on the ballot without feeling like a terrible person.

Hillary Clinton is nowhere close to acceptable. Her corruption is spectacular: She signed off on union-busting while on the board of Wal-Mart, was paid by Goldman Sachs, ran a charitable foundation like a money laundry, voted for both of Bush's wars, then destroyed Libya and Syria.

However, just because I plan to vote for Sanders -- and I wrote the book on him -- doesn't mean I can't see ideological and tactical flaws in his campaign.

The Good
Paris and San Bernadino aside, any political scientist will tell you that pocketbook issues determine the outcome of elections. Assuming there isn't another 9/11-scale threat, the 2016 race will be about Americans' sense that they're working harder while earning less, and their anger that they're still digging out of the 2008-09 financial crisis while the banks are making bigger profits than ever.

No other candidate, left or right, can touch Sanders' credibility on the economy. For decades, while no one paid attention, he shouted that the American economy was rigged in favor of the billionaire class at the expense of everyone else.

Bernie owns the No. 1 issue in the campaign.

That, as Donald Trump would say, is yuuuuge. Neither The Donald's newfound openness to tax people like himself, nor Democratic rival Hillary Clinton's awkward attempt to co-opt Sandersism with words instead of policies, stands a chance at denting the Bern.

The other major metric for voters is character. Love him or hate him, Sanders has integrity, which is why Clinton's attempts to portray him as an NRA shill are falling flat. "Sanders may be a dreamer, but he's not dishonorable. Trying to sully him in this way only sullies her," columnist Charles Blow of The New York Times observes.

The Bad
The biggest danger to Sanders' campaign isn't failing to get enough black votes in Southern states. (If he wins Iowa and New Hampshire, voters down South will check him out.)

Sanders' third rail is being perceived as a one-note candidate obsessed with economic justice. His foreign policy prescriptions are as thin on the ground as U.S. troops in ISIS-controlled Iraq. Whether he's disinterested in foreign affairs or simply cares more about all matters domestic, he doesn't talk much about America's role in the world. Big mistake. Voters expect a robust foreign policy agenda from their president.

As far as I can tell, a Sanders Doctrine is neither militaristic nor isolationist, deploying ground troops and aerial attacks more sparingly than either George W. Bush or Barack Obama. He told me he'd even continue Bush-Obama's illegal drone assassination program.

If I were running his campaign, I'd spin Sanders' views as "real pragmatism" to take some air out of Clinton's hawkish sails.

By 2016 measures, Sanders' foreign and domestic policy agendas are inconsistent. A self-described Scandinavian-style "democratic socialist" doesn't usually favor wars (Sanders supported Afghanistan) or drone killings. Voters assume he's a pacifist or wish he were -- why not become one?

Sanders is hobbled by communications problems. Clinton has exploited his failure to fully explain his health care plan by accusing him of wanting to increase taxes. "If I save you $10,000 in private health insurance and you pay a little bit more in taxes in total, there are huge savings in what your family is spending," Bernie unsuccessfully tried to rebut at the fourth debate.

Here, let me help: "Under my plan, your health insurance will be free. The average American will save $10,000. Your taxes will go up, but that tiny increase will be so much less than you'll save. It's the same deal almost every other country has, people around the world love it, and you'll love it, too."

The Ugly
Capitalism is less popular than most pundits know; socialism and communism are more popular, too. In a general election campaign, however, it is true that Republican super PACs will air so many anti-Sanders attack ads featuring hammers and sickles you'll think you're at a Moscow May Day parade.

Bernie has to do more than explain his democratic socialism, he has to own it and sell it to the American people.

"[Democratic socialism] builds on the success of many other countries around the world that have done a far better job than we have in protecting the needs of their working families, the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor," Sanders said in November. Nice start, but can he erase a century of anti-communist propaganda in 10 months?

To me, the term is political self-mutilation. Sanders isn't a socialist. He's a old-school liberal Democrat, like George McGovern.

Next week, I critique Hillary Clinton's campaign.

Ted Rall is the author of "Bernie," a biography written with the cooperation of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. "Bernie" is being released today. Want to support independent journalism? You can subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.



See Other Political Commentaries.

See Other Commentaries by Ted Rall.

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