With Bernie Sanders’ Feb. 19 announcement that, as expected, he’ll be running for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president, the American left has more choice in terms of candidates with a real chance of winning than they’ve had in decades, if ever. In any other primary season, the presence of Elizabeth Warren alone, who is not so great on foreign policy but who’s clearly a strong progressive on most domestic issues, would be enough to generate excitement among this growing segment of the U.S. population.
Sanders’ reliance on smaller donations from ordinary voters in 2016 has already had a positive impact on how some candidates are raising funds in this cycle. Warren, who has taken money and given access to wealthy donors and industries in past Senate campaigns, recently pledged not to in running for the presidency.
“That means no fancy receptions or big money fund-raisers only with people who can write the big checks,” the Massachusetts Senator told supporters.”It means that wealthy donors won’t be able to purchase better seats or one-on-one time with me at our events. And it means I won’t be doing ‘call time,’ which is when candidates take hours to call wealthy donors to ask for their support.”
Unfortunately for Warren (and any others making a similar pledge in what is sure to become an even more crowded field), Sanders has built up a formidable infrastructure in terms of small donors as shown by the fact that, as was widely reported, he raised $6 million dollars within 24 hours of announcing.
Senator Sanders has also obviously moved the needle in terms of policy, with centrist candidates like Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar embracing aspects of his 2016 policy platform from a $15 an hour minimum wage to Medicare for All; ideas considered too radical just a few years ago. Oddly, this success is being used to attack him, with some media arguing that his success in promoting these policies is reason enough for him to drop out of the race.
The main reason given is that he is, at 77, too old to be president. This is an interesting argument, considering one never hears the same one about the leader of a co-equal branch of government, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who will be 79 on March 26 (or, for that matter, Senate leader Mitch Mcconnell, who is the same age as Sanders).
Of course, many other arguments, often conflicting, are being made on the center and the right for why the junior Senator from Vermont either shouldn’t run or will never win.
Similar to the argument being made about his age, many commentators like to talk about Sanders’ appearance, speaking at length about his hair and calling him ‘rumpled’. These “criticisms” are easily dismissed as those who make them sound like snobs and miss what so many, especially young people, seem to like about the Senator, he feels authentic in a way few U.S. politicians do.
On the right, the main line of attack, from the current president on down, is nothing new: claiming that as a self professed democratic socialist, Sanders wants to turn the United States into ‘Venezuela’. This bizarre notion, which has been proven a loser not only by Sanders but by Alexandria Ocaso-Cortez and others endorsed by the DSA and Justice Democrats elected in the 2016 midterms, reached a fever pitch after the Senator’s demand that the United States not intervene militarily in the oil (and other resource) rich country.
First, and most importantly, this framing is seriously flawed because, despite all the claims to the contrary, Venezuela is not a socialist country. Aside from a few nationalized industries, most importantly for American (and for that matter Canadian and EU interests) the country’s oil conglomerate PDVSA, and social programs for the country’s long suffering poor launched under now deceased former president Hugo Chavez, most of the productive capacity of the country is still in the hands of big business and powerful oligarchs associated with the far right opposition.
The over reliance of Venezuela’s government on oil revenues and corruption on all sides has been an undeniable disaster for the country but in human terms like access to healthcare (if not drugs under sanctions) and literacy which is now almost universal, aspects of the Bolivarian revolution have been successful.
As an aside, we often hear about bread lines in the country but never hear about how Princeton educated Leopoldo Lopez, a once powerful opposition politician under house arrest for the role he played in inciting violent protests in 2014 that led to the deaths of 43 people, is also the Chairman of Empresas Polar, the country’s largest food producer.
As reported by Joyce Nelson on Counterpunch. “Evidently, Leopoldo Lopez as Chairman of the company, could immediately change the situation of flour-scarcity and lengthy bread lines if he wanted to.”
While not as forceful in his denunciations of the current president’s Venezuela saber rattling as fellow primary candidate Tulsi Gabbard, Sanders’ foreign policy views have been developing in the right direction since 2016, most of all in the last year.
Besides, as Sanders has been at pains to explain for some time, his program is not to recreate the state capitalism of the Soviet Union or Maoist China but to take what is best from the Keynesian social democracies of Europe, especially the Scandinavian countries.
The attacks from the center and center right, most of them coming from Democrats, may appear less absurd but are in some ways more dishonest. One recent one that is worth interrogating is the claim, first made by Politico and quickly picked up by other inside the Beltway outlets like The Hill, is that Sanders is a hypocrite for using charter flights for himself and his staff in campaigning for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and many Democratic candidates in the midterms last year. Like many such articles in mainstream sources, the first half of the long piece, presumably the part after the headline itself that will be most read, presents the arguments of those who seem to hold grudges against the Senator, mainly people who worked on Clinton’s unsuccessful campaign.
Typical is this quote from Clinton campaign staffer, Zac Petkanas, who told the outlet, “I’m not shocked that while thousands of volunteers braved the heat and cold to knock on doors until their fingers bled in a desperate effort to stop Donald Trump, his Royal Majesty King Bernie Sanders would only deign to leave his plush D.C. office or his brand new second home on the lake if he was flown around on a cushy private jet like a billionaire master of the universe.”
It isn’t until much later in the piece that we are told that in many cases, it would have been impossible to fly to all these campaign stops commercial. Worse, Clinton’s campaign paid for private jets to ferry around millionaire entertainers like Beyonce, Katy Perry and Jay Z, who added little to the actual campaign besides crowds, often smaller than Bernie’s during the primaries, who weren’t necessarily there for her.
Many political operatives and media figures, including those interviewed by Politico, have made the claim that Senator Sanders cost Clinton in the last election by criticizing her record. Besides the fact that his criticisms were mild, isn’t this the point of a primary, to expose candidates’ possible weaknesses and try to address them before a general election? It seems that Sanders is held to a different standard.
Nonetheless, the Vermont Senator has gone out of his way to ask those who support him to be civil during the primary, especially online, recently writing tosupporters, “Remember that our struggle is bigger than a Tweet or a Facebook comment. And remember that our primary opponents are decent people – many have been friends and allies of mine in the Senate.”
Probably most dangerous to the nascent Sanders campaign are media outlets like CNN, who were found to have stacked the audience with well connected questioners at a town hall this past Monday.
One of them, who asked about the suddenly hot button issue of reparations for slavery, worked for the centrist Aspen Institute and now works for a non-profit whose board includes executives for the world’s biggest private equity firm, the Carlyle Group and the former employer of leaker Edward Snowden, Booz Allen Hamilton. This and other obvious conflicts were not disclosed by the network who presented the questioners as ordinary voters.
On the issue of reparations itself, as Briahna Gray of the Intercept wrote after the town hall, Sanders gave the right answer to the question, that first it will be important to define what the term means, as centrists Kamala Harris and Cory Booker are using it to describe different programs, none of which are directlyfocused on redressing the historic grievances of African Americans and the inequalities that persist in these communities to this day.
Candidates like Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Tulsi Gabbard all have their individual strengths and weaknesses and all deserve to be on the main debate stage during the primaries. Some combination of two of them could easily make for a winning ticket in 2020.
The American left, using all the platforms available to it, will have to push back against the attacks that are sure to come against Sanders and other progressives in the race, whose coverage is likely to vary between slinging mud at them and ignoring them. If not, there’s a greater chance the current president will eke out a second term, a disaster for working people and the environment that will predictably be blamed on progressives rather than an out of touch Democratic establishment more interested in feathering their own nests and cultivating donor dollars than working in the interests of the majority of their voters.