Bernie Sanders is back in the news, showing us all both his good side and the bad. Let’s start with the good.
“If Democrats control either the House or the Senate,” he recently told The New York Times, “Trump’s agenda is dead.”
Here is Bernie at his best — blunt and colorful, the senator from Vermont whom Sunday talk shows love to book. Here is the unapologetic progressive who speaks plainly on the economic plight of working Americans.
And unlike so many self-defeating Democrats, Sanders does not divide them by color, gender or sexual identity. He recognizes that “white” is not synonymous with “rich and privileged.”
The other Sanders, the less good one, was also on full display as he made the rounds in the South, where the Democratic electorate is heavily African-American. His apparent goal was to mend fences with the black voters he had offended in the past. They still haven’t entirely warmed up to him — and for valid reasons.
Back in 2016, when Hillary Clinton won big in the Southern primaries, Sanders sniffed that scheduling early primaries in the South “distorts reality.” Translation: They’re just black voters. And actually, the overwhelmingly white states of Iowa and New Hampshire, which Sanders won, vote first.
Sanders’ evident discomfort with the black electorate is well-known, having been spoofed on “Saturday Night Live.” Sanders was a civil rights activist back when, but the fact remains that he abandoned the racially tense New York of the 1960s for the white liberal pastures of northern Vermont. (To this day, Vermont has only one black barbershop.)
There is a difference between identity politics — which Sanders happily does little of — and insensitivity toward the black experience. The black church provided solace and leadership in the struggle for civil rights. With religion may come some socially conservative views, but that in no way makes churchgoers economic conservatives. Sanders’ ignoring the role faith plays in African-American politics is not racist, just neglectful.
He certainly didn’t help himself by slighting Barack Obama’s legacy. He described Obama as a “charismatic individual” and an “extraordinary candidate,” as opposed to an extraordinary president.
Longtime Bernie-watchers would read this faint praise not so much as disparagement of the first black president as Sanders’ inability to credit any Democrat who makes compromises in the name of getting something done. Sanders never cheered Obama’s Affordable Care Act — the closest America has come to universal coverage — as the political miracle it was. That’s because it was not the perfect single-payer plan residing in Sanders’ head.
Sanders fretted to the Times that national Democrats believe “more conservative candidates are better positioned to win.” He added that Democrats should be beating the drum for a higher minimum wage. Well, even so-called conservative Democrats support a higher minimum wage — and, by the way, they need to get elected first.
Let’s end with the good Bernie. One small example was his support of Heath Mello’s run for mayor of Omaha — despite the huge opposition of abortion extremists. Sanders liked Mello’s progressive economic program. He thus withstood attacks by NARAL Pro-Choice America over Mello’s support for a 20-week limit on obtaining an abortion, no questions asked. (Reality check: The limit in decidedly pro-choice Germany, Denmark and France is only 12 weeks.) Mello lost.
All this recent activity feeds speculation that Sanders is contemplating a 2020 run for the presidency. His age, 79 on Election Day, would probably block his path. And Sanders wouldn’t get away with not releasing his tax returns again. Better that he serve the nation with his straight talk and, as a bonus, lighten up.
Froma Harrop is a columnist with Creators Syndicate.