BERNIE SANDERS AND THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD
In 1972 one could buy a board game called Who Can Beat Nixon? I never succumbed to the very real temptation, and I imagine that it might have been a nice investment for sale on eBay these days, but I suppose that each player selected a primary candidate and off you went campaigning. That the game was thought to have commercial appeal is an indicator of how much Democrats wanted to get rid of Dick Nixon. There has been something of that level of obsession in the party for succeeding Republican presidents, perhaps excepting Ford and Bush 41, but I think never with quite the urgency that I sense toward The Donald. And, indeed, the polls, for now, are showing that Democratic voters are valuing electability over ideology.
Thus the punditry, sensing an elevated level of interest in the Democratic nomination, has begun its sort of prospective candidates. There’s always been, and surely always will be, the conventional sort in terms of popularity; there’s a Tier One, a Tier Two, and Everybody Else, sometimes lumped into one tier, sometimes two, depending, I suppose, on how much time said pundit had on his or her hands that day. At the moment, Tier One seems to consist of Joseph Biden (who, of course, isn’t even running yet), Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke, and Elizabeth Warren. Tier Two is Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and Kirsten Gillibrand.
The more interesting sort, to me, though, is the Radicals vs. the Pragmatists. How does the punditry determine which group a given candidate is in? It seems to boil down to support for four issues: tuition-free college, the Green New Deal, abolishing ICE, the immigration enforcement agency, and Medicare for All. Support these four with a minimum of ifs, ands, and buts, and you’re a Radical. If not, you’re a Pragmatist. And for the most part, the punditry will tell you that the party rank-and-file, especially you young folks, are demanding a radical, who will then proceed to alienate John Q. Public and smooth the path for a Trump re-election; however, it’s not that difficult to find pundits who believe that the president’s popularity is so shaky that it’s an opportunity for a true progressive agenda to get a mouthpiece in the Oval Office. And it’s certainly true that the ‘safe’ choice hasn’t won too many presidential elections for the Democrats this century.
As far as placing the main candidates, the punditry seems to place Warren, Gillibrand, and Sanders in the radical category, Biden, Klobuchar, and O’Rourke as the pragmatists, and the others as some combination of straddling the two or unworthy of too much attention right this minute. Today I’d like to talk about those radicals.
For at least a century, when we have said that a politician is ‘middle of the road’, we mean that he or she is a moderate. It wasn’t that way in the nineteenth century. Back then, if you were middle of the road, you were on a pure, straight path, unwilling to be tempted away from ideological purity by the temptations offered to stray toward the edge of the road which would delay you from the accomplishment of your political goals. I rather like that image when it comes to Bernie Sanders. I can see his colleagues in the media’s radical classification following the traditional pattern (in both parties) of running to party ideology to gain the presidential nomination and then tracking toward the center in the general election. Sanders, not so much. He’s an idea man, hasn’t really bothered too much with drafting legislation in the Senate which would necessitate compromise and/or coalitions for passage, and is pretty much his own man. Recently somebody or other ventilated some seventies-era comments he had made about various topics, especially Fidel Castro and nationalizations of various sectors of the economy, supposedly untenably radical, and he didn’t say much in the way of disavowing them.
Maybe, like me, you’re not a radical, maybe, like me, you too are prioritizing winning (though I’m not so sure as the pundits that heading for these moderate voters is the answer), and maybe, like me, you’re worried about his age.But for ideological purity, I’m more sure that the Senator from Vermont will walk that walk than any other candidate that the punditry has anointed as a radical.