It’s very important to me that politicians are authentic and not merely addicted to expediency. I respect and even like some politicians who don’t agree with me on the issues. I like them because they seem to be people of vision who argue for what they believe in, even if it means taking exception with most of the voters or with the power-brokers who bankroll elections.
It’s also important to me that politicians can look at the status quo and identify important topics in which they want to do more than just a little reformist tinkering. In other words, the politicians I respect aspire to be true change agents, which means not merely to talk about “hope and change” as abstract concepts but to advocate concrete measures for dramatically transforming our government and our society.
Finally, it’s extremely important to me that politicians have the utmost integrity. I can’t abide even the appearance of impropriety. I like politicians who bend over backgrounds to honor the spirit of morality. In other words, I like politicians who don’t expect to be given special dispensations and privileges because of their self-perceived exalted status.
Going into this past Tuesday’s debate, Bernie Sanders appeared to have a huge advantage over Hillary Clinton among Democratic voters who share those perspectives. Whether you’re a political moderate or a socialist, you’d have to appreciate that Bernie doesn’t hold up a finger to see which way the wind is blowing. Like Howard Cosell used to say, Bernie “tells it like it is” – or at least the way he sees it -- without worrying about how it will play in Peoria. What’s more, when it comes to Bernie’s beliefs, he sees striking inequities in this country and he has been devoting his campaign to taking them on. Whether you’re talking about tax policy or campaign finance reform, Bernie advocates transformational steps to support the needs of the poor and the middle class. Plus, he has been a stalwart throughout his career in standing up to oligarchy. Nobody would ever say that Bernie is a “Democrat in Name Only.” As for ethics, I may be missing something, but I don’t recall anything even remotely scandalous about the behavior or the statements of Bernie Sanders, unless you go back to a stupid column that he wrote in 1972 regarding sexual fantasies. That’s 43 years of scandal-free behavior, which is pretty impressive. Besides, who am I to hold it against someone for writing a stupid column?
Given what I’ve said, it shouldn’t surprise you that if asked last weekend who I was likely to vote for in the primaries, I would have said Bernie Sanders. But now? I’m taking a serious look at supporting Hillary. You see, I learned something about myself watching that debate. It’s not enough for a politician to be uber-principled and squeaky clean. Apparently, I feel in my bones that for politicians to be worthy of the term “statesman,” they must display an even more important trait. They must be fighters! That means that when they’re running for office, they must be “in it to win it” and display that will-to-win with abandon. It also means that once they’re elected, they must be willing not only to compromise when appropriate but also to wage fierce, unrelenting, and pragmatic battles with their political opponents if that is what’s necessary to get the job done. I’m not sure that Bernie has the right stuff to be called a “fighter” in those senses of the word.
Look. I understand that when Bernie grabs a microphone on the stump, he speaks with passion. But frankly, any good professor can speak passionately. What does that prove? It’s not hard to speak fervently when you’re addressing a group of adoring fans or a bunch of students who are depending on you for a good grade. Where’s the accountability in that? A true fighter is someone who goes to battle in an arena of accountability and demonstrates that their platform can withstand scrutiny. The only way for that to happen is to get in the face of a worthy adversary and mix it up – offering an argument as well as a reply to the adversary’s counter-argument. That’s certainly the way the system works in a court of law. In the case of a fighter who is running for office, especially if they start out as the underdog, it’s rarely enough to elucidate their own positions. An underdog candidate has to have the guts and the skill to tear into the positions or the conduct of their adversary.
Sadly, I saw none of that fighting spirit from Bernie Sanders on Tuesday.
By contrast, Hillary isn’t afraid to mix it up. On gun control, the one issue where her record is more within the mainstream of the Democratic Party than Bernie’s, Hillary let him have it. She spoke forcefully against Bernie as being insufficiently progressive as an advocate of sensible gun laws. It was a bold move on her part because she’s the heavy favorite and didn’t need to tear into him in order to emerge the favorite; she needed only to avoid taking major hits from Bernie. The gun control issue came up early in the debate, and Hillary’s aggressive tone could easily have inspired Bernie to take an equally aggressive tone in response on a variety of issues in which Hillary was more vulnerable. Under the circumstances, I could thus have excused Hillary for toning down the rhetoric with the hope that Bernie would return the favor. But Hillary went for the jugular, as you’d expect her to if you’ve watched her over the years. Hillary, you see, is a fighter, and she is very much “in it to win it.” That opened the door for Bernie to fight back.
So what did Bernie do? He stayed with his stump speech. He answered every question like he was alone on the podium, introducing himself and his policies to his adoring fans. He made few if any efforts to differentiate himself from Hillary, let alone to put her on the defensive. When it came to the moment of the night, an opportunity for him to address Hillary’s latest scandal (the one involving e-mails), he proclaimed not only that he wouldn’t enter the fray but that he’s sick and tired of ANYONE who dares to enter that fray.
If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that Bernie Sanders was auditioning for the role of Sgt. Raymond Shaw in the Manchurian Candidate – with Hillary playing the Angela Lansbury role. She could not have scripted more pro-Hillary answers than the ones that came out of Bernie’s mouth. Either he was explicitly saying “It is inappropriate to mess with my opponent by ever addressing this issue” or “I am willing to address this issue but not in a way that could in any way embarrass my opponent or harm her chances in the general election.”
Tell me, was this whole debate choreographed? Because whether or not we deserved a boxing match or a hard-hitting football game, at least I thought we deserved better than WWF.
The truth is that I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I don’t really believe that the Party Establishment entered into some sort of arrangement with Bernie whereby he’d play the role of the Washington Generals and Hillary would get to be the Harlem Globetrotters. Bernie seems to me to be his own man, not someone else’s puppet. But that doesn’t mean he is a true fighter.
Anyone can grab a microphone and speak loudly into it. But it takes a fighter to get into the face of a master debater like Hillary Clinton and explain to the nation that if she is elected President, nobody could possibly know where she will stand on any issue because she always seem to advocate whatever position is popular with her core constituency du jour. Bernie Sanders had every right to make that claim and to make it over and over again. The path to victory involved making that claim, hearing Hillary’s retort, and then being mentally nimble enough to respond powerfully to that retort. But instead, Bernie just punted. Believe me, if the shoe were on the other foot, Hillary would be dry-needling Bernie right where it hurts the most -- as we observed in 2008 when she questioned whether the relatively inexperienced Barack Obama could be trusted to answer that fateful “3:00 a.m. call” in a strong and responsible way.
I will withhold judgment on who will get my vote in next year’s Maryland Democratic Primary. But as for who will win more delegates between Hillary and Bernie, I think that question was definitively answered on Tuesday night. Hillary will be fighting for those delegates between now and the Convention. Bernie may be fighting for his principles, but none of those principles apparently includes getting the nomination.