The 4 Biggest Myths the Media Needs to Stop Telling About Bernie Sanders
The appeal of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is as unique as his unlikely rise to national prominence. The Internet adores him. He has become the pied piper of American liberals, and emerged as the most formidable Democratic primary challenger to Hillary Clinton. His supporters have filled town halls and recreational centers from New Hampshire to Iowa and Minnesota. And they have opened their wallets, delivering the campaign $6 million in small donations.
Still, the national press is skeptical. Clinton's lead in the polls is, by many accounts, "insurmountable." Her fundraising machine has made victory a foregone conclusion. While not a single vote will be cast for another seven months, large swaths of the mainstream media have resolved to treat the Democratic contest like no contest at all. Sanders seems to matter only insofar as he might "push [Clinton] in a more progressive direction."
These are not unreasonable opinions nor unimportant questions — Sanders still trails in the polls and lags far behind Clinton in the money race. But if most of the media isn't taking his candidacy seriously, the senator and his supporters certainly are. As he said Thursday morning, "This is not a protest campaign." Sanders wants to win. His campaign bristles at the suggestion they are working for anything less.
So, with the presidential race still in its very early stages, here are the four myths about Sanders we should dispel right now:
1. He can't compete with Clinton.
The suggestion Sanders might be able to seriously challenge Clinton is treated with disdain by the conventional chroniclers of the campaign. Almost every story about Sanders includes the caveat he's a "long shot" candidate. We are constantly reminded of all the reasons Sanders can't win. Most of the press has chalked up his candidacy as a tactical play to pull Clinton to the left on economic policies, the implication being Sanders will inevitably succumb to the might of the Clinton machine.
But the enthusiasm for the insurgent is real, and his policies appeal to a wide swath of the Democratic primary electorate. His office seems to cook up a compelling policy proposal or bill with impressive regularity. He's been attracting huge crowds in Iowa. His poll numbers have climbed consistently in New Hampshire since he entered the race, and on Saturday, Sanders guaranteed an enthusiastic overflow crowd he would win the state.
If anyone knows how easily an overwhelming lead in the early polls can disappear, it's Clinton. In 2007, Clinton maintained a huge lead in national polls before being defeated by Barack Obama in the Iowa caucuses, marking the beginning of the end for her candidacy. They remember, and they are taking Sanders seriously. To win the Democratic primary and enter the general election with an energetic party base, Clinton will have to appeal to the same voters rallying for Sanders. It's not an accident Clinton has, on a number of occasions, followed her rival's lead in announcing or floating her positions on an array of hot-button policy issues.
2. His policies are irresponsible and un-American.
"What's wrong with that?" Sanders responded, in his inimitable style. But Stephanopoulos wasn't incorrect: It's become a trope of national politics that ideas originating in Europe are by their nature contrary to some imaginary ideal of American-ness. Sanders' embrace of the term "democratic socialist," which critics have use to suggest he advocates some sort of Soviet-style economic system, only feeds the beast.
But even a half-serious reader of Sanders' policies will find they fit squarely within the American liberal tradition.
Consider his position on tax rates for the wealthy. In an interview with CNBC, host John Harwood asked if Sanders would consider imposing top marginal tax rate of 90% on the wealthiest Americans. Sanders didn't rule it out. On Thursday, he was more specific, saying on Charlie Rose that he was preparing to unveil a "comprehensive tax package, which I suspect will, for the top marginal rates, go over 50%."
How crazy is that? Between 1951 and 1962, a period of historic economic growth overseen by the administrations of Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, the top marginal rate was steady at 91%. Today, it's 39.6%:
A spike? Sure. Some fundamental reimagining of the American social contract? Not even close.
3. He is too old.
But the age question is among the least compelling and most obnoxiously overplayed. Ronald Reagan was 69 years old when was elected in 1980 and left office just shy of 78. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was 72 years old when he accepted the Republican nomination in 2008.
Sanders will be 75 years old when the next president is inaugurated Jan. 20, 2017. He's hardly lacking energy — he keeps a relentless schedule in Washington and on the campaign trail. His speeches are so energetic that one of Sanders' top campaign advisers recently told Mic his staff is working on getting the candidate to attack the microphone with a bit less gusto.
His age doesn't seem to be off-putting to younger Democrats, either. On a number of different issues, polling shows that young voters are receptive to Sanders' policy positions. While Sanders is undoubtedly further to the left than many Democrats, his core rationale for running — addressing economic inequality — is hardly a fringe issue, and one that concerns many young people. A recent Gallup poll found that "63% of Americans say money and wealth distribution is unfair."
4. He's a radical who can't govern or compromise.
Sanders has enjoyed a loud but largely unproductive career in the Senate, sponsoring or cosponsoring 93 bills, none of which became law. He is known more for his advocacy on issues he deems important than effectively passing legislation. How, then, could he govern as president? How could this firebrand liberal find common cause with conservative opponents?
Consider this: Sanders spent eight years as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, the state's largest city. His tenure involved running and goosing the development of its largest municipal center, and balancing a range of political and economic interests.
In a recent article for the Nation, Peter Dreier and Pierre Clavel, a pair of political academics, explore Sanders' tenure as mayor. They quote at some length a local businessman named Tony Pomerleau, who was planning to buy up disused property on the shores of Lake Champlain, on the city's western border, to build "a mega-project that included a 150-room hotel, retail space, a 100-slip marina and 240 condominiums in 18-story buildings."
Sanders was elected before the project began, and quickly scuttled Pomerlau's plans. Over time, they made peace and formed a lasting political alliance that belies the prevailing class warrior myths that follow Sanders' campaign.
"Bernie and I worked very well together for the betterment of the town," Pomerleau told the Nation. "We were the odd couple."
Sanders may have the look of an odd duck, but whatever colors the coming year of campaign rallies and political jousting, the professionals dedicated to covering every twist and turn owe the public more considered analysis and fewer of the familiar, lazy aphorisms. With so much time before the voting begins, they will have every opportunity.