At some point in the never-ending U.S. presidential election process, Sen. Bernie Sanders may discover that there's more to running for the world's most important job than just talking about income inequality.
There's no question that if you were running for high public office, and wanted to focus on one issue, you couldn't go too far wrong if you zeroed in on the economy and the question of the day — the growing gap in wealth controlled by the very successful few compared with the rest of the workforce. That's a major problem, although not unprecedented. Those familiar with the history of the United States from the 1880s to the start of the 20th century might describe the present plight of the bottom 99 percent as a case of deja vu all over again. The growing income gaps of the so-called "Gilded Age" led to the reforms of the Progressive Era, whose major champion was, ironically, a Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt. Vermont's junior Senator may be forgiven for thinking the time is at hand for another Progressive Era, this time spearheaded by a democratic socialist — himself.
Voters are angry about stagnant wages and uncertain job prospects, we are told over and over, and are flocking to the likes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders to find solutions or at least someone authentic and ready to speak truth to power and tax the rich and create jobs out of thin air. Those who have prospered under the rules of the new global economy may well, in the end, have to pony up a bit more to the tax man, Income equality to the extent we are seeing now isn't healthy for anyone in the long run. But there's more to being president than that, and for a smart, intelligent guy like Sen. Sanders clearly is, he's not getting it — at least not publicly.
If it wasn't such a serious time in world history, with the never-ending cauldron of the Middle East threatening to spin out-of-control again (Syria today, Libya tomorrow, Iran and Saudi Arabia waiting in the wings); with potentially grave economic issues in China threatening world trade; with European banks not clearly healthy and the basket case of Greece still far from stable; with Russia deciding that 20 years of sulking in the shadows was quite long enough and back to feeling a need to re-assert itself as a power to be reckoned with, it would be almost fun to time how long Sen. Sanders takes to pivot any question asked of him on foreign policy back to his home turf of bashing Wall Street bankers and the "rigged economy." To be fair, that and income inequality are serious questions. Clearly, we can't have an economy where the vast majority of working folks struggle to keep their heads above water while a fortunate few live lives of dreams. Whoever is elected in November will have to confront this.
But being a president means being able to do a couple of things at once, and on the campaign trail, Senator Sanders has been remarkable for the one-dimensionality of his messaging. Clearly though, the strategy has worked. He has gone further, and lasted longer in this election cycle than anyone expected outside of his inner circle. But being a one-trick-pony will only get him so far. While Hillary Clinton is hardly everyone's cup of tea, her "street cred" on foreign policy can't be denied. And like it or not, what happens beyond the country's coasts matters and affects us, as we have seen over and over again, especially in the past 15 years.
And at some point our good Senator should be held to account for the funny math involved in some of his most appealing pitches to that slice of the electorate looking for something new and not just one of those discredited "establishment" politicians. "Medicare for all" sounds great, but how is it to be financed? And what happens to the 500,000 or so folks who currently work in the health insurance industry, when that business goes poof under socialized health care? Free college tuition sounds nifty too; who pays? If we're going to soak Wall Street, the chances are excellent much of that wealth may migrate offshore before being re-directed into college tuitions, to institutions which may also suddenly feel more relaxed about "holding the line" on tuition costs.
But those who are inclined to lie awake at night worrying about how these and other "democratic socialist" ideas percolating about inside the Senator's mind can probably relax. Let's picture a President Sanders trying to get any of that passed through a Congress that is likely to be controlled by Republicans — unless they shoot themselves in the foot so badly they do prove themselves unfit to govern, as they are trying hard to do with the hysterical reaction about how President Obama should not appoint a nominee to replace Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who suddenly and unexpectedly passed away last weekend. Of course the President should make such an appointment and fill the Court's vacancy. But even if the Democrats regain control of the Senate, "Medicare for all" and free college tuition is pie-in-the-sky. Many will argue that it shouldn't be, and maybe Bernie's role is to nudge some creative thinking that way, but as a practical, realistic materr, it's a political fairy tale.
Bernie has gone a long way on appealing-sounding populist messages, bolstered by a deeply flawed and uninspiring opponent in Mrs. Clinton. But now, as we reach March 1 and the "Super Tuesday" primaries, it's time to spell out how his campaign promises are to be financed and some recognition that any U.S. president, particularly the one who will be inaugurated next January, is aware of and interested in the problems of the wider world that will land on his or her and our doorstep.
By the way, let's not forget, Vermont's moment of glory also arrives on Tuesday, March 1, Town Meeting Day, when Vermonters not only elect select board and school board candidates but also cast primary election ballots.Thankfully, the handful of delegates in play in Vermont are too few to matter, so we are not being carpet bombed with political commercials and robo calls. But for what it's worth, here are our picks: Hillary Clinton for the Democrats, and John Kasich for the Republicans. You have to root for a guy like Kasich who doesn't find reaching across political aisles to craft compromises as something toxic and out-of-bounds. Neither are perfect; simply the best of an astonishly bad bunch.