Politics & Policy

Sanders Didn’t Have What It Takes

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during the Democratic primary debate in Washington, D.C., March 15, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
He’s interested in his revolution and ideology, not in disqualifying the opponents who represent the system he would radically alter.

The Bernie Sanders revolution is about to wind down and be sold for spare parts. This is happening in part because Sanders suffers from an unwillingness to fight for it.

Many of Sanders’s supporters are going to be bitter that Joe Biden is defeating him while constantly lying and dissembling about his own record as a senator and about his own positions since then. As the race narrowed to two men, Sanders has hammered Biden for his votes related to the Iraq War, for his endorsement of cutting America’s main entitlement programs like Social Security, and on a number of other issues such as gay marriage. Biden has been willing to lie about his own record to win. Sanders has been unwilling to tell hard truths about Biden’s record.

On the Iraq War, Biden just lied about his vote for the Authorization of Military Force that preceded the conflict. He has tried to portray it as a vote for a multilateral process of holding Saddam Hussein accountable to U.N. inspectors. This is a farcical untruth. Biden acted as a Democratic whip in the Senate on behalf of the war. As part of his committee work, he promoted hawkish witnesses in the Senate’s hearings on the forthcoming war. But then, Biden’s overhyped reputation for foreign-policy competence has always been a joke. During the war, he suggested breaking up Iraq into three separate nations to stop the sectarian conflict. This kind of partitioning always intensifies sectarian conflict (India–Pakistan, Northern Ireland), and besides, at least one if not two of his proposed states would have been economically unviable. But Biden bluffed his way through.

Biden also dodged his previous comments in which he endorsed major entitlement reform to lower long-term federal commitments. He turned himself into an early champion of gay marriage, even though he was, like most Democratic politicians, opportunistic and lagging behind most activists.

Biden also hammered Bernie Sanders on China, and Sanders got defensive. Biden lied outright when he said that China’s economic and quality-of-life gains in the past few decades have been “marginal”; they have been astonishing. Further, Biden has no business making himself look like a China hawk. Recently Biden has brushed back concerns that China’s rise presented any difficulty for the United States. “I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what, they’re not competition for us,” he said. Biden was a big and early supporter of China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, a fateful move that was popular among policymakers in 2001. But most of all, Biden’s own son accompanied his father on a diplomatic trip and was swiftly granted a license to operate a business there a few days later, receiving generous investments from Chinese interests.

But just as in 2016, when Bernie Sanders specifically said he did not want to talk about Hillary Clinton’s emails, Sanders again ruled out making completely fair-game criticisms of his opponents’ ethical lapses. Sanders is just interested in his revolution and ideology, not in actually disqualifying the opponents who represent the system he would radically alter.

And even if you like Joe Biden, you have to wonder if Sanders has done a disservice to the eventual nominee. Part of the reason to hold a primary is to see whether the candidates can withstand tough scrutiny, whether they can answer the expected charges made against them. Sanders never did this for Clinton, and he hasn’t done it for Biden. He is like the sparring partner who fails to test the prizefighter’s weaknesses in the training camp before the big match. Donald Trump will not hold back on potential ethical issues. Because Bernie Sanders never did what was required to win, Democrats now go into a consequential general election not knowing if Joe Biden has a glass jaw.

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