The reluctant socialist: Why it's not a good idea to write off Bernie Sanders yet

By NR Mohanty

Bernie Sanders has only an outside chance for a shot at the US presidency after the 15 March Super Tuesday Primaries, in which Hillary Clinton won a decisive victory and came closer to winning the Democratic party nomination. Sanders has to now win over 72 per cent of the delegates in the remaining primaries to be in the reckoning again — but that is a tall order.

The reluctant socialist: Why its not a good idea to write off Bernie Sanders yet

Bernie Sanders. AP

It is turning out that Sanders' campaign is returning to same phase as the early months of last year, when it was more about a protest candidacy discussing issues rather than a serious campaign about electing a president. That time, Hillary Clinton was considered a shoo-in for the Democratic coronation. But, as months passed by and the issues Sanders raised caught the attention of a large number of Americans, his upstart campaign seemed to derail Clinton’s glide for a while. And as the intra-Democratic party contest enters the last leg, it is turning out that Sanders' effort to deny Hillary the nomination is most likely to fail.

But why couldn't Sanders do an Obama on Clinton? Eight years ago, in 2008, Hillary was again a hot favourite to represent the Democratic Party in the Presidential race. Then a relatively unknown Barack Obama crossed her path and put an end to her White House dream. Obama could successfully project her as a lackey of the Republican cause because of her support for the disastrous Iraq war initiated by George Bush, the outgoing President, a Republican.

Like Obama, Sanders too had opposed the motion for Iraq war in the Congress. Like Obama, and unlike Hillary, Sanders had opposed the tax cuts that President Bush had handed out to the rich billionaires. Sanders should be seen as closer to the spirit of the Democratic party than Hillary who had no qualms to accept the $225,000 speaking fee per hour from drug companies, fossil fuel industry and Wall Street chums. CEOs of these bodies loved Jeb Bush, George Bush's brother, who aspired to be the President in 2016, but failed to make the cut and had to leave the race.  These CEOs have shifted their patronage to Hillary because of her long cozy relationship with big business and also because they want her to stop Bernie, their avowed enemy, from winning the race.

Hillary Clinton should have been ideally a Republican candidate (she shares their pro-rich sentiment) to take on Donald Trump for party nomination. That would have made it an exciting contest — between a patronage machine veteran and a political warhorse on the one hand and a billionaire beneficiary of crony capitalism but a political neophyte on the other.

Sanders should have been a natural successor to Obama for the Democratic hot seat. But Sanders is not able to replicate the Obama phenomenon because he is too left of centre than Obama was, too far for the liking of the average, ill-informed, American citizen (many of whom have fallen for the antics of Donald Trump). Obama worked tenaciously for providing medicare to the destitute. His greatest legislative success has been the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare . But, unfortunately, it is not a resounding success because it is not an all-encompassing measure. Sanders pitches for a single-payer healthcare system that provides for universal medicare. Obama abandoned this as politically impractical, but Sanders believes that a resolute President can overcome the hurdles and make universal healthcare a reality.

Sanders agrees with Obama’s vision but questions the speed and potency of the implementation of that vision. It is not that Sanders is not familiar with the bottlenecks, political or otherwise, that mar the programme's implementation. His track record as Burlington mayor or as a Congressman and Senator tells us how he has (mostly) had his way while pursuing his dream with bulldog tenacity.

In 1981, Sanders ran for mayor of Burlington as an independent and defeated the six-term Democratic Party incumbent just by ten votes in a four-cornered contest. When he took office, Burlington’s largest waterfront was an industrial wasteland. An influential local businessman, Tony Pomerleau, had got a sanction for a mega project that included a 150-room hotel, a 100-slip marina and 240 condominiums in 18-storeyed buildings.

Sanders resolved to kill the plan and make the waterfront people-oriented and publicly-owned. He began a "Let us work together for the betterment of our town" campaign and sought everyone’s support. He met Pomerleau, a billionaire several times over and succeeded in convincing him to give up his private claim for public gain and to become a major stakeholder in the city’s development programme. Pomerleau was moved by Sanders' concern for the common man and became his active collaborator to make the new vision of Burlington a success.

By the end of his eight-year tenure as mayor, Burlington’s waterfront was bustling with activity — it had a community boathouse, a sailing centre, a science centre, a fishing pier, an eight-mile bike path, acres of parkland and public beaches. It was public-owned and it had become a hub of public activity.

This was not the sole achievement of the "socialist" mayor. During his tenure (1981-89), the city's largest housing development project became resident-owned and its largest supermarket became a consumer-owned co-operative. Sanders had created a separate Community and Economic Development Office (CEDO) to carry out his vision for affordable housing and greater community engagement in planning and job development.

So successful was his mission that Sanders was re-elected three times by increasingly wide margins — 52 per cent in 1983, 55 per cent in 1985 and 56 per cent in 1987. At the end of eight years, when Sanders chose to run for Congress, he won a spectacular mandate and his trusted lieutenant, Peter Clavelle, whom he had appointed as director of the highly successful CEDO, went on to become the mayor of Burlington for the next 14 years. The common man had clearly embraced Sanders’ as his saviour. Clavelle carried on that vision: Burligton today is widely heralded as an environmentally friendly, lively and livable city with a thriving economy and with one of the lowest joblessness rates in the country.

Sanders has not been anti-business. He just wants businesses to be responsible towards the people. He showed in Burlington how it could be done. As a Congressman for 16 years and as senator for almost eight years, he has been instrumental in piloting bills and moving amendments to make policies pro-poor. In 2013, he proposed a legislation to break up "too-big-to-fail" banks which today have more assets and control more of the economy than before taxpayer bailed them out in 2008. Sanders has been critical of Obama's administration for its reluctance to prosecute the crooks of the Wall Street whose illegal activity brought the American economy to its knees. Sanders had delivered an eight-and-a-half-hour Senate floor speech against extending tax cuts for the rich. His efforts succeeded when in January 2013 a Senate majority ended Bush tax breaks for the wealthiest 1 per cent Americans.

The American Democrats should have remembered the dictum, “If you are beholden to bad money, you will not be a transformative leader”, and made their choice. But clearly bad money and bad men are propping up Hillary. Bernie, who was never bought and who will probably never be bought, is losing the race. It is a loss for the American democracy which has missed out on a rare chance to have a transformative leader at its helm.

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Updated Date: Mar 24, 2016 15:51:52 IST

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