The Bernie Pill

The amazing thing about the Bernie Sanders campaign is that his ideas are so … tired. Nothing he has proposed — “free” healthcare, “free” college, “free” daycare — is particularly original or innovative. Sanders admits as much, saying that he wants is to imitate the model of the social democracies of Scandinavia. Of course, that itself is an indication of how outdated his ideas are. Many of those social democracies have moved beyond Sander’s 1970’s ideal of what they really are, privatizing and shrinking government and now enjoying comparable or even superior economic freedom compared to the United States.

Matt Welch has a thorough rundown of just how bad many of his ideas area. A lot of them are things I’ve hit on these pages: how expensive socialized medicine would be, how ineffective “universal pre-K” is, how bad a federal minimum wage of $15 would be. But it also hits a few topics I haven’t gotten around to such as Sanders’ opposition to reforming the VA:

Sanders was lucky the question wasn’t about his actual track record as chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. As The New York Times reported in February, “a review of his record in the job…shows that in a moment of crisis, his deep-seated faith in the fundamental goodness of government blinded him, at least at first, to a dangerous breakdown in the one corner of it he was supposed to police.” Ouch.

What was Sanders doing in May 2014 instead of holding oversight hearings and sounding the alarm bell over a national disgrace? Complaining to The Nation magazine about “a concerted effort to undermine the V.A.,” led by “the Koch brothers and others,” who “want to radically change the nature of society, and either make major cuts in all of these institutions, or maybe do away with them entirely.”

(The VA, incidentally, was long upheld as the shining model of what single payer healthcare would be like in this country. Well … they weren’t entirely wrong about that. Much of Sanders’ blind support for the VA was precisely because he wanted it to be the example for single payer.)

You should read the whole thing.

So why is Sanders so popular? Is it because America loves his crackpot ideas? No.

First, like Trump, he really isn’t that popular. He’s drawing about half the votes in a Democratic primary, which means about 10% of the vote. If he were the nominee, he’d have to get a lot more independent and conservative votes, which I don’t see materializing unless Trump is the Republican nominee.

Also, like Trump, he’s appealing to economic populism. Sanders supporters hate it when you compare Trump to Sanders (which is one of the reasons I like doing it). But they both harp on a similar message — trade is bad, Washington doesn’t work, you’re being rooked, vote for me. That sort of populism traces through a long and diverse array of politicians from Roosevelt I to George Wallace to Trump/Sanders. It never has worked out.

(Both also prefer a more isolationist foreign policy; another key element of populism).

But I think the main reason, as I’ve said before, is that Sanders isn’t Clinton. Sanders is honest about what he thinks, has stayed positive and his earnestness is almost refreshing contrasted against the calculated fumbling of Clinton. Last week, the Clinton camp said she wouldn’t debate Sanders any more unless he changed his “tone”. Even for Clinton supporters, like the ever-reliable Vox, this was laughable. Sanders’ tone has been very respectful toward Clinton. The only thing she could complain about is that he’s called her out — accurately, as it happens — on such things as her Wall Street ties, her support for the Iraq War and her role in runaway criminalization.

In any case, I don’t expect Sanders to be the nominee. But I do expect that his success will lead to an insistence that his ideas are awesome and that this country is ready for socialism. Don’t be fooled. Single payer healthcare failed to gain support in Sanders own state once it became obvious how much it was going to cost. Even Clinton’s plans are going to require big tax increases that I don’t see the public swallowing.

So let the socialists enjoy their moment. Once the extent and cost of their ideal system becomes clear, support for it will evaporate. Because it’s one thing to promise the moon; anyone can do that. It’s another to actually deliver it.

(PS – Speaking of Vox, Yglesias has another article arguing that the Democrats shouldn’t be too concerned with how to pay for their pipe dreams. Since interest rates are low, he argues, we should be borrowing to pay for “investments”.

Yglesias is usually a reasonable voice but this is one area where he, and many liberals, have lost their minds. Interest rates will not remain low forever. And when they come up, we’ll not only have $19 trillion in debt to roll over, but massive structural deficits for all this new spending. Any increase in spending increase the baseline for future spending. Deficit spending now because interest rates are low is a long walk off a short plank.

Besides, it’s not like the deficit isn’t about to explode anyway.)

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