The media is in an uproar over Bernie Sanders, following his double-digit landslide win in Wisconsin, which has raised the very real possibility that he might win the New York primary, a profound threat to Clinton's credibility, even if her delegate lead were to remain prohibitive. Surrogate attacks questioning his fitness dovetailed with a media narrative fueled by an interview with the editorial board of the New York Daily News, which the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza called “pretty close to a disaster,” while the Atlantic's David Graham wrote that “Throughout his interview, Sanders seemed taken aback when he was pressed on policy.”
All this was bunk, as Ryan Grim explained at Huffington Post (more on this below), and besides, as Salon contributor Corey Robin noted, it wasn't as if we hadn't had seen decades of failed wonk politicians outmaneuvered by the likes of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Nonetheless, the media narrative spread, in tandem with the Clinton campaign's push, culminating in a Washington Post story, “Clinton questions whether Sanders is qualified to be president,” which said:
Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton on Wednesday questioned whether her rival in the Democratic presidential primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), is qualified to be president.
"I think he hadn't done his homework and he'd been talking for more than a year about doing things that he obviously hadn't really studied or understood," Clinton said in an interview on MSNBC's “Morning Joe,” just one day after losing the Wisconsin primary to Sanders, “and that does raise a lot of questions.”
Which in turn led Sanders to question Clinton's qualifications, not in terms of character or intellectual capacity, but in terms of actual actions taken and policy positions spanning many years:
“I don't believe that she is 'qualified' if she is, through her Super PAC, taking tens of millions of dollars in special interest money. I don't think you are 'qualified' if you get $15 million from Wall Street through your Super PAC. I don't think you are 'qualified' if you have voted for the disastrous war in Iraq. I don't think you are 'qualified' if you have supported virtually every disastrous trade agreement which has cost us millions of decent-paying jobs. I don't think you are 'qualified' if you have supported the Panama Free Trade Agreement, something I very strongly opposed and which, as all of you know has allowed corporations and wealthy people all over the world to avoid paying their taxes to their countries.”
This, in turn, led to a whole new round of political elite hand-wringing over Sanders' supposed lack of manners, “crossing the line” with his specific language. But on Rachel Maddow's show the next night, Sanders' wife—a top campaign strategist in her own right and a former college president—presented a very different view of what was unfolding, in contrast to the style-over-substance media.
"Everybody keeps starting with what happened last night,” Jane Sanders began. "The fact is, for the previous—since Wisconsin—it was very clear, and it was spoken, very clearly that the strategy of the Clinton campaign was to disqualify, defeat, and then worry about uniting the party later. We heard that, we didn't think much of it,” she said.
“But then, if we watch MSNBC, or other cable networks, all you saw every half hour was that action implemented by the surrogates. And Secretary Clinton herself said a number of things that, maybe not the word 'unqualified,' but certainly the intent. And that's why reporters reported it that way, because they heard it that way,” she continued.
“What Bernie tried to do last night was to shift to 'I'm qualified how'? 'I'm qualified in the issues.' That, if you're going to talk about somebody not being qualified, then let's talk about why. And what he did was say, okay, if I was going to say that she's unqualified, it's because of her support for trade deals that have been terrible for our country. It's because she supported, and didn't have the judgment for the Iraq War or Libya. He tried to switch it into a different venue: 'Let's talk about the issues.' You know, that's what Bernie always does.”
There's nothing new in the fact that the establishment wants to view this clash as anything but a matter of substance, because the substance of the Sanders campaign is such a wide-ranging indictment of the establishment itself. As the media firestorm threatens to blow up even further, it's more important than ever to remember what's really at stake here--the core substance of the race--and not get distracted by a drama of manners, more full of deception than anything else.
Going back to that Daily News interview—the supposed proof of Sanders' lack of seriousness—columnist Juan Gonzales, who participated, later reported on "Democracy Now!", that he didn’t get the impression it was a disaster at all. “The editorial board is notorious, especially our editorial page editor, Arthur Browne, for his laser-like one question after another, and he bombarded, as several others of us also asked questions. I, overall, thought that Bernie Sanders handled the exchange very well. And I think that there were a few places where he stumbled, and—but I was amazed at his ability to parry the questions that were thrown at him.... I thought his performance was excellent.” That's how it seemed to an insider who'd seen many such interviews over almost 30 years at the paper. So that's one reference point to keep in mind.
Another reference point, mentioned above, comes from Ryan Grim at the Huffington Post pointing out that, “in several instances, it’s the Daily News editors who are bungling the facts in an interview designed to show that Sanders doesn’t understand the fine points of policy. In questions about breaking up big banks, the powers of the Treasury Department and drone strikes, the editors were simply wrong on details.” They even repeatedly confused the Federal Reserve with the Treasury Department—blaming Sanders himself for the confusion that resulted. Grim also focused on the interview exchange that got the most attention, Sanders’ supposed lack of clarity about how he would break up the biggest banks, which was actually perfectly accurate, “as economist Dean Baker, Peter Eavis at the New York Times, and HuffPost’s Zach Carter in a Twitter rant have all pointed out,” Grim wrote. “It’s also the position of Clinton herself.”
Toward the end of his devastating account of the editorial board's own sloppiness, Grim summarized:
This wasn’t an interview about policy details. It was about who the media has decided is presidential and who isn’t, who is serious and who isn’t. The Daily News and much of the rest of the media don’t think Sanders is qualified to be president, and that’s the motivation for an interview meant to expose what the media have already decided is true....
Candidates the media deem to be serious do not get these policy pop quizzes, because it is believed (accurately) that they can hire experienced advisers who can work out the details. But if they were pressed, there’s no doubt a studied reporter could make them look silly.
Of course, it's not just Sanders as an individual candidate they don't like. Rather, it's a reflection of deep ideological biases, which the Sanders campaign challenges head on. He is attacking the establishment for decades of mismanagement—on the rigged economy and the corruption of democracy most of all, but also on climate change, reckless foreign wars, and more recently (having actually listened to and learned from Black Lives Matter activists) on racial justice. The establishment media are part of the establishment, and they are attacking Sanders in return—not because he's wrong, but because he's right. They just need to find the right terrain on which to attack him—and this is what this latest round has been all about, finding some way to convince the electorate to see Sanders in the same superficially negative terms that they themselves do.
To be fair, this same establishment media has been biased against Hillary Clinton for decades. She was not their ideal First Lady, Nancy Reagan (whose funeral/sainthood festival interrupted the campaign for almost a week at the “liberal” MSNBC), and they've uncritically gobbled up every right-wing tabloid conspiracy theory her enemies have dreamed of for 25 years now. But all this has still taken place within certain narrow ideological bounds—the bounds that the Clintons, as charter members of the neoliberal Democratic Leadership Council, have played no small part in establishing themselves. What puts the media on her side now—as it has been from time to time in the past—is the presence of Sanders, an outsider to those ideological bounds, someone who's not the least bit disinclined to note that the emperor has no clothes.
A clear way to bring this into focus is to compare the treatment of Sanders to someone on the other side who is deemed to be serious without any real scrutiny at all. And for that, we can turn to Dean Baker—one of a small handful of economists who saw the Great Recession coming, who has been blogging about shoddy, misleading economic coverage since the 1990s. He drew the contrast sharply in a “Beat the Press” blog post, “Reporters Who Haven't Noticed that Paul Ryan Has Called for Eliminating Most of Federal Government Go Nuts Over Bernie Sanders' Lack of Specifics.”
Sure, Baker wrote, “I certainly would have liked to see more specificity in Sanders' answers, but I'm an economist. And some of the [media] complaints are just silly.” After a few paragraphs picking apart the mistaken criticisms of Sanders, Baker turned his attention to the big picture:
There is a very interesting contrast in media coverage of House Speaker Paul Ryan. In Washington policy circles Ryan is treated as a serious budget wonk. How many reporters have written about the fact this serious budget wonk has repeatedly proposed eliminating most of the federal government. This was not an offhand gaffe that Ryan made when caught in a bad moment, this was in his budgets that he pushed through as chair of the House Budget Committee.
This fact can be found in the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) analysis of Ryan's budget (page 16, Table 2). The analysis shows Ryan's budget shrinking everything other than Social Security and Medicare and other health care programs to 3.5 percent of GDP by 2050. This is roughly the current size of the military budget, which Ryan has indicated he wants to increase. That leaves zero for everything else.
Which is fine if you're a movement conservative who doesn't believe government should do anything at all beyond fighting wars, or at least threatening to. But the vast majority of Americans—Republicans as well as Democrats--have a more hopeful view of what we can do as a people: everything from food stamps to the National Park system, the Department of Justice to the National Institutes of Health, the FBI to the CDC. Broad support for these and other government programs has been shown repeatedly in opinion polls over the past 50 years and more, but it never seems to register with the media elite. In the end, Baker concludes:
So there you have it. The D.C. press corps that goes nuts because Bernie Sanders doesn't know the name of the statute under which he would prosecute bank fraud thinks a guy who calls for eliminating most of the federal government is a great budget wonk.
I just want to underscore how lopsided this comparison is. Ryan's budget plans have gotten more insider scrutiny—such as it is—than anything else in Republican circles since Barack Obama became president, and hence represent the epitome of GOP budgetary seriousness. But it's scrutiny without seeing what's right in front of their eyes. Ryan's budget plans are an utter joke.
Within days of the above CBO analysis, a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities revealed the fact that Ryan's “deficit reduction” plan actually did no such thing. True, the plan promised $4.3 trillion in program cuts, but they were offset by $4.2 trillion in tax cuts, resulting in a mere $155 billion in deficit reduction over 10 years, an amount easily wiped out by even mildly adverse economic developments. Others spoke out in criticism as well, notably Paul Krugman, who started debunking Ryan's plans the year before (“The Flimflam Man.”) But it's had little effect. Ryan's long-term budget plans have gone through different iterations, but they've always been utterly divorced from reality, and this has always been treated as perfectly normal.
In stark contrast, the Congressional Progressive Caucus—which Sanders co-founded when he first entered Congress—has repeatedly put forth its own “People's Budget” proposals that actually do dramatically reduce the deficit. Their 2012 fiscal year budget, for example, would have eliminated the deficit complete by 2021:
Instead of eroding America’s hard-earned retirement plan and social safety net, our budget targets the true drivers of deficits in the next decade: the Bush Tax Cuts, the wars overseas, and the causes and effects of the recent recession. By implementing a fair tax code, by building a resilient American economy, and by bringing our troops home, we achieve a budget surplus of over $30 billion by 2021 and we end up with a debt that is less than 65% of our GDP. This is what sustainability looks like.
But year after year, the establishment that has lionized Ryan's budget prowess simply ignores the People's Budget. They refuse to even consider that progressives might have better ideas, which actually add up in the real world. So now that Sanders is running a presidential campaign, based in part on the same sort of budget priorities, they must find a new way to avoid that discussion—by trying to denigrate Sanders' policy wonk credentials.
Which brings us back to what Corey Robin wrote:
You’d think the last half-century of American politics hadn’t seen candidates like Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, or Al Gore, wonks all who knew more about policy than your average PhD, yet whose intimacy with the arcana of state was somehow insufficient to propel them to—or keep them in—the White House. Or Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, whose relationship to policy details was, how shall we say?, attenuated, yet who nevertheless managed to completely rearrange the political furniture of our lives. Maybe, just maybe, mastery of policy detail does not a successful political actor make.
What's notable about the polar opposites Robin stakes out is their ideological aspect. Vague, simplistic nostrums are accepted as normal on the right, and this accords with broad public support for conservative narratives of “personal responsibility,” “limited government” and the like. As revealed by Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril in their landmark 1967 book, "The Political Beliefs of Americans: A Study of Public Opinion," half the population qualified as ideologically conservative, in the sense of preferring a smaller, more limited government.
But actual governance is more complicated than that, and when people are asked specific questions about it, they turn out to be overwhelmingly progressive—about two-thirds qualified as operationally liberal in Free and Cantril's study, and decades of subsequent polling substantially confirms what they found. Sanders' unexpected strength derives in part from the fact that he has highlighted this long-overlooked fact of American political opinion. The things he is saying to advance this view of things are as specific in their terms as anything one might reasonably wish for in a campaign.
But, of course, it would be genuinely refreshing if the media would take a more detailed look at the kinds of workable ideas that Sanders and/or his supporters represent. Back in July, I wrote about the massive majorities that support Sanders-style politics. I referred to the “Big Ideas” poll commissioned by the Progressive Change Institute in January, which was ignored by the establishment media, just as the People's Budget had been, year after year. From that poll, the following all received 70% support or more:
Allow Government to Negotiate Drug Prices (79%)
Give Students the Same Low Interest Rates as Big Banks (78%)
Universal Pre-Kindergarten (77%)
Fair Trade that Protects Workers, the Environment, and Jobs (75%)
End Tax Loopholes for Corporations that Ship Jobs Overseas (74%)
End Gerrymandering (73%)
Let Homeowners Pay Down Mortgage With 401k (72%)
Debt-Free College at All Public Universities (Message A) (71%)
Infrastructure Jobs Program — $400 Billion/Year (71%)
Require NSA to Get Warrants (71%)
Disclose Corporate Spending on Politics/Lobbying (71%)
Medicare Buy-In for All (71%)
Close Offshore Corporate Tax Loopholes (70%)
Green New Deal — Millions Of Clean-Energy Jobs (70%)
Full Employment Act (70%)
Expand Social Security Benefits (70%)
As I wrote at the time:
All of the above are in line with Bernie Sanders’ politics and all are extremely popular, with support across the political spectrum. For example, the infrastructure jobs program (a key element of Sanders’ platform) had 91% support from Democrats, 61% from independents and even 55% support from Republicans—compared to only 28% who were opposed. Donald Trump can only dream of being that popular among Republicans.
Those are the sorts of popular issues directly or indirectly implicated in the Sanders campaign. A serious substantive campaign focused on them would not only serve the interests and desires of the majority of the American people; it would also provide an excellent framework for evaluating just who is really qualified to be the kind of leader that our nation really needs.