Let me begin by stating I did not spend the whole weekend with Bernie Sanders. It was only a couple of hours. But it was a long couple of hours and when it was over, it felt like the whole weekend had come and gone.
This was not my first experience with Bernie. I heard him speak at the First Church of Jamaica Plain in February 2011 to a crowd of several hundred people. On Saturday, he spoke to a considerably larger crowd at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center. An estimated 20,000 people (including yours truly) attended his speech. Thousands more were unable to get in and watched the speech via video outside despite cold and windy weather.
While the Sanders campaign is touting it as a triumph, the whole affair was a chaotic mess. There was very poor crowd control as the Sanders campaign only let people into the convention center 15 minutes before the speech. Can you imagine if people were only let into Fenway Park 15 minutes before the first pitch? To make matters worse, the Sanders campaign actually tried to make people sign in before entering the hall, which only held up things further. I was less than amused when the MC told the crowd, “We’re 10 minutes behind schedule and that’s your fault.” I have a bad feeling that would be a sign of things to come during a Sanders presidency.
Before Sanders came to the stage there were several guest speakers. Karen Higgins of National Nurses United spoke of “education, not incarceration” and “breaking not only the glass ceiling, but the class ceiling.” Higgins also proclaimed Sanders “a President for the 99%.” Up next was Jimmy O’Brien, president of the Boston Carman’s Union, who rather than devote his attention to Sanders, mostly railed against the privatization of the MBTA. Given the MBTA’s poor performance during last winter’s record snowfall, there isn’t a whole lot of public sympathy for the T even among Sanders’ supporters. Jillian Brelsford, a nursing student at the University of Massachusetts Boston, praised Sanders for promising free tuition at all public colleges and universities. It was left to environmental activist Bill McKibben to introduce Sanders. He praised Bernie for opposing the Keystone Pipeline XL back in September 2011, as opposed to Hillary Clinton who declared her opposition in September 2015.
Sanders entered the room to Neil Young’s “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World.” Surely, this was no accident, as Young had objected when Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign last June with the same song by noting he is a supporter of Sanders. The 74-year-old Vermont Senator’s voice was hoarse — he made the trip to Boston from western Massachusetts where a few hours earlier he had spoken at a smaller rally in Springfield. Yet it didn’t stop him from firing up the crowd when he declared, “I don’t have a Super PAC. I don’t want a Super PAC and I don’t need a Super PAC.” Sanders claims that 99% of his contributions are less than $100.
While I suspect that many in this crowd were vegetarians and vegans, they happily ate up Sanders’ servings of red meat against “millionaires and billionaires.” Although Sanders has gained in popularity at the expense of Hillary Clinton, he did not mention her in his speech. When he wasn’t going after “millionaires and billionaires,” he went after Republicans for working on their behalf and suppressing the vote for women, minorities, and senior citizens. The crowd also got hot each time Sanders mentioned “mass incarceration” (the jailing of a disproportionate number of African-Americans). He also made a point of saying American imprisons more people than China. It seems to me that people in America and China are imprisoned for very different reasons.
Sanders was long on complaining about what was wrong with America (i.e., income equality, mass incarceration, not having health care for all — Obamacare doesn’t go far enough for him), but was short on solutions. He did propose the national minimum wage be raised to $15 an hour over four years, single payer health care, public funding of elections, but didn’t say how he would pay for these things. The closest thing he had to a specific proposal was to have tuition free public colleges and universities end student debt by placing a special tax on Wall Street speculation.
He also proclaimed that he would not appoint anyone to the Supreme Court unless “he or she is prepared to overturn Citizens United.” Think about that for a moment. Sanders didn’t merely say he would only appoint justices who disagreed with Citizens United, but that he actually overturn it. Sanders seems intent on treating the Supreme Court as a legislative body. Not that the Supreme Court doesn’t have a history of behaving like a legislative body. But even then it couldn’t just declare on Day 1 of a Sanders presidency that Citizens United was no longer the law of the land. With this in mind, I suspect Sanders would prefer that the Supreme Court act as a rubber stamp for his whims than a body that holds him in check.
Sanders also mentioned the horrific shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, which claimed the lives of 10 people last Thursday. He praised President Obama for “politicizing” the shootings and called for universal background checks (he referred to them as “instant background checks”) to be “strengthened,” called for the end of the gun show loophole, and proclaimed “guns not be in the hands of people who should not have them.” Absent a crystal ball, none of Sanders’ proposals would have prevented what happened last week in Oregon. Possibly the only thing that would have prevented it is more good guys with guns. But Sanders preaches to the choir and repealing gun control isn’t in the hymn book.
Foreign affairs were scarcely a footnote in his address. While Sanders acknowledged the horrors of ISIS and stated that Iran ought not have a nuclear weapon, he also made a point of saying we needed to “put an end to war as a means of settling disputes.” I’m sure Vladimir Putin will get right on it.
The more I listened to Sanders, the more I realized I had heard all this before. It transported me back more than eight years ago when I listened to Barack Obama speak in Manchester, New Hampshire. He, too, spoke about income inequality, public financing of elections, and health care for all and where are we now?
Where it concerned Barack Obama, Sanders chided Republicans for blaming him for everything including “the weather and mosquitoes” while accusing them of having amnesia of the previous eight years under George W. Bush. I would suggest that Sanders has amnesia about his “friend” President Obama. All of things which Bernie Sanders wants, Barack Obama has either (a) abandoned (like public financing of election campaigns) or (b) tried them and failed (Obamacare and improving our infrastructure with the Stimulus Plan). We’ve had seven years of abandonment and failed policies, soon to be eight. Why do we want four more years of it? If Barack Obama couldn’t deliver, then how can Bernie Sanders?
When it comes right down to it both Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders are socialists. The only difference is that Sanders is honest enough to admit he’s a socialist. Yet that might just be good enough for voters.
It’s not that America hasn’t had socialists run for the White House before. Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas were perennial presidential candidates on the Socialist Party ticket in 11 of the 12 presidential races between 1900 and 1948. The difference now is that socialism has found a home in the Democratic Party.
As I argued following Obama’s re-election in 2012, America is a different country from it was when it first elected Ronald Reagan. If it’s possible to elect a President who has overhauled health care, unilaterally given illegal immigrants amnesty, restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, and ceded the Middle East to Russia, it is only a matter of time before we elect a President who openly calls himself a socialist. It isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that time could come in 2016. In which case, the phrase “Feel the Bern” will take on a whole new meaning. Our weekend with Bernie will be both long and lost.