The least improbable feature of Bernie Sanders campaign to become President is that, if elected, he would be 80 years old when he takes the oath of office. But, then, he is not only old, he is a socialist and represents one of the smallest, whitest states in the Union. Not the ideal résumé for a presidential candidate. But Sanders is not lacking in determination.
He is also a humorless scold but that comes with being an old-school socialist. There is nothing funny about inequality and in the socialist universe, everything is about… inequality. You never take the day off.
Sanders has been my Representative in the House and one of my two Senators for longer than I care to remember and I was content to consider him simply part of the price of living in Vermont. The air is clear, the schools are safe, many miles of the state’s roads are still unpaved and turn into the quagmires during what is known as mud-season. Outside of Burlington and a few other small cities, life moves at rhythms that recall the days of Calvin Coolidge, a great Vermonter and President.
Would that Senator Sanders were more like Coolidge, who was a man of few words and could make those that he did use sing with a music that is imperishable.
“I have never been hurt by what I have not said.”
“You know, I have found out in the course of a long public life that the things I did not say never hurt me.”
“If you don’t say anything, you won’t be called on to repeat it.”
Coolidge was a laconic man who prized — and praised — silence, which is sort of a Vermont characteristic. (Except when it isn’t, which is often the case.) He was called “Silent Cal” for this taciturnity and that didn’t seem to bother him. Or, if it did, then he typically did not say anything about it.
Bernie Sanders is the other thing. “Voluble” doesn’t quite cover it. Bernie is never at a loss for words. Never silent, which was the Coolidge trademark.
But then Sanders was never really a Vermonter. To be officially recognized by the natives as such, you must be of at least the third generation born in the state. Once upon a time, a real Vermonter said to me, “Where you from with that accent?”
“Alabama,” I said sounding almost guilty about it.
“But my wife just had a baby here,” I went on, “so my daughter is a Vermonter.”
The man looked like he wanted to spit on the floor.
“Cat crawls in the oven and has kittens, that don’t make them muffins, does it?”
I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I played like Calvin Coolidge and stayed silent.
Bernie Sanders would no doubt have engaged the man in dialogue. Or, more likely, monologue. And his mouth wouldn’t have even been up to cruising speed before the word “outrage” came out of it.
In the Sanders universe, there is no end to those things he calls an outrage:
* The inadequacy of the minimum wage.
* The unfairness of CEO compensation.
* The high cost of health care.
* The high cost of a college education.
* The paltriness of Social Security benefits…
Sanders finds the unfairness of life an outrage and he believes that it is the responsibility of government to do something about it. Hence the predictable demands:
* Medicare for all.
* Increased Social Security benefits.
* Free college.
* And so on.
All of this is a long way down a dirt road from the self-reliant ethos of Calvin Coolidge and Vermonters of his generation. But, then, Sanders came to Vermont from Brooklyn. He was part of a great ’60s migration of people who wanted to change the world and who turned Vermont into… well, Vermont. A place where taxes and drug use are high while the economy and population growth are stagnant. A few years back, the state tried to create a single payer health care system. Both the attempt and its failure were unsurprising.
Sanders had no particular dog in that fight. He had moved on to the Senate and Washington. But it was his kind of issue. And on issues like health care, minimum wage, and so forth, he is absolutely sincere and consistent. He probably tests lower for tactical repositioning than any of the Democrats’ presidential candidates. Unlike, say, Joe Biden, Sanders does not have to worry much about videos from ten or more years ago in which he is shown taking exactly the opposite position on an issue from the one his campaigns on today. Bernie doesn’t change and he doesn’t grow.
Which is not to say that he can’t maneuver and make the issues work for him. He might, arguably, have never made it to Washington if he hadn’t been more congenial to the NRA than Peter Smith, his incumbent Republican opponent for Vermont’s lone seat in the House of Representatives who went back on a promise to vote against an assault weapons ban. All over the state, you saw bumper stickers that read: “Smith and Wesson — Yes, Smith in Congress — No.”
Sanders went on to Washington where, plainly, gun control was never an issue he either cared much about or was comfortable with. He has done enough backing and filling that the NRA now gives him a D-minus rating and you can’t imagine that Sanders knows the difference between an AR-15 and a 1911 Colt. The gun question is something the media will use to make him appear uncomfortable on camera but it is hard to imagine anyone believing that if he were in the White House, he would veto a tough gun bill sent to him by Congress.
On that litany of issues that he does care about, he has been consistent, inflexible, and monotonous. Like the good socialist that he is. He once praised Venezuela. Now he ignores that country and its woes. He never met a major corporation he liked. Wall Street salaries and bonuses are always — all together now — “an outrage.” And so on.
He is off and running now and he evidently never tires of hearing himself talk. Already, one wishes for a little more of the spirit of Calvin Coolidge who didn’t say much but whose words were worth more than all of the dreary socialist talk we can expect from Bernie Sanders in the coming months.
People expect too much from government, Coolidge said.
“The people cannot look to legislation generally for success. Industry, thrift, character, are not conferred by act of resolve. Government cannot relieve from toil.”
Vermont surely doesn’t make them like it used to.