How Do I Feel About the Bern?

So I guess it’s time for a little personal political opinion here (after all, this is a blog). Prerequisite disclosure: These are obviously my views and not those of The Washington Diplomat, whose editorial I am beyond proud of because it is meticulously accurate and fair.

That gets to a bit of a tangent here: I once heard that the former owner of a major newspaper used to tell his reporters that they have no opinions. They’re always neutral. Like robots.

In theory, this makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, because of the #FakeNews epidemic, many people have no clue just how much the importance of being fair, impartial and accurate is drilled into journalists from the start. At the University of Maryland, for example, there was a required introductory class all of us journalism majors had to take where if we misspelled someone’s name or made a factual error, we got one strike. If we got three strikes, we flunked the class right there on the spot and were asked to literally walk out and leave the classroom. Let me tell you, after that kind of humiliating walkout (I think like 90% of students failed that class at least once), you will forever quadruple-check your facts and spellings.

So of course journalists need to be careful when veering away from impartiality into the realm of expressing opinions. At the same time, the notion that reporters don’t have opinions is absurd (in my opinion ;)) After all, you’re digging deep into a subject. You’re becoming a de facto expert on it. It’s only human and natural to form an opinion on it.

The key is to openly recognize that opinion and then constantly ask yourself if it’s coloring your work. For example, responsible journalists routinely ask themselves: “Am I allowing my bias of this person keep me from seeking out commentary from people who support him?”

Is it a perfect process? No. Journalists are human. But it occurs much more regularly and rigorously among “mainstream” journalists than people give them credit for. There will always be streaks of bias. But you’ll have a tough time finding outright lies in establishment media. I dare anyone to pick a New York Times article and find a blatant lie that has no grounding in fact or truth whatsoever. You’ll have a hard time. Bias? Maybe, or even probably. Blatant “falsehood” (i.e. flat-out lie). No. The same can’t be said of other media outlets that shall remain nameless.

Sooooo long intro short, that’s the reasoning behind my opinion of opinions in my industry. With that said, here’s my take on Bernie Sanders (it was originally supposed to be quick, but anyone who knows me won’t be surprised that this turned out to be wayyy longer):

He introduced revolutionary ideas and tapped into a real groundswell of legitimate frustration. At the end of the day, though, he’s a spoiler. Revolutionary is not the same as realistic, and lofty ideas mean nothing if you can’t win and actually implement them.

Now, would Hillary have won if Bernie hadn’t stolen whatever thunder she originally had? Who knows. Trump did lose the popular vote by a sizable margin and won the electoral vote by a slim margin (when you look at the numbers in local districts that tipped the larger state-wide scale). And Hillary was a lightening rod for many people (she did have her share of flaws, although some people’s hatred of her wasn’t grounded in any sort of reality).

So we’ll never know the woulda, coulda, shoulda of 2016. But Bernie definitely would’ve been the spoiler if he had stayed this time around — and I suspect the only reason he finally dropped out was because of the unusual circumstances (i.e. coronavirus). Otherwise he would’ve contested this to the bitter end, dividing the party and causing a needless distraction from the Democrats’ ultimate goal: Unseating the president.

Coronavirus has turned everything upside down. But assuming the pandemic hadn’t of happened, Bernie would’ve simply chipped away at Biden over the summer — slowly eating away at any chance that Biden had to steer the conversation towards what’s really at stake: Whether he’s the person who should replace Trump. After Super Tuesday, it was obvious Bernie was not going to be that person, but whether out of vanity, obstinacy or a true conviction in his cause, Bernie would’ve carried on as the de facto spoiler who was sabotaging his own party’s chances, regardless whether he saw himself in that light.

You also can’t talk about Bernie without talking about the age divide. He clearly spoke for many young people who feel their voices have been drowned out by the establishment — and that’s admirable. Trump did the same thing with a wide swathe of older voters. Bernie’s ideas for universal health care and his calls to fundamentally rethink globalization and capitalism (which in many ways mirror Trump’s) reflect a justifiable need to do just that — rethink our long-held assumptions.

But if you want real change, you have to be realistic. Guess what? I wanted to be an actress/singer/supermodel when I grew up. Then I got real. Otherwise I’d probably be singing on a street corner homeless.

I would love for each and every Americans to have access to free, high-quality health care through a single payer system. I’d love for the bloated and ineffective American health care system to look more like Denmark’s (and I could write an entire book on how breathtakingly bone-headed our system is). After all, no one in the richest nation in the world should go bankrupt and lose their job because they broke an ankle. Everyone should view this as a national disgrace.

But I also recognize that the ship has sailed, we’re not Denmark, and we have to craft distinctly American solutions to address distinctly American problems. This requires realism, moderation and compromise — all things that, especially among young Bernie supporters, are seen as antithetical to change, when in fact they’re essential. (The same could certainly be said of hard-core Trump supporters).

Guess what? Ain’t no one giving up a good private insurance plan to gamble their health on an uncertain government-run system where they’re scared they’ll have to compete for a doctor’s appointment (they wouldn’t but the transition would be long and painful). Realistically, this country is not ready to make that leap, not now or possibly ever.

BUT does that mean we can’t improve health care to ensure everyone has access? Of course not. It’s not one way or bust. There is ALWAYS a middle ground — something that gets lost when you have politicians perched on a high horse on one extreme side of the aisle or the other.

Obamacare isn’t perfect, but at its heart, it’s a Republican, market-oriented solution to health care access (ask Mitt Romney). I believe that if more Republican governors hadn’t instantly rejected it out of hand (and Republicans in Congress had bothered to at least come to the negotiating table instead of shunning the debate altogether), it could’ve been a real game-changer for American health care (even though in many ways it still is).

But the premise of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is based on all 50 states participating to spread out risk so that an insurance exchange marketplace makes fiscal sense for insurance companies. If half the states don’t participate, you get a broken marketplace. And then you had Republican governors — whose people disproportionately need and would benefit from Medicare — automatically rejecting free Medicare from the Feds because they didn’t like Washington and who was running it. All I’ll say here is that principles shouldn’t punish the people you’ve been hired to help (even when some of those people slam Obamacare while at the same time screaming for the government not to touch their ACA benefits).

Anyway, the point is that political posturing and extremism don’t get anyone anywhere, and both voters and politicians need to start getting real — something that seems to be eluding today’s far-left progressives.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe it was Republicans under the Obama administration who perfected the art of obstinacy by refusing to even countenance working with the other side (see Obamacare). Civility and compromise were being eroded for years by both parties, but they took a clear nosedive with the GOP opposition to anything and everything Obama. Trump then put the nail in the coffin on both. He solidified the trend where “moderate” has now become a dirty word, compromise means surrender, lies are the norm, and experience and expertise are seen as vices, not virtues.

But Bernie’s isn’t blameless either, nor are his supporters. Kudos to them for refocusing attention on absolutely critical issues like health care, student loan debt, workers’ rights and climate change. But their my-way-or-the-highway idealism was self-defeating.

Again, perhaps this is a matter of age. I’m older and realize that promising to change the world means nothing if you can’t win office. And rallying young progressives to vote in states that will fall into the blue column anyway isn’t a winning strategy. Until you get rid of the electoral college, you need to plan for how to win over swing states — and threatening to eliminate popular private health care plans isn’t exactly the way into a moderate’s heart.

A recent poll showed that 15% of Bernie supporters would vote for Trump rather than Biden. Look, if you support Trump’s platform, by all means, vote for him. If you’re doing it because you’re upset your guy didn’t win and you’re throwing a tantrum, then you’re proving how self-defeating and naive your politics are.

Interestingly, if you take a careful look at Joe Biden’s campaign blueprint, it’s surprisingly progressive. And if you look at Bernie’s congressional record, it’s surprisingly pragmatic. Both men realized that to get things done, you have to be realistic and that if you want to change the system, you have to work within it.

Trump obviously has no desire to do anything with the system but bash it. On the one hand, it’s understandable. He wasn’t voted into office because he was part of the establishment. But his prideful disdain to learn anything about how government works has hurt him in the long run.

Coronavirus obviously has upended everything, and Trump’s legacy very much hinges on how well he handles the current crisis.

But before that, let’s ask ourselves what has he personally accomplished (when you look past the daily headlines of tweets and tantrums and #FakeNews)? Other than launching a trade war with China (and there are both pros and cons to his China policy), Trump himself doesn’t really have tangible legislative accomplishments. One of the most enduring legacies of his administration will be the wave of conservative judges installed under his tenure. But that was all Mitch McConnell, not Trump. Trump’s ballyhooed budget cuts? Congress has batted them down at every turn and almost none have materialized. The one thing congressional Republicans did do is enact major tax reform that piled onto the national debt (which the party only seems oddly obsessed with when the other party is in power). Will tax reform ultimately help anyone other than large corporations? The evidence so far is slim.

Beyond that, what legislative record does Trump have that he himself spearheaded? Not much. To be sure, some of that is because of Democratic opposition, but Trump missed so many golden opportunities. If he’d been consistent in what he actually wanted and made an effort to talk to Democrats, he had a real chance at passing a significant infrastructure bill and sweeping gun reform.

If he had tried to learn a smidge about how the meat-grinder of legislating actually works, he could’ve pushed a lot more GOP priorities through Congress during the first two years of his administration. He had pull establishment figures like McConnell didn’t, but he wasn’t focused enough to flex it. He also didn’t bother to learn about legislating in part because of the belief that he already knows everything anyway, but also because of the attitude that has infected a growing number of extreme voters on both the left and right: The system is bad so why even deal with it?

Trump wanted to throw the bums out and clean up the swamp. Instead he brought on a bunch of billionaires tainted by allegations of all sorts of swampy behavior. In the annals of history, the levels of unabashed corruption and personal enrichment under this president will be one for the record books.

Likewise, many die-hard Bernie fans are itching to throw the bums out. I get it. Politics is always in need of a healthy infusion of fresh blood. But we still need the bums. We still need the people who have spent a lifetime dedicated to figuring out how the system works and making it work to their advantage. We still need the “establishment” types like Biden and his Senate Republican counterparts who spent years haggling and compromising because they realized that getting something is better than getting nothing. Ask McConnell. He gets it.

Experience in politics is, in my opinion, a good thing, not some kind of Scarlett letter. When George W. Bush won the presidency, many Americans said they voted for him because he’s the kind of guy they could picture having a beer with.

Yeah, that’s great and all, but would you trust your kids’ college fund or your retirement savings with an investment planner who had no actual experience in investing? All because you could have a beer with him and the other guys had investment experience? Probably not. When you vote in a guy with no political experience, you get an Iraq War.

Or you get a lot of hot air — largely in the form of a steady stream of incoherent and untruthful Tweets — while squandering a prime opportunity to form and enact an actual legislative agenda.

Bernie, of course, had a bold agenda. But he had not clear path to enact it.

I’ve always believed that change is perfectly possible without a wholesale revolution. Experience, civility, compromise, moderation are long-lost art form, and that’s self-destructive. They get things done — just not in a splashy way that fits with today’s era of polarized social media and insta-headlines.

We are living in a time of profound change — and problems. Whatever happens in November (and anyone who tells you they know what will happen is lying to you and themselves), I hope we wind up with a leader who has a basic grasp of those problems. Or who is humble enough to attempt to understand them. Who doesn’t spin fanciful lies and conspiracy theories that only sow division and hate. Who’s upfront about the sacrifices and costs required to tackle these problems. Who’s experienced in working the system and who’s level-headed enough to reach out to the other side to fix our problems.

As to whether that hope turns into reality — well, let’s just say, no matter what happens, I’ll still have plenty to write about in future blogs 😉

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