Wednesday, August 03, 2005

A Different Kind of Liberal

Perhaps it’s a testament to our similar thinking. Perhaps it’s a testament to our poor communication. Whatever the case, Mr. Harwood and I authored two separate posts on the same article this afternoon. Since we’ve taken different approaches, we’re including both. Mr. Harwood’s follows after mine.

The August 15th issue of The Nation features a good profile on Bernie Sanders, the socialist congressman from Vermont who plans to run for the senate seat Jim Jeffords is vacating. The article refers to Sanders as “the minority of one,” the sole Independent member of the House of Representatives. His politics reflect his outsider status.

There is nothing cautious about Sanders's politics: He opposes the war in Iraq, he is an outspoken critic of the Patriot Act, he condemns corporations and he maintains a lonely faith that government really can do a lot of things--like guarantee healthcare for all--better than the private sector.

What truly separates Sanders from centrist Democrats is his willingness to talk about economic issues.

To a greater extent, arguably, than any other progressive politician in the country, Sanders is identified with pocketbook issues. Spending a day with him in the small towns of Vermont is the equivalent of signing up for a walking seminar on the real-life struggles of working Americans--as played out on issues ranging from protecting Social Security, retirement plans and Medicare to expanding access to healthcare, lowering drug prices, raising the minimum wage, helping small businesses get started and keeping family farmers on the land. The conversations are a mix of personal anecdotes and broad-sweep policies, always pulled back by the Congressman to a discussion of the perils of corporate power and lobbying. To be sure, Sanders takes questions about the war in Iraq and other issues, but the breadth and depth of the discussions he gets into regarding the kitchen-table concerns of working Vermonters is remarkable.

I’m baffled by the fact that Democrats aren’t drilling Republicans harder on these issues. Taxes and the services they pay for should be slam dunk causes for Democrats. The line is fairly simple. They say: “Republicans want to reduce social services so they can introduce tax cuts designed to benefit the wealthiest people in the county. We Democrats, on the other hand, favor a progressive tax system designed to support the social services citizens should expect their government to provide, a tax system that costs the wealthiest Americans a bit more and in exchange, gives working people a chance to flourish.”

Sanders is right on when he identifies the Democrats’ relative silence on economic issues as providing an opportunity for Republicans to win over working people.

"Democrats are not as engaged as they should be on the economic issues that face tens and tens of millions of people," says Sanders. "That's what the Republicans have been playing off. The Republicans jump in and say, 'OK, look. Democrats are not talking about your economic issues. We're not either, but at least we're telling you about the Ten Commandments, we're telling you about abortion, we're telling you about gay rights.' The biggest mistake Democrats make is to take economics off the table."

Thank you.

In general, the Democrats in Congress have become a reactionary party. They let Republicans choose the issues then do their best to mount rebuttals. Democrats don’t push to build social programs but they object when Republicans propose a bill to repeal estate tax. Democrats don’t advocate secularism, but they cringe when the Religious Right wants to pass an amendment banning gay marriage. Democrats didn’t stand against the war in Iraq, but when things started going bad, they backpedaled and began cranking out half-baked speeches about exit strategies.

Democrats have been so concerned with offending as few people as possible, they haven’t noticed that they’re inspiring even fewer. I’m hoping that Sanders’ senate bid will prove that a principled progressive candidate with no qualms about stepping on moderate toes can win. I have no illusions that Democrats will rush to emulate the political model presented by a socialist congressman from Vermont, but at the very least, Sanders presents an alternative to appeasement politics a la Joseph Lieberman. Sanders is not the solution, but he is a counterweight. Perhaps he can tip the scales a bit and help bring the Democrats back to the left, where they belong.

--Matthew McCoy