That Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders won the Republican and Democratic primaries in New Hampshire was no surprise, despite all the hyperventilating among the beltway MSM. While Trump may now march on to victory (although NH has never been a great predictor of success), Sanders will have to demonstrate that he can attract something other than white liberals. As Barney Frank, the former congressman from Massachusetts, argues in the following piece, Sanders has a long way to go to attract actual Democrats who believe in preserving and expanding on the gains of the Obama administration.
By Barney Frank
After Bernie Sanders’s near-miss in Iowa, his campaign believes a solid win in New Hampshire will give him strong national momentum going forward. Their view is plausible, but I believe it’s wrong.
I know my strong support for Hillary Clinton will lead some people to think my wishes are clouding my judgment, but the opposite is likelier to be true: I’m a congenital campaign pessimist, and spent much of the time during my tougher election campaigns expecting that I would lose.
Changing Demographics When it comes to Sanders, there are three reasons why things will get harder for him, not easier, even after a strong performance February 9. The first, which has drawn some attention, is that the rest of the electoral map is much less favorable to him, geographically, ideologically and demographically.
But two other equally important factors have gone largely unremarked—and indeed, the fact that we haven’t noticed them is a big part of why he’s gotten as far as he has.
Until recently, Sanders has experienced the great benefit of not being taken seriously. Between the focus on the unexpectedly entertaining Republican race, and the intense scrutiny on Clinton as the overwhelming Democratic favorite, the only aspect of Sanders’ record to have drawn any attention from outside his own campaign is his ambivalence on gun regulation.
What this has meant is that he has been enjoying one of the greatest gifts any politician can ask for: the ability to define himself as he wishes, without any inconvenient rebuttals.
Bernie, the Insider In many ways his candidacy is deeply ironic. A senior United States senator who has held national office far longer than any other candidate in the race—25 years in Congress, including influential committee positions—has been the most successful in presenting himself as the quintessential outsider.
He presents himself as not only free of responsibility for anything that happened during his tenure, but vigorous in his insistence that nothing that was done while he was there had any value in addressing the problems that he discusses.
And his condemnation falls equally on Democrats and Republicans alike. When he leads his audience in the chant that Wall Street regulates Congress, he draws no distinction between Democrats who enacted crucial financial regulations like the Volcker rule, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the regulation of derivatives and the Republicans who fought all three and are now working to undermine them.
Nor does President Barack Obama escape. While he does not explicitly attack the president, nowhere in Sanders’ campaign rhetoric is there any positive assessment of his record. His listeners do not hear that the Affordable Care Act was a great advance and must be protected as he and others try to go beyond it. They don’t hear that getting the top tax rate back up to where it was before Bush lowered it meant a real increase in tax fairness.
Many congressional Democrats, myself included, feel deep resentment at this wholly negative portrayal of our efforts. First, it is a prime example of how inattention has helped Sanders until now. Commentators have made a point of noting the lack of congressional support for Cruz, legitimately drawing negative inferences from the fact that his closest colleagues are essentially rejecting him.
Why don’t their colleagues back them? In part, of course, it’s out of fear they’ll be weak in November. In Cruz’s case, this is also reinforced by a more strongly expressed personal dislike than I can remember attaching to any other member of Congress. With Sanders, the deeper problem isn’t personal; it’s the feeling that his approach to the very issue by which he defines himself—how to bring about fundamental progress toward a fairer society—makes it less likely that we will succeed in doing so.
This concern is as strong on the left wing of the congressional party as it is in the center. And it is deeply felt as well by the major advocacy groups that worked alongside us in achieving what progress we have won.
No, Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign are not resisters of change. Neither is John Lewis, or the other Congressional Black Caucus members who are campaigning for Clinton, nor Tom Harkin, the leader in fighting for the rights of those with disabilities, nor Henry Waxman and Sandy Levin, who chaired the committees that wrote the ACA in the House and who have written an article defending their work against Sanders.
And while I concede pride of authorship may influence me, when my 2010 opponent was greeted by cheers on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange during our campaign, and major financial operators like Carl Icahn and David Einhorn maxed out to him to punish me for our legislation, I don’t think any of them agreed with Sanders that Wall Street had somehow been regulating us.
It’s not that liberals object because Sanders advocated—or advocates now—going further. Most of us agree, and are trying to do so. Our disagreement with him is on how to do it, and on what we believe to be the negative consequences of his approach.
Many of us would have liked to have gone further on some big issues. With the support of almost all Democrats, for example, we came close to a ten year drop in the Medicare age to 55, and we almost succeeded in charging the financial community for the cost of increased regulation. But we believe it is important not to let our disappointments lead people to lose sight of the significant gains we did make.
In sharp contrast, and in a way that weakens Democrats in the coming electoral fight, Sanders denigrates what we did achieve to the point of dismissal.
Sanders’s current response to the constraints that we face, in effect, concedes their power by calling for a political revolution to overcome them. Again, our objection is not to that revolution—I would be very happy to see it come about—but to the fact that it’s extremely unlikely, and to the blowback if it fails to materialize.
Where Was Bernie? If you think Sanders can bring about the revolution he promises, there is an important question to ask: Why has he met with a complete lack of success in at least starting the revolution until now? True, he wasn’t president, but senators have exercised considerable influence in the past when they had strong, popular sentiment behind them.
I don’t personally remember his playing a meaningful role in moving either health care or financial regulation in the direction he favored when we were considering them. This isn’t a criticism of his work at the time, but it’s definitely an example of the scrutiny that should be given to his legislative work on the issues he’s campaigning on now. I’m skeptical—reluctantly so, but skeptical—that the public support needed to get fundamental social and economic change through Congress can be mustered as easily and as quickly as he has led his supporters to believe.
As Sanders enjoys more success, you can expect the quiet unease over the tone of the Sanders campaign to become outspoken in coming weeks. Why? The problem isn’t his call for revolution to bring single-payer health care, much tougher taxation of the wealthy, universal free higher education or breaking up big banks.
What troubles me and many of my former colleagues—among the most liberal members—is the belief that nothing short of this is worth fighting for.
In fairness to Sanders, I do not argue that he is himself saying this explicitly, but that’s the message coming through to his supporters loud and clear: Unless he does not win the presidency with his promise of political revolution, they believe, nothing of consequence will be done to make us a better country.
Defending the ACA, financial reform and a higher top tax rate from the lavishly financed assault from the right that is coming will be hard enough, without some on the left having been taught by Sanders that these hard-won progressive achievements weren’t all that valuable in the first place.
As more attention is paid to his record, and as the silence of his colleagues perhaps turns into active skepticism and uneasiness, Sanders is likely to face headwinds he so far has managed to avoid—no matter how well he does in New Hampshire on Tuesday.