There’s no fool like an old fool, but Bernie Sanders deserves credit for not backing away from his foolishness. In for a penny, in for a pound.
Bernie has had a fascination with radical-left politics, the kind that most kids grow out of, since he was a young man in New England, where the harsh weather — summer doesn’t arrive until after the Fourth of July and it’s gone by Labor Day — can freeze a man’s brain as solid as a hickory stump.
Few politicians, liberal, conservative or otherwise, would venture to say something nice about rape or molesting children, but Bernie wants voting machines put in prisons, where even people who commit heinous crimes like rape and murder can cast their ballots like the rest of us, because, he says, the right to vote is fundamental and can’t be abridged by a mere crime.
“I think the right to vote is inherent in our democracy,” he told a CNN town hall not long ago. “Yes, even for terrible people, because once you start chipping away, you’re running down a slippery slope. I believe even if [voters] are in jail they’re paying the price to society, that should not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy.”
Bernie has been on a not-so-slippery slope himself since Joe Biden got into the race, and he needs something dramatic to break out the slough of Democratic despond where he’s hanging out with Mayor Pete and Pocahontas and the gang.
Going full-bore on socialist fantasy is working, if Bernie can be satisfied with mere attention. Bernie was a socialist when socialism in America was not even lukewarm, except briefly as promoted by Norman Thomas, the perennial Socialist candidate for president. Bernie was the mayor of a small town in Vermont and he never seriously tried to municipalize the means of industrial production in Vermont, such as shoveling snow or tending sugar-maple trees, and he always looks for opportunities to say a kind word about the economic system that seduces eggheads and sometimes children.
But hope springs stubbornly eternal. Bernie made a speech the other day at George Washington University and gave a full-throated endorsement of socialism as the cure for what doesn’t ail America. Eggheads, college kids and the little old ladies who pass out pamphlets at meetings of the Ethical Culture Society went all a-tingly when they heard that Bernie had gone all-out for what makes Venezuela and North Korea such tourist hotspots.
Just as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was the answer to suffering and abuse by corporations then, so “democratic socialism” is the answer now. “My message to you today is that if there was ever a moment where despair was not an option, this is that time. If there was ever a moment when we needed a new vision to bring our people together in the fight for justice, decency and human dignity, this is that time,” Bernie says.
But an old vision or no vision at all is better than the vision that made Moscow infamous. Bernie wraps himself in the mantle of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman and Martin Luther King, but Bernie has dubious claim on any of it. He thinks he can improve FDR’s famous Four Freedoms. “Today I am proposing we complete the unfinished work of Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Party by putting forth a 21st Century economic bill of rights.” To freedom of religion, speech and from fear and want, he adds rights to quality health care, “as much education as one needs to succeed” (which would keep graduate schools in business for the next century), “a good job that pays a living wage,” affordable housing (“but not a mansion or a Cadillac”), retirement support and a clean environment.
Some of Bernie’s Democratic opponents, who recognize folly when they see it, are rushing to get away from him, lest they become collateral damage. “Sen. Sanders wants to dramatically reshape the entire economic model of the United States, which would be a huge mistake,” says U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, one of the many Democratic candidates for president of whom nobody has heard. “Socialism, or any new name Sen. Sanders has for it, is the wrong answer.”
Bernie himself understands that. He explained how he became a millionaire with a heart to one inquiring mind that wants to know. “When you write a best-seller you make money. I suspect that in a couple of years my salary will go back to $173,000 a year, which is what a member of Congress gets.” But dreaming the impossible dream, flacking for the impossible scheme and romancing felons was fun for a little while.
• Wesley Pruden is the editor in chief emeritus of The Times.