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Friday, April 8, 2016

A Hot And Winding Road To New York

If recent events are a sign, the Democratic primary is in for a rough two weeks.  Once New York is behind us, some significant questions will have been answered: Does Bernie have that precious momentum he keeps talking about? Should Clinton be nervous about losing the lead?  (I'm betting "no" on both counts.) Before we get to that point, we're going to see a good deal of ugliness. I'm pretty sure you can find fault with any extended political campaign.  Clinton's hasn't been perfect, though I've had more issues with Bernie's.  However, nothing has prepared me for what we're seeing now.

Remember when Anderson Cooper made us laugh by calling Donald Trump out on his "argument of a five-year-old"?

Cooper deserves credit for so bluntly calling out that childish "he started it" argument, doesn't he?

So who's calling Bernie out for making the same argument? Bernie claimed that Hillary is "not qualified" to be President of the United States.  For somebody who had previously said they would support her if she won, and who has said she would be "infinitely better" than any of the Republicans, it is surprising, to say the least, to hear him say that.  And it will make it very, very difficult for him to unequivocally support her if (and when) she wins the nomination.  So we can see why Bernie might not be so comfortable with the path he's laid out for himself.  Indeed, he's implicitly acknowledged that it's not a virtuous campaign strategy.  When questioned, he said, "If they're going to question my qualifications, I'm going to question theirs."  Meaning:  I didn't start it.  I didn't do the bad thing first.  They started it!

Let's leave aside the fact that Hillary indirectly questioned his qualifications by refusing to comment on them when repeatedly pressed to do so. (Instead, she acknowledged that one could legitimately question his readiness to lead and his ability to solve the difficult problems facing the country.) And let's leave aside the fact that Bernie didn't simply "question" her qualifications. He outright denied them.  You might agree with Bernie, you might not.  You might think this was a stupid political move, you might not.  But what I think you must accept is this:  If you were on Anderson Cooper's side when he said Trump was being childish, you should not be on Bernie's side when he says "they started it."  If Cooper's rule applies to Trump, it applies to Bernie.  Bernie says he just wants to run a campaign on the issues, but the media won't let him. Fortunately, a lot of people see it differently: Bernie's decision to call Clinton "unqualified" is on him, not anyone else.

This all started when Bernie was heavily criticised for his interview with the New York Daily News. That leads to the second (and final) bit of ugliness I want to discuss.  Most of the discussion about that interview is focused on the part about Dodd-Frank and "too big to fail" financial institutions. I think it's pretty obvious that Bernie does know a lot more than most of us when it comes to financial regulation, but that does not mean his comments are immune from criticism. Barney Frank (one of the key architects of Dodd-Frank) has said that Bernie's response to questions about the bill were "incoherent."  Maybe Bernie wasn't as clear as he could have been.  That's not a big deal.  That part of the interview is at least worth questioning, but that is not the part that bothers me most. I am much more alarmed by the parts dealing with foreign policy. And it's not Bernie's ignorance that bothers me the most.  It's something else that I'm not quite sure how to name.  I am reluctant to call it "megalomania," but it might be something like that.

The moment came with this exchange, right after Sanders said Israel should have been more discriminate in its response to attacks from Gaza:

Daily News: Do you support the Palestinian leadership's attempt to use the International Criminal Court to litigate some of these issues to establish that, in their view, Israel had committed essentially war crimes? 
Sanders: No. 
Daily News: Why not? 
Sanders: Why not? 
Daily News: Why not, why it... 
Sanders: Look, why don't I support a million things in the world?

Is there a good way of interpreting that line?  Because to me, it sounds like the kind of answer we should expect from Donald Trump.  To say it is "unpresidential" would be far too generous. It is as if Bernie thinks he is above reproach, as if his positions should not be questioned.  Why does he support X, Y and Z?  Who the hell knows?  Why are you asking?  Get out of Bernie's way!

Now, I don't think we should assume Bernie thinks this way.  At least, not when he is at his best.  But that is one of the well-known criticisms against him:  He tends to be uncompromising and hot-headed. These can be virtues in the right context, but they can also be liabilities--like, for example, when you are asked crucial questions you are not ready to answer (perhaps because it is not politically comfortable for you to answer, or maybe because you haven't thought through the issues enough).  In an interview with the New York Daily News, that might not seem like a big deal.  However, if there's one thing I believe about what it takes to be President of the United States, it is this:  You must be ready to handle extremely complex issues on foreign policy at the drop of a hat.  If Bernie cannot keep his cool when being asked to explain a belief about Palestine in front of the New York Daily News, how can we trust him to handle a live international crisis?

There are many other criticisms to be made about Bernie's campaign in general and his performance in that interview, in particular.  The Washington Post counts 9 problems.  I counted at least 11.  Whatever the number, Clinton was right in observing that it raises questions about his readiness to lead.  As I said, it's not so much his take on financial regulation that scares me.  It's his character. It's his personality.  He has shown that he is comfortable defending ugliness by making childish arguments ("they started it," "I want to run a nice campaign, but the media won't let me.")  He has shown an ability to act as if he is above reproach.  I do not want to see this in a Democratic primary, and I don't blame the media.  I blame Sanders and his campaign. It indicates to me that Bernie Sanders is not a global leader I can trust.

I expect more of the worst from Bernie and his campaign as we approach the New York primary.  The debate in Brooklyn threatens to be the ugliest we've seen by any Democrats in a long time.  I suppose Clinton will be on the defensive--though she might decide offense is her best defense--unless Bernie decides to completely change the tone of his campaign.  Whatever happens, I doubt we can expect it to be good.  Whatever virtue there was in this primary seems to be evaporating rapidly.