Candidate Evaluations: Bernie Sanders

by Benjamin Studebaker

Bernie Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont, has announced that he’s challenging Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for president. So it’s time to return to the Candidate Evaluations series, where we examine a candidate’s background, policy history, and explicit statements in an attempt to figure out whether the candidate would actually be any good at being president. Too often, no one bothers to ask these questions, focusing instead on electability or likability. Previously, I’ve covered Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Hillary Clinton, and Marco Rubio. None of them looked especially promising. Can Sanders do better?

This is Bernie Sanders:

Like many of the other candidates, Bernie Sanders has an undergraduate political science degree (in his case, from the University of Chicago, the place where I did my MA). Unlike many of the other candidates, Sanders never pursued a law degree. He worked a variety of odd jobs after college, spending time as a carpenter, writer, and researcher, among other things. He got involved in the anti-Vietnam protest movement in 1971. He was mayor of Burlington, Vermont for eight years during the 80’s, defeating both democrats and republicans, including one candidate who had the support of both parties. In 1990 he became the first independent to be elected to congress in 40 years, jumped to the senate in 2006, and won reelection in 2012 with 71% of the vote.

Sanders has taken a lot of positions that put him significantly to the left of all the other candidates who have declared so far. Here are a few of his notable stances:

  • He has consistently supported economic stimulus spending, including many of the less popular smaller stimulus packages that did not become law.
  • He has consistently supported union rights.
  • He supports a constitutional amendment barring corporations from making political donations and permitting congress to enact further campaign finance reform.
  • He voted against the Iraq War and consistently voted to remove troops from Iraq during the 2000’s.
  • He sponsored the Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act of 2007, which would have created a national cap and trade system with the goal of reducing carbon emissions 83% by 2050.
  • He wants to go beyond Obamacare and create a single payer health care system like the ones in Canada, the UK, and elsewhere.
  • He spent 8 and a half hours trying to stop the 2010 Tax Relief Act because he opposed cutting taxes on the rich.
  • He opposed the Toxic Asset Relief Program (TARP)–this is the program that bailed out the financial system–on the grounds that it distributed the costs of the bailout in a regressive way. He claimed he would support a bailout if it had been consistent with his four principles, which aimed at raising taxes on the rich, raising wages for the lower and middle classes, reimposing the regulations that were removed during the Clinton administration, and break up firms that are “too big to fail” into smaller, more manageable units.
  • He supports gay marriage, but more importantly, he supported it long before it became popular to do so–he’s on record supporting gay marriage consistently since the 90’s–he even voted against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.
  • He supported a constitutional amendment protecting gender equality and tried to reintroduce the Equal Rights Amendment.
  • He tried to eliminate the death penalty during the 90’s and has consistently supported legislation making it harder to impose.
  • He has consistently supported abortion rights, including late term abortions.
  • He opposes school vouchers and frequently votes to increase public education spending.
  • He voted against welfare reform in 1996.
  • He voted against financial deregulation in 1999, which played a crucial roll in permitting “too big to fail” firms to arise.

I’m pretty impressed. Bernie Sanders is on the right side of most of the big issues in politics today–inequality, austerity, global warming, and so on. When I wrote Hillary Clinton’s candidate evaluation, there were a number of different policies and issues I found concerning–DOMA, financial deregulation, welfare reform, the Iraq War, etc. On every one of those issues, Bernie Sanders disagreed with the Clintons and took the correct side.

That said, there are a few issues Sanders has wrong–his hostility to GMOs is unscientific, as is his opposition to nuclear power, which could be essential in his quest to lower carbon emissions. I also think his support for affirmative action is misplaced (I think it doesn’t effectively address the causes of inequality and perpetuates racial tension). But compared to the other candidates who have declared, these are minor gripes. Sanders is clearly the best candidate to declare so far by a significant margin. Here’s where I’d put him on the political compass:

Political Compass 2016 Ver 2


This places Sanders in the same territory as many of the old model social democracies in Europe during the 1960’s and 1970’s. In contemporary politics, he’s nearest to the greens–indeed, his brother, Larry Sanders (no, not that Larry Sanders), is running for parliament in the UK on a Green Party ticket. Why isn’t Bernie Sanders running as a green? The Green Party has had little success in presidential politics–it is most famous for sabotaging Al Gore in 2000. My guess is that Sanders doesn’t want to play any role in getting a republican elected, so he will contest the democratic nomination but decline to run against the democratic nominee in the general if he doesn’t get it. But this is only a guess–if Sanders doesn’t get the nomination, he could run as a green or as an independent (like Ross Perot did in the 90’s), potentially creating a significant headache for someone else.

Sanders is a genuinely different candidate with a compelling alternative policy vision. If he were elected, it would be good for the country, though Sanders would likely struggle to implement his vision if the republicans remain in control of congress. His vice presidential choice would also be particularly important, given that Sanders is already 73 years old. He’ll also have to beat Hillary Clinton for the nomination, and that will likely be difficult because Clinton has many connections to wealthy donors and currently has a large lead:

2016 DNC Polls April


Strategically, Sanders’ best hope is to unite the 40% or so of democrats who remain anti-Clinton and then attempt to pry further democrats loose from there. This will be very hard–in April 2007, Clinton had 35% to Barack Obama’s 17%. Today, Clinton has 61% to Sanders’ 6%. But no democrat has gained more support than Sanders over the last few months, and a little press coverage can elevate any candidate from obscurity to contention in short spans of time. He may be a long shot to win, but Sanders is a good candidate and would do fine as president. We should not allow the questions about his electability to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, particularly given that the man has so many reasonable policy stances.