Bernie Sanders Is My Senator, But Should He Be My President?
It is often said that for certain moments in history, we remember exactly where we were when they happened. For me, one of these was when I heard that Bernie Sanders might run for President of the United States. Sitting in the cafeteria of my high school in southern Vermont in February, 2015, I remember seeing a video on a friend’s phone of our very own Senator Sanders--at the time a relative unknown on the national level but something of an icon in his home state. Bernie was speaking in a Burlington school to just a few other people about why he was running—for America’s workers, for disadvantaged communities, and for a fair and honest political discourse that focuses as much on policy details as it does on the lives of real people.
Growing up in Vermont during Bernie’s campaign spurred a remarkable political awakening. I had always thought that politics was something distant from my own existence, something that happened on TV, in the halls of Washington, or at least somewhere in the upper Midwest. Bernie changed that by cutting through the media spectacle of political theater and reshaping national discourse to feel personal, accessible, and issue-driven. I will not deny that I felt a personal connection to his campaign, given his role as my home state’s US Senator. But I was most inspired by Bernie because he was the first politician I witnessed who forwent mere charismatic charm in favor of a policy agenda that felt historic—a decisive move away from the conservatism and indomitable self-interest that had plagued political discourse since the Reagan era.
It may seem logical, then, that a successful Sanders campaign in 2020 would be the natural culmination of the movement that he started four years ago, especially given that the Democratic Party has adopted much of his progressive platform. However, it has also become clear in recent years that there are shortcomings in Sanders’ leadership and judgment that deserve scrutiny, even as the Senator continues to be a frontrunner amidst a packed field of presidential candidates. These shortcomings are not peripheral to Sanders’ message or exceptions to a rule—they present real obstacles both to Sanders’ success in Donald Trump, and his ability to deliver on the same policies that made his campaign so powerful.
The first of these comes straight from my home state. Sanders has proudly served in Congress as an independent for his entire career, though the high-minded country-before-party message that he touts doesn’t tell the full story of this choice. Throughout his political career, Sanders has established a practice in Vermont congressional races in which he runs in the Democratic primary and then refuses to carry the party’s label once nominated, thereby eliminating any opportunity for the fair and honest political discourse he claims to promote among both Democrats and Americans more broadly. It is easy to assume that this is only an issue for the Democratic Party, and doesn’t translate to—and in fact makes more appealing—the idea of Sanders as president. To be fair, he has publicly stated that he would not replicate such a tactic at the national level. However, this practice speaks volumes about Sanders as a leader; he often picks unnecessary fights and prioritizes self-righteous political independence above consensus-building and pragmatism.
The hiring of David Sirota has revealed another, more serious issue with Sanders’ campaign that has gotten traction in recent weeks. Sirota, a political advisor who styles himself as an ‘independent journalist’ and attacks other 2020 candidates on Twitter, has been secretly writing speeches and providing political advice for Sanders in recent months. Questionable campaign ethics aside, Sirota was infamously engaged in a race-baiting campaign for a Philadelphia mayoral candidate in the late 1990s—a history that does not suit Sanders’ message of an America based on economic and racial justice.
Perhaps most troubling, though, were the reports by the New York Times early this year about claims of sexist treatment of female staffers on his 2016 campaign. As Sanders’ image has struggled due to blocs of supporters known for their sexist treatment of Hillary Clinton on social media—popularly known as “Bernie Bros”—these claims show that these factions weren’t as disconnected from the campaign as was claimed in the run-up to the election. Though Sanders has offered an apology and promised a change in his 2020 campaign, these reports nevertheless strike a cognitive dissonance between Sanders’ public promotion of equity and the working realities of his own campaign.
The lack of a true reckoning with these issues is not the mark of a strong leader, but an indication of a stubborn political actor who cares more about making a point than successful governance. A bold and uncompromising voice such as Sanders’ is certainly necessary for the political left in Congress; the job of a chief executive, however, is undeniably different, requiring a capacity for deft strategy and honest leadership that Sanders has not yet proven.
This is not to say that Sanders would make a bad president, or that voters ought to disqualify him altogether. I absolutely share my Senator’s vision for America as one that promotes political, civil, and economic justice. However, when plenty of other primary candidates also share that vision, it is important to consider everything each candidate brings to the table—with Bernie being no exception.
It is far too early in this Presidential race to forecast where the Democratic Party—much less the country—will be politically when it comes time for Democrats to cast their vote in the primaries. Above all, I firmly believe that we should remain open-minded to all candidates, including Sanders, as we consider who can define the best vision for where the country ought to be headed, both in the short term and over the long haul. But we must also remember to be mindful of the characteristics that define strong leadership. Any President of the United States is inherently a leader before a legislator; this is basic Constitutional reality.
In any case, it might also be good for America to catch up with the rest of the world and elect a female president, for once.