Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times Op-Ed piece “2 Questions for Bernie Sanders” asks:
Can you translate your bold vision into reality?
Can you get elected? Or would your nomination make a President Cruz more likely?
Both good questions. Serious questions raised by a journalist who first talked with Bernie after Bernie had been elected Mayor of Burlington, VT. It was a phone conversation with someone in the Mayor’s Office. Mr. Kristof, an intern with the New York Times, ended the conversation by asking the aide for his name. “Oh, I’m Bernie Sanders.” That was 1981.
Kristof’s editorial cites a Gallop Poll from a year ago that seems to give the edge to someone else: to Hillary in the Democratic primary, and to a Republican opponent in the general election. Why? According to the Gallop Poll one year ago, Americans show the most negative bias toward socialists (50%) and atheists (40%) when asked how various factors would affect their vote for a presidential candidate.
As a retired minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I have supported Bernie Sanders from the day he announced his candidacy for President. I support him because he boldly proclaims a social vision that is consistent with my faith. Democratic Socialism is not, as often supposed, an oxymoron. Democracy is a political form of government in which the people rule. Not corporations. Not big money. Not oligarchs. The people. Socialism is a form of economics that places emphasis on a fair standard of living, quality of life for all, and that narrows the gap in the distribution of wealth. A Democratic Socialist is someone who promotes 1) the return of the integrity of the electoral system to the general population (big money out of politics), and 2) the general wellbeing of everyone in the society rather than leaving it to be settled by the vicissitudes of the free market.
My religious tradition puts the public square front and center as a matter of faith and ethics. The first question of any candidate is what s/he would do if elected. It is not whether they profess my religious faith. “Would the world be a better place?” is the most important question. As I listened to Bernie speaking at Liberty University, I was struck again by how deeply he represents the best of the Jewish-Christian tradition and how respectful he was of the evangelical audience he was addressing. Both his demeanor and his thoughtful engagement of common ground with his audience’s Christian faith and practice defined the meaning of civility and respectful discussion. The atheistic Jewish Democratic Socialist was the opposite of the fears that paint any socialist as an anti-religious demagogue. His message could have been delivered from the pulpits of many churches and synagogues in America.
Then there’s Hillary Clinton, who by the measures of the Gallop Poll, is much more electable than Bernie. Hillary’s not a self-proclaimed socialist, not Jewish, and not an atheist. She’s a Christian heavily influenced by the United Methodist youth group she credits with turning her from right-wing politics into a social gospel progressive. On that question of electability, Hillary holds the edge.
But there’s another edge to Hillary that people are reticent to address. Although she has the edge on Bernie by the Gallop Poll measures, she has “an edge” to her that is off-putting, an air of self-righteousness that reduces her likability.
Remember the 2007 presidential primary debate in which Obama quipped “You’re plenty likable, Hillary”? Candidate Obama was criticized at the time, and rightly so, for being condescending. Nevertheless, his sarcastic quip exposed a truth about Hillary’s likability. She’s not. Too often her facial expression is smug and condescending. Research in the communications field reminds speakers that 90% of what people take away comes from the speaker’s body language. That’s a problem. It’s a thing she does with her eyes and mouth that seems to disdain those who disagree or ask a hard question. Hillary’s “edge” gives Bernie the edge on likability.
Bernie also gets the edge for his consistency over 35 years in public office. People are seeing in him a quality nearly absent from ordinary politics. What you see is what you get. When you believe that what you’re seeing is what they’re going to get, you’re much more likely to trust that person. Whether or not you like such a candidate, you view him or her as trustworthy. Hillary not so much. Edge to Bernie.
Turning from the question of electability to the question of Bernie’s and Hillary’s respective abilities to get things done, the edge tends toward Hillary.
Both she and Bernie are experienced politicians, but their experiences are different. Bernie’s only executive experience was years ago as Mayor of Burlington, VT. Congresspeople and Senators are legislators, not executives. The transition to the Oval Office from the Senate Office Building is a steep climb into another set of skills, power, and authority. Hillary is familiar with the Oval Office and executive responsibility. She occupied the White House for eight years, watching the patterns, discussing the most vexing problems with her husband and the press, and she served as Secretary of State managing the Department of State. On the level of executive experience, the edge goes to Hillary.
Although a fighter like Bernie, Hillary is connected by history and experience with congressional Representatives, Senators, Governors, party operatives, and leaders in the private sector on Wall Street and beyond. People owe her – even the most unlikely supporters like Senator Al Franken (D-MN), as close to Bernie’s democratic socialism as they come – because she came to their sides in hard-fought campaigns. Bernie, the Democratic Socialist, on the other hand, has always maintained his partisan independence while allying himself with the Democratic Caucus. Bernie would bring few IOUs to the White House. Edge to Hillary.
If politics is the art of the possible and the do-able, Hillary seems to have the edge. In the current oligarchic world of un-democratic American politics and capitalist economics, a more likable and trustworthy Democratic Socialist will have a tough time hold his edge. And that’s a crying shame.
- Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 11, 2016.