There’s good news and bad news for Bernie Sanders. The bad news is, 2020 is proving to be a lot more work than 2016 was. He’s no longer just a protest candidate who can dodge the demands of running for president in favor of vague promises and canned speeches.
The good news for him is, his campaign is being taken very seriously. He’s now leading in the polls, and even got the president’s attention after his wildly popular Fox News town hall: “I believe it will be Crazy Bernie Sanders vs. Sleepy Joe Biden as the two finalists to run against maybe the best Economy in the history of our Country (and MANY other great things)!” he tweeted.
But the increased scrutiny has also exposed some serious problems for Sanders.
After stonewalling on releasing a significant amount of his tax returns, he finally shared his financial history, revealing he’s part of the very 1% he often rails against. The Sanders are millionaires. Thanks in large part to recent book sales, they paid a federal tax rate of about 26%, and gave only $19,000 to charity last year — just 3% of their total income.
For some on the left, that doesn’t square all that well with his “for the people” message.
Former Hillary Clinton aide Jess McIntosh said on CNN, “I would have suggested that maybe this is a moment to talk about how the system is rigged for people like him, white, male, privileged, with a platform, and that he would want to make sure the system works for everybody. But instead he just is really defensive — ‘it’s not a crime to write a book’ — and I don’t know where that’s coming from, or how that serves him.”
But the real problem isn’t that Sanders is a millionaire now. His appeal wasn’t that he was a card-carrying member of the middle class. It’s that he was perceived as an outsider.
Of course, this was never really the case. Much like Donald Trump, the outsider label was a clever but misleading ruse Sanders happily trotted out to take on Hillary Clinton, the ultimate establishment candidate.
And also like Trump, who has been for decades a player in every part of the establishment he consistently attacked, Sanders is actually just an insider pretending he is not.
Don’t tell his supporters, but no one who’s been in elected politics for decades can convincingly be called anti-establishment. Sanders is a career politician, a shrewd manipulator of the system he calls rigged, and as we now know, a millionaire who cashed in on his popularity mostly to line his own pockets.
I don’t begrudge him that success — but it’s the ultimate in white male privilege to suggest that, with all of that, you are in any way an outsider.
The increased heat on Sanders is also making him behave, well, like an insider.
After ThinkProgress ran an article and video calling Sanders’ wealth “off-brand and embarrassing,” Sanders did what people who are used to getting their way and think they’re above critique do: He threatened the Center for American Progress, which owns and funds ThinkProgress (which CAP says has editorial independence from its umbrella organization). “This counterproductive negative campaigning needs to stop,” he wrote in a letter he sent to CAP and CAP Action Fund. “I will be informing my grassroots supporters of the foregoing concerns that I have about the role CAP is playing. Should your actions evolve in the coming months, I am happy to reconsider what kind of partnership we can have.”
In other words, play nice with me, or else. It’s an unbecoming look for someone who wants us to believe he stands outside the Washington swamp, when the truth is he’s as much a creation of it as anyone else in Congress.
In 2016, I often described the enthusiasm around Sanders versus the begrudging support of Clinton this way: She was a corporation and he was a cause. But with the spotlight shining more brightly on Sen. Sanders, he’s looking less righteous and more self-interested, less a bumper sticker and more a boilerplate.
In some ways this was inevitable. Bernie’s weakness isn’t that he’s a millionaire. It’s that he’s just a politician.