Why Bernie Sanders Was Right About Primarying Barack Obama


During Thursday night’s Democratic Town Hall on MSNBC, the Hillary Clinton campaign was sending out oppo memos attacking Sen. Bernie Sanders, one of which caught my interest in particular. It detailed the now-familiar attacks on Sanders for calling President Obama “weak,” and for trying to find someone to challenge the President in a 2012 Democratic primary. It’s a line of attack that has never appealed to me, but one which I had failed to ever examine closely.

The evidence “against” Sanders is something of a mixed bag. The first example is from a March, 2011 radio interview, and is a rather tepid endorsement of the idea of a primary, and one in which Sanders makes a point of saying he won’t be the one to do it:

I’m not a Democrat. I’m an Independent. But if a progressive Democrat wants to run, I think it would enliven the debate, raise some issues and people have a right to do that. I’ve been asked whether I am going to do that. I’m not. I don’t know who is, but in a democracy, it’s not a bad idea to have different voices out there.

The next time, though, it wasn’t the questioner who brought up a primary challenger for the incumbent president, it was Sanders himself, and he also called the President “weak,” or rather, he said that millions of Americans think he’s weaker than they expected him to be in negotiating with Republicans:

I think there are millions of Americans who are deeply disappointed in the president; who believe that, with regard to Social Security and a number of other issues, he said one thing as a candidate and is doing something very much else as a president; who cannot believe how weak he has been, for whatever reason, in negotiating with Republicans and there’s deep disappointment. So my suggestion is, I think one of the reasons the president has been able to move so far to the right is that there is no primary opposition to him and I think it would do this country a good deal of service if people started thinking about candidates out there to begin contrasting what is a progressive agenda as opposed to what Obama is doing.

Okay, he didn’t have to call the President “weak,” but up until now, this is just a theoretical exercise, a thing that would be a good idea. But the very next caller asks Bernie if he has reached out to anyone yet, and Sanders seems to indicate he’ll get right on it:

At this point I have not, but I am now giving thought to doing it…One of the reasons that President Obama has moved as far to the right as he has is he thinks he can go all the way, and no one will stand up to him. So, Tim, I don’t want to tell you more than that, but this is an issue, yeah, I am, we are beginning to talk about.

But about a month later, Bernie was on C-Span saying that although a primary would be a “good idea for our democracy,” he also made it clear that it would be a purely academic exercise, and that Obama would be the Democratic candidate for president:

So, according to the Hillary Clinton campaign, that’s the entire Bernie Sanders “Primary Obama” dossier.

As I said before, this attack never appealed to me much for a variety of reasons, chief among them being that you can take all of the “attacks” Bernie has ever been accused of making against President Obama and fit them into a single 2008 Clinton campaign memo with room to spare. Yes, Hillary has done a lot of work to repair her rift with Obama voters, but it’s still a little too glassy around here to start throwing stones.

The other main reason I don’t like this attack, especially after reviewing all the “evidence,” is that Bernie Sanders was right, and Hillary Clinton proves it. When Sanders made those comments, President Obama was smack in the middle of a debt ceiling fight that he was going to end up losing, making an enormous concession that led to the current sequester. It was a deal that I pushed against at the time, too, and I was right. I don’t think the President was “weak,” I think he miscalculated the depth of the Republicans’ bad faith, but substantively, it was a bad deal.

It was also around this time that President Obama was seeking a “grand bargain” with Republicans, and was putting things like “chained CPI” for Social Security on the table, and the media were unanimously behind “entitlement reform,” and completely enamored with the idea of “bipartisanship” that really amounted to pulling everything to the right. President Obama needed pressure from the left.

Where I think Sanders was wrong was in thinking that a primary challenger could have exerted the kind of pressure that would have had a measurable impact. In 2012, that wasn’t about to happen, but I think that pressure from activists and advocates, along with the growing evidence of the GOP’s bad faith, did get through to President Obama.

But the proof of Bernie’s theory is in the 2008 pudding. That year, there was a primary candidate who managed to move then-Senator Obama significantly to the left on a major issue. No, it wasn’t John Edwards or Dennis Kucinich, try again:

That’s right, folks, in 2008, Hillary Clinton ran on an individual health care mandate, and Barack Obama mocked her for it, but after all was said and done, we wound up with an individual mandate, which is why you can no longer be denied health insurance for a preexisting condition. People always think of 2008 as Hillary running to Obama’s right on Iraq, but when it came to health care reform, the cornerstone of President Obama’s legacy, it was Hillary who pulled him left.

Speaking of which, remember how 2008 Hillary criticized 2008 Obama’s health care plan for not covering everybody, and 2008 Obama said he wanted to “focus on lowering costs?” Well, here’s 2016 Hillary’s answer to Bernie Sanders’ universal health care proposal:

  • Defend the Affordable Care Act. Hillary will continue to defend the Affordable Care Act (ACA) against Republican efforts to repeal it. She’ll build on it to expand affordable coverage, slow the growth of overall health care costs (including prescription drugs), and make it possible for providers to deliver the very best care to patients.
  • Lower out-of-pocket costs like copays and deductibles. The average deductible for employer-sponsored health plans rose from $1,240 in 2002 to about $2,500 in 2013. American families are being squeezed by rising out-of-pocket health care costs. Hillary believes that workers should share in slower growth of national health care spending through lower costs.
  • Reduce the cost of prescription drugs. Prescription drug spending accelerated from 2.5 percent in 2013 to 12.6 percent in 2014. It’s no wonder that almost three-quarters of Americans believe prescription drug costs are unreasonable. Hillary believes we need to demand lower drug costs for hardworking families and seniors.
  • Transform our health care system to reward value and quality. Hillary is committed to building on delivery system reforms in the Affordable Care Act that improve value and quality care for Americans.

Note there’s nothing in there about covering everybody, and a whole lot of focus on lowering costs.

As it happens, I think Hillary Clinton is the better candidate, for a plethora of reasons I’ve stated in these pages and elsewhere, but I don’t like to see liberals attacking other liberals for doing what’s right for our country. If Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, I hope there are people to apply pressure when necessary to keep ideals like universal health care in mind, when all the pressure in the world is in the other direction. Hillary Clinton should know that, because she did it.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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