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Bernie Sanders is no Eugene McCarthy but he does resemble that insurgent politician-poet’s failed effort to win the Democratic nomination in 1968. “Green for Gene,” went the cry from his enthusiastic young followers while their elders, undisturbed by the draft and the war, chose Nixon. Echoing that distant era, someone in Harry Jaffe’s compelling and timely biography, Why Bernie Sanders Matters, shouted for another unorthodox politician, “We love you Bernie.”

Can Bernie Win And Also Change America? —Murray Polner

Can Bernie Win And Also Change America? —Murray Polner

Of course, not everyone agrees that Bernie’s the one. The NY Times’ ubiquitous pundit Thomas Friedman equated Bernie with some of the extremists running for the Republican nomination. “What if our 2016 election ends up being between a socialist and a borderline fascist—ideas that died in 1989 and 1945 respectively?”

Even the staunchly liberal economist Paul Krugman poured cold water on a Bernie-for-President election, citing a “persistent delusion that “a hidden majority of Americans” will ever cast their ballots for so radical a reformer.

On the Left, Liz Featherstone and Suzanne Danita Walters in The Nation speculated about a Sanders administration. “He’s no Marxist revolutionary if you’re waiting for someone who will expropriate the expropriators, you’ll have to wait a little longer,” wrote Featherstone. And this from Walters: “It’s unlikely that Bernie’s redistributive policies, admirable as they are, would ever make it through Congress.”

And Mike Lofgren, a 28-year veteran staff member of congressional committees, in his new and illuminating book, The Deep State, highlights the sweeping changes he has witnessed in Washington. Without mentioning Sanders, he says that the U.S. now has a “shadow government whose career personnel ensure that basically the same policies”—national security, financial and trade agreements and regulations of corporations and banks—“remain in place regardless of who gets elected.”

Bernie’s now-familiar answer is that Washington has become so corrupted by money, patronage, and special interest groups that no serious reforms can be made unless people rise up as they did in the civil rights, gay and women’s movements and say, Enough!

Add that to panicky Democrats who are terrified lest they be identified as liberals tied to a socialist though Jaffe says that Bernie’s socialism is a “tame socialism,” where the voting booth, not violence, will be the change-maker.

Bernie’s now-familiar answer is that Washington has become so corrupted by money, patronage, and special interest groups that no serious reforms can be made unless people rise up as they did in the civil rights, gay and women’s movements and say, Enough! His talk of class differences hasn’t been heard much since the early New Deal, Huey Long, the New Left and most recently the Occupy movement. Does it sound like a call for class conflict? It sure does, and Bernie isn’t shy about taking on Hillary—or Michael Bloomberg if he decides to run—for supposedly acting as Wall Street and the Military Industrial Complex’s marionette.

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To Jaffe, Washingtonian magazine’s editor at large, Bernie is what he’s always been, “a Brooklyn guy on a crusade” who really believes in social justice as he defines it and regularly condemns an America ruled by an unaccountable oligarchy where ordinary people have no say over domestic and foreign affairs.

Bernie “matters,” insists Jaffe, because he’s been an effective and popular mayor, congressman and senator and because whatever happens, Bernie’s giving Americans “hope and an opportunity to change the country's course from exclusion to inclusion, from hoarding to sharing, from oligarchy back to democracy. That’s why he matters.” And win or lose, Tom Hayden, the co-founder of SDS, believes that his candidacy “will have a deep lasting impact on social movements, younger progressive Democrats, local elections and progressive politics far into the future.”

Jaffe diligently tracks him from Brooklyn to Chicago, Burlington and Washington. While a student at the University of Chicago he called for a “stable interracial community” in his Hyde Park neighborhood and denounced residential segregation in the rest of the city erected by an economic system “which despite the greater wealth of the country does not provide adequate housing for large numbers of people.”

Yet like virtually all the candidates, he’s hasn’t said much about foreign policy. Indeed, Jaffe writes that at times he has sounded like a “baby hawk, if not a full-fledged warmonger” though much less so than the quite hawkish Hillary. In 1999 he supported NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia. After voting against sending troops to Iraq, he voted to pay for the war. At one time some of his friends in Vermont’s antiwar Liberty Union Party, his old party, occupied his Burlington office claiming he had abandoned them. Still, as a non-veteran, like everyone else chasing the nomination, he’s done more for veterans than most politicians.

While chairing the Senate Veterans Committee the VA hospital scandal broke in 2014, he and John McCain agreed on a bill for veterans, which Jaffe says provided “choice cards for ailing vets… more clinics and doctors, expanded services, and increased military pensions.” When Senator Marco Rubio and nearly all Republicans opposed the bill because of the cost, Bernie excoriated them on the Senate floor. “If you think it’s too expensive to take care of our veterans, then don’t send them to war.”

Israel and its intractable conflict with Palestinians loom as a contentious issue. As a young radical he said things he’d never repeat in the House or Senate. Now, “with some exceptions, he had fallen more closely into Israel’s fold,” writes Jaffe, and when he does address the question, he wards off heated constituents by speaking of a two-state solution.

Why then, is a 74-year- old Jewish politician running hard to win even though some liberals fear he could lose to a Republican troglodyte? The only plausible answer I can think of is that he believes that his issues are morally and politically right, if not always politically feasible. Whether that’s good enough to win the Democratic nomination and send him into the 0val 0ffice to shape a progressive agenda in so complex, changing, confusing and polarized a time as ours remains to be seen.

murray polner

Murray Polner