This article was originally published in The Washington Monthly.
Bernie Sanders has campaigned as the anti-politician. Much of his message is based on the conceit, even as he takes funding from those who work for fossil-fuel interests, even as he dodges questions about his tax returns.
There’s actually nothing wrong with those things per se. But Sanders acts as if Hillary Clinton is the only more-of-the-same politician, even though she released eight years of tax returns, even though she gets money, as Sanders does, from people who work for oil and gas companies, not from the companies themselves.
It’s time to set aside purity tests. They are unbecoming. Especially for Sanders.
Let’s consider his biggest weakness: guns.
When it comes to the priority of gun control to the base of the Democratic Party, Sanders is the outsider looking in. Sanders has in fact a mixed record, but that’s not enough. So the former secretary of state has made much of the fact that he voted against her husband’s proposal in the early 1990s to stiffen background checks in gun sales. Sanders opposed the Brady bill no fewer than fives times.
Sanders has explained his position, and others like it, in terms of constituency.
He has for decades represented Vermont, a state with a strong gun culture of hunters, hobbyists, and firearms manufactures. It has few laws regulating guns. His voting record is the result, he says, of listening to the will of the people.
“Bernie’s response is that he doesn’t just represent liberals and progressives,” said his former chief of staff, Anthony Pollina, in a 1991 interview with a Burlington newspaper, explaining Sanders’ views. “He was sent to Washington to present all of Vermont. It’s not inappropriate for a congressman to support a majority position, particularly on something Vermonters have been very clear about.”
That sounds like Sanders. What the people want, the people get.
But the rationale can’t justify every pro-gun vote, particularly a major piece of legislation that gave legal immunity to gun sellers and firearms manufacturers. If a gun is used to commit crimes, the seller or maker can’t he held liable, according to a provision of the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act.
This is the same provision being tested in federal court by the families of the 20 schoolchildren massacred in 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. The plaintiffs say that Remington’s Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, used by Adam Lanza to blast into Sandy Hook Elementary School, was designed and marketed for one purpose: to kill.
Sanders has defended his vote, saying that it doesn’t make sense to hold manufacturers liable for the criminal behavior of legal consumers. That’s fine, but his vote had the real consequence of protecting gun sellers and firearms manufacturers. It wasn’t for “the people.” It was for Vermont’s business elite.
Now that Sanders is running for the presidency, he has been under increasing pressure, especially from the Clinton campaign, to recant. In Iowa in January, he told an audience: “I think we should take another look at that legislation and get rid of those provisions which allow gun manufacturers to act irresponsibly.”
Clinton pounced, calling this flip-flopping, and the Politifact concurred.
To be sure, there’s nothing wrong, per se, with a Senator serving powerful business interests in his home state. And there’s nothing wrong with flip-flopping if circumstances demand it—if, say, your constituency goes from a rural state populated by white hunters to a racially diverse and urbanized America. A purist could accuse him of pandering, but really, Sanders didn’t have a choice.
But there is something wrong with the claim that Sanders is more authentic than his opponent, that he is the anti-politician while Clinton is the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with the two-party system, and that he’s the solution.
That’s nonsense. Sanders is a political animal.
Let’s stopping fooling ourselves.
John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the 2016 Koeppel Journalism Fellow at Wesleyan.
Photo: Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally at Key Arena in Seattle, Washington March 20, 2016. REUTERS/David Ryder