The Washington Post just reviewed a recent dispute between the Sanders and Clinton campaigns and concluded that Sanders earned “three Pinnochios” for dishonesty. This raises broader questions as Bernie’s campaign goes negative.
Bernie has built a mythology that he is a uniquely honest politician, and he has traded on that brand myth to raise money. Now that he is using those funds to attack Hillary Clinton, progressives should consider the factual answers to three questions:
(1) Is Bernie a high-integrity politician, or does he have a history of making compromises when politically convenient?
(2) Do his budgets speak hard truths or promise falsehoods?
(3) Do well-informed, independent observers more frequently trust Bernie or Hillary?
Question #1: Does Bernie Show Courage When The Chips Are Down?
We all know that Bernie attacks Wall Street and the rich, and his attacks often have merit. But those attacks do not require political courage, as neither constituency matters to his campaigns in Vermont or nationally. So, how has Bernie’s integrity held up when his own political career was at stake? The facts are not kind, as Mother Jones recently explained. To take three examples:
Exhibit A: The National Rifle Association. In the largely rural state of Vermont, the left’s bête noire is the National Rifle Association. Did Bernie benefit from the NRA’s money, endorsements, and support? Yes. He had previously lost statewide office six times before the NRA decided to invest tens of thousands to elect him. Upon his election, Bernie reversed the gun-sense positions of his predecessor and voted against the Brady Bill five times.
Exhibit B: Going negative on Hillary. Bernie initially promised a campaign of ideas. He said would advance issues, forcing the party to respond to a substantive agenda of economic justice. He promised he would not attack Hillary personally in ways that might increase the likelihood of a GOP victory in the fall, because (in his words) Hillary would be a vastly better President than Trump or Cruz.
But then Bernie broke his promise. After Iowa and New Hampshire tantalized Bernie with the prospect he might actually win, and then large states such as Florida and Ohio dimmed his prospects, he and his campaign decided to go negative. Sanders is now using his campaign war chest to attack Hillary Clinton personally.
Exhibit C: Free college. When Bernie launched his presidential bid, he had a choice about what to emphasize. He decided to announce a $70 billion investment in education. The funny thing is that $70 billion is almost exactly the figure that would be necessary to fund universal, high-quality early childhood education for young children. Such a program would deliver enormous benefits for economic growth and social justice for all children.
Except … preschool children do not vote, and most families in need of preschool are too poor to give money to political campaigns. So instead,Bernie’s first major campaign pledge was free college. This is a $70 billion handout that would overwhelmingly go to the wealthier half of society (lower income families mostly do not send their kids to college, for reasons that often have little to do with tuition).
Why did Bernie prioritize college for some over preschool for all? Even if Bernie genuinely worried about college affordability, why didn’t he endorse policies that targeted low-income families (such as the policies promoted by President Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton)? The most plausible answer is not very flattering: to appeal to the wallets of middle-class campaign donors,Bernie Sanders disregarded the needs of the poor for political advantage.
Question #2: Do Bernie’s Budgets Convey Hard Truths or False Promises?
To convey a sense of honesty, Bernie trades in blunt ideas. “College will be free.” “Healthcare will be free.” “Other people — undeserving people—will pay for it.” The sum of these ideas appear in Bernie’s proposed budgets.
Sadly, you can find more climate scientists who reject climate change than credentialed economists who believe that Bernie’s budgets add up.
For example, the Sanders campaign has elevated the analytic work of Professor Gerald Friedman, who concluded that Sanders’ budgets work mathematically. To reach this conclusion, Friedman made aggressive assumptions about the U.S. growth rate under a Sanders presidency.
- Jared Bernstein, who is friendly to Sanders and leads the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, cited several assumptions as “wishful thinking” in a conversation with the New York Times.
- Obama’s former chair of his Council of Economic Advisors , Christina Romer, did a deep-dive analysis of Friedman’s work that revealed serious errors.
- Austan Goolsbee, another former chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, wrote that “The numbers don’t remotely add up,” and that “they’ve evolved into magic flying puppies with winning Lotto tickets tied to their collars.”
Why does this matter? As liberal papers such as Slate Magazine and Mother Jones have explained, Bernie’s bad math is a form of dishonesty. His campaign is telling the entire country that we can have something for nothing. This demagoguery weakens America’s capacity for self-government and encourages apathy and anger, because the promises will not ever come true. Since Hillary Clinton chooses budgets that have a relationship with reality, she cannot offer as much. In other words, when Bernie claims that Hillary lacks ambition, the truth is that what she really lacks is reckless mendacity. As Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman wrote:
this controversy is an indication of a campaign, and perhaps a candidate, not ready for prime time. These claims for the Sanders program aren’t just implausible, they’re embarrassing to anyone remotely familiar with economic history (which says that raising long-run growth is very hard) and changing demography. They should have set alarm bells ringing, but obviously didn’t.
Question #3: Do Well Informed, Independent Observers Trust Bernie or Hillary More?
Bernie’s brand for honesty also comes from his claim that, by comparison, Clinton is not trustworthy. In this, he relies upon decades of Republican-led attacks on Hillary, ranging from Vincent Foster’s suicide to the terrorist attacks in Benghazi. But like those other artificial scandals, Bernie’s made-for-politics campaign of character assassination is false. Those who have carefully observed both candidates have concluded that Hillary is the more trustworthy.
A compelling recent example is the former executive editor of the New York Times, Jill Abramson, who has had a long career covering Hillary Clinton from an adversarial perspective. Abramson summarized her research in a column:
As an editor I’ve launched investigations into [Clinton’s] business dealings, her fundraising, her foundation and her marriage. As a reporter my stories stretch back to Whitewater. I’m not a favorite in Hillaryland. That makes what I want to say next surprising.
Hillary Clinton is fundamentally honest and trustworthy.
The yardsticks I use for measuring a politician’s honesty are pretty simple. Ever since I was an investigative reporter covering the nexus of money and politics, I’ve looked for connections between money (including campaign donations, loans, Super Pac funds, speaking fees, foundation ties) and official actions. I’m on the lookout for lies, scrutinizing statements candidates make in the heat of an election.
… There are no instances I know of where Clinton was doing the bidding of a donor or benefactor.
As for her statements on issues, Politifact, a Pulitzer prize-winning fact-checking organization, gives Clinton the best truth-telling record of any of the 2016 presidential candidates. She beats Sanders and Kasich and crushes Cruz and Trump …
Surprised by Abramson’s conclusion? You shouldn’t be. All the remaining candidates have long histories of working with other human beings. Progressives in Burlington, black activists in Vermont, and Bernie’s former colleagues in the House and Senate describe Bernie as a self-promoter with narcissistic tendencies. Hillary, by contrast, has received large numbers of endorsements from political leaders in cities, states, and national governments all over the world. Why? Because, when the chips are down, those people trust Hillary, notwithstanding the decades-long attacks on her character.
Abramson’s column is consistent with the experiences of those who have worked with Hillary. Her caution, and her suspicion of the press, make her appear suspicious to the public, but no one who knows and works with Clinton closely walks away feeling that she is untrustworthy. If you talk with people who know her, you find that they praise her directness and integrity.
If Sanders had kept running a positive, issues-oriented campaign, he might have eventually won over African American, Hispanic, and female voters. If he’d done that, he might have won the nomination. But he stopped. He is no longer running a campaign to shape the Democratic Party. Those who fund his campaign are now doing Donald Trump’s dirty work with false attacks on Hillary’s character. It is time for Bernie’s donors to turn off the money.