Guest Column: Of primary concern — Bernie or Hillary

04/17/2016 6:00 AM |

“I plan to vote for Bernie in the primary but Hillary in the general election.”

I’ve been hearing that refrain fairly frequently from my Democratic friends as New York’s pivotal April 19 presidential primary approaches. I’m sympathetic to their viewpoint about the party’s two candidates for the top job — but only to a point.

Certainly the national conversation has benefited from Sen. Bernie Sanders’ laser-like focus on America’s growing income inequality, its shameful lack of truly universal health care coverage, the inordinate power of Wall Street banks and the torrent of money they and other special interests contribute to political campaigns, especially since the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision six years ago.

And he’s been right to hold former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s feet to the fire on things like her tone-deaf acceptance of $675,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs, her support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — the “gold standard” of free-trade pacts, she called it — until she was against it, and, of course, her unfortunate 2002 vote as a senator authorizing President George W. Bush to launch an attack against Iraq. (That’s mainly why I voted for a senator named Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential primary.)

But if you prefer Mr. Sanders to Ms. Clinton, consider how unlikely it is that the lone-wolf, self-described democratic socialist from Vermont could ever lead the “political revolution” he calls for if he were to occupy the Oval Office.

Goodness knows, a President Clinton would have a hard enough time getting her way with Congress, especially in the House of Representatives, which seems likely to remain controlled by (very) conservative Republicans after the November elections.

At least she’s demonstrated her ability to attract broad support from Democrats on Capitol Hill. About 40 of the party’s senators and 140 of its House members have endorsed her, according to the respected political website FiveThirtyEight. And Sen. Sanders? Get this:

Although he’s served in Congress since 1991 — the last nine years in the Senate — just one Democratic senator has endorsed his presidential bid, Jeff Merkley of Oregon. In the House, just seven Democrats, including Mr. Sanders’ successor in Vermont’s lone congressional district, support his candidacy.

Sure, many of those elected officials backing Ms. Clinton represent the political establishment that the senator rails against. But a President Sanders would have to work with them if he wanted to implement his agenda — something for which he’s poorly suited, says former Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, his longtime liberal Democratic colleague in the House, perhaps best known as co-sponsor of the Dodd-Frank Act to reform financial services.

“Bernie Sanders has been in Congress for 25 years with little to show for it in terms of accomplishments, and that’s because of the role he stakes out,” Mr. Frank, who supports Ms. Clinton, recently told the online magazine Slate.

He elaborated in an interview with The Washington Post, describing Mr. Sanders’ approach as “don’t be pragmatic, state your ideals, state what you think is the right policy and be very wary of compromise and of accepting less than you want.”

Some primary voters, while acknowledging Mr. Sanders’ deficiencies, still may want to vote for him to register their discontent with the Washington establishment in general and Ms. Clinton in particular. Unless they want a Republican in the White House, they’re playing with fire.

Since Ms. Clinton has a significant lead in pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention — even after the senator’s recent victories and after subtracting the hundreds of super delegates nominally supporting her — she’s strongly favored to be the party’s nominee. But the longer Mr. Sanders stays in the race, the harder it will be for Ms. Clinton to mount a winning general-election campaign.

Every time Mr. Sanders wins a caucus or primary, his supporters flood his campaign with cash, ensuring that he can remain in the race for the Democratic nomination until June. This forces Ms. Clinton to raise money to battle him that she otherwise could use in the November election.

Moreover, with each passing day in this increasingly heated contest, the danger increases that both candidates will make comments that will undercut Ms. Clinton’s electability next fall.

(Witness Mr. Sanders’ off-the-wall accusation last week that she isn’t “qualified” to be president, a characterization he later walked back.)

To my Democratic friends inclined to vote next week for Sen. Sanders, I say let’s close ranks behind the highly qualified Ms. Clinton. It’s none too soon.

The author is a journalist and author who is a former writer and copy editor for Times Review Media Group. He lives in Orient.

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