What is Bernie Sanders’ end game?

Screen-Shot-2015-04-14-at-1.26.54-PMOn Tuesday Hillary Clinton was on Capitol Hill to talk to Congressional Democrats about “pressing issues of the day,” as was reported in The Hill. More newsworthy was Bernie Sanders’ ability to position himself in front of a bank of microphones to hold forth on a variety of issues such as the Iraq War, financial regulation, climate change, and trade policy, while, in a vague sense, discussing how they differ from views held by Mrs. Clinton.

He said that three decades of trade deals, including the North American Free Trade Agreement,  “have been disastrous for American workers,” noting that Secretary Clinton has a “different view.”

He spoke of his oppostion to the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which he said will transport “some of the dirtiest fuel on this planet.” He said Hillary Clinton has “not been clear on this issue.”

In speaking of his economic plan that features a $15 minimum wage and $1 trillion in infrastructure spending, Sanders again said that Clinton has not been clear on these issues.

He said that he favoured a “transition tax” on Wall Street speculators with proceeds going to pay the cost of public college and university expenses for student. No mention of Mrs. Clinton’s ties to Wall Street.

He said that he “strongly opposed the War in Iraq,” while neglecting to mention that Hillary Clinton supported it.

Wow, that really sounds like a policy seminar, and a pretty one-sided discussion at that. In any case, Bernie Sanders is smart enough to know you don’t do well in elections by having vague reference to differences. If he really wanted to win, or make a serious challenge, he’d be taking a different approach. He would more aggressively contrast his positions with those of his primary opponent, the frontrunner.

He would be saying that he, Bernie Sanders, is willing, ready, and able to criticize the rich, while Clinton wants the rich on her team, wants to raise money from them, perhaps believes naively that she can use their influence and power to advance her agenda without being captured by them.

He would be saying that Clinton’s views on foreign policy make her more hawkish than most Democrats. He could hammer at their opposing positions on the original invasion of Iraq, which, in fairness, he does occasionally mention.

On trade deals, Sanders could point out, as Andrew Prokop did at Vox back in May, that Hillary Clinton is supportive of most trade deals “unless a primary is approaching.”

NPR’s Domenico Montanaro charts the changes in her rhetoric and positions over time. In 2000, NAFTA was “flawed.” In 2004, it was “good for New York and America.” In 2008, it had “not lived up to its promises.” Clinton similarly shifted on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, bragging in 2012 that it was the “gold standard in trade agreements” but sounding more critical this month.

Sanders could talk about his interest in a single-payer health care system versus whatever go-slow pragmatic approach Clinton will offer.

On the economy, Sanders wants to tax and spend or, as some might say, invest in the country, and he is proud of it. Clinton understands that conservatives long ago won the battle on this one and is loathe to be painted as a potentially bad fiscal manager. Sanders might more aggressively press Clinton on why we continue to let conservative economic policy call the shots.

There is a lot here, and I wouldn’t suggest that there is anything easy about going hard at points of real difference, but that is how effective elections are fought, by drawing clear distinctions.

Bernie Sanders is saying important things, but in a way that will do little harm to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. He knows that, and he knows precisely how he could approach things differently.

The fact is that Sanders wouldn’t win the nomination if he presented a harder edge, but he won’t win by soft-balling either. Why not make Democrats think about what a real alternative would look like, even if they’re not yet ready to embrace it?

Something about the way he is conducting his campaign doesn’t make sense, unless he wants to make us think a little bit, but not too much.

Finally someone on the left is getting a hearing in American politics. This is no time to be shy.

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