September 21, 2019

President Bernie Sanders

Just because he looks like Larry David’s angry uncle, and just because he is the only Democratic socialist in the United States Senate, and just because he represents a heavily forested state best known for a breakfast condiment, doesn’t mean you should dismiss Bernie Sanders.

The Jewish Independent from Vermont declared his candidacy for president of the United States in late April, making him the only Democratic opponent so far to Hillary Clinton. It’s safe to say he stands no better chance of winning the nomination than do most of the Republicans who have declared.

He must know his chances are slim, but unlike the other gang, Sanders is not running to get a book deal or a pundit chair. He’s not running to use other people’s money to build his brand. At 73, his brand is what it is. Unlike the vast field of mostly like-minded climate change-denying, ObamaCare-bashing and Iraq War-defending Republicans, Sanders is putting forward policies that set him apart from his main competitor

Are those ideas really so far out there they don’t deserve our attention?  You tell me.

We know the enormous gap between rich and poor is a drag on the economy — which means for all of us that it’s in our own self-interest to fix it. Sanders wants to close tax deductions benefiting corporations and hedge funds and raise taxes on capital gains and the wealthiest 2 percent as a way to reduce taxes on the middle class.

We know America’s health-care costs are out of control — Sanders wants Americans to pay far less for generic prescription drugs, which is the norm outside the United States.

We know global warming is a great threat to our planet. Sanders is a global-warming hawk — had Congress passed his Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act of 2007, America would be leading the world in reversing the effects of global warming, while reaping the economic benefits of new energy technologies.

We know the current system of ever-increasing college tuitions and higher and higher student debt is a drag on economic growth. On May 19, Sanders put forward the College for All Act, which would provide, well, free college for all. Sanders estimates the cost of the program would be offset by an additional $300 billion in revenue from a “Robin Hood tax” of 50 cents on every $100 of stock trades. The act would fund tuition at four-year colleges and universities for students who meet admission standards.   

Sanders’ proposal would also lower student-loan interest rates by restoring the formula that was in effect until 2006, cutting them almost in half and allowing existing loans to be renegotiated.

If you’re looking for a bold, doable idea that sets Sanders apart, College for All stands out.

I was attending my son’s graduation from New York University last week, and Sanders’ idea was the talk of the graduates. There was a healthy debate over whether the idea could work, over how any talk of free tuition needs to get at the cost and quality issues around higher education as well, and whether students would ever take to the streets en masse to demand these changes. 

The arguments were echoed over at Reddit, the website where college-age males spend much of their virtual time. It’s the 10th-most-visited site in the country, with 160 million unique visitors a month. Judging by the posts, Sanders could easily be elected, at least, president of Reddit.

 (What’s also remarkable is that for all the back-and-forth about Sanders on Reddit, there is hardly any discussion of the fact that he’s Jewish. His positions on Israel come up for debate — the anti-Israel crowd “outs” him as a Zionist for his kibbutznik past — but otherwise, in 2015, for the 18-to-35 set, being the first Jewish president is a nonissue.)

You could cynically say there would be no better way to field an army of young, smart, motivated campaign workers than by promising to halve their college debt. But the truth is, no other candidate, from Hillary to Jeb to Rand, has put forward proposals to address the very issues we know are holding the country back.

And it’s a sign of how far we’ve fallen, as a country, that ideas that used to be mainstream are now considered Marxist.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy introduced legislation that President Lyndon Johnson eventually saw passed as the Higher Education Act of 1963. It authorized several times more college aid in a five-year period than had been appropriated in a century and massive spending on new higher-education facilities.

“Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education,” said Kennedy, who would have turned 98 this week. “The human mind is our fundamental resource.”

Why is any of this not worthy of our attention? Social media like Reddit give today’s dark-horse candidate a good post. Sanders doesn’t seem out to be a third-party spoiler, like Ralph Nader. He simply wants to inject some new ideas into what has been a relatively content-free race. He points to countries like Germany and Northern European social democracies, which have low unemployment, working health care, free universities, good public transportation, strong economies and a strong middle class, and asks, why can’t America emulate what works?

Maybe the idea of President Bernie is far-fetched. But Candidate Bernie? I’m glad he’s here.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.