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Opinion: With Sanders the clear front-runner, it’s time for Democrats to take the gloves off

If the Democrats running for president have an ounce of sense, they’ll give the non-Democrat on Tuesday night’s debate stage — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — the pummeling he’s magically avoided for two presidential campaigns.

Sure, Sanders has caught a fair amount of flak for refusing to say how he’d pay for his “Medicare for all” healthcare plan. But that criticism has been easy for Sanders to shrug off, given that even he admits that Medicare for all isn’t happening anytime soon. As Sanders puts it, it will take a “revolution” by voters to install a Congress willing to pass the thing.

There’s no need to get down in the policy weeds with Sanders. The questions that need to be asked, pointedly and often, are much more fundamental.

First and most important, they need to ask him to define what Washington could and could not do under a Sanders administration, because his platform suggests no limit to the government’s power in many areas. (The main exceptions are in the government’s power to enforce criminal statutes and police the border.) Obliterate the health insurance industry? Sure! Give away electric cars? Of course! Stop all coal and gas extraction on federal lands and kneecap the domestic energy industry by banning fracking? With a snap of the fingers! Use trillions of federal tax dollars to build housing? Why not? Guarantee everyone a job? It’s about time!

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His proposals, if adopted, would result in a breathtaking federal intrusion into markets, substituting Washington’s priorities and federal taxpayers’ money for the choices that businesses and consumers have long been making themselves. Maybe Sanders’ rivals don’t want to challenge him on this stuff because he’s carrying progressive ideas to their logical extreme. But it’s still extreme.

Here’s where Sanders’ supporters interject to point out that markets haven’t been working so well on issues like healthcare and climate change, or for people at the lower end of the economic ladder. I’ll freely concede those points, but there are plenty of ways to address those problems short of having the federal government sweep in and spend trillions of dollars it does not have.

Sanders hasn’t made a secret of any of this stuff; after all, he brands himself a European-style democratic socialist. But for some reason, his rivals haven’t pressed him on what that means. Just how big does Sanders want to make the government? In what industries would private business have to compete with Washington? How many new regulatory burdens would Sanders impose?

Democrats on the stage also need to demand that Sanders point to one thing he’s promised that he can actually deliver. His list puts “a chicken in every pot” to shame: Medicare for all. College for all. Housing for all. Free child care and pre-K for all. Jobs for all. High-speed internet for all. Medical and student debt relief for all. And yet none of those are within the president’s power to grant.

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So why aren’t these empty promises? Does Sanders have an even more expansive view of the president’s authority than does the current occupant, who has used bogus emergency declarations to shift military funding to border wall construction and bogus national security threats to slap tariffs on our allies? Or is he cynically dangling rewards he cannot deliver to try to win the presidency?

One final note as an aside: Democrats have started to poke at some of the more, err, colorful elements of Sanders’ past, such as his Russian honeymoon, his comments about Cuba’s socialist government and his support for the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. As I’ve noted before, I’m not as interested in digging up a candidate’s previous foibles as I am in figuring out how that person might govern. But if Sanders is going to be the Democratic nominee, he’ll be getting both forms of scrutiny. And unless Democrats want to leave it to President Trump to define Sanders in the fall campaign, they’d better start working on that now.

Updates

2:12 PM, Feb. 25, 2020: My colleague Scott Martelle points out that Sanders has affirmed, in writing, that he’s running as a member of the Democratic Party, as required by the party. His state does not require him to register with any party, however, and the Senate still lists him as an independent.


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