There’s little doubting Bernie Sanders’s core political convictions—he’s been saying the same things for decades, with remarkable consistency. But turning convictions into policy is the challenge, and the Vermont senator’s interview with the editorial board of the New York Daily News raises some questions about his policy chops.
Throughout his interview, Sanders seemed taken aback when he was pressed on policy—and not just on the matters that are peripheral to his approach, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or interrogation of detainees, but even on bread-and-butter matters like breaking up the big banks, the Democratic presidential hopeful came across as tentative, unprepared, or unaware.
It’s striking that there hasn’t been more coverage of Sanders’s policy ideas so far during the campaign, even at this late date, with most of the primary season concluded. He’s even acquired a reputation as something of a wonk, the kind of guy who eschews soaring rhetoric for dry nuts and bolts on the stump—and gets people to love him anyway. The gaps uncovered by the Daily News are not just about pragmatism. (There have, of course, been plenty of accusations, not least from Hillary Clinton’s campaign, that Sanders is offering a deeply unrealistic program. He tends to answer that they fail to grasp that he is building a political revolution.) The question here is not how Sanders would enact policies, but what those policies would be. If the Sanders campaign has shied away from deep dives into policy, this interview might be why: The candidate reveals himself as a far defter diagnostician than clinician.
The most glaring example came early in the encounter, during a discussion of the problem of “too big to fail” banks. There is disagreement among economists on the left over how important, if at all, it is to break up large financial institutions. The board granted Sanders’s argument and asked him how he’d do it, producing an excruciating cat-and-mouse game:
Daily News: Okay. Well, let's assume that you're correct on that point. How do you go about doing it?
Sanders: How you go about doing it is having legislation passed, or giving the authority to the secretary of treasury to determine, under Dodd-Frank, that these banks are a danger to the economy over the problem of too-big-to-fail.
Daily News: But do you think that the Fed, now, has that authority?
Sanders: Well, I don't know if the Fed has it. But I think the administration can have it.
Daily News: How? How does a President turn to JPMorgan Chase, or have the Treasury turn to any of those banks and say, "Now you must do X, Y and Z?"
Sanders: Well, you do have authority under the Dodd-Frank legislation to do that, make that determination.
Daily News: You do, just by Federal Reserve fiat, you do?
Sanders: Yeah. Well, I believe you do.
The conversation detoured sideways a bit, as the board asked about what would happen to employees and investors in big banks and Sanders said, not unfairly, that it wasn’t his problem. But then it was back to how to break up the banks, and Sanders still couldn’t offer a coherent answer:
Daily News: Well, it does depend on how you do it, I believe. And, I'm a little bit confused because just a few minutes ago you said the U.S. President would have authority to order...
Sanders: No, I did not say we would order. I did not say that we would order. The President is not a dictator.
Daily News: Okay. You would then leave it to JPMorgan Chase or the others to figure out how to break it, themselves up. I'm not quite...
Sanders: You would determine is that, if a bank is too big to fail, it is too big to exist. And then you have the secretary of treasury and some people who know a lot about this, making that determination. If the determination is that Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan Chase is too big to fail, yes, they will be broken up.
Daily News: Okay. You saw, I guess, what happened with Metropolitan Life. There was an attempt to bring them under the financial regulatory scheme, and the court said no. And what does that presage for your program?
Sanders: It's something I have not studied, honestly, the legal implications of that.
The interview is full of vague comments like that one. For example, Sanders complains that executives implicated in the financial crisis haven’t been prosecuted. A board member asked him whether there are actually laws that could have nailed them. “I suspect that there are. Yes,” Sanders answered.
Daily News: You believe that? But do you know?
Sanders: I believe that that is the case. Do I have them in front of me, now, legal statutes? No, I don't. But if I would...yeah, that's what I believe, yes. When a company pays a $5 billion fine for doing something that's illegal, yeah, I think we can bring charges against the executives.
Daily News: I'm only pressing because you've made it such a central part of your campaign. And I wanted to know what the mechanism would be to accomplish it.
Rather than learning the mechanism, the questioner earned a lecture about how Wall Street is built on fraud, since Sanders is comfortable talking about why he doesn’t approve of Wall Street’s M.O.
Sanders is the candidate of first principles. That’s a phenomenon that’s been on display repeatedly during the Democratic debates, especially on matters of foreign policy. On the one hand, there’s Hillary Clinton, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Middle East, but also backed the war in Iraq, thus botching the most important foreign-policy decision since Vietnam. On the other hand, there’s Sanders, whose answers about the Middle East are often opaque—see his call for a “Muslim army” to defeat ISIS—but whose gut led him to the correct decision on Iraq. Democratic voters may have to choose whether they prefer Clinton’s poor judgment or Sanders’s ignorance.
The latter was on display at the Daily News during an exchange about the peace process. Could he describe the pullback of Israeli settlements in the West Bank he has encouraged? No: “I'm not going to run the Israeli government. I've got enough problems trying to be a United States senator or maybe President of the United States.”
A moment later, he was asked why he didn’t support Palestinians using the International Criminal Court to try to prosecute Israeli leaders. “Look, why don't I support a million things in the world? I'm just telling you that I happen to believe,” the exasperated senator replied.
That’s just the problem, though. It’s important for leaders to know what they believe in, and Sanders has been unusually consistent and forthright about that. But Sanders isn’t running for chief ideologue—he’s running for chief executive, and so it’s also important for him to know what policies he would use to turn those beliefs into practice.