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Woke Bernie: Sanders’ Reinvention is a Mixed Bag

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) took his newly launched presidential campaign to prime time cable news on Monday night in a Washington, D.C., town hall hosted by CNN's Wolf Blitzer. The event more closely resembled a campaign rally than a serious interview. The audience skewed young and diverse, and most were clearly Sanders fans. Their questions were more gently prodding than exploratory. At each commercial break, Sanders got a rousing ovation complete with chants of "BER-NIE, BER-NIE, BER-NIE!"

Sanders played all the hits from 2016. He railed against income inequality and proposed wealth taxes to fund his plans for free college, Medicare for all, new preschool programs and efforts to fight climate change. "Am I going to demand that the wealthy and large corporations start paying their fair share of taxes?" he asked. "Damn right, I will!" The audience cheered.

He spoke of standing up to fossil fuel interests and drug companies, calling the latter "the most greedy entity in this country." He slammed the high cost of college tuition and the burden of student-loan debt. (He said not a word about technical training or other noncollegiate career pathways.) He promoted the virtues of democratic socialism, in which economic rights are as valued as human rights.

So yes, much was familiar. But there was some new stuff, as well, as he attempted to correct his weaknesses. After failing to release full tax returns during his first presidential campaign, he promised he would do so "in the near future." When Blitzer asked why not now, Sanders got a little vague, citing "mechanical issues." He also claimed, retroactively, that he would have revealed his tax information in 2016 had he won the Democratic nomination.

Sanders has often faltered in addressing the role of prejudice in America. His failure to attract African American voters in 2016 was a major stumbling block. It could be an even bigger problem in 2020, since the Democratic primary schedule (after Iowa and New Hampshire) is front-loaded with states such as South Carolina, North Carolina, California, Texas and Alabama, which reward candidates who can appeal to African Americans and Latinos.

Sanders is so focused on economic injustice that he has seemed to downplay the struggles of women, the LGBTQ community and people of color. On Monday he tried, with mixed success, to address those issues. He touted his poll numbers among African Americans and then offered the briefest of mea culpae.

"Maybe I haven't been as strong on this issue as I should be," he said. "We have a nation of massive wealth inequality ... But within that inequality, we have another inequality, and that is racial disparity." He promised to choose a cabinet that "reflects what America is" and "work as hard as I can to end all forms of racism in this country."

Which reveals a disease-based concept of racism — a scourge to be cured rather than an aspect of humanity that can only be confronted and contained, not eradicated. And it placed racism within his economic critique of society. It wasn't exactly a full-throated acknowledgment that social inequality is more than a mere subset of the economic kind.

Sanders equivocated when asked about reparations for slavery, a cause that's been endorsed by some Democratic presidential hopefuls. "What does that mean?" he said. He noted the necessity of addressing "the legacy of slavery," but his only concrete idea was to endorse a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) that would direct more federal funding to, as Sanders put it, "distressed communities."

Which conflates "distressed" with "minority," when in fact many of America's most distressed communities are rural and largely white.

Sanders also came across as racially tone-deaf when he announced his candidacy last Tuesday on Vermont Public Radio. Asked whether he represented the new face of the Democratic Party, he replied like, well, a defensive white guy.

"We have got to look at candidates, you know, not by the color of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender and not by their age," Sanders said. "I mean, I think we have got to try to move us toward a nondiscriminatory society which looks at people based on their abilities, based on what they stand for."

That's nice, but it fails to address the inherent value of diversity or the obstacles that still remain for candidates who are not white or male. It almost sounds like a complaint of reverse discrimination. If this is the woke Bernie 2.0, there's still some work to be done.

When asked about allegations of sexual harassment in his 2016 campaign, Sanders said he was "very upset when I learned what I learned," without explaining what he learned. He talked of his moves to eliminate harassment in his 2018 senatorial campaign, including mandatory training and an independent means of reporting harassment, and he said the same procedures would be part of his new campaign.

There were only a few questions about foreign policy, but Sanders took the opportunity to outline his vision of America's place in the world — a subject he rarely addressed in the 2016 campaign. He said the U.S. should "foster a democratic climate" around the world but refrain from direct military intervention. That includes Venezuela, where President Donald Trump has refused to rule out a military option. Sanders called for "internationally supervised free elections" and avoided labeling President Nicolas Maduro a dictator.

"It's fair to say [Venezuela's] last election was undemocratic, but there are still democratic operations taking place in that country," he said. He did not explain what kind of "democratic operations" are taking place in a country in which Maduro is desperately clinging to power and the government is blockading shipments of food and medical aid. His reticence has prompted criticism from many Democrats, particularly in the swing state of Florida.

"He is not going to be the nominee of the Democratic Party," U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) told Politico last week when Sanders first broached the topic in an interview with Univision. "He has demonstrated again that he does not understand this situation."

Sanders' understanding is rooted in his disapproving view of American interventionalism, formed during the Vietnam War. "I am very fearful of the United States continuing to do what it has done in the past," he said on CNN. "The United States overthrew democratically elected governments in Chile, in Brazil and in Guatemala."

Indeed, America's fraught history in Latin America prompts skepticism of our intentions. But Sanders is at risk of being depicted as a socialist appeaser, which could damage his standing in émigré communities.

In recent days, Sanders has sought to make amends for his supporters' excesses in 2016 by urging civility in the campaign. On Monday he gave full respect to a Democratic field of "great candidates, many of whom are my friends." He pledged to support the party's nominee because "Trump has got to be defeated."

He still believes, of course, that he's the best choice to take on the president. "We will campaign in Trump country," he said. "We can bring Americans together around an agenda that helps working families."

Sanders was crisp, practiced and on point. He's so energetic that he makes his advanced age seem like a footnote. He even combed his hair. He has climbed from the little-known upstart of 2015 to a front-runner and power broker. But still, it's almost entirely the same Sanders. Will that be good enough in a 2020 field packed with candidates who share his progressive vision?

As ace number-cruncher Nate Silver wrote for FiveThirtyEight, "Sanders looks like a candidate with a high floor and a low ceiling" — a uniquely strong base, but limited appeal among key liberal demographics such as people of color and Democratic Party loyalists.

Sanders' Monday effort at broadening his message was only partially successful. Despite his top standing in the polls, his path to the nomination is full of obstacles and pitfalls. And he still seems to have trouble stepping outside his comfort zone.

Media Notes

Don't know if it's a trend or just coincidence, but in recent months three of the four most prominent daily newspapers serving Vermont have hired young women to manage their newsrooms. The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus just became the third, hiring former Milton Independent executive editor Courtney Lamdin as news editor. (Her counterparts are Emilie Stigliani at the Burlington Free Press and Maggie Cassidy at the Valley News.)

Lamdin spent nearly a decade at the Independent and also led its sister papers, the Essex Reporter and Colchester Sun. But her employment came to an end after Emerson and Suzanne Lynn sold the St. Albans Messenger and the Independent to Chicago-based publisher Jim O'Rourke in December.

"Jim essentially eliminated my position," Lamdin said. "He offered to keep me on as a reporter." Lamdin wanted something more — and something that would let her stay in Vermont. (O'Rourke declined to comment for this story.)

Enter Steve Pappas, executive editor of the Times Argus and Rutland Herald. He sees Lamdin as someone who can lead the newsroom and spearhead the paper's social media efforts. "She's a smart journalist who knows different ways to tell stories," Pappas said. Lamdin will also do some investigative journalism, which she called "my passion."

At the Valley News, Cassidy was promoted in November from web editor to the top newsroom job, and that has led to the demise of the UV Index, the paper's web-only offshoot. Cassidy and night editor Amanda Newman founded the Index in July of 2017 and built a small but loyal audience. "A lot of people I saw coming to the Index were finding it outside of the [print] paper," said Cassidy. "There was some value in that. We got some new people to read the paper."

This month, Newman landed a job at the New York Times' editorial operation in Gainesville, Fla. That leaves no one to run the Index. "I don't see a way right now that it's coming back," said Cassidy. If nothing else, it was a creative effort to expand a newspaper's relevance in the digital age. And a fun read.

From three young women assuming leadership roles, we turn to three veteran women departing the scene. By the middle of this year, the top three executives at Canton, N.Y.-based North Country Public Radio — station manager Ellen Rocco, program director Jackie Sauter and news director Martha Foley — will have departed in a mutually planned exit.

"Jackie, Martha and I are the 'founding mothers,'" said Rocco. The three women have a combined tenure of 124 years at the station. Sauter retired at the end of December. Rocco and Foley will follow suit this summer.

"We intentionally structured our retirements to allow the next generation to retool and decide how to move forward," Rocco said. Assistant news director David Summerstein will succeed Foley; the other two positions will be filled after nationwide searches.

When Rocco arrived in 1980 as development director, there was only a single station — WSLU-FM. Now, NCPR has 34 transmitters that carry public radio programming up and down the mountains and across Lake Champlain to the Burlington area.

The founding mothers are leaving quite a legacy.

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