If I promised to give you everything you ever wanted, you’d want to know whether I could actually deliver it, wouldn’t you? Especially if you’ve heard a lot of promises from people like me over the years, and we had a long and well-documented history of failure?
This is what puzzles me about U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose presidential campaign consists largely of promises he cannot reasonably be expected to fulfill. Are we so inured to the idea of politicians laying out goals they cannot achieve that we just shrug this stuff off? Or are Sanders’ supporters the Charlie Browns of the electorate, ignoring the footballs yanked away in the past and counting on a completely different result this time?
Even President Donald Trump, who often claims to be the one chief executive who actually kept his campaign promises, has failed to live up to much of what he pledged. The economy isn’t growing at even 3% per year, let alone the 4% and higher rates he touted on the campaign trail. He hasn’t replaced Obamacare, or even offered the plan he said would result in better, cheaper health care for everyone. He hasn’t forced Mexico to pay for a beautiful new wall at the southern border. And on and on.
(OK, U.S. forces did help eliminate the Islamic State caliphate on his watch, and, with Congress’ help, he has cut regulations and taxes. So put those in the “promises kept” column.)
You could argue that Sanders’ promises are merely directional signals to the electorate. When he talks about “Medicare for All,” free college for all, a guaranteed job for all, free child care for all and the like, he’s saying, “This is the kind of country I want to build,” not, “This is what you can expect from four years of President Sanders.”
But that’s not how Sanders has been framing these positions. For example, his website introduces each element of his platform with the boldfaced phrase, “When Bernie is in the White House, he will:” followed by a statement like this: “Pass the College for All Act to provide at least $48 billion per year to eliminate tuition and fees at four-year public colleges and universities, tribal colleges, community colleges, trade schools and apprenticeship programs. Everyone deserves the right to a good higher education if they choose to pursue it, no matter their income.”
He was similarly declarative at Tuesday night’s debate in South Carolina. For example, on the topic of education, Sanders said, “We are going to triple funding for low-income Title I schools, because kids’ education should not depend upon the ZIP code in which they live. We’re going to make public colleges and universities tuition-free through a tax on Wall Street speculation. And we’re going to move to make certain that no teacher in America earns less than $60,000 a year.”
That’s not just a direction, that’s a destination. And without a more sweeping change in Congress than any election analyst thinks is possible — one where progressive Democrats gain a majority in the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate — it’s a destination that Sanders cannot possibly reach. That’s because the vast majority of Sanders’ plans involve new or additional spending as well as new statutes, which means he would need a willing partner in Congress.
At Tuesday’s debate, some of Sanders’ rivals for the Democratic nomination finally started to call him on that.
Take this critique from U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who said the total cost of Sanders’ proposals would be $60 trillion (that’s CNN’s number, and it’s a projected 10-year cost). “That is three times the American economy — not the federal government — the entire American economy,” Klobuchar said, adding that the American people “are not with you on spending nearly $60 trillion.”
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden both argued that Sanders’ record doesn’t give voters any reason to believe he can turn his proposals into reality. As Biden put it, “Bernie, in fact, hasn’t passed much of anything.”
Sanders’ supporters argue that this country needs the kind of radical change the senator is advocating. That’s a separate issue, however, from whether Sanders can make it happen. I’m not arguing in favor of the status quo; I’m arguing against Sanders selling a quixotic vision as an achievable one.
Klobuchar put it most clearly Tuesday, as she discussed her approach to health care vs. Sanders’ Medicare for All plan. “What I think we should do is make things more affordable, [add a] nonprofit public option, make sure we’re paying for long-term care better, take on the pharmaceuticals, like you and I have done together, and do something for the people of America,” she said to Sanders, “instead of a bunch of broken promises that sound good on bumper stickers.”
Jon Healey is the Los Angeles Times’ deputy editorial page editor.