So Bernie Sanders, self-anointed scourge of the malign influence of "millionaires and billionaires" on American politics, is himself a millionaire. Firmly ensconced in the top 1% of income earners in the United States. Which you've got to admit is pretty funny. Only in America, as comedians like to say.
Except to Bernie himself, of course. Poking fun at himself isn't one of the Vermont socialist's strengths as a politician. His recently released tax returns showed that he earned more than a million dollars in 2016 and 2017 due largely to royalties on his book "Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In." Which in itself is somewhat ironic. Some revolution.
Why, there are big-league relief pitchers who earned less than Bernie Sanders last year, although very few successful ones.
So he had to know he was going to get a hard time about it. Self-deprecating humor was definitely the way to go. Sanders, however, got defensive. "I wrote a best-selling book," he snapped at reporters who asked him about it. "If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too."
Although still testy, Sanders did better the other night on a Fox News town hall, continuing to attack the unfairness of our "absurd" tax code that lets major corporations pay no income tax at all, and ultimately turning the tables. "Why don't you get Donald Trump up here and ask him how much he paid in taxes?" he challenged the network's interlocutors.
Also, not going to happen.
And never mind that Sen. Sanders' own refusal to release his income tax records during the 2016 presidential campaign helped give Trump cover for hiding his. Few Americans begrudge Bernie his success. Moreover, Sanders and his wife paid a 26% effective tax rate in 2018, no doubt far higher than Trump. And he would end up paying considerably more if his own policies were adopted.
Some Trump voters are just now awakening to the deep fraudulence of the president's vaunted tax cuts, which delivered vast benefits to the fat cats Bernie has long assailed, and little or nothing to them. Sanders' income won't be an issue in the 2020 race unless his petulance makes it one.
Ah, but therein lies the problem. To hear Bernie's impassioned supporters tell it, he's the only candidate for the Democratic nomination who can unify the working class and put together a powerful coalition to defeat Trump.
And wouldn't it be lovely to think so? I'm not quite as old as Bernie, but I've been hearing people like him prate about this imaginary uprising since Woodstock. That storied exercise in mob psychology took place exactly a half-century ago, in August 1969, for those of you keeping score at home. (Me, I was in Dublin visiting the tomb of Jonathan Swift.) Today, even the movie is unendurable.
Writing in The Nation, Eric Alterman reminds readers of Bernie's history as a classic hippie left-winger, losing several statewide elections in Vermont during the '70s on a platform calling "for the nationalization of pretty much every industry in America, together with a 100 percent income tax on America's top earners."
Alterman adds that "Sanders was still a socialist in 1980, when he served as an elector for the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, which favored the abolition of the U.S. military budget and proclaimed itself in solidarity with both Cuba and Iran at a time when the latter held over 52 Americans hostage."
There's more. Much more. Bernie in Managua, Nicaragua, with Sandinista President Daniel Ortega as a crowd chants "the Yankee will die." Bernie on what he later jokingly called his Soviet "honeymoon" in 1988, shirtless and singing "This Land Is Your Land" with a bunch of Russians. According to journalist Kurt Eichenwald, who has seen it, Republicans have a book of oppo research documenting such incidents that's 2 feet thick. There are videotapes.
For very good historical reasons, most Democrats are unwilling to go there. Almost needless to say, Republicans, much less Trump, won't be so shy. One friend privately describes this dilemma as "a real Catch-22. The things that primary voters need to know about him are precisely the things I feel proscribed from saying. My honest opinion is that he'd be destroyed in a general election."
Mine too. Bernie's seeming unwillingness to explain himself or admit error doesn't help. As Alterman points out, Sanders has evolved over the years into "a typical New Deal–style liberal or European social democrat."
But he can't erase, and won't explain, his past.
Sure, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are socialist programs. So is the public library, for that matter. "Medicare for All" sounds like a fine aspirational goal, although getting it through Congress appears impossible.
Nevertheless, calling yourself a "socialist" and talking about a "revolution" remain deeply suspect to most American voters.
As a presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders makes a fine senator from Vermont.