Bernie’s Greatest Weakness

Kathleen Geier | The Nation | January 22, 2016

In politics, few experiences are more unpleasant than being roasted by your allies. Just ask Bernie Sanders, who has spent the past week getting thoroughly barbecued by the left. First, his single-payer healthcare plan came under attack by prominent liberals like Paul Krugman and Ezra Klein. Then, two new Sanders controversies erupted. On Tuesday, his offhand remarks describing Planned Parenthood and the LGBTQ rights organization the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) as “part of the establishment” created a firestorm, particularly on social-justice Twitter. Less than 24 hours later, his tone-deaf comments on reparations stoked even more outrage. Sanders’s left-wing critics have seized on both statements as evidence of his alleged weakness on civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQ issues.

Although some of their attacks on Sanders have been unfair, his critics, regrettably, have a point. For all his political virtues, Sanders has had difficulty connecting his message of economic populism to the other major social justice concerns of the modern left, such race, gender, and sexuality. And unless he overcomes these problems, he will be unable to achieve his goal of expanding beyond his base and sparking a popular mass movement.

Of the controversies Sanders is currently embroiled in, the one involving Planned Parenthood/HRC is by far the less serious one. That’s because critics who claim that Sanders was “dissing” those groups are distorting what he actually said. Bernie wasn’t attacking the mission or good works of those organizations; what he was taking aim at is their political strategy. Asked by Rachel Maddow why organizations like the HRC and Planned Parenthood didn’t support him, Bernie replied that although he has “friends and supporters” in those organizations, “Hillary Clinton has been around there for a very, very long time. Some of these groups are, in fact, part of the establishment.”

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