So this is now a thing. Last Tuesday, the day of the special election in Georgia’s 6th congressional district, Bernie Sanders was asked about the leading Democrat in the race, Jon Ossoff—who came within two points of winning an outright majority and avoiding a runoff.
One source, the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel, quoted Sanders as saying, of Ossoff, “he’s not a progressive.” However, multiple other journalists covered the Sanders comments, and no other article quoted him saying that. The rest all had the same quotation, namely that when Sanders was asked if Ossoff was a progressive he answered: “I don’t know.” That’s the quotation from the original source—Sanders’ interview with the Wall Street Journal.
[UPDATE (4/27/17): Weigel confirmed directly that his quote came from an interview with Sanders. I should have stated clearly that I wasn’t questioning his accuracy, and I apologize.]
These comments led to a revival of primary war fever, as well as to quite a bit of ink being spilled in the mainstream media on the matter of Bernie’s supposedly “strange behavior.” Here’s the thing: Mr. Ossoff himself—who is doing a terrific job in his campaign, and whom every anti-Trump person should support—denied that he was a progressive on the very day before Sanders made his comments.
Last Monday, on Chris Matthews’ MSNBC show, the host asked Ossoff: “Are you a moderate or a progressive? Which word would you prefer?”
Ossoff replied: “I try to stay away from labels, Chris, and focus on the issues.” After the host pressed further for a choice between the two labels, the candidate from Georgia continued:
I’m pragmatic, and one of the things that would be refreshing about representing this district is that it is a pragmatic, moderate district, and I would be empowered to take courageous stands in the center on for example, comprehensive immigration reform ... I will ... move to the center to get big things done, whether it’s on immigration or infrastructure or tax reform.
Now, did Bernie give the best possible answer to the question he was asked? Definitely not. He could, as some have suggested, supplemented his “I don’t know” by saying something positive about the energy behind Ossoff or the unity of the anti-Trump movement or even that Ossoff is certainly progressive enough to have earned his support in this particular race. Either way, maybe Bernie believed that being labeled a progressive wouldn’t actually help Ossoff in GA-6, a solidly Republican district. According to The Hill, some Democrats agreed. The candidate’s own comments on MSNBC indicate that he didn’t think the progressive label would be useful either, which is why he talked about moving to the center.
It would have been helpful if Sanders had given a better answer so that we could have avoided the unnecessary distraction of watching members of our coalition divide once again into Bernie and Hillary partisans. What he did say certainly offered grounds for reasonable criticism. But some went far beyond that, accusing Sanders of all kinds of awful things (for just some examples, look at the comments on the Twitter feed linked to above).
Like him or not, Sanders is currently the most popular politician in the country according to a poll released last week...
And then, on Friday, Bernie did offer a strong, unreserved endorsement of Ossoff. He even referred to Trump as Voldemort—so I’ll raise a glass of butterbeer to that.
Like him or not, Sanders is currently the most popular politician in the country according to a poll released last week—which confirmed the results of another poll from last fall. Sanders racked up impressive ratings among women and people of color, the groups Markos rightly reminded us are the “key growth demographics” and the “future” of the Democratic Party. Such divisiveness—whether aimed at Bernie or Hillary, or their supporters for that matter—only help Trump, and only hurt the people for whom we progressives are fighting.
Whatever one thinks of his comments on Jon Ossoff, Sanders is out there right now with Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez on the “Come Together and Fight Back” tour, traveling to red and purple states across the country (he’s also heading to Montana to stump for Democrat Rob Quist in next month’s special election for another vacant House seat).
What are they going to talk about?:
Sanders and Perez stated: “At a time of massive income and wealth inequality and a shrinking middle class, we need a government which represents all Americans, not just Wall Street, multi-national corporations and the top 1 percent. Regardless of where they live or their political affiliations, most people understand that it is absurd for Republicans in Congress to support huge tax breaks for billionaires while pushing for cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. They understand that the recent Republican health care proposal which would have thrown 24 million Americans off of their health insurance, substantially raised premiums for older workers and defunded Planned Parenthood while, at the same time, providing almost $300 billion in tax breaks to the top 2 percent is a disgraceful idea.”
Sanders and Perez will speak out for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, pay equity for women, rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, combatting climate change, making public colleges and universities tuition-free, criminal justice reform, comprehensive immigration reform and tax reform which demands that the wealthy and large corporations start paying their fair share of taxes.
These are all issues on which Congress can have the greatest effect, and thus are the ones Sanders and Perez should be focused on. Furthermore, they are issues that directly impact the members of our base communities disproportionately and, in a number of cases, in specific, targeted ways. This is far from a “class, not race” set of policy proposals, but rather is a set of issues that reflect broad progressive priorities.
Let’s get a few things straight. Hillary Clinton was not a corporate shill. Bernie Sanders was not a sexist who ignored communities of color, and he certainly did not help Trump defeat Hillary—who was on her way to being the first woman president before James Comey put the thumb of the FBI on the scale. In terms of policies, although they differed on some issues, Clinton and Sanders are far closer to one another than either is to the current occupant of the White House, or to any other Republican on the national stage. Policies are what matter because policies are what become laws, and laws are how government affects our lives.
Politics is about fighting for what you believe in, and it’s about helping make this country a better, more just place. We can and must do both of those things at the same time. But in order to do so, we progressives must learn to let go of the past and focus on the task at hand. Let Republicans be the ones at each other’s throats. Anything else just makes Donald Trump happy. A better goal would be, to paraphrase Ossoff’s slogan, “make Trump furious.”