Smith: Will Sanders rekindle the Bern?

Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders addresses a crowd Tuesday afternoon as he talks about his new book “Our Revolution” at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester. Photo by Holly Pelczynski/Bennington Banner

Editor’s note: Mike Smith is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He hosts the radio program “Open Mike with Mike Smith” on WDEV 550 AM and 96.1, 96.5, 98.3 and 101.9 FM and is a political analyst for WCAX-TV and WVMT radio. He was the secretary of administration and secretary of human services under former Gov. Jim Douglas. Has Bernie lost his mojo?

It’s hasn’t been a good couple of months for Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Sanders recently penned an opinion piece for The New York Times urging national Democratic leaders to adopt a more progressive agenda. So far, the reaction from those national leaders can be best described as muted.

A string of election losses of Sanders’ backed political candidates is also catching the attention of the media. Last month the news outlet Politico ran a story titled, “Sanders revolution hits a rough patch.” Its premise? Sanders and his allies are struggling, “to capture the actual levers of power.”

A few weeks ago, Sanders ignited a religious firestorm by harshly questioning the Christian beliefs of Russell Vought, President Donald Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. This caught the attention of many in the national press in a way that the senator might not have predicted.

Vought wrote in January 2016 that “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.”

Sanders saw Vought’s writing as “hateful,” “Islamophobic” and “an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world.” The nominee said he was expressing his own religious belief that salvation can’t be achieved without following Jesus Christ as the savior.

“Do you believe that statement is Islamophobic?” Sanders asked Vought at the confirmation hearing.

“Absolutely not, senator,” Vought responded. “I am a Christian, and I believe in a Christian set of principles based on my faith.” Vought continued, “As a Christian, I believe that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect, regardless of their religious beliefs.”

Emma Green, a staff writer covering politics, policy, and religion for The Atlantic wrote, “It’s one thing to take issue with bigotry. It’s another to try to exclude people from office based on their theological convictions. Sanders used the term ‘Islamophobia’ to suggest that Vought fears Muslims for who they are. But in his writing, Vought was contesting something different: He disagrees with what Muslims believe, and does not think their faith is satisfactory for salvation. Right or wrong, this is a conviction held by millions of Americans — and many Muslims might say the same thing about Christianity.”

Mohammad Hassan Khalil, a professor of religious studies at Michigan State University, pointed out on National Public Radio that this view of salvation is not exclusive to Christianity. Those who decline to follow the teachings of Muhammad are also condemned.

“No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States,” according to Article VI of the U.S. Constitution.

So why Sanders decided to pick a religious fight that both the political left and right saw as dangerously close to violating this provision of the Constitution is baffling.

The damage may be more political than legal, according to experts quoted in U.S. News & World Report. “Senators can vote against nominees for any reason or no reason at all,” said one legal expert.

But if the art of politics is to try to broaden constituencies, instead of limiting them, this exchange on religion did not help Sanders.

A recent and horrifying event that did not involve Sanders, but may have an impact on his political future, played out on our television screens: The attempted assassination of Republican members of Congress by a Sanders supporter.

Sanders is not responsible for the actions of James Hodgkinson, the shooter — and it’s unfair to make such a connection.

Nonetheless, Sanders’ future comments will be judged and scrutinized by his opponents, and others, in the context of the shooting. Inflammatory language — and the senator has a propensity for using red-hot rhetoric — will bring with it criticism and a distraction from the message he’s trying to convey. What’s worse, because of the shooting, what is considered inflammatory will be defined by others, not Sanders.

During the last election, President Trump and Sanders shared similar political instincts. They both, for example, seized on the economic uncertainty festering in America’s middle class and used that dissatisfaction to their political advantage.

However, sometimes their instincts can lead both men in the wrong direction. Recently, Trump and Sanders have shown a disdain for any media that is critical of them. In Trump’s case that includes CNN, which he calls, “fake news.” For Sanders, that includes local media outlets such as VTDigger and Seven Days who are denied interviews with him. Both politicians come across as petty and thinned-skinned when they demean or deny access to press outlets.

Unfortunately for Sanders, the president and he have other things in common.

Both are distracted by federal investigations that involve associates or family members.

For Trump, the FBI investigation surrounding collusion between his campaign and the Russians is getting most of the national attention.

But recently, the FBI investigation of Jane Sanders, the senator’s wife — a story reported extensively in VTDigger — is now gaining national attention. Just a few days ago, Politico Magazine wrote an in-depth story, “Jane Sanders Lawyers Up,” about the probe.

In addition, both men are rich. Of course, Trump is a billionaire, but Sanders has recently disclosed that he made more than $1 million in 2016.

No one begrudges the senator for the money he has made. Good for him! But his millionaire status now makes him a “1 percenter.” No doubt, some will wonder how can a “1-percenter” attack other “1-percenters” with any credibility? It’s a new issue that Sanders will have to contend with.

Disdain for certain press outlets, federal investigations of associates or family members and newfound wealth don’t necessary spell trouble for a politician.

But absent an aggressive effort to combat the combined impact of these issues, it’s possible that Sanders’ political brand could be diminished.

This rough patch that Sanders is experiencing probably won’t upend his political prospects here in Vermont, where he’s in a strong position to win re-election to his U.S. Senate seat in 2018.

But it could have an impact nationally. If Sanders decides to enter the presidential fray once again, he’s likely to face a slew of other Democratic candidates that may bring up these issues.

For Sanders and his supporters the question is: Are these setbacks temporary, or are they an indication of a larger political problem?

Given the events of the past few months, is it possible for Sanders to rekindle, “the Bern” with the American public? Only time will tell.

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