Published: Quartz (April 6, 2016)
If Bernie Sanders wants to be president, he’ll need to do better than this.
The Democratic senator is doubtless feeling pretty optimistic today, fresh off a primary victory in Wisconsin. And yet a much more telling measure of the candidate’s presidential chances happened earlier this week, during an interview with the editorial board of the New York Daily News.
Reading the interview is a thoroughly disheartening affair. As editors plied Sanders with questions about how he would implement his radical agenda, it became abundantly clear that Hillary Clinton’s chief rival doesn’t have many answers.
Take his response to questions about his highly touted plan to break up America’s big banks. After reassuring the board that “the idea of breaking up these banks is not an original idea. It’s an idea that some conservatives have also agreed to,” Sanders was asked how he would go about such an impressive task. Sanders’ subsequent waffling should give even the stoutest Sanders supporter pause.
As editors plied Sanders with questions, it became abundantly clear he didn’t have many answers. First, he suggested legislation (somehow pushed through a presumably Republican Congress) would do the bank-busting. Then he claimed that his administration would have the authority to force through changes on its own, before quickly contradicting himself and reassuring his interviewers that “the president is not a dictator.” When the Daily News pointed out that a federal court had recently overturned an attempt to regulate America’s biggest life insurer Metropolitan Life, and asked how this precedent might impact his own efforts as president, Sanders conceded: “It’s something I have not studied, honestly, the legal implications of that.”
Sanders was similarly evasive when asked how his “political revolution” might be affected by the realities of a GOP-held legislature. After spending most of his time talking about the revolution already wrought by his campaign, Sanders argued that his presence in the presidential race would result in a voter turnout large enough to retake the Senate for liberals and make gains in the House. (This would still result in a divided Congress, but okay.) He also claimed that a win would “mean that millions of people now want to be involved in the political process in a way that has not previously existed,” somehow compelling Congress to act in accordance with their newly expressed wishes.
Sanders’ worst moments, though, came when he was asked to discuss foreign policy. Because the wording of these exchanges is so important, it’s better to just quote directly from the transcript. Here’s Sanders talking about Israel and Palestine:
Daily News: Do you support the Palestinian leadership’s attempt to use the International Criminal Court to litigate some of these issues to establish that, in their view, Israel had committed essentially war crimes?
Daily News: Why not?
Sanders: Why not?
Daily News: Why not, why it…
Sanders: Look, why don’t I support a million things in the world?
And here he is on drone strikes:
Daily News: President Obama has taken the authority for drone attacks away from the CIA and given it to the US military. Some say that that has caused difficulties in zeroing in on terrorists, their ISIS leaders. Do you believe that he’s got the right policy there?
Sanders: I don’t know the answer to that.
And terrorist interrogations:
Daily News: What would you do with a captured ISIS commander?
Sanders: Imprison him.
Daily News: Where?
Sanders: And try to get as much information out of him. If the question leads us to Guantanamo…
Daily News: Well, no, separate and apart from Guantanamo, it could be there, it could be anywhere. Where would a President Sanders imprison, interrogate? What would you do?
Sanders: Actually I haven’t thought about it a whole lot.
Just to be clear, Sanders’ character is not in question here. Sanders is an incredibly compassionate man, one driven by a deep desire to help the disadvantaged and correct injustice. His campaign has created an incredibly opportunity for liberal Americans to push their party to do better on the kinds of issues frequently regarded as taboo in the past, from destigmatizing the word “socialist” to boldly pushing for a national minimum wage of $15 per hour. An American president has to do more than simply raise awareness about important issues.
At the same time, an American president has to do more than simply raise awareness about important issues. A qualified candidate must be able to realistically assess how he or she would implement the policies that they believe to be most important. Sanders was unable to do this during his interview. And his answers revealed a rather shocking lack of knowledge about the many aspects of being president unrelated to his stump speeches, most notably foreign policy. In the process, he raised serious doubts about whether his bid for the White House can, or should, be viewed as anything more than a single-issue campaign.
This brings us to the deeper lesson we can learn from the 2016 presidential election. The presidency isn’t a symbolic title. It is a job,and in order to fill it one must demonstrate a breadth of understanding as well as a depth of conviction. Sanders has copious quantities of the latter. But in the context of this incredibly vital election, that’s simply not good enough.