The Media Gets Sanders Wrong, Again

The major media spent the week convincing themselves and their readers that Bernie Sanders can’t find Wall Street on a map. They should have done their homework.

Casting out the money changers

The release on Monday of Bernie Sanders’ recent interview with the Editorial Board of the New York Daily News triggered a deluge of articles disingenuously trumpeting Sanders’ utter ignorance of the legislative and regulatory framework that would ostensibly undergird his proposed break-up of ‘too-big-to-fail’ banks, or SIFIs (Systematically Important Financial Institutions). Vanity Fair, the Atlantic, the Washington Post (both Chris Cillizza and Jonathan Capehart), CNN, and a host of other online publications joined the pile-on. Several journalists, including Peter Eavis at the New York Times, Ryan Grim at Huffington Post, and, most recently, Shaun King at NYDN itself, provided welcome correctives to the baying pack by informing their analyses of the interview with the basic context of Sanders’ responses, but the dominant meme was that the white-haired emperor had no clothes. Barney Frank chortled, Hillary Clinton probably knelt down beside her bed and said a quiet prayer of thanks.

Virtually all of the articles focused on several passages in the hour-long, wide-ranging interview with the editorial board of the NYDN. The recurring pattern of the interview was the Board attempting to burrow down far enough into Sanders’ positions that they would arrive at a point where his knowledge of the details became inadequate. More on this later. The articles ranged in tone from puzzled to disdainful. As everyone knows by now, producing charged content is essential to attracting online readership. Unfortunately, in this environment of contempt and histrionics, the factual quality of the work inevitably suffers. Interpretive generosity is not just a professional courtesy, it saves one from countless errors born of ignorance, bias, and conceit.

What Does Bernie Know about Breaking Up SIFIs?

When these articles interpreted Bernie’s interview as demonstrating his ignorance and confusion, they were reading the exchanges against the grain of a wealth of countervailing data. Tina Nguyen of Vanity Fair, for example, claimed that “Sanders admitted he has not formulated any specific plans to break up the big banks,” demonstrating an utter lack of knowledge about Sanders’ prior legislative activity and public statements on the subject. The slightest amount of generosity or simple curiosity would reveal to these opinionists that Bernie has, on the contrary, demonstrated a significant degree of understanding of the challenges of banking reform. His political platform, available here and here, describes in general terms his plan for regulatory action. He introduced, in 2009, 2013, and 2015, the “Too Big To Fail, Too Big To Exist Act,” which describes the mechanisms and process of identifying, restricting, and potentially breaking up SIFIs. Of course, someone who was strongly politically motivated might strain reason to argue that his platform and S. 1206 could have been crafted by subordinates without his active participation or substantive knowledge. Perhaps, but Bernie also gave a lengthy speech in early January on Wall Street and the economy, in which he discussed many of these issues, including the possibility of utilizing Section 121 of Dodd-Frank to break up SIFIs.

Now, it’s perfectly reasonable to argue that breaking up SIFIs in the manner described by Sanders would be unnecessary, impractical, destabilizing, or politically unachievable, as Rob Blackwell at the industry rag American Banker strenuously and predictably did following Sanders’ speech in January. This is a discussion that can be broached in good conscience, and perhaps should be. But to ignore all of this contextual evidence and jump to a shallow, implausible, and likely politically motivated interpretation — that Sanders doesn’t even know what he demonstrably has known repeatedly over the last several months — undermines journalistic credibility and does a disservice to the voting public. I encourage anyone interested in the Democratic primary to read the interview in its entirety. I think you’ll see a candidate who is extremely open and mildly exasperated by the fairly obvious editorial strategy, but who at no time appears out of his depth, especially considering the context of a lengthy, open-ended interview, apparently without stipulations or pre-vetted questions. Yes, he overstates the number of Palestinians killed in ‘Protective Edge,’ but he acknowledges that he doesn’t have the numbers in front of him. Yes, he thinks you still use tokens on the subway. We get it. He’s old enough to be our grandpa. I’m sure that if Sanders were asked to describe snapchat or, heaven forbid, contemporary online pornography, his answers would be equally quaint. But it’s also clear from the interview that, rather than being ignorant of the laws currently in place to control the banking industry, he’s uncertain, rightfully, about how his proposal will actually be achieved, given the broad array of objective impediments and uncertainties.

What is Bernie So Uncertain About?

The central uncertainties are 1) would the Federal Reserve, operating under Section 121 of Dodd-Frank, determine under current conditions that one or other SIFI “poses a grave threat to the financial stability of the United States,” 2) provided this were determined, would the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) make a two-thirds affirmative vote to take sufficient action to mitigate the threat, and 3) if either of these failed to occur, would Congress pass S. 1206, or similar legislation, and open up another Dodd-Frank-related avenue for applying prohibitions and winding down SIFIs. If either of these scenarios occurred, there would still be an enormous amount of uncertainty about how the process would unfold, which would rightly be the preserve of an army of highly experienced financial specialists. None of this has ever happened before, and it’s inconceivable that a presidential candidate, or anyone else for that matter, could, off the top of his or her head, meaningfully describe all the contingencies and minutiae of the process.

Accordingly, Sanders appears to express uncertainty several times: “I don’t know if the Fed has [that authority],” “I think the Administration can have [the authority],” and “Well, I believe you do [have that authority].” Now, each of the offending articles takes these expressions of uncertainty to mean that, all evidence to the contrary, Sanders is confused about his own platform, his own Act, Dodd-Frank, and all the advocacy he’s done since the 2008 Financial Crisis to rein in SIFIs, which strains belief. It is vastly more probable that the doubt Sanders expresses is directly related to the central uncertainties I listed above. When the Daily News, erroneously, expresses skepticism that the Federal Reserve can make a determination of systemic vulnerability, Sanders replies, “Yeah. Well, I believe you do.” Listen to the audio of the interview. Bernie doesn’t ponder NYDN’s skepticism and sort of dwell on his uncertainty in a dopey, pot-headed manner. Bernie delivers this statement peremptorily, in less than second, and his meaning is clear — “You’re absolutely wrong on this count, let’s move on” — in the same way a New Yorker would say, “Yeah, I think you do,” when he absolutely knows you owe him fifty bucks.

And he’s right. Section 121 explicitly gives the right of determination to the Fed. Now, although Bernie understands Section 121 perfectly well — he has invoked it repeatedly, he has introduced an Act piggy-backing off of it, and, let’s be clear, it’s less than 600 words — he is also aware that there is significant doubt that the Board of Governors and FSOC can be convinced that SIFIs currently pose sufficient systemic threat to force them to implement mitigating measures under the authority given to them under Section 121. This is also, by far, the most reasonable explanation of his statement that he doesn’t know if the Fed has the authority to break up SIFIs, but thinks the Administration can have it: if the Federal Reserve Board of Governors determines that the current level of threat falls outside of its authority to act, under Section 121, then, Sanders implies, he will have to pursue legislation like S. 1206 in order to obtain that authority.

These scenarios may well be improbable, but the interview, in its totality and in its particulars about the banking industry, does not suggest ignorance, so much as genuine uncertainty about the way any effort would unfold. Bear in mind, the entire back and forth about Dodd-Frank and ‘too-big-to-fail’ takes place in about fifty seconds. Again, listen to the audio, from 10:20 to 11:10, and it’s obvious that the NYDN interviewer is unfamiliar with Section 121, skeptical that it exists, and unaware of Bernie’s S. 1206 or Brad Sherman and Alan Grayson’s parallel H.R. 2600 in the House. If Bernie is guilty of anything here, it’s being dismissive with an interviewer who appears not to know the basic context of the question he is asking.

Bedeviled with Details

Setting aside the fact that Sanders does appear to understand the outlines of what would have to be done to initiate the process of breaking up the banks, as well as an appreciation of the uncertainties and contingencies involved, these articles all imply unrealistic thresholds of the detailed knowledge required to delineate a candidate’s political objectives. Any significant political undertaking involves so much uncertainty, negotiation, and improvisation, that it would be foolhardy and ridiculous to specify or attempt to predict how precisely it will unfold. I can think of no historically important process whose precise evolution was or could have been anticipated at its inception. This is as true of Alexander’s conquest of southern Asia as it is of the struggle for women’s suffrage. The greater the project, the more profound the change, the less the contingencies can be narrowly anticipated and the more necessity there is to rely upon first principles, character, and judgment.

The NYDN Editorial Board developed a set of questions organized around a readily apparent strategy to run Bernie’s high-minded proposals to ground. ‘Into the weeds’ is probably a better description of the strategy. They are entitled to run whatever kind of interview they desire. They are entitled to inquire into the details, they are even entitled to inquire more deeply into the details than a candidate could reasonably be expected to follow without specific preparation or brushing up. Their political motive is not even relevant. Bernie agreed to the interview, apparently without stipulations or pre-vetting of questions. Frankly, I thought it was, overall, a constructive interview, particularly the audio version, which gives a better feel for the tone of the discussion. And, to NYDN’s credit, they didn’t run wild with the banking angle, perhaps because they were familiar with the interview in its totality, and perhaps because they understood that some of the apparent confusion of the exchange on ‘too-big-to-fail’ was the product of their own unfamiliarity with Dodd-Frank and, in particular, Section 121. The problem arises when the press, under pressure from the relentless news cycle, with thinly disguised political loyalties of their own, virally ramifies its own misunderstanding. The NYDN had an interview strategy. The news outlets picked up its interview, cherry-picked it, turned up the histrionics to 11, and paraded their own ignorance and inability to do the homework necessary to provide context and meaningful interpretation.

The contempt that some of the opinionists express about Sanders’ apparent inability to describe the myriad legal implications of SIFI-busting, or the statutes under which his AG would have hypothetically charged bankers, or where his special forces or CIA operatives would hypothetically interrogate captured, high value prisoners, is so eager and exaggerated that it’s hard to believe it isn’t, at some level, politically motivated. I mean, one has to ask: do you actually think it would have been wiser for Sanders to explain where he would direct intelligence operatives to interrogate detainees, rather than simply saying that he ultimately supports trial in America under applicable US law and leaving the question of where to interrogate high value detainees in the immediate aftermath of their capture to relevant authorities and experts in his national security services? Really? You actually think that rather than discuss the general principles that would inform the development of his Administration’s relationship toward Israel, he should have stated, in the context of an NYDN interview, in a primary race, detailed demands to the Israeli government regarding illegal settlements, upon which cooperation with his Administration would be contingent? Really? Do you actually think that a candidate, on the campaign trail, should have at the ready, off the top of his or her head, the specific legal implications of, for example, an invocation of Section 121 of Dodd-Frank? There has never been an invocation of Section 121, and I know of no attorney that has ever, as an intellectual exercise or a labor of love, explored the hypothetical legal implications of its invocation. Simply put, no one knows the legal implications of this untested section, not even the attorneys who may one day accrue thousands of billable hours exploring the labyrinth of relevant legislation, case law, and legal strategy. And yet, you think it’s somehow scandalous that Bernie Sanders acknowledges that he hasn’t, himself, explored it? Or you think that Sanders should have a list of the legal statutes under which Obama’s AG should or could have brought criminal charges against specific financial service providers? You really think that a basic description of the wrongdoing to which Sanders alludes (predatory lending, manufacture of default, subprime mortgage-backed bundles), and for which Holder obtained settlements, is insufficient in the context of a wide-ranging, unencumbered interview? Really? Do you have any concept of the nearly infinite number of details that a candidate might be asked to provide about the ground-level implementation of his or her policies? Sanders’ stump typically lasts an hour, and let’s guess there’s a significant policy position every minute and a half. That’s 40 positions per speech. Or take the 362 bills introduced by Sanders over his 24 years in Congress, or roughly 30 per year. It would require continual, time-consuming refreshers just to keep the details straight on his ‘core issues.’ Then add all the policies and challenges that he doesn’t, or doesn’t often, address but about which he might be queried: Myanmar’s democratic transition, Crimea, uranium mining on the Navajo Reservation, human trafficking in Southeast Asia, the ongoing ethnic conflicts in South Sudan, Congo, Uganda, and Nigeria, al-Shabaab, ANC corruption in South Africa, gang violence in Honduras, Brexit, the Greek bailout, Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings, and on, and on.

Delegating the Specifics

This, of course, is a classic shuffle, not just in politics, but in all discourse. No one who is compelled or required to understand phenomena in general can understand all or even most phenomena in their specificity. This is a basic constraint of time and space. I spend more time than anyone I know reading and researching. And yet, there’s almost nothing I know more than three or four levels deep. For example: How do plants get their energy? Photosynthesis. How does photosynthesis work? Chlorophyll absorbs solar energy. Then what? Um, it uses the energy to make sugar from water and carbon dioxide. How? I have no f###ing idea. There are obviously many people who understand the chemistry of photosynthesis, but the specialization that these people have achieved was bought at the expense of impoverishing the breadth of their learning or the depth to which they understood some other specific phenomenon.

This is true of all human understanding and endeavor. Not just in terms of personal knowledge, but in terms of the social distribution of statuses and responsibilities. This is why specialization is a fundamental part of social development and complexity, and of capitalism in particular. And guess what? Even Obama, who was formerly a civil rights attorney and legal scholar, didn’t personally explore all of the statutes under which financial service providers might be charged in the wake of the 2008 Financial Crisis. Not because he couldn’t — I imagine, given his intelligence and training, he very well could have — but because a) his time was better spent making higher-level decisions and attending to matters of state and b) he had subordinates with more appropriate specialization and experience. So, naturally, he delegated the task to his Attorney General. But guess what? Even Eric Holder didn’t himself hit the law library and explore the crimes and the potential statutes under which they might be prosecuted. He also delegated the task to subordinates, who themselves probably delegated them to specialists in financial crime. And, if Obama wanted to give a speech or an interview specifically about financial crimes, he would ask his AG to give him a briefing, and the AG would pass the request down the chain until it got to knowledgeable parties, who would do their homework and pass it back up.

However capable the principal, the details are always delegated to specialists. Any other arrangement would be highly unprofessional, inefficient, and ineffective. Let me know when the CEO of Xerox swings by to check your toner. Any candidate that genuinely thinks that it is wise to dedicate substantial time and energy to relentlessly boning up on the details of policy implementation, in the midst of a feverish primary race, is destined to lose that race. This is a 74 year-old who has been barnstorming from one end of the country to the other for five months straight, often giving multiple, hour-long speeches a day, catnapping on the airplane in his coach seat, and you think he should be taking time out to run through a rolodex of policy-detail flashcards? When, once in office, he will absolutely, necessarily delegate those details to subordinates that specialize in them? Get real.

It is self-evidently important for candidates to have thought through the details of their policies, with input from friends, advisors, colleagues, and relevant experts, which is why detailed platforms and position papers are important to have and to make available, but the desire to force a candidate, in interviews, into the weeds, whether that candidate be Sanders, Trump, Cruz, or even Hillary Clinton, suggests a misunderstanding of the role of leadership, both philosophically and in concrete, daily practice. To be clear, the NYDN interview itself was not particularly egregious in this regard. It was the histrionic Tuesday morning quarterbacking that perpetuated a misperception of Sanders’ grasp of the issues and a misconception of the role of detail per se in policy advocacy at the presidential level. Sanders, and any other candidate in his position, would have been wise to have referred the interviewer to his platform and position papers, and to be sure that these were easily available on his website, rather than allow himself to be driven into the weeds, and this is may well be a sign of excessive frankness and even overconfidence, but the level of detail of the responses which he gave were generally consistent with the medium and the moment.

Trivial Pursuit or Chess?

Let’s take a step back, and see this in its proper context, which is an increasingly acrimonious political contest. Many of the Hillary supporters whom I have read online argue that their candidate would have been able to provide a comprehensive answer to each of the queries, with facts and figures right down to the basement. To be fair, if any candidate has ever been able to master the entire array of policy issues down to an expert level, it is Hillary Clinton. No one questions her competence. Her emails, of course, suggest that she, like everyone else, farms out the details to subordinates, but I think we can agree that she is undoubtedly extremely well-prepared. She is rumored to go to bed reading policy briefs. I’m sure she’s got her flashcards down pat. Certainly better, I presume, than Bernie Sanders.

But the contrast, which her supporters think reflects well on her, is precisely what makes Sanders’ supporters strongly favor him. Sanders can, will, and ought to delegate the details of policy development and implementation to his subordinates. All presidents must. What cannot be delegated, however, and what is most essential in a leader, is vision, principle, and judgment. No amount of delegation can remedy faulty judgment and a lack of coherent, rigorously applied first principles. No amount of cramming can prepare Hillary Clinton to be wise. Her errors of judgment in the past, both as the second most powerful individual in the Clinton White House and as a politician in her own right, were not aberrations or momentary lapses of reason. They were products of her character and values. They have repeated themselves now for going on three decades, and there’s every reason to believe they would continue to do so were she to become president.

In covering the Sanders NYDN interview, Jeremy Stahl at Slate writes that it was “really tough” and that “Hillary should face one too.” He goes on to argue that “Clinton should face the same line of interrogators at the Daily News that Sanders did, and readers can judge whether her policy positions are any better defined than her opponents when she’s pinned down as fiercely on specifics.” While I appreciate the impulse, this misses the key distinctions between Bernie and Hillary, and their respective campaigns. No one doubts that Hillary’s policy positions are “better defined” or that she would be able to provide ample specifics. That’s her stock and trade. Hillary’s weaknesses stem from the fact that she has a long history of being on the wrong side of history, particularly in relation to values that most Democrats share (to be fair, when she has been guided by core Democratic ideals, she has also done enormous good). An excruciating interview for Hillary Clinton would not involve pinning her down on specifics: throw in a vodka martini and some Loretta Lynn and you probably have her idea of a relaxing night in. No. An excruciating interview for Clinton would revisit and interrogate her fairly egregious failures of principle and judgment: Why do you think you found GWB’s case for war convincing, when so many doubted or outright dismantled it? In fact, “five of the nine Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, including Graham and Durbin, ultimately voted against the resolution.” Why were you not convinced by their opposition? What made you believe that GWB and Dick Cheney would judiciously and honestly exercise the war powers that you delegated to them? How, in the future, would you insure that you avoided similar failures of judgment? Why did you oppose gay marriage up until 2013? If it was based on your Methodist religious convictions, what happened in 2013 to alter your religious convictions? Did the strong opposition of black protestant churches, vital to your primary electoral strategy in both 2008 and 2016, to gay marriage play any role in your own opposition? Did you oppose your husband’s escalation of the drug war and his ‘Tough on Crime’ policies, once it became clear that they were disproportionately affecting black and latino populations? Did you then find ways to publicly oppose or mitigate these policies during his Administration? What do you think prevented you from anticipating the dire outcomes of HR 3355 on communities of color? Your husband assured the public that NAFTA would generate a trade surplus, net 200,000 new jobs in the first two years, and put an end to illegal immigration. Why do you think it failed to improve the US account balance and accelerated undocumented immigration? Was there a systematic misunderstanding of the consequences of trade liberalization? How would you insure that the TPP is not used to simply maintain access to US consumers while avoiding paying salaries and benefits to US workers, avoiding US labor protections, avoiding US environmental regulations, and avoiding paying the US taxes that fund and protect our infrastructure and facilitate our market? When you say you oppose TPP in its current form, what changes do you think would be sufficient to secure your approval? Would supplemental agreements on labor and the environment, like those your husband negotiated in order to secure passage of NAFTA, and which the Cato Institute lauded as ineffective and non-binding, be sufficient to assuage your concerns? Do you anticipate that the TPP, in whatever form you would support it, would improve the US account balance with signatory nations, or further deteriorate it? Many, if not all, of these deleterious policies adopted by your husband’s Administration and promoted by you as a Senator, were important planks in the DLC platform. What caused the DLC to get all of these policies so wrong? Are there inherent shortcomings in the principles of the “New Democratic” caucus? How have your principles evolved over the course of your years in Washington, and what principles that you now hold do you think might help you to make better decisions in the future?

What’s it All About?

Now, to be honest, I don’t actually want to see Hillary contorting herself and fumbling these questions. I genuinely like Hillary Clinton, respect many of the things she has done, and think she’d make a competent, technocratic President. Furthermore, she may well become the Democratic presidential nominee, as might Bernie Sanders, and I don’t want to see either of them humiliated in ways that significantly compromise their competitiveness in November. But she did make these errors of principle and judgment, and will likely continue to make them, and I think that that may gravely undermine her claim to being a better candidate for president than Bernie Sanders.

What I would like to see is a race that, however heated it becomes, is fact-based, thoughtful, and honest. I want to see Hillary run as the centrist, DLC (Democratic Leadership Council) Democrat she is and has always been. I want the candidates to honestly represent their respective positions in the struggle over the future of the Democratic Party. This contest will determine whether the heirs of the DLC hold on to power for one more election or whether the progressive wing, bolstered by the youth, forces them back into an ideologically subordinate position within the Party. Hillary Clinton has always been an orthodox ‘New Democrat,’ socially liberal and economically conservative. Bernie has always been much closer to a ‘New Deal’ or ‘Great Society’ Democrat. Why muddy the waters? Enough with ‘journalists’ and campaign surrogates trying to obscure the nature of this nominating contest. This contest is not about who Hillary or Bernie is. They have, between them, over a century in the public eye, and their political identities are excruciatingly well-established. This is not a debate about who they are. This is an internal debate within each voter about who he or she is, and amongst all of us, collectively, about who we are.