October 26th, 2005

Senate Race 2006: Say It Ain’t So, Bernie

by Philip Baruth

Hard to point to anything much that Congress has done in recent days — oh, except the sweeping new liability shield for the gun makers lobby. It hasn’t gotten much attention, but Rep. Bernie Sanders — the fiery Independent, the good-hearted icon of the Left — went tamely along on this horrific sop to the NRA. The New York Times:

“Fifty-nine Democrats joined 223 Republicans and the House’s lone independent to pass the bill. The chief House sponsor of the bill, Representative Cliff Stearns, Republican of Florida, said the measure received a boost in July, when Pentagon officials wrote a letter saying they supported it as a way to ’safeguard our national security’ by limiting lawsuits against companies that supply weapons to the military.

‘There’s a subtle undertow here about buy America,’ Mr. Stearns said, adding, ‘This bill has picked up a little bit of steam because of that.’

Look, we in center-left Vermont have always known that Bernie Sanders — for all of his thundering about honor and ideals — has one Achilles heel: gun control. Dominating state politics in Vermont, like a lot of rural states, requires “flexibility” on firearms. And Bernie has made the case that protecting the rights of hunters can be seen as a class issue in low-income, agricultural areas.

Not an airtight case, but a case, nonetheless.

But you tell me: how does Bernie defend voting with Charleton Heston on this long-threatened Republican stink bomb? And please don’t repeat the above talking points about national security or — even weaker — “buying American.” This was pure Special Interest legislation, USDA grade A prime. And that special interest has an indirect hand in otherwise preventable American deaths every year. Removing liability lawsuits as a tool to force industry safety upgrades is not Socialism. It’s not Progressive politics. It’s not Liberal, and it’s got nothing to do with anything on the center-left.

It has to do with winning elections, most notably the one upcoming against Richie Tarrant. Not that every politician in the world hasn’t or doesn’t make similar calculations.

But Bernie has positioned himself differently: as a champion. And many of us in the state have started to see him that way ourselves.

And this doesn’t smell like champion to me. Not by a long shot.

If you listen to Bernie speak, over time you notice that he has one word that he likes a lot, a word that is very effective for him: “obscenity.” Faced with a particularly nasty piece of Republican legislation — a “Clear Skies Act” that actually fouls the air — Bernie will lean back and call it what it is, obscene.

I’ve thought about this one a lot, and that’s the only word that comes to mind here. And I imagine, when he allows himself to exit the hard-core campaign mindset, when he’s home late at night unwinding to some old Joan Baez tunes on the hi-fi, Bernie realizes as much himself.