Why Bernie Sanders as President Might Not Get Anything Done

If we believe ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the Bern will fail because he does not pander to moneyed interests. It's the Washington way.

Guy Rolnik
Guy Rolnik
Bernie Sanders after winning the New Hampshire primary, Concord, New Hampshire, Feb. 9, 2016.
Bernie Sanders after winning the New Hampshire primary, Concord, New Hampshire, Feb. 9, 2016.Credit: Reuters
Guy Rolnik
Guy Rolnik

Who said Hillary Clinton was whipped in every age group in New Hampshire? Not true. Even after the rich Clinton war machine’s stinging loss to the Jewish socialist grandfather with grassroots funding, there are still Clinton loyalists on the American left: Democrats earning more than $200,000 a year and Democrats 65 and up. She’s not leading there by much, but she’s leading.

Among everyone else – the very young, the middle-aged, men, women, schooled, unschooled – Sanders swept New Hampshire. While the press in both America and Israel obsesses over Donald Trump, who doesn’t seem to care what anybody thinks about him, the real revolution is Sanders.

Let’s start from the end, as it were. Sanders’ revolution won’t be measured by whether he makes it to the White House or collapses in the South Carolina primary or on Super Tuesday March 1, when 13 states go to the polls. Sanders’ revolution began on September 15, 2008, when Lehman Brothers collapsed and badly rattled the American financial system. Americans awoke from decades of brainwashing and asked if there really was a free market or just crony capitalism in the service of interest groups and billionaires.

U.S. President Barack Obama may have reached the White House, but it turns out that political culture doesn’t change that fast, if at all. Obama appointed the heirs, friends and followers of the very people who sent the U.S. economy down its treacherous path. The fruits of economic growth are flowing to the 0.01%, leaving everyone else in the rear.

Nine months ago Sanders spoke at an impromptu, amateur press conference and presented his candidacy for U.S. president. The American press was profoundly unmoved. Somebody wrote something about his “shaggy white hair blowing around in the wind” and wondered about his media savvy.

But while the elites of politics, business, academia and the media ignored him at best and scorned him at worst, Sanders was gaining momentum at conferences and events. So the press has woken up.

The American right likes to grouse that the press is leftist. But Sanders is exposing the real face of the American media, and it isn’t left-leaning, it’s chiefly establishment and conservative (at best) or sycophantic (at worst).

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gives a thumbs-up to supporters after leading a campaign rally at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, New Hampshire February 2, 2016.Credit: Reuters

And there’s nothing more establishment today than the Clintons. The billions the couple has raised in the past decade for charities – from interest groups, big business and foreign countries – is the clearest symbol of their network up and down Wall Street, the media and Hollywood.

From democracy to plutocracy

In his victory speech, Sanders declared that New Hampshire sent a message to the political, economic and media establishment – yes, Sanders’ view of press barons who serve big business hasn’t changed in 30 years. He doesn’t like the media any better for publishing pro-feminist and pro-minority-rights opinion pieces. Most of the press remains controlled by the very economic and political establishment that changed the United States from democracy to plutocracy.

Sanders’ meteoric rise has exacerbated the rift in the Democratic party. Though both he and Clinton are categorized as liberals, the gap between them is a chasm. Clinton is flesh of the flesh of the 0.1% and Sanders has declared war on the “American oligarchy.”

At 74, Sanders’ messages are clear and simple, but he has little management experience. Clinton could still win. But those who wonder about the future of the Democratic party should keep their eyes on the Vermont senator and yes, feel the Bern.

Young Americans aren’t dismayed by those castigating Sanders as a socialist, not because he isn’t (and he isn’t), but mainly because they were born after the Iron Curtain fell and don’t think communism or socialism are threats to humanity or freedom. Few ever heard of Joseph McCarthy.

They support Sanders because they think the American system is increasingly rigged to favor the rich and connected. They don’t believe that Facebook or Amazon will change that balance of power; maybe they’ll just make it worse. The great Internet and technology monopolies seem no better than their predecessors in banking, oil and retail. Young Americans are worried about their futures, not about the Middle East or Islam.

Jack Abramoff in 2011.Credit: Courtesy

The new generation of Democratic voters couldn’t care less about the Middle East and isn’t scared when Clinton’s people hiss that Sanders has no experience and won’t be able to handle Saudi Arabia, the Islamic State, Russia or Iran. The threat, they feel, is at home – legal corruption in government that created inequality and poverty, and the biggest prison population in the world amid police brutality against minorities.

Millions and billions

For her part, Clinton realized that veering the discussion to the Middle East won’t work; less than five minutes into her concession speech she vowed not to shy from dismantling the Wall Street banks. Not that people will buy that. She makes millions lecturing to banks and has raised millions from Wall Street. A third of Clinton’s donors are billionaires and giant companies that made it based on the existing system. They need an attentive ear in Washington.

Miles away from Sanders is Jack Abramoff, for whom social democracy and public education and health care are dirty words. Abramoff is a Republican who did three and a half years in prison for the less savory aspects of his work as a lobbyist. Then he wrote a book about it and the way money works in government – “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist.”

Abramoff, one of the most influential lobbyists on Capitol Hill for 20 years, went into intimate detail about how lobbyists legally corrupt congressmen and senators, from “soft” bribes like hundreds of tickets to sporting events to giant corporate donations.

Earlier this month I met with Abramoff, who suddenly sounds very much like Sanders when describing how money corrupts politicians. If you think Sanders’ orations about corporate loot buying and shaping the debate in Washington is overdone, spend a few hours with Abramoff.

The corruption starts in a politician’s first week on the job, says Abramoff. The party, whether Democrat or Republican, introduces the newbie to the lobbyists, who help him raise money. “Go to Jack, he’ll handle it.” The party also makes clear that the politician’s only real job is to be reelected. Which costs money.

Raising money isn’t a one-off, it’s a routine. Most congressmen and senators are deep in debt following expensive campaigns and have to start “working.” They’re not going to repay that debt from their salaries but from donations arranged by lobbyists, notably big business that throws around money to shape America’s laws and regulations.

Even wealthy congressmen and senators who didn’t accrue massive campaign debt quickly become part of the system. After all, those who raise money go far and chair committees, and those who don’t, don’t.

Elected officials’ dependence on corporate largesse is far more dangerous than it might seem at first glance, because with the exception of the Fed, most of America’s regulatory agencies need congressional approval of their budgets.

Abramoff isn’t surprised at Clinton’s weakening in the polls. He feels she and Bill have been among the more corrupt politicians in America for decades. Not criminal corruption, mind you, but perfectly legal corruption; hundreds of millions of dollars raised from interest groups for the family’s charities. Does anybody really believe that these vast companies gave the Clintons money because they cared about hunger in Africa?

Sanders, on the other hand, is one of the few who never took part in the circle of corruption, Abramoff says – and immediately adds, that’s why he’s never been in a real position of influence. And if he makes it to Washington? He’ll probably get nothing done because Congress and the Senate remain ruled by money.



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