On Wednesday, Bernie Sanders announced he was suspending his campaign for the presidency, finally acknowledging that winning the Democratic nomination would be virtually impossible.

An improbable candidate, the 78-year-old maverick, with his pugnacious style, irascible personality, unkempt appearance, and Brooklyn accent as thick as a New York cheese cake, has certainly enlivened the 2020 (and before it the 2016) presidential election. However, while I applaud the grit, earnestness, authenticity and intellectual consistency of this self-styled “democratic socialist,” I am, as a certified baby boomer (born in 1947), relieved that he will not be the Democratic standard bearer. Like many in my cohort, I was skeptical he could win the general election and nearly certain that if he did his presidency would have been a train wreck.

Elliott Epstein

Lest this judgment appear overly harsh, let me explain my reasoning.

Sanders had glaring liabilities, ones which President Donald Trump and the GOP would have been eager to exploit in the campaign and could easily have undermined his presidency in the event of victory.

The first was his reputation for being, at least by U.S. standards, a far-left radical. Though, as he frequently explained, his brand of socialism didn’t mean government ownership of business but rather a Scandinavian-style social welfare system, the “socialist” label in American politics is toxic.  Sure, it worked for Sanders in Burlington, Vermont, a hip college town (actually small city), where he was elected mayor for four terms, but it would fly like a lead balloon in Lubbock, Texas. Americans may resent uber-rich capitalists, but few would decline to happily join them if afforded the opportunity.

The last serious Socialist presidential candidate in this country was labor leader Eugene Victor Debs, who ran unsuccessfully for president under the Socialist Party of America banner in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912 and 1920.  Like Sanders, he was a charismatic speaker and a committed ideologue who unflinchingly accepted a sedition conviction and 10-year jail sentence for his anti-war speeches during World War I. (Indeed, Sanders once produced a video documentary about Debs). For all his admirable qualities, however, Debs never won more than 6% of the popular vote.

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Second, Sanders has advocated policies — “Medicare for All,” free public “College for All,” universal preschool and child care, and cancellation of all past due medical debt and student loans — which are over-the-top for boomers.  Sanders’ proposal to pay for this bundle of goodies through a wealth tax on the top 0.1% and a “modest” tax on Wall Street speculation makes me wonder if he’s competent enough at math to run a bottle redemption center, let alone the executive branch of the U.S. government. There is simply no way of financing such policies without printing money, Venezuela style, or imposing dramatic tax increases on everyone, not just on the top 0.1%.

Scandinavia’s Denmark, for instance, finances its generous social welfare system primarily by imposing a 60% income rate on all taxpayers earning over 1.2 times the average national income. (In the U.S., that would be the equivalent to taxpayers earning over $60,000).  At the same threshold income level, after subtracting the standard deduction, a married couple in the U.S. would pay 12% and a single taxpayer 22%. The top current marginal U.S. federal income tax rate of 37% for married taxpayers with taxable income over $622,050 and single taxpayers with taxable income over $518,400 translates into an effective overall rate close to 32%, about half that of Denmark’s for taxpayers earning over $60,000.

In addition, both the health care and educational sectors have consistently experienced cost increases in excess of inflation, so there’s no assurance the future tab for such programs could be kept under control.  Health care costs have risen an average of 5.1% a year since 1947 compared to an overall inflation rate of 3.4%. Since the early 1960s, higher education costs have increased at 2.5 times the rate of inflation. Until someone figures out how to rein in the cost escalators, taking these sectors under the government’s wing will be dicey, because one thing government does very poorly is controlling costs.

The average income for a 70-year-old American is nearly twice that of the average 30-year-old. Boomers, in general, are more affluent than millennials and their younger cohorts, so boomers will likely feel the tax pain from a Sanders-style social welfare extravaganza more acutely than the younger Americans who have enthusiastically embraced him.  Having spent a lifetime paying for their own health care insurance and their children’s college tuition, they are understandably less than enthusiastic about paying for everyone else’s.  Many  also feel that consumers who have to open their wallets for these services will have skin in the game, value them more, and hence make better use of them.

That’s not to say that boomers, who came of age during the Civil Rights and Great Society era, have no sense of empathy for, or obligation towards, those too impoverished to enjoy adequate health care or the opportunity for a college education. Doubtless, they would agree to pay somewhat higher taxes to support a reasonable expansion of Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, of Pell grants and federally subsidized loans for higher education, and of student loan forgiveness in exchange for military service or national service in organizations like AmeriCorps.

Sanders had a lot going for him in other areas of policy. He was a forceful advocate for measures to control climate change (the Green New Deal), restraint in the use of military force, greater international cooperation, protections for labor unions, criminal justice reform and campaign finance reform.  And he undeniably sparked the enthusiasm of younger generations (even if that didn’t always translate into their going to the polls). In the words of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, “He didn’t just run a political campaign. He created a movement.”

What he didn’t do, at least in the opinion of this boomer, was to provide a workable formula for turning a dream of social justice into a fiscal reality.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]


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