Don’t look for the only Jew running for president to join the Israel panderfest so prevalent, particularly among Republicans, in the 2016 race for the White House.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist, may be the only candidate in either party (he’s actually an Independent running for the Democratic nomination) to have lived in Israel – he spent time on a kibbutz after graduating the University of Chicago – and has a solid pro-Israel voting record during his 24 years in Congress.
Some on the far Right might disagree since he’s a strong believer in the two-state solution and stayed away from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s congressional speech, and those on the far Left were upset with his support for Israel’s actions in last year’s Gaza war. When heckled by an anti-Israel protester who didn’t like his defense of Israel and criticism of Hamas at a town hall meeting, Sanders told him to “shut up” and the heckler responded, “Bulls**t. F*** Israel.”
He believes “leadership on both sides is not particularly good,” and the United States must be the catalyst for peace because both sides left to themselves are incapable.
Don’t look for him to try to out-Israel the others, especially the way the Republican hopefuls are scrambling to pledge loyalty to Netanyahu and the Likud cause. They have to because it is their best road to raising big money from Jewish billionaires like Sheldon Adelson, although they have a slim chance of garnering many Jewish votes.
Jews are not single-issue voters, especially younger ones, and Israel is not the highest priority for most. In most polls it ranks well below concerns like health care, education, Social Security and Medicare, terrorism and national security and the growing gap between rich and poor.
Jews will continue to vote about 70 percent Democrat.
Sanders is not just the only Jew running but, at 75 by the next election, if elected would be the oldest person elected president. Hillary Clinton, who will be 69 by then, would be the second oldest, behind Ronald Reagan.
The son of Polish-Jewish immigrants he was born and grew up in Brooklyn. Much of his father’s family died in the Holocaust. Coming from a lower middle class environment, he has said, shaped his political and economic outlook for the rest of his life.
He is not religious, and his wife is Catholic. He is the first serious Jewish contender since Sen. Joe Lieberman in 2004.
As a part-time resident of Vermont, though still registered to vote in Maryland, I went to some of my friends and neighbors in Burlington, where Bernie – as everyone knows him – served four terms as mayor before going to Congress in 1991.
“I trust him not to play to whomever seems to be able to do the most for him at a given moment, but to do what he thinks is right,” one woman told me.
A big part of his appeal is that what you see is what you get; he doesn’t have a different face, pitch or even accent (it’s always Brooklyn) for each group. He says he has never run a negative ad and won’t start now.
He is approachable, willing to joust with conservative media, enjoys the give and take and doesn’t avoid reporters and isolate himself in a cocoon the way Clinton does.
A true policy wonk, he not only discusses issues in detail but relishes it. He brings great enthusiasm and conviction but, one Vermonter told me, “he can often be gruff, with a lot of Brooklyn showing and little talent for the small talk.”
Bernie’s “outrage” with corporate America and his call to help the veteran, the farmer and the little guy may be new to most Americans but back home he’s “a bit of a broken record,” a Burlington attorney told me.
Much of his wrath is directed at what he calls “the billionaire class.” At his kickoff in Burlington last week he had a message for them: “You can’t have it all. You can’t get huge tax breaks while children in this country go hungry.... Your greed has got to end.”
While Republicans will be campaigning for more tax breaks for the wealthy one percent, Bernie will be calling for making them pay more to finance his ambitious agenda. He wants to increase the minimum wage to $15, provide paid sick leave and a guaranteed vacation for everyone and expand Social Security. He also wants “Medicare-for-all” universal health care, free college education, public financing of campaigns and $1 trillion to repair, replace and expand the nation’s infrastructure.
He says he is in the race to win, as all wannabes do, but most see his candidacy as a way for the progressive wing of the party to push Clinton more in their direction than the Center, where she seemed headed until a movement began to get Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren to run.
Faced with pressure from Sanders (who says her wealth has made her “part of the establishment”) and Warren (and more to come from former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley), Clinton has begun taking more progressive stands on social and domestic issues, although on foreign policy she remains closer to the neo-cons.
Warren won’t run but Bernie is, and he seems to be enjoying it. He may be far behind Hillary in the latest Quinnipiac poll – she’s at 57% support among Democrats to his 15%, but that’s up from only 4% in March.
He may be very popular with most Vermonters, but its top Democrats, such as Sen. Pat Leahy, Gov. Peter Shumlin, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger and former governors Howard Dean and Madeleine Kunin have already endorsed Clinton. But he does have the enthusiastic backing of the state’s two most prominent businessmen, ice cream kings Ben and Jerry (Cohen and Greenfield), who distributed free ice cream at Bernie’s rally last week.
Only one percent of Vermont’s 626,000 residents are Jewish yet the nation’s second smallest state has a Jewish senator, mayor of Burlington and former governor (Kunin), and Shumlin’s father was Jewish.
Sanders has been drawing enthusiastic and unexpectedly large crowds and gets some of his best responses when he says the rich should start paying their fair share of taxes.
Sanders may not have much chance of winning the nomination, wrote columnist E. J. Dionne, “But he is reminding his party of something it often forgets: government was once popular because it provided tangible benefits to large numbers of Americans.”