Iwoke up this morning to a New York Times headline announcing “Bernie Sanders’ $16 trillion Green New Deal.” When I saw the number, I initially assumed it was an inflated estimate put out by some think tank with ties to the energy industry in a calculated ploy to frighten voters.
I was wrong. It came straight from the Sanders campaign.
According to conventional wisdom, a candidate should avoid calling attention to the astronomical costs of their political agenda, but there’s nothing conventional about Bernie Sanders. “Trillion” is a conservative scare word. Then again, so is “socialist,” and Sanders hasn’t shied away from that one either.
A huge part of Sen. Sanders’ appeal is his candor. Where other politicians offer vague promises, he provides detailed plans. While they evade or downplay the drawbacks of their political programs, he is willing to confront potential issues head-on and make the hard sell.
At the Democratic debates, Bernie was candid about the need to raise taxes on the middle class in order to pay for universal health care. Compare Sen. Sanders to George H.W. Bush, who raised taxes after pledging not to or Trump who cut taxes on the wealthy after promising to do the opposite.
But there’s more to this approach than just cultivating public trust and developing a reputation for scrupulous honesty. Sanders’ transparency with regard to the Green New Deal is strategic.
Getting out ahead of his critics
By putting the $16 trillion price tag out there, Sanders is seizing control of the narrative and dealing with the question of cost on his own terms. Should he get the nomination, he’s going to be grilled hard from the right about how to pay for the Green New Deal.
It appears that he learned much from the experience of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s plan released earlier this year. The basic structure was all there but it lacked specificity, which was capitalized on by the right to produce a wild estimate of $93 trillion. The figure was based on an erroneous reading of a study by a conservative think tank.
Sanders’ plan heads off any attempt to pull these same shenanigans by detailing specific programs, cost estimates and ways to pay for them, including scaling back military spending, ending subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and raising financial penalties for pollution.
Securing a mandate
In terms of winning the general election, it is somewhat of a gambit for Sanders to come right out and say he plans to spend $16 trillion once in office, but the fact that he’s willing to take that risk is consistent with who he is and what he hopes to accomplish.
Sanders isn’t just in this to become president; his priority is implementing his policy agenda. Getting elected is just a means to an end for him.
If he just wanted to win, then it would probably make more sense for him to do politics as usual and simply say whatever he has to say to get elected.
In the event that gets into office, he will face obstructionism from the Republican Party as well as some opposition from moderate Democrats. The only hope he has for enacting his platform is to gain a strong mandate from the public.
To do that, he needs to make his case as clearly as possible right now, and that means he can’t afford any duplicity.
Energizing the base
At the same time, giving Republicans a talking point about the deficit might not affect Sanders’ chance at winning all that much, since it’s an issue that only Trump voters care about.
Hewing to the center and appealing to fence-sitters is a losing strategy. We saw that in the 2016 election.
The name of the game is getting as many people from your side to the polls as possible. The way to do that is to fire them up with practical solutions on issues they care about.
A survey of Democratic voters by YouGov/Data For Progress released on Aug. 19 found that they want a candidate who: 1.) Can beat Trump 2.) Will take decisive action on climate change 3.) Wants to tax the rich 4.) Supports Medicare for All.
To be a politician is to tell your supporters what they want to hear, and Sanders is doing that. They want to hear the truth.