Disingenuous attacks on Bernie Sanders persist — and his popularity climbs

The Democrats’ hypocrisy fest:

Clinton loyalists are still trying to tar Sanders as a sexist troglodyte. Read the polls — It’s not working 

The Democrats' hypocrisy fest: Disingenuous attacks on Bernie Sanders persist — and his popularity climbs
Bernie Sanders (Credit: Reuters/Max Whittaker)
If there is one thing that Hillary Clinton’s loyalists can never resist, it is a chance to sully the name of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who continues to be a thorn in the Democratic establishment’s side. Last week it was no different, when Democratic partisans seized on an opportunity to vilify and paint the Vermont senator as a cultural reactionary who is willing to sacrifice women’s reproductive rights if it means advancing his populist economic agenda.

This opportunity came when Sanders, on his “Come Together and Fight Back” tour with newly elected Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez, made a planned stop in Omaha, Nebraska, to stump for mayoral candidate Heath Mello, a former state senator running against Republican incumbent Jean Stothert. The episode began about a week earlier, when the liberal activist website Daily Kos, along with other notable Democrats, endorsed Mello against his Republican opponent, seemingly unaware of the fact that he is not exactly progressive when it comes to abortion (though he isn’t exactly a fervent anti-abortion right-winger either). Then, on Wednesday, an article from The Wall Street Journal reported that Mello had supported a bill as state senator that required “women to look at an ultrasound image of their fetus before receiving an abortion.”

This predictably created a maelstrom, even though the Journal article turned out to be shoddily reported. While Mello did indeed co-sponsor the 2009 bill cited, it only required the physician performing the abortion to inform patients that an ultrasound was available; it did not require a woman to receive or look at an ultrasound. Nevertheless, over the years Mello has supported other legislative measures — including a 20-week abortion ban — that are no doubt troubling for any progressive. Shortly after the Journal’s report, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, Ilyse Hogue, released a statement slamming Sanders and Perez for supporting Mello:

The actions today by the DNC to embrace and support a candidate for office who will strip women — one of the most critical constituencies for the party — of our basic rights and freedom is not only disappointing, it is politically stupid. Today’s action make this so-called “fight back tour” look more like a throw back tour for women and our rights.

After Hogue’s statement, Clintonites quickly took to social media to pile on, using Sanders’ endorsement of Mello as further evidence that the Vermont senator — and by default the progressive left — does not consider women’s reproductive rights and other “social issues” to be nearly as important as economic ones. The implication is that Sanders believes women’s rights are worth sacrificing if it means combating economic inequality or corporate power. (No progressives have ever made this argument, of course.)

In response to the criticism, Mello told The Huffington Post that while he is personally opposed to abortion, as mayor he “would never do anything to restrict access to reproductive health care.” A certain degree of skepticism is warranted, considering Mello’s history of flip-flopping on this issue, but the mayoral candidate is clearly not the anti-abortion extremist depicted by Hogue and others.

Last year Hogue — along with most liberal Democrats — had a far more more forgiving attitude toward Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who, like Mello, is personally pro-life. “I am okay with people having a different moral system than I do as long as they don’t legislate that on me or anyone else,” said Hogue in a statement last July, adding, “7 in 10 Americans support legal access to abortion and some of them are like Senator Kaine, who feel personally opposed but still believe that it’s not for a politician to determine for anyone else. . . . I believe [Clinton] chose Tim Kaine because she trusts the guy, and I trust her.”

Of course, Kaine wasn’t just personally pro-life; like Mello, he also had a history of supporting anti-abortion measures as governor of Virginia. As ThinkProgress reported in July (around the same time as Hogue’s statement), while in office in Richmond Kaine had “pushed for adoption over abortion, promoted abstinence-only education, passed a law that required parental notification for minors wanting an abortion, and banned late-term abortion.” ThinkProgress noted, “He even signed a bill to use state dollars to create ‘Choose Life’ license plates, which funded state ‘Crisis Pregnancy Centers’ — facilities whose sole purpose is to dissuade pregnant women from getting an abortion.”

So this entire Heath Mello incident appears to be a thinly veiled sectarian attack against Sanders, driven by bitterness and resentment. For the most outraged Democrats, the problem hasn’t so much been that the Democratic National Committee is supporting a candidate who is moderately pro-life — after all, their 2016 vice presidential candidate was moderately pro-life — but that Bernie Sanders (who still won’t call himself a Democrat, much to their chagrin) has supported a candidate who is moderately pro-life.

Needless to say, capitulating on LGBT rights or women’s reproductive rights is not an option for progressives — and never has been. If a candidate like Mello were indeed planning to “strip women of basic rights and freedoms,” then Sanders would be well-advised to retract his endorsement and vehemently reject Mello’s candidacy. But that’s simply not the case.

This kind of hypocrisy and bad faith is consistent with the Clinton loyalist strategy over the past year or so — to discredit and vilify Bernie Sanders and the entire progressive movement that has formed around his candidacy. A year ago during the Democratic primaries Clinton supporters were singing the same tune, portraying the democratic socialist as a cultural and political dinosaur and insisting that the candidate’s supporters were a bunch of sexist white guys (that is, “BernieBros”). The Clinton camp even depicted Sanders — who has a D- rating from the National Rifle Association — as a gun nut or a “very reliable supporter of the NRA,” as Clinton once put it. In fact, Clinton advocated the same exact position on gun policy as Sanders did during her 2008 presidential campaign.

In addition, the Clinton campaign has consistently promoted a false dichotomy between economic issues and social ones, in an effort to make it appear that Sanders, one of the most passionate critics of economic inequality and corporate malfeasance, only cares about the first type — a blatant falsehood that is refuted by his 40-year record in politics. Sanders has long been one of the most socially progressive politicians in Washington and advocated for LGBT rights long before it became the politically expedient thing to do. To cite just one example, he strongly opposed the now-infamous 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which was signed into law by Bill Clinton and supported by Hillary Clinton.

The Clinton camp has basically sought to use Sanders’ passion about economic inequality and political corruption against him, as if someone who is this intense about economic issues must be a “class reductionist” who cares little about social and cultural issues. (It is only mainstream liberals, of course, who treat economic and cultural matters as if they could somehow be separated.) “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow . . . would that end racism? Would that end sexism?” Clinton absurdly asked at one point.

Unfortunately for the Democratic establishment, these disingenuous attacks have failed. According to various polls — including a new Harvard survey released last week — Sanders is currently the most popular politician in America. It is not surprising — or perhaps it is deeply surprisingly for some Democrats — that African-Americans, Hispanics, women and millennials view Sanders the most favorably, while white men view him the least favorably.

After just a week on the road, the Perez-Sanders “unity tour” has gotten off to a rocky start. This latest incident reveals the depth of lingering resentment and friction within the Democratic Party. It is clear that many Democrats want Sanders to fall in line and use his influence to serve the party and, as long as he remains an independent gadfly fighting for principles over party, they will keep trying to discredit him. Of course, one of the primary reasons for Sanders’ popularity is that he clearly places principles before party — so we can expect his popularity to keep on growing, even as the smears become more and more desperate.

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.
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