Columns » Max Brantley

Bernie Sanders: forever young

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I found myself Saturday in a nest of youthful Bernie Sanders fans explaining why I preferred Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential nominating race.

The occasion was a birthday party at my house for Shem Ngwira, a 25-year-old Clinton School of Public Service student from Malawi. Shem's father works on the Clinton Foundation's agricultural project in Malawi, meant to improve the lot of small farmers with sustainable soybean production. My daughter got to know him during her work on the Clinton Foundation agricultural and health (anti-HIV) projects in Malawi and we're pleased to have the chance to return his hospitality.

Shem's a sunny, bright young man who hopes to work in community organizations and maybe find a future in politics in his home country. He hopes fervently to meet the namesake of his graduate school to ask for advice. About 30 of his classmates joined us for barbecue and birthday cake. What an impressive lot they were — hailing from places as diverse as Pine Bluff, Wyoming and Italy.

I didn't systematically sample the opinion of all of them, but I got engaged with several, after the Razorback game went south, in a discussion of politics. I heard strong enthusiasm among the young people for 74-year-old Bernie Sanders and some surprise that I didn't wholly share the enthusiasm.

It was pragmatism at work, I said. It is impossible for me to believe — once the Republican machine got done with him, for sure — that the U.S. would elect a socialist as president. Sanders' brand of socialism is fine by me, by the way. If government can subsidize the wealthy, I don't see why it can't have a simple and efficient single-payer health insurance system for everyone, rich and poor.

I couldn't help but feel a bit of irony in defending Hillary Clinton — beginning with her work ethic, intellect and backbone — to a group of students committed to public service and learning how to do it at a school that owes its existence to Bill Clinton's presidency. But I admired their idealism, a road many have been down before.

Remember Eugene McCarthy and his anti-war candidacy in 1968 that undid Lyndon Johnson? New Hampshire looms as a similarly punishing experience for Hillary Clinton almost half a century later.

I bitterly recall Florida in 2000, when committed idealists stuck with Ralph Nader in numbers sufficient to provide the margin that defeated Al Gore (along with suspect ballot counting).

The Republican-manufactured email controversy threatens Clinton more than youthful idealism, of course. But whatever reluctance I heard Saturday night about backing Clinton had little to do with email servers. It was more about enthusiasm for Sanders. Clinton's evolution on some core progressive issues — or flip-flopping if you prefer — drew more comments. Sanders frames this as a "consistency" problem for Hillary. Sanders has shown a recognition of political realities himself lately. No advocate of gun control, he's recently said past pro-gun votes might be due for reconsideration. And he's emphasizing that he's not a socialist, but a "Democratic socialist," in the manner of Denmark and Sweden, places with universal health care, free college education and high wages.

Several young Clinton Schoolers clearly had the burn for the Yankee all the same. I don't, but I confessed to being influenced by years of both some personal association and Clinton's work as teacher, mother, first lady, lawyer, senator and secretary of state. I said, too, that I had felt a similar distance from the young people's flavor of the day in 2008, Barack Obama. Funny that many of the idealists of 2008 have cooled on a man who has more than lived up to the presidency, in part because of tough decisions to put philosophical purity aside at times for pragmatism.

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