(Andrew Harnik/AP)
Opinion writer

Watching Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in his CNN town hall on Monday night, one couldn’t help but be reminded that with Sanders there are few surprises. Even political journalists may not be quite sure yet what Cory Booker’s health-care plan is or what Kamala Harris’s approach to foreign policy is or how Elizabeth Warren will perform on the rigors of the campaign trail in Iowa, but Bernie is Bernie and always will be.

What does that mean, though? Let's use this event as a window into some of the most important things to understand about the candidate who for the moment commands more support than any of the other Democratic candidates.

He wants to assure you that socialism isn’t threatening. Republicans think that if Sanders were to be the nominee, they could just shout “Socialism! Venezuela!” and that would be the end of the discussion. Sanders has a clear idea of what his brand of democratic socialism is — essentially a European-style capitalist system with greater regulation and more comprehensive social supports — but he isn’t going to be launching any fundamental critiques of capitalism. He has complaints about the way the wealthy and powerful have distorted our economics and politics, but you won’t catch him saying that’s inherent in a capitalist system. When one audience member asked him to say why socialism is superior to capitalism, he said we need to guarantee economic rights along with rights like freedom of speech, then gave his 60-second ideological summary:

What democratic socialism means to me is having in a civilized society the understanding that we can make sure that all of our people live in security and in dignity. Health care is a human right; all people should have health care. You can’t get ahead in this country, in this world, unless you have a decent education. We have got to, as a right, end the kinds of discrimination, the racism, the sexism, and the homophobia that exist. So to me, when I talk about democratic socialism, what I talk about are human rights and economic rights.

Which doesn't sound like a radical departure from what we have now.

He isn’t going to grapple with the difficulties of legislating. This is a thorny topic for any presidential candidate, particularly Democrats who have ambitious policy agendas, because it requires admitting that things are going to be hard and that failure is a real possibility. Candidates would much prefer to assure you that if they’re elected, all their proposals will become law and everything will turn out wonderfully. The question of how you get your ideas through Congress is particularly important for Sanders, because his agenda is the most sweeping and the one that will run into the strongest resistance, not only from Republicans but from outside stakeholders as well.

Unfortunately, Sanders’s usual answer to such questions is unsatisfying, to say the least. He argues that we need a popular revolution so overwhelming that even Republican legislators will bow down before its power and vote for things they abhor with every fiber of their beings, such as single-payer health care.

That, of course, is just not going to happen. So what do you do then? We saw a taste of the problem during the town hall. A questioner asked about D.C. statehood, and Sanders said that he supports it. Unfortunately, the entire Republican Party believes that since the 700,000 residents of D.C. are mostly Democrats, they shouldn’t have representation in the federal government. Pressed on how what he would do to make it happen, he said, “Uh, everything that we possibly can,” going on to say, “I hope that my Republican colleagues do the right thing.” Which is a way of saying he doesn’t doesn’t have any ideas. That doesn’t make him different from most people, but getting Republicans to support the rest of his agenda is no more likely than getting them to agree to make D.C. a state.

He’s still playing games with his tax returns. In 2016, Sanders got a lot of criticism for refusing to release his tax returns; he eventually did make public one year’s return. Since all the other candidates were releasing theirs (with one notable exception), his reluctance inevitably led to speculation about what he might be hiding. Two years later — knowing that he was going to run again — Sanders now says that he will be releasing more; he just hasn’t gotten around to it yet. Here’s the exchange he had with Wolf Blitzer about it:

BLITZER: Will you release ten years of your tax returns? As you know, Elizabeth Warren has decided to do that.

SANDERS: Yes.

BLITZER: What was the delay? Why haven't you done that so far?

SANDERS: Well, you know, the delay is not— our tax returns will bore you to death. It’s simply — nothing special about it. It just was a mechanical issue, we don’t have accountants at home, my wife does most of it and we will get that stuff out. 

BLITZER: So when do you think we'll be able to see your tax returns?

SANDERS: Sooner than later.

BLITZER: What does that mean?

SANDERS: Soon.

Sanders then said he didn’t release them in 2016 because he didn’t win the nomination, which would suggest he thinks it’s necessary only after someone becomes the nominee. Of course, if there is some kind of significant problem the returns reveal, by then it’s too late.

To be clear, I doubt there’s anything scandalous in Sanders’s tax returns. The point is that anyone who wants to lead the Democratic Party simply can’t play these games. We’re dealing right now with the most corrupt president in American history; Democrats have been demanding to see his tax returns for years, and he steadfastly refuses. Anyone running for president as a Democrat has to release his or her returns, full stop. No hedging, no equivocating, no delaying. It doesn’t require weeks or months to prepare, and President Trump has shown us how important it is.

He hasn’t really engaged his Democratic opponents (and vice versa). In the town halls that have taken place so far, we haven’t seen the Democratic candidates take on one another’s ideas and explain why they’re the best choice for Democratic primary voters; Sanders was no exception. Like others who have done them, he talked plenty about Trump, which may be perfectly fine at this stage. But before long they’re going to have to engage each other, not to lob personal attacks but to make clear the differences in policy, philosophy and practical ideas about governing that distinguish them. Sanders was largely excused from criticism in 2016, since Hillary Clinton was terrified of alienating his supporters. We’ll learn a lot from how he reacts when his opponents take him on, and from the critiques he makes of them. It’s almost time for that phase of the campaign to begin.

Read more:

Paul Heintz: I’ve reported on Bernie Sanders for years. A free press won’t give him what he wants.

David Von Drehle: Bernie, your moment has come — and gone

Helaine Olen: Bernie Sanders would like to talk about Social Security

David Byler: Bernie Sanders’s biggest strength for 2020 is his ability to thrive on chaos

Paul Waldman: Bernie Sanders is ready to mount another rebellion

Jennifer Rubin: Bernie Sanders is no big deal the second time around