A questioner at a CNN town hall Monday night asked the presidential candidate whether he believes that incarcerated felons — the Boston Marathon bomber, for instance, or sex offenders — should be allowed to vote while they are serving their sentences.Sanders’s answer: an unapologetic “yes.”“I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy — yes, even for terrible people — because once you start chipping away … you’re running down a slippery slope,” Sanders said. “I do believe that even if they are in jail paying their price to society, that should not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy.”
Let’s stop there for a moment. Sanders is saying that we as a society are incapable of differentiating between a felon in prison and one who has paid his debt. Really? It sure seems like a simple, bright line.
While re-enfranchising felons has gained momentum, no major-party candidate has suggested that we have to give the Boston Marathon bomber the franchise since Florida voters chose to give a million felons the right to vote. His reasoning is so illogical that one wonders whether he actually is serious. (Will politicians start holding campaign rallies in prison? Do death-row inmates get to vote — maybe to end the death penalty?) The idea is so easily mocked that one wonders whether Sanders understands what it takes to defeat President Trump and unify the Democratic Party.
One is inclined to conclude that Sanders is either pandering in a desperate way to compensate for his poor showing among African American voters in 2016 or that he lacks rudimentary common sense.
To no one’s surprise, Sanders immediately came under withering attack from Republicans on an issue for which there is no significant support even within the Democratic Party.
In an election in which Democrats are desperate to win, this episode should serve as big red flag. (“Sanders has been working to persuade Democrats he can defeat President Trump, but Monday’s remarks could give pause to some of the voters he would need to win over.” To put it mildly.)
Sanders has made a career of propounding extreme, unworkable views that escape serious scrutiny because “it’s just Bernie.” Democratic voters should have reason to worry that a candidate who wants to outlaw private health insurance and cannot bring himself to condemn Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro is precisely the sort of candidate who will scare away moderate voters, rile up Trump’s base and nevertheless have little appeal to key Democratic constituents such as African Americans.
Even his embrace of socialism seems designed to provoke and instill hostility rather than to win allies. (Josh Barro in 2015 pointed out: “After all, Mr. Sanders does not want to nationalize the steel mills or the auto companies or even the banks. Like [Hillary] Clinton, he believes in a mixed economy, where capitalist institutions are mediated through taxes and regulation. He just wants more taxes and more regulation than Mrs. Clinton does. He certainly seems like a regular Democrat, only more so.”)
Sanders’s peevishness and habit of picking fights within the party don’t bode well for his ability to bring the party together after a hard-fought primary. Just last week, he went after a progressive think tank, the Center for American Progress, when the editorially independent ThinkProgress criticized him. His demand? Stop saying mean things about him.
Sanders is in a strong but hardly commanding position, as Nate Silver points out. (“He’s probably the 3rd- or 4th-most likely nominee, in my estimation — slightly behind Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and roughly tied with Pete Buttigieg, but ahead of everyone else. ... Empirically, however, Sanders’s position in the polls is not all that strong; it’s consistent with sometimes winning the nomination but usually not.”) A few more episodes like “give prisoners the vote!” and we will see just how quickly his position can deteriorate.