The Iowa Democratic caucuses might have ended in fiasco, but they did produce two winners: Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders. The senator from Vermont could well triumph in this week’s New Hampshire primary and, with his fiercely loyal activist base and fundraising advantage, many analysts believe he is the Democrat best positioned to win his party’s nomination. Yet unless one is rooting for a second term for President Donald Trump, that would be a political disaster of the first magnitude.
The progressives pressing the senator’s case may not care, but the general electorate will: Sanders has a bizarre radical past. It would not only set him back on his heels in a general election campaign, it would completely neutralize the potent charge that Trump cozies up to Russian President Vladimir Putin and other dictators.
Just consider, to begin with, one issue from Sanders’ political career, highlighted by the historian Ronald Radosh in The Daily Beast. When Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his minions seized dozens of American hostages in 1979 and held 52 of them for 444 days, Americans across the spectrum were united in outrage and in seeking their safe return. Sanders, at the time, was a backer of an obscure Marxist-Leninist political party that pledged support for the Iranian theocracy and defended the hostage-taking. In line with Iranian propaganda, the party alleged that the captured diplomats and other U.S. Embassy workers were likely CIA agents.
This at the very moment when those Americans were being abused and tortured for precisely that charge.
Associating with the radical fringe
Sanders, who was a Vermont elector for the party in 1980 and spoke at rallies for its candidates at least twice, in 1982 and 1984, has never had to answer either for these views or for his association with this radical fringe group.
Trump, who has made challenging the Iranian theocracy a centerpiece of his foreign policy, is going to have a field day with this single item. “Crazy Bernie” is his stupid moniker for Sanders. Unfortunately, it has genuine substance to back it.
If support for this group was a completely isolated moment from Sanders’ past, perhaps somehow he could get away from it by calling it a youthful indiscretion. The trouble is, however, that he was in his late 30s at the time. Moreover, he has never addressed this chapter of his past to explain how and why and when his views have changed. Nor was it a one-off. Whatever Sanders says now, at a moment when he is trying to compete in the American mainstream, he has made a lifelong career of ingratiating himself with anti-American radicals of various left-wing stripes.
The pro-Trump Wall Street Journal editorial page is already on the case. In a piece headlined “The socialist evolution of Bernie Sanders,” a Journal editor named Elliot Kaufman traces Sanders’ on-again, off-again support for left-wing dictatorships, from Cuba’s Fidel Castro to Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega of Sandinista fame. As Kaufman wrote, in 1985, as mayor of Burlington, Sanders visited Nicaragua: On returning to Vermont, “he called its Soviet-backed leader, Daniel Ortega, ‘impressive’ and said it ‘makes sense’ for the regime to suppress newspapers given the threat from the U.S.-supported Contra insurgency.”
The Journal is fair, and Kaufman added that Sanders has lately “tempered his enthusiasm for leftist Third World tyrants.” But does anyone expect Trump to be fair?
Consider Cuba. Cuba’s Marxist-Leninist revolution has been another one of Sanders’ pet causes. In 1989, he issued a public statement piling praise on Castro’s regime.
“For better or for worse, the Cuban revolution is a very profound and very deep revolution. Much deeper than I had understood,” Sanders wrote. “More interesting than their providing their people with free health care, free education, free housing … is that they are in fact creating a very different value system than the one we are familiar with.”
Republican ad makers are drooling
One could go on and talk about Sanders’ 10-day honeymoon in the Soviet Union in 1988. In a statement upon his return, he explained that “there are some things that (the Soviet Union does) better than we do and which were, in fact, quite impressive. Subway systems in Moscow costs 5 kopecs — or 7 cents. Faster, cleaner, more attractive and more efficient than any in the U.S. — and cheap.”
Never mind that the extraordinary Moscow subway system was constructed by Josef Stalin to demonstrate the superiority of the Soviet system. Never mind the draconian methods used to build it. Never mind that during his honeymoon in the Soviet Union, Russians were living through the death pangs of the bankrupt communist system.
There is a reason South Carolina Republicans and conservatives are trying to help Sanders, and GOP ad makers are drooling at the prospect of running their man against him. With skeletons like these dangling in closets without doors, Sanders is destined to fail as a general election candidate, perhaps in a 49-state rout. (He might carry Vermont.)
Democratic voters take heed: Four more years of Trump will be a disaster from which the United States might never recover. Whatever the polls say now, in a general election contest, Donald Trump will eat Crazy Bernie for breakfast, before consuming a Big Mac.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, an adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and a recently registered Democrat. Follow him on Twitter. @GabeSchoenfeld