|from Boston Globe
Sanders a Growing Force on the 'Far, Far Left'
Vermont senator is gathering clout as he takes on the Fedís Bernanke
by Sasha Issenberg
WASHINGTON - The Senate may pride itself on a reputation as the
world's most exclusive deliberative body, but it is turning into just
about the only place in America where a self-described socialist can
wield raw power.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont at a December news conference on the
renomination of Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve chairman. (Win
Mcnamee/Getty Images) Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has spent his
career trying to remake American capitalism in a more Scandinavian
image. His favored targets of late have been top finance regulators he
considers far too deferential to Wall Street. Last year, Sanders spent
five months trying to block a new Commodity Futures Trading Commission
chairman before securing promises from Gary Gensler to aggressively
fight market excesses.
Now Sanders is aiming at the top of the regulatory pyramid, putting a
hold on the renomination of Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke,
whom he blames for the country's financial collapse as a "key
architect of the Bush economy."
Sanders, however, seems to be hoping that this particular adventure
ends not with a peaceful detente but a spectacular confrontation.
"I'm going to do my best to defeat him," said Sanders.
Congress's only self-described socialist, the 68-year old Sanders
gives the appearance of having stepped in from a tornado and speaks as
though still trying to be heard over the noise.
His voice may finally be breaking through. Over 16 years in the House,
his lonely crusades - which amount to a lifelong campaign to remake
American capitalism and social policy - were usually received as
little more than glitches in an otherwise well-functioning two-party
system. Since his 2006 election to the Senate, however, Sanders has
found that a junior senator's single vote is enough to keep him in the
middle of things.
He has emerged as a one-man tea party within the Democratic ranks, an
ideological purebred feeding on outsider anger while staying close
enough to party leaders to win rewards for his loyalty.
"He operates as most senators do, as someone who steps up and puts up
his position forcefully and starts to build a coalition around it,"
said Robert L. Borosage, president of the Institute of America's
Future, which has worked closely with Sanders to defeat Bernanke. "But
when you have a substantial position, rather than just an
idiosyncratic one or personal pique, you can use the Senate rules to
give it a significant airing."
Sanders disappointed liberal allies who had counted on him to mount a
one-man stand against the Democrats' health care bill for omitting a
public insurance plan. Sanders, who had introduced an amendment to
create a single-payer plan, had initially threatened to oppose any
such bill without a public option.
But as the bill moved toward a vote in late December, Sanders
uncharacteristically muted his criticism and began privately lobbying
Democratic leader Harry Reid on behalf of a pet cause. "I didn't have
to twist his arm," Sanders said
Sanders eventually secured $10 billion to expand a national network of
rural medical clinics that he calls "perhaps the most significant and
least-known public health program in America." (The Senate bill had
one perk just for Vermont: $600 million to cover the state's previous
expansion of its Medicaid program.)
Now Sanders is working the backroom negotiations between House and
Senate leaders, to defend his rural health funding and possibly win a
"He deep down believes he can change American politics," said Larry
Sanders, the senator's older brother and a county councilor in Oxford,
England, representing the Green Party. "He's not afraid of being
boring and making the same points for 20 years."
This year, Sanders may settle on a fresh target: a proposed
Comcast-NBC merger. He is working with staff over the winter recess to
determine the best way he can wield his senatorial clout to
potentially disrupt a deal he fears could establish a new monopolistic
"I think in a democratic society, you don't want one or two
institutions controlling the flow of information," said Sanders.
A longtime critic of mainstream media, Sanders controls the flow of
his own information. He wrote radio ads for his congressional campaign
with friends around his kitchen table. Before being elected mayor of
Burlington in 1981, Sanders developed educational film strips about
New England history - and one 30-minute documentary about Socialist
presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs - for sale to local schools.
Last year, Sanders began working with muckraking director Robert
Greenwald on weekly Web videos designed to build a national
constituency around his issues. The resulting series, "Senator Sanders
Unfiltered," set him at an ersatz anchor desk with an invitation to
rant: a duly elected Andy Rooney with a grasp of monetary policy. (The
series is on hiatus.)
"Bernie is one of the only voices that has the perspective to say
Ďthis is outrageous,' and to say it with passion and intelligence,"
said Greenwald, who previously cast Sanders as a talking head in the
documentary "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism" (and in an
uncredited cameo in the 1988 romantic comedy " Sweet Hearts Dance,"
alongside Don Johnson and Susan Sarandon). "He conveys complex stuff
in ways people can understand without neglecting the emotional
Sanders has been waging a colorful war against economic policy makers
well before YouTube was available as a repository for his screeds. At
one 2003 House committee hearing, he sarcastically invited Federal
Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan on a trip to Vermont so he could meet
When Greenspan said that American workers benefited from the world's
highest quality of life, Sanders corrected him in the language
befitting a man raised in 1950s Brooklyn. "Wrong, mister," Sanders
"You go to Scandinavia, and you will find that people have a much
higher standard of living, in terms of education, health care, and
decent paying jobs."
Sanders said he had not given much thought to Bernanke's future until
he faced him down at a similar hearing last fall. When the central
banker dismissed his request for a full accounting of banks receiving
Fed loans, Sanders - who had voted against the TARP bailout a year
earlier - says he lost confidence.
"The lesson is, if you give unlimited power to people whose whole
function in life is to make as much money as they can based on
outrageous greed, that's what they'll do," Sanders said in an
interview this week.
In early December, Sanders placed a hold on Bernanke's renomination,
one of several, from both parties. In practical terms, they are
unlikely to deny Bernanke, who was first appointed by George W. Bush,
a renewal when his term ends on Jan. 31. It will, however, force Obama
to secure 60 votes, rather than 50, to keep Bernanke in place.
"What I'm going to try to do with the opposition to Bernanke," said
Sanders, "is force a debate about a new philosophy on Wall Street
which is not driven by greed and self-interest."
When Senate Republicans tried to slow Democrats from securing a health
care vote before Christmas, they used parliamentary rules to demand a
reading of all 767 pages of Sanders's single-payer amendment. He went
to the floor to begrudgingly withdraw the amendment, condemning the
opposition for a "stalling tactic" that he said would "waste time."
This week, Sanders insisted that he could not be accused of the same tactic.
"My goal here is not to slow down anything," said Sanders. "My goal
is to defeat Bernanke."
Copyright 2010 The Boston Globe Newspaper.