Bernie Sanders Is Low-Energy in Las Vegas

The grueling pace of the campaign seemed to be getting to Sanders at Thursday’s Las Vegas town hall, but he was effective at laying out his first principles.

02.19.16 5:32 AM ET

The Democrats’ Las Vegas town hall didn’t have any decisive moments, but it highlighted quite sharply the candidates’ different rhetorical approaches, even if it didn’t really press either of them against the wall.

Bernie Sanders had the first hour (actually, the first hour and change—it bled a little bit into Hillary Clinton’s time). He was a little, well, low-energy, but that’s understandable. This is so grueling. He started his day in Washington, then flew to Nevada, and then at the end of his day had to do this.

The majority of the questions came not from Chuck Todd and Jose Diaz-Balart, the moderators, but from the audience. As such, they were mostly sincere questions about real-life situations. This was a relief in that we didn’t have to sit through a bunch of journalist gotcha questions. But at the same time the queries were pretty open-ended (“as president, what would you do to ensure...”) and invited pontification.

Sanders is a good pontificator. He didn’t usually talk about what he would do to ensure that X thing did or didn’t happen. If the question was about immigration or veterans care or discrimination, he stated first principles. What he believes. This is all eye-of-the-beholder stuff. If you’re the kind of person who wants to hear first principles enunciated with passion, it works. If you’re the kind who wants the specific question answered, it doesn’t.

Sanders’s best moment came when a Muslim-American physician asked him what he would do to fight Islamophobia. The question sounds too general here in print, but he was a moving guy, just something about his eyes. Sanders said: “Bluntly and directly.” There is of course not much a president can actually do about all this, but Sanders seemed sincere, and he concluded by thanking the physician for all he was doing to help his fellow man.

Clinton was in many ways Sanders’s opposite. When someone asks her what she’ll do about X, she usually answers, allowing for the usual sugarcoating. She doesn’t do first principles, which is part of why she’s in the pickle she’s in.

There was one moment in particular that was illustrative. A woman had asked Sanders a question about her husband. She’s legal, as are their two kids, but the husband is undocumented and got sent back to Mexico for 10 years. It’s now year six. She asked Sanders what he’d do, and he talked in broad strokes about the need for comprehensive immigration reform. When Clinton came out, she found the woman unprompted and turned to her and said, “I will the end the three- and 10-year bar provision” of immigration law, which is the provision under which the man was deported.

She did get ambushed once. A guy asked her to release her Goldman Sachs speech transcripts. She said she’d release my transcripts when every other candidate does, and every other candidate gives these kinds of speeches, “including Senator Sanders.” Then she rattled off her anti-Wall Street bona fides. Then Chuck Todd gave the guy a follow-up! “Please just release the transcripts so we know where you stand.” She somehow shifted the topic to her support for LGBT rights, which I didn’t quite get.

There was very little foreign policy. None, actually. There was a question about the government vs. Apple fight over the San Bernardino cellphone, but here they both said the same thing (I can see both sides/very complicated issue). Medicare-for-all came up for Sanders, and it gave him the chance to say, “I believe health care is a right” three or four times.

But here’s where a little more journalism would have been useful. The moderators should have asked about the size of the tax increases the plan would require. Sanders pointed to Denmark and Sweden as democratic-socialist exemplars. But here’s the thing. In Denmark and Sweden, according to the OECD, a one-earner married couple with two kids pay, respectively, 34.4 and 24.4 percent of their income in taxes. In the United States, that number is 12.8.

I was surprised these kinds of things didn’t come up more, especially this week of all weeks, with the big dustup about that UMass economist’s assumptions about the effect of Sanders’s economic plans over the next 10 years. The economist, Gerald Friedman, asserted in his paper (pdf) that the Sanders economic model is going to change the whole economic structure of the United States so radically that real GDP growth will be 5.3 percent a year, the median household income will zoom to around $82,000 (it’s now around $55,000), and unemployment will be 3.8 percent.

This is not an official Sanders campaign paper, but the Sanders campaign has praised it and expressed the wish that more people could see it. I’m not sure about that. It’s kind of hard to take seriously. For example, about GDP: Even in the late ’90s, during the roaring tech-bubble economy, the highest we ever got was 4.3 percent. We haven’t had one year in the last 30 (pdf) when real GDP growth has hit 5.3 percent. Not once.

It turned out Thursday afternoon, via The Washington Post, that Friedman is actually a Clinton supporter. “I agree with Bernie on economic issues,” he told the Post, “but there are other issues.”

That gives the Sanders campaign the excuse it needs to stop touting the paper. But the question of the cost and impact of Sanders’s economic proposals is going to gain prominence as an issue. Clinton has erred on the side of saying no tax increases on anyone below $250,000. It’s understandable politically, but there’s no real way to pay for everything she wants to do and keep that pledge. Sanders has gone way off in the other direction.

Whether even Democrats think the goal of free health care (and all the other things Sanders wants to do) is worth their taxes doubling or near tripling strikes me as a reasonable and necessary question. That’s the biggest difference between them, really, and it’s going to be duked out more directly before this is over.