Is Bernie Sanders a single-issue candidate?

Coming out of the most recent Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton appears to have found her footing in drawing a contrast between herself and Bernie Sanders.

Check out her closing statement from last week’s debate in Milwaukee:

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, screenshot via CNN / YouTube

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, screenshot via CNN / YouTube

We agree that we’ve got to get unaccountable money out of politics. We agree that Wall Street should never be allowed to wreck Main Street again. But here’s the point I want to make tonight. I am not a single- issue candidate, and I do not believe we live in a single-issue country. I think that a lot of what we have to overcome to break down the barriers that are holding people back, whether it’s poison in the water of the children of Flint, or whether it’s the poor miners who are being left out and left behind in coal country, or whether it is any other American today who feels somehow put down and oppressed by racism, by sexism, by discrimination against the LGBT community, against the kind of efforts that need to be made to root out all of these barriers, that’s what I want to take on. And here in Wisconsin, I want to reiterate: We’ve got to stand up for unions and working people who have done it before and the American middle class, and who are being attacked by ideologues, by demagogues.

Yes, does Wall Street and big financial interests, along with drug companies, insurance companies, big oil, all of it, have too much influence? You’re right. But if we were to stop that tomorrow, we would still have the indifference, the negligence that we saw in Flint. We would still have racism holding people back. We would still have sexism preventing women from getting equal pay. We would still have LGBT people who get married on Saturday and get fired on Monday. And we would still have governors like Scott Walker and others trying to rip out the heart of the middle class by making it impossible to organize and stand up for better wages and working conditions. So I’m going to keep talking about tearing down all the barriers that stand in the way of Americans fulfilling their potential, because I don’t think our country can live up to its potential unless we give a chance to every single American to live up to theirs.

Clinton repeated the claim that Sanders is a single-issue candidate yesterday in a speech on racial inequality in Harlem. In Clinton’s telling, his laser-sharp focus on curbing the influence of powerful financial interests is laudable, but inadequate, since it means that he can’t spend necessary energy on other issues, as well.

I’ve got mixed feelings about this line of criticism. For starters, Bernie Sanders’s platform is far from being single-issue — to take the most relevant example, he came out with a racial justice platform before Clinton did! Furthermore, the single issue Clinton is accusing Sanders of focusing on too strongly (it’s actually two interconnected issues: political and economic inequality) is an issue that intersects with practically everything else — especially since the people it affects the most are women and people of color. If we reverse the growing wealth and influence gaps between the richest Americans and everyone else, chances are we will have gone a long way toward fixing a host of other problems. This being the case, saying that someone’s single issue is political and/or economic inequality is like saying that their single issue is Supreme Court nominees: it’s technically one thing, but it touches on almost everything.

That said, the directions in which Sanders pivots when asked questions outside of his comfort zone don’t do him any favors in responding to the charge. Speaking of Supreme Court nominees, one need look no further than Sanders’s go-to line on the subject to see what I mean:

This isn’t the first time Sanders has put forward this litmus test, but it’s one I think he should let go of. Not only does it play into Clinton’s narrative that he is a single-issue candidate, it isn’t even a very good way of articulating the issue at hand.

For starters, we think it’s really silly when conservatives draw lines in the sand with respect to their Supreme Court nominees — particularly when they say time and again that any justice they nominate will have to promise to overturn Roe v. Wade and, more recently, Obergefell v. Hodges. The Supreme Court deals with lots of things, and while its increasingly ideological nature means that you’ll be hard-pressed to find a jurist who would overturn both Citizens United and Roe, it’s important to acknowledge that being right on one case isn’t everything.

However, the problems with Sanders’s litmus test extend beyond its narrow focus. It’s a bad litmus test even on its own terms. That’s because Citizens United was simply the most recent and well-known ruling in a long line of rulings that defined money as speech and chipped away at contribution limits and disclosure requirements — going all the way back to the 1970s. Take it away, and you’re still left with a series of Court precedents that define money as speech, and give speech rights to corporations and other large entities. If you really want to use the Supreme Court to fix our campaign finance system, a better ruling to use as a litmus test would be Buckley v. Valeo. That’s when the Court first authorized unlimited contributions to and spending by third parties. It’s the foundation on which Citizens United was based.

If Sanders wants to own one issue and place it above all the rest, fine. He should really own it. That means demonstrating that he knows what he’s talking about. When it comes to fixing campaign finance, simply repealing Citizens United isn’t enough.

To be fair when Sanders says that he wants to repeal Citizens United, he’s speaking to the systemic issue of extreme political inequality — something his political revolution intends to rectify. But that being the case, he should be railing just as hard against the Shelby v. Holder, the Supreme Court case that gutted the Voting Rights Act. And speaking of systemic or more fundamental issues, why not put a strong emphasis on upholding President Obama’s climate regulations, an issue currently before the Court? These are all issues that Sanders has repeatedly emphasized on the campaign trail — issues which he could and should use to show that he really isn’t a “single-issue” candidate” — which makes his Citizens United litmus test feel like a massively missed opportunity.

Again, all this is to say that the Supreme Court deals with a lot of important stuff — much of it having to do with systemic issues that Sanders has touched on in his campaign. It may not be fair for Hillary Clinton to call Sanders a single-issue candidate, but it’s on him to prove her wrong. Right now, he’s not doing a great job.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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