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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  • Opinionated_Lady

    Excuse me, but you are dealing with an electorate that has no patience with wonky economic discussions of facts and details. I know exactly what Bernie means when he cites his litmus test for the court. He means that money is not speech and that corporations are not people. Period. Political campaigns seem to reduce us to a nation of literalists.

  • Badgerite

    Which is why it matters so much that a ‘blue’ candidate win this next election. The Federalist Society has been playing the long game with the Supreme Court for decades. Roberts, Alito and Thomas are likely to sit on the Court for some time. Two or three more appointees and they have an unbreakable grip on the Court and its rulings. When legislation was passed in the 20s and 30s that expanded federal law to include regulations with respect to rights in the workplace ( an 8 hour day, and a 40 hour work week, child labor laws, etc) the Supreme Court spent decades striking those laws down as unconstitutional. The Roberts Court, to me, looks to be that Court revisited.

  • 2karmanot

    Truth to POWER is a Gestalt… yes.

  • cherylkelmar

    I discuss women and politics in my book Women In Power: Myths & Truths, which is available at amazon. I explore the impact of race and religion on a woman’s success. I discuss female politicians and judges, being an entrepreneur, work, education, abortion and how our women in power have helped middle class women. My premise is that if we as a society continue to promote women primarily based on who they marry, who their father is and race/religion, the majority of women will continue to be left behind.

    Among the states, California ranks eighth in income inequality. According to the research, women in California continue to be disadvantaged more than men in important areas. A gender gap in employment and earnings persists as it does in most of the country. In California, women are more likely than men to live in poverty, where the poverty rate is higher than the nation as a whole. Among families with children, single mothers are most likely to live in poverty.

    In Congress, there are 76 female Democrats and 28 female Republicans. Democratic women have increased their numbers six-fold since the 1980s. Yet, female Republicans have barely doubled their standings. In contrast, a large percentage of female judges in California are Republican.

    Despite the high visibility of powerful Santa Barbara women, such as Lois Capps, Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, District Attorney Joyce Dudley, Mayor Helene Schneider and so on, and the fact that females make up 54 percent of county voters, only 30 percent of our elected positions are filled
    by women.

    In Santa Barbara, women make up 39 percent of the workforce and earn 81 cents to the male’s dollar. There are 11,000 women-owned businesses, or 28 percent of all businesses in the county. UCSB Feminist Studies Department Chair Eileen Boris, who sat on the board of Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy stated, There’s less overt discrimination and much more structural discrimination”.

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  • I think the “single-issue” concern is best seen in his own absence from discussions that are happening daily.

    Admittedly, I follow HRC so see her comment on every topic, but I think I follow enough to be able to see where Sanders falls on certain daily topics, though he seems to neglect addressing anything that has nothing to do with the economy.

    Because of this, I still have absolutely no faith in him as POTUS. I really don’t think he would know how to respond to the next school shooting, or the next war or how he would respond to leaders in other countries who may threaten us. I have no idea where he stands on anything because he says nothing about anything that doesn’t have to do with our country’s economy.

  • Bill_Perdue

    HRH HRC makes no pretense about her politics, Sandrs does. HRH HRC is irredeemably right wing.

  • hiker_sf

    I don’t like either candidate, but of course I will be voting against the Republicans in November.

    That said, and I’m trying to be polite. Clinton is lying when she says “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.”

    And that is her weakness.

  • Butch1

    Exactly so. Chuck Todd hasn’t been around long enough to know anything about Sanders or his record in the Senate or the House of Representatives, let alone him being a Mayor of a city.

  • Admiral_Moorer_believed


    There are many “Journalists” who have sold themselves to be shills for Clinton.

  • Admiral_Moorer_believed

    People can Google any of all of these:
    – Hillary Is the Candidate of the War Machine
    – Parsing Hillary Clinton’s Disingenuous Foreign Policy Record
    – Hillary Clinton Sugarcoating Her Disastrous Record
    – Hillary Clinton and the Syrian Bloodbath

    If you wonder about Bernie Sanders, Google:
    – Sanders Ammendment King
    – Killer Mike – Sanders interview
    – ‘Single-issue’ candidate Bernie Sanders touches on 20 issues during a Michigan campaign stop

  • Admiral_Moorer_believed

    If you wonder about Bernie Sanders, Google:
    – Sanders Ammendment King
    – Killer Mike – Sanders interview

    He si not a novice at all.

    He is one of the most effective people in the Senate.

  • Admiral_Moorer_believed

    I think you mean that Hilary is in the wrong party.

    That the current Democratic Party has been hijacked so that there is minimal difference between the Dems and Repugs. . .

  • Admiral_Moorer_believed

    The take out from this is that Hilary is lying again.

    Go back to dodging “Snipers Bullets” Hilary.

    People can Google any of all of these:
    – Hillary Is the Candidate of the War Machine
    – Parsing Hillary Clinton’s Disingenuous Foreign Policy Record
    – Hillary Clinton Sugarcoating Her Disastrous Record
    – Hillary Clinton and the Syrian Bloodbath

    If you wonder about Bernie Sanders, Google:
    – Sanders Ammendment King
    – Killer Mike – Sanders interview

  • The Hamburgler

    Bernie Sanders is a 1 issue candidate. The American People. The Washington Post just ran an article detailing 20 “single issues” that Bernie Sanders is Campaigning for

  • Bill_Perdue

    Sanders is in the wrong party and that’s his fundamental mistake. The Democrat party is a right centrist, prowar, racist party and trying ot effect change in it is colossal blunder. He might as well have become a Republican because the actions of the two parties, no matter how much they lie during campaings that end up changing nothing are virtually identical.

    As for HRH HRC, she remains a willing, no make that eager, tool of the very rich, their racist government and their warmongering. “When Clinton left office in 2001, the United States had the highest rate of incarceration in the world.”… In her support for the 1994 crime bill… she [Hillary] used racially coded rhetoric to cast black children as animals. “They are not just gangs of kids anymore,” she said. “They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.” … During Clinton’s tenure, funding for public housing was slashed by $17 billion (a reduction of 61 percent), while funding for corrections was boosted by $19 billion (an increase of 171 percent), according to sociologist Loïc Wacquant “effectively making the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the urban poor.”

  • emjayay

    A little complication is that Republican Senators are also voting about any justice, and all Democrats and Republicans are not the same. And no candidate for the Supreme Court ever, at least lately, will pin themselves down to an answer on any issue. And in real life issues in front of the court are complicated, or they wouldn’t be there.

    When Bernie says stuff like “The reality is that fraud is the business model on Wall Street. It is not the exception to the rule; it is the rule.” he does reveal a simplistic understanding of the financial sector. Attacking Wall Street for “greed” is ridiculous. Greed, or maybe just call it maximizing profits, is all the free market economic system is about, from Ebay sellers working from home to the corner store to Citibank.

  • noGOP

    in a way, I think it does help.
    It indicates he is not looking for an extremist with ONLY left leaning. if he named all the things WE want in a justice, everyone would say he’ll never get the first confirmation through.

  • His most widely understood message may be very single-issue, but it’s the one issue that impacts all the other issues. If we don’t get money out of politics, then we can’t have a middle class. We can’t have a health care system that works for everyone. We can’t have a system where everyone is entitled to an education. We can’t have clean water, and untainted food. Or safe work environments… or affordable housing, or protected nature areas… The list goes on, and on, and on. Money, and those using it to peddle influence, are undermining everything that it takes to have a government that actually functions for the people.

  • Butch1

    He said he wasn’t going to fight a dirty game of politics like the Clinton’s like to play and fight. He wants to stick to debating the facts.

  • Butch1

    The “single-issue” is fighting for all of the things that the Establishment have over the past few decades taken away from the middle and poorer working classes. If we’re talking about jobs, healthcare in the form of everyone pays into medicare and uses it, education, Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, Veteran’s Benefits, breaking the grip that Wall Street has on our government, breaking up “too-big to fail” banks, then the Clinton camp and her Establishment in Washington DC along with the DNC can call it anything they choose. We know what his issues are and what he is fighting for. We also know what the 1% are trying to do to keep the status quo as well. They are running scared.

    When an empty suited bean counter such as Chuck Todd will call Bernie Sanders, a long time politician a “political novice,” then you know someone is feeding him his script. If anyone is a political novice it is he.

  • suesista

    I object not to Sanders’ goal of reducing the clout of money and corporations, but to his simplistic framing. To me, it’s a form of pander to those who don’t understand government. Things are not as simple and black and white, good vs evil, night and day, as he insists. We are a hybrid capitalist democracy so there are relationships and connections between public and private sectors, and they are out of balance. It’s going to take some work, and it won’t all be accomplished by one President. We’re still a work in progress, and reasoned solutions will require a realistic understanding of what goals should be prioritized and achieved. That’s why his SCOTUS litmus test declaration is absurd. That’s why the GOP’s litmus test of repealing the ACA was absurd. This stuff is red meat to angry people who don’t quite get it.

  • nicho

    Hillary is just reaching into her ever-growing mud bucket to throw stuff at Sanders. This is one more example. He doesn’t have to try to prove the negative. Hillary doesn’t realize that the more mud she throws, the more she gets on her. Why does he have to answer her ridiculous charges? Why doesn’t she answer the questions people are asking her, instead of stonewalling and cackling when someone gets too close to the truth?

  • This entire post is evaluating a Clinton talking point. That requires it to be repeated. As I conclude, Sanders obviously isn’t a single-issue candidate, but no, things like one-case Supreme Court litmus tests don’t help.

  • Knottwhole

    He’s not doing a great job? Have you been to one of his rallies?
    I’ve attended two of them and I can tell you he covers many issues. He may have a canned answer here or there, but his speeches are very wide ranging.
    You do no service to your reporting by repeating Clinton talking points.

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