[This post was originally published by Truthdig.com]
For American progressives, as the 2016 presidential election approaches, the question of the hour is simple: Is Bernie Sanders, the independent socialist senator from Vermont, the real deal, or is he just another election-year diversion before the inevitable anointment of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic Party's nominee?
To help answer the question, I attended a Sanders-for-president fundraiser Saturday morning in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles. Having done so, I'm still in the undecided column, although I'm leaning in Bernie's direction. The reason I remain unconvinced has more to do with three vital issues Sanders avoided at the fundraiser, rather than anything he actually said.
I'll list those issues in a moment, but first let me lay out the contours of Saturday's event:
Staged on the shady front lawn of a relatively modest home owned by actress and liberal activist Mimi Kennedy and her schoolteacher husband, Larry Dilg, the convocation drew over 200 fervent Sanders admirers, who gathered to hear their candidate deliver what has become a standard stump speech on the greed and depredations of the Koch brothers and the super-rich, and the plight of middle- and working-class families.
Like many Sanders rallies across the country to date, the crowd was heavily weighted with senior citizens and was overwhelmingly, though not exclusively, white.
The price of admission each attendee paid--$250 per ticket--was hardly middle class, but it paled in comparison to the $50,000 reportedly remitted by the corporate fat cats who attended Mitt Romney's infamous "47 percent" dinner in 2012, or the $16,700 forked over Thursday by a gaggle of limousine liberals for the privilege of hobnobbing with President Obama at a swanky fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee in nearby Pacific Palisades.
Sanders arrived 10 minutes behind schedule for Saturday's fete, held up in traffic on the perennially gridlocked Interstate 405. He entered, finally, to a standing ovation as Dilg ably sang Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" over a well-amped sound system.
The ovations persisted over the course of his prepared remarks, which lasted about 15 minutes. The message Sanders offered was one of determination, optimism and commitment. Throughout, he exuded an energy and level of enthusiasm uncommon for anyone, much less a 73-year-old conducting a 50-state campaign.
"Yesterday," he began, "we had a rally in Las Vegas attended by close to a thousand people. Tonight in Denver," his next scheduled city, "we have 7,000 RSVPs.
"Our campaign is catching fire," he continued, "for one simple reason: We are telling the truth. The truth is what the American people want to hear."
Anyone who has listened to Bernie Sanders over his long and distinguished career in the Senate--or for that matter, anyone who happened to catch his short segment Friday night with comedian Bill Maher on HBO's "Real Time"--is well acquainted with Sanders' views. For the most part, they are views nearly all progressives share.
As Sanders' campaign flier, distributed Saturday, proclaims:
"Our country is in serious trouble.
"Our economic system benefits the rich and large corporations and leaves working families behind. Our political system is dominated by billionaire campaign contributors and their lobbyists, which threatens the very foundations of our democracy. Climate change endangers the planet.
"We need bold leadership willing to stand up to the billionaire class."
Offering a broad set of remedies ranging from single-payer health care to free tuition at public universities and paid family leave, Sanders called for a "political revolution" to mobilize the American people. "The antidote" to the prevailing corporate control of government, he thundered, bringing the crowd (at least those sufficiently nimble to stand) to its feet, "is tens of millions of people looking at Washington politicians and saying, 'We know what's going on' " and it has to stop.
But is Bernie Sanders really the candidate we need to spark a revolution? Before I'll be able to answer in the affirmative, Sanders will need to address at least three basic issues he pointedly avoided during his prepared remarks and the question and answer session that followed:
1. Is he really in the presidential race to win, or to move Hillary Clinton to the left?
If we take Sanders at his word, he aims to be president of the United States and believes he can be elected. Many political pundits, however, think he entered the race to make Clinton a better candidate, to give her competition and drive her to the left.
If and when Clinton secures the nomination, as virtually every odds-maker continues to forecast, how will Sanders respond? Will he mount a third-party campaign of his own, emphasizing the need to build social movements beyond the electoral process, or will he fall in line with Clinton and urge his supporters--many of whom see Clinton as an unrepentant war hawk and pawn of Wall Street--to follow suit?
Sanders not only ducked these questions Saturday, he didn't mention Hillary's name one single time. Sooner or later, he'll have to comment.
2. Where does Sanders stand on foreign policy, particularly on Israel?
It wasn't until the last question of the Q&A that Sanders said anything about foreign policy, and then he dealt only with the dangers posed by Islamic State. Chastising Saudi Arabia for not leading the fight against IS, he said that under a Sanders presidency, the United States would never again commit to fighting a ground war in the Middle East but would continue to play a "supportive role."
Whether that supportive role might mean withdrawing military and other assistance from repressive regimes like the Saudis' or Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud government in Israel, we can only wonder. So far, he's not saying.
3. As president, would Bernie Sanders issue an unconditional pardon to Edward Snowden?
As I wrote in my last Truthdig column, the president's pardon, commutation and clemency powers under the Constitution are plenary. Pardons, even pre-emptive ones dispensed before criminal convictions, require no approval from the Senate or House, and they are not subject to judicial review.
Surely, no one on the political scene today is more deserving of a presidential pardon than Snowden for blowing the whistle two years ago on the National Security Agency's pervasive and illegal surveillance practices. In a better society--the kind that Sanders promoted in other respects Saturday--Snowden would be welcomed home from exile in Russia as a national hero.
Sanders, for his part, voted against the original Patriot Act, under which many of the worst spying abuses were committed. He also voted earlier this month against the USA Freedom Act, believing the new bill does not go far enough to curb future abuses.
In the past, Sanders has said that Snowden--who faces charges of espionage should he return to this country--deserves some kind of leniency. It's time for Sanders to go further and promise a full pardon if he's elected.
Had the Sanders campaign permitted, I would have raised these issues directly with the candidate Saturday. Unfortunately, because I was admitted to the fundraiser as a member of the press rather than as a donor, I was asked simply to observe the event. Perhaps now, with this column, we'll get a response.