A notion is rapidly crystallizing among the national media that Bernie Sanders majorly bungled an interview with the editorial board of the New York Daily News. His rival, Hillary Clinton, has even sent a transcript of the interview to supporters as part of a fundraising push. A close look at that transcript, though, suggests the media may be getting worked up over nothing.
In fact, in several instances, it's the Daily News editors who are bungling the facts in an interview designed to show that Sanders doesn't understand the fine points of policy. In questions about breaking up big banks, the powers of the Treasury Department and drone strikes, the editors were simply wrong on details.
Take the exchange getting the most attention: Sanders' supposed inability to describe exactly how he would break up the biggest banks. Sanders said that if the Treasury Department deemed it necessary to do so, the bank would go about unwinding itself as it best saw fit to get to a size that the administration considered no longer a systemic risk to the economy. Sanders said this could be done with new legislation, or through administrative authority under Dodd-Frank.
This is true, as economist Dean Baker, Peter Eavis at The New York Times, and HuffPost's Zach Carter in a Twitter rant have all pointed out. It's also the position of Clinton herself. "We now have power under the Dodd-Frank legislation to break up banks. And I've said I will use that power if they pose a systemic risk," Clinton said at a February debate. No media outcry followed her assertion, because it was true.
As the interview went on, though, it began to appear that the Daily News editors didn't understand the difference between the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve. Follow in the transcript how Sanders kept referring to the authority of the administration and the Treasury Department through Dodd-Frank, known as Wall Street reform, while the Daily News editors shifted to the Fed.
Daily News: Okay. Well, let's assume that you're correct on that point. How do you go about doing it?
Sanders: How you go about doing it is having legislation passed, or giving the authority to the secretary of treasury to determine, under Dodd-Frank, that these banks are a danger to the economy over the problem of too-big-to-fail.
Daily News: But do you think that the Fed, now, has that authority?
Sanders: Well, I don't know if the Fed has it. But I think the administration can have it.
Daily News: How? How does a president turn to JPMorgan Chase, or have the treasury turn to any of those banks and say, "Now you must do X, Y and Z?"
Sanders: Well, you do have authority under the Dodd-Frank legislation to do that, make that determination.
Daily News: You do, just by Federal Reserve fiat, you do?
This is simply a factual dispute between the Daily News and Sanders, not a matter of opinion. The Daily News was wrong.
Much has been made about Sanders answering questions by saying that he didn't know or hadn't thought about a particular issue, such as where to interrogate captured terrorists. Sanders said we could imprison them in the U.S. safely, and could question them immediately near where they were captured, but said he hadn't given a lot of thought to precisely where.
On drones, the Daily News asked: "President Obama has taken the authority for drone attacks away from the CIA and given it to the U.S. military. Some say that that has caused difficulties in zeroing in on terrorists, their ISIS leaders. Do you believe that he's got the right policy there?"
"I don't know the answer to that," Sanders said.
A nice gotcha, except that while Obama did announce publicly that at some point in the future authority would move from the CIA to the U.S. military, that decision was quietly reversed -- so quietly that the news apparently didn't make it to New York (though HuffPost did report on it).
Sanders has also taken a beating for saying he couldn't cite a particular statute that may have been violated by Wall Street bankers during the financial crisis. But, quickly, without searching Google, can you name the particular statute that outlaws murder? Either way, here's what Sanders actually said:
Daily News: What kind of fraudulent activity are you referring to when you say that?
Sanders: What kind of fraudulent activity? Fraudulent activity that brought this country into the worst economic decline in its history by selling packages of fraudulent, fraudulent, worthless subprime mortgages. How's that for a start?
Selling products to people who you knew could not repay them. Lying to people without allowing them to know that in a year, their interest rates would be off the charts. They would not repay that. Bundling these things. Putting them into packages with good mortgages. That's fraudulent activity.
During his interview and elsewhere on the trail, Sanders has been beaten up for not specifying how he will pass his agenda through Congress, which observers astutely note is controlled by Republicans rather than democratic socialists. Clinton does not get the same question, though it applies equally to her more moderate agenda. (Greg Sargent notes that he has raised concerns about this with regard to Clinton.) The answer that Sanders gives -- and gave again to the Daily News -- does not, in the eyes of the media, qualify as an answer. But there are only a handful of possibilities:
- Republicans suddenly agree to pass his agenda.
- Sanders compromises with Republicans, in which case he doesn't pass his agenda.
- A "political revolution" sweeps Republicans out of office and changes the contours of the debate.
Now, you can argue that No. 3 is highly unlikely, especially considering the fact that Sanders has only a slim chance to win the Democratic nomination. But if he did win, the country would have just elected a socialist. Does that change what is possible? Can he mobilize his army again in 2018 and 2020? All of it is improbable, but it's a theory, and it's one that millions of people believe in.
On one issue, the Daily News attacked Sanders on substance, hitting him for his support of gun manufacturers who want freedom from legal liability. The paper's front page goes hard on him Wednesday, accusing him of callously abandoning the parents of Sandy Hook victims.
But otherwise, the interview goes along roughly the same lines. (Read it for yourself here.) The Daily News presses Sanders for exactly how he would pull back illegal Israeli settlements. Sanders said that's up to them to decide, but his principle is that settlements that are illegal should be pulled back. The Daily News wanted to know how he defines illegal, so Sanders cited treaty violations -- none of it satisfying to the paper.
The Daily News told Sanders that "coming into office as a president who said as a baseline that you want Israel to pull back settlements, that changes the dynamic in the negotiations." Except that's not at all true. Dismantling certain settlement outposts has been a demand going back at least to the Bush administration road map. Nearly every two-state proposal envisions the withdrawal of settlements and the transfer of around 80 to 100,000 settlers.
The editors then ask how the Israeli military should have gone about its assault on Gaza differently so that it killed few innocent civilians. "You're asking me now to make not only decisions for the Israeli government, but for the Israeli military," a more-frustrated-than-usual Sanders replied.
Sanders, of course, is famously uncomfortable talking about foreign policy; it just doesn't get his blood going like inequality. And he is much more pro-Israel than most people as far on the progressive end of the spectrum as he is, which adds another layer of discomfort. Putting the Daily News transcript against any interview given by, say, President Barack Obama on foreign policy, would reveal a massive gap in interest in and knowledge of foreign affairs, but we knew that already.
This wasn't an interview about policy details. It was about who the media has decided is presidential and who isn't, who is serious and who isn't. The Daily News and much of the rest of the media don't think Sanders is qualified to be president, and that's the motivation for an interview meant to expose what the media have already decided is true.
(To be clear, I have my own view, that Sanders has shown himself to be a lousy manager of his staff on Capitol Hill over the years, which doesn't bode well for a presidency, and has not shown much interest in organizing, or ability to organize coalitions within the House or the Senate to advance his agenda, outside of his audit-the-Fed legislation, and some improvements to Obamacare. That's troubling, but it's different than deciding he's not serious and doesn't know what he's talking about.)
Candidates the media deem to be serious do not get these policy pop quizzes, because it is believed (accurately) that they can hire experienced advisers who can work out the details. But if they were pressed, there's no doubt a studied reporter could make them look silly.
Or even unstudied ones. Sanders mostly let the Daily News editors' own errors go uncorrected, but at least once, he jumped in.
Daily News: But when you were mayor of Vermont ...
Daily News: Mayor of Burlington, I'm sorry.
This story was updated to include an additional error by the Daily News on the issue of settlement negotiations, as well as a post from Greg Sargent. If you liked this story, sign up to get Ryan Grim's semi-occasional newsletter Bad News.