On Sunday, in the course of an article about Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders attracting huge crowds in Iowa, the New York Times (NYT) told us that:
“[S]ome of Mr. Sanders’s policy prescriptions – including far higher taxes on the wealthy and deep military spending cuts – may eventually persuade Democrats that he is unelectable in a general election.”
This is a striking example of how big media like the New York Times can try to enforce their own limits on debate by asserting without evidence that certain ideas and therefore the people who espouse them – or are purported to espouse them, more on this below – are not mainstream.
Of course, it’s the democratic right of the New York Times – on its editorial page! – to oppose tax increases on the wealthy and cuts in Pentagon spending. (Note that unless one is going to increase the deficit – is the New York Times for that? – these are the two big pots of money one would need to tap if one wanted, for example, to have a major program to rebuild domestic infrastructure and thereby increase employment, as Senator Sanders and many Democrats want to do. So as a practical matter, opposing tax increases on the wealthy and opposing cutting the Pentagon budget implies opposing rebuilding our domestic infrastructure.)
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But this was a news article. A news article isn’t supposed to make tendentious assertions about political candidates without providing evidence.
In addition, and crucially, the breezy Times description of Sanders’ positions begs the question of what exactly Sanders advocated to justify the Times characterizing his positions as extreme. How big a tax increase on the wealthy did Sanders advocate? Would that be “far higher”? How big a cut in the Pentagon budget did he advocate? Are those cuts “deep”?
On the question of whether taxing the wealthy and cutting the Pentagon are extreme positions, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) notes:
[T]he idea of raising the taxes of the rich is quite popular with the US public. Gallup has been asking folks since 1992 how they feel about how much “upper-income people” pay in taxes, and 18 times in a row a solid majority has said the rich pay too little. For the past four years, either 61 or 62 percent have said the wealthy don’t pay enough; it’s hard to figure why Iowans would conclude that Sanders is “unelectable” because he takes the same position on tax hikes for the wealthy as three out of every five Americans.
Cutting the military budget isn’t as popular as taxing the rich, but it’s by no means unpopular. It’s not a question pollsters often ask about-almost as if levels of military spending aren’t seen as a fit subject for public debate-but in 2013 Pew asked which was more important, “taking steps to reduce the budget deficit or keeping military spending at current levels.” Fifty-one percent said reducing the deficit; only 40 percent chose maintaining the military budget.
In February 2014, the last time Gallup polled on whether spending “for national defense and military purposes” was “too little, about the right amount, or too much,” a plurality of 37 percent picked “too much.” Only 28 percent said “too little”-but again, you’re never going to see the New York Times declare a candidate to be “unelectable” for proposing to raise the Pentagon’s budget.
The polling data cited by FAIR suggests that there’s no obvious reason to believe that a candidate who advocates raising taxes on the wealthy and cutting the Pentagon budget should be “unelectable,” unless some group of people besides voters determines who is “electable.” (Indeed, President Obama not only advocated raising taxes on the wealthy, but actually did so, with the grudging agreement of congressional Republicans. President Obama hasn’t cut the Pentagon budget in real terms, but he did cut its previously projected growth path. The Republican Congress largely acquiesced to this “cut” by passing the Budget Control Act and leaving it in place – although they are currently trying to get around the budget caps for the Pentagon by padding the uncapped “war budget” with Pentagon spending.)
But the Times made a somewhat different claim: that Sanders advocated “far higher” taxes on the wealthy and “deep” cuts to Pentagon spending. How much higher? How deep? The Times article doesn’t tell us what Sanders is actually for.
On May 26, Think Progress noted that Sanders told CNBC he could back a 90 percent top marginal tax rate, as existed under Eisenhower. Would that translate into “far higher taxes” on the wealthy? In 2011, Robert Reich wrote that under Eisenhower, even after all deductions and credits, “the top taxes on the very rich were far higher than they’ve been since.” So, according to Robert Reich, the NYT would appear to be on safe ground if it said that Sanders supports “far higher” taxes on the “very rich” – “Eisenhower high,” if you will.
But what about “deep cuts” to Pentagon spending? What has Sanders called for?
Since the NYT article appeared, I have searched and asked. I searched the New York Times, Yahoo News, the web; I wrote to New York Times editors, I wrote to reporters; I called Sanders’ office. I have been able to find no evidence that Sanders recently called for cuts to the Pentagon budget at all, let alone “deep” cuts. In his 38 minute announcement speech in Burlington, Sanders did not mention the Pentagon budget at all. Indeed, it was Sanders’ silence on the Pentagon budget in his announcement speech that provoked me to start this petition at MoveOn, urging Sanders to call for cutting the bloated Pentagon budget as a core part of his campaign.
On January 16, Defense News reported:
Senate Democrats’ budget point man expects “fundamental differences” with his GOP colleagues, and vows to fight attempts to increase defense spending.
Sen. Bernie Sanders is listed a political independent, but he caucuses with and has, as he put it Friday, “a close relationship” with the chamber’s Democratic leadership team. And he made clear the party will fight likely Republican attempts to boost annual Pentagon budgets at the expense of domestic programs.
“Why am I not shocked that in addition to wanting to cut Social Security and Medicare as we know it, cut education, cut nutrition programs for hungry kids,” Sanders told reporters, “their other brilliant idea is to increase military spending at a time when we spend more money than almost the rest of the world combined.”
The new Budget Committee ranking member says “no one [disputes] that there’s huge amounts of waste within the Department of Defense, that time after time, you have these contractors coming in promising to do a weapon systems for X dollars, then come in billions and billions of dollars higher with huge cost overruns.”
“The idea that we would allow for significant more spending in defense at the same time they want to cut education and nutrition and health care to me is something that the vast majority of American people don’t agree with,” Sanders said. “I certainly don’t.”
So Sanders said that, 1.) he opposes increasing Pentagon spending and that 2.) like other Senate Democrats, whom he is representing as the ranking member on the Budget Committee, he opposes increasing Pentagon spending at the expense of domestic spending. Note that this is also essentially the current position of President Obama, who has threatened to veto to the Senate defense bill over Republican demands to bust the budget caps on Pentagon spending while leaving domestic spending constrained by budget caps.
Can this be what the New York Times is referring to when it says that Sanders supports “deep cuts” in Pentagon spending – that he opposes an increase in Pentagon spending, and that like other Senate Democrats, and indeed like President Obama, he opposes increasing Pentagon spending at the expense of domestic spending? Is this the position that would make Sanders “unelectable” – the same position as Senate Democrats and President Obama?
Inquiring minds want to know. You can write the New York Times editors here and here. Ask them what their evidence is that Sanders called for “deep” cuts in Pentagon spending, and why calling for increasing taxes on the very rich and cutting the Pentagon budget should make Sanders – or anyone – “unelectable.”