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Bernie Sanders’ purity challenge: Will he support blue-collar workers if it helps their bosses too?

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., listens to a question as Hillary Clinton looks on during a Democratic presidential primary debate at the University of Michigan-Flint, Sunday, March 6, 2016, in Flint, Mich.
AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
I’m sorry, did you say “deal”?
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Bernie Sanders argues that his coming political revolution means he doesn’t have to engage in political horse-trading. But what if it comes down to helping both your friends and your enemies, or helping no one at all?

The dilemma was on display at last night’s Democratic presidential debate, when the candidates clashed over bailing out auto-makers and saving manufacturing jobs.

The Vermont senator won three of the four states that voted over the weekend, but it was pretty much a wash—he only gained three more delegates than former secretary of state Hillary Clinton out of 129 cast in Maine, Kansas, Nebraska, and Louisiana. She still holds a significant lead in the overall delegate count.

But when Michigan votes on March 8, followed by Ohio and Illinois on March 15th, Sanders has his best and perhaps last chance to turn things around—but only if he can maximize support from the Rust Belt’s many  blue-collar workers, who may be receptive to his anti-corporate message.

In the debate, Clinton went on the offensive, noting that Sanders had voted against a $82 billion bailout of the auto-industry during the financial crisis, despite pleas from president Barack Obama. Sanders said he voted no because it was part of a much larger bill that also bailed out the financial industry: “You know what I said? I said, ‘Let the billionaires themselves bail out Wall Street.'”

But as this specific vote shows, rarely are the choices so clear cut. No billionaires were lining up to bail out US automakers and their suppliers. And yet a vote to protect manufacturing workers, would have also meant helping their corporate employers and their bankers.

(Somewhat ironically, the overall TARP bailout program made a profit for US taxpayers, but only thanks to the Wall Street banks; taxpayers lost billions of dollars on the auto bailout.)

Another purity problem? The Export-Import bank, a federal agency that provides subsidized loans to purchasers of US exports. It’s considered vital by businesses such as Boeing, who are the main beneficiaries its largesse. But free marketeers criticize it as an example of the government picking winners, and Sanders sounds a little like his colleague senator Ted Cruz when he rejects the bank as an example of corporate cronyism.

Yet the AFL-CIO and other labor unions back the Ex-Im bank because it helps protect US manufacturing jobs, and serves as a counterweight to the trade deals with low-wage countries that have put pressure on US manufacturing.

Sanders came back to trade pacts  again and again throughout the debate—it’s one area where he is wholeheartedly in agreement with blue-collar workers and their unions. Sanders came after Clinton for waiting to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership until the text became public, and for her husband’s implementation of NAFTA.

(Clinton herself voted against the only free-trade deal that came before her in the senate, the Central American Free Trade Agreement.)

Opposing free-trade pacts are a no-brainer for Sanders because they usually pit manufacturing workers against their corporate managers. It’s even easier in the case of the TPP, because Ford and other automakers fear the deal will give an advantage to their Japanese competitors.

But there are—always—costs and benefits to every decision. Should the TPP be blocked, it may indeed slow the rush of manufacturing jobs out of the United States. But it will also slow the predicted increase in jobs for computer engineers, designers, lawyers, construction workers and others sectors that are expected to benefit from the deal.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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