At an MSNBC town hall on Thursday, Chuck Todd asked Senator Bernie Sanders about a radio interview in 2011 in which he agreed that it might be a good idea to primary President Obama for the 2012 party nomination.
For weeks, Hillary Clinton and her surrogates have raised the issue of Sanders’s flirtation with a primary challenge, and so it was odd that Sanders didn’t have a better response ready. He characterized his comments as an offhand answer to a radio-show question, which isn’t true. He brought up a primary challenge several times in the summer of 2011. Sanders asked rhetorically if he was “allowed” to disagree with the president and mentioned the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, which had nothing to do with his 2011 endorsement of a primary for Obama.
Sanders has a much better case to make, and for some reason he hasn’t fully made it. He had a very specific reason for suggesting a Democratic primary in 2012: In debt-ceiling talks with Republicans, Obama proposed cutting Social Security benefits and raising the Medicare age to 67. After initially refusing to negotiate over the debt ceiling, the White House pivoted to a full-scale embrace of austerity in the hopes of taking away the Republican Party’s main talking point ahead of the 2012 election.
Sanders was one of many members of Congress standing athwart this rush to austerity, though he did go further than any of his colleagues by suggesting a primary. His remarks were only a minor news story at the time, but the basic dispute is now mapping onto the entire Democratic primary, which has become a battle between progressives who are preoccupied with immediate constraints and compromise and those who seek to change the terms of debate using grassroots pressure.
Obama actually proposed more deficit reduction in the summer of 2011 than Republicans were asking for—$4 trillion instead of the $2 trillion the GOP had been requesting—and at times the White House was reportedly willing to raise revenue only through closing tax loopholes. That meant in addition to the safety net cuts, the Bush-era tax cuts would either be locked in or even lowered in some cases.
This was a monumental diversion from Democratic Party principles. For years, Democrats ran for office on promises not to cut Social Security and Medicare. They railed against the Bush tax cuts in every election cycle since the tax package was enacted. Republicans already enjoyed bashing Democrats for supposed safety-net cuts; one of the most frequently run advertisements of the 2010 midterms noted the Affordable Care Act cut $700 million from Medicare. (These cuts were mainly on the provider side and did not affect benefits, which was never mentioned in the ads.)