Editorial: Pushing from the edge

Barre-Montpelier Times Argus

Burlington will receive a grant of more than $10 million to expand a community health center, and Sen. Bernard Sanders is getting credit from a lofty source.

At a White House ceremony announcing the $525 million program to expand community health centers, President Obama singled out two members of Congress.

"I also want to thank the many members of Congress who are with us today, both in the audience and up on the stage, particularly Bernie Sanders and Rep. Jim Clyburn. We are grateful to all of them," Obama said.

Who could have guessed those many years ago when Sanders eked out a 10-vote victory when first elected mayor of Burlington that years later he would show up at the White House to be lauded by the president?

And yet during an economic crisis that has cost millions of Americans their jobs, homes and more, Sanders is taking an increasingly prominent role on the national stage.

In the midst of the Great Recession, Sanders' straightforward, unvarnished rhetoric is like a bracing slap in the face. That's probably why he is showing up with increasing frequency as a spokesman for the Democrats on national television. And he's not even a Democrat.

He is a unique political phenomenon, an independent who calls himself a socialist but caucuses with the Democrats.

He says what many Democrats are probably thinking but are too timid to say about the irresponsibility of corporate America and the unequal distribution of wealth in America.

He's been saying it for years, but it has taken the economic collapse to prove his words prophetic.

Vermonters have not been too worried about political labels — independent, socialist, progressive, whatever. They have elected Sanders to the House and then the Senate repeatedly because he is consistent in his message and they know he means what he says.

He is unhindered by the need to placate big business or to trim his language with the kind of nuances that politicians employ to protect themselves.

Sanders wields his point of view like a blunt instrument, useful for staking out a position, but not necessarily suitable for policymakers confronting the full complexity of the nation's challenges.

Thus, Sanders' opposition to the reappointment of Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve is long on the failures of Bernanke, as a player in the system, and short on recognition of Bernanke's heroic service in rescuing the world's economy.

Sanders' indictment of Bernanke's failures is unsparing. During Bernanke's tenure at the Fed unemployment has doubled, 120 banks have failed, the value of risky derivatives ballooned and predatory practices by lenders was "epidemic."

In response to the crisis, the Fed rushed to protect banks too big to fail, leaving the survivors even bigger than before.

It's all true, and it needs to be said. It also needs to be said that Bernanke's aggressive intervention in the marketplace reflected sophisticated knowledge of the system and helped to stave off a worse disaster.

If we were starting from scratch we might not put bankers in charge who were likely to succumb to the lax regulation and complacent inattention that prevailed before the crash. We would use people more sensitive to the needs of ordinary working people.

But we aren't starting from scratch. Inside accounts of the actions of Bernanke and others during the crisis show public servants with the public interest in mind. Uppermost in their thinking was not to institute perfect fairness in the system, but to help the system to survive.

Bernanke and others will have to be hounded by Sanders and others to push for fairness now that we have apparently survived.

People in the upper reaches of finance were far too comfortable before the crash, and they allowed the system to spin out of control. We can't let them become too comfortable again, and Sanders is not likely to.

Sanders' role is a constructive one, though we need not follow his advice to the letter.

Bernanke's experience and knowledge remain valuable weapons if they are put to good use forcing the financial sector serve the larger good rather than its short-term gains.

Meanwhile, Sanders' role promoting community health centers demonstrates that more moderate Democrats gain from having someone out there on the edge pushing on behalf of the public interest.