Let me first say that Cenk Uygur is a good friend of mine. Before I got into journalism, I was just another Young Turks fan who listened to the show every day while I toiled away as a health insurance consultant. It's a long story, but he was also instrumental in my transition into a journalism career. When I say he's a "good friend," I don't mean we're especially close personally, but he is my friend, and has had an extremely positive influence on me.
I say all that because I know he's a polarizing figure around here (I guess I am, too), and I don't want anyone to be confused about the critique I'm about to offer. If I say Cenk got something wrong, that's all I am saying. Too often, people take disagreement as an excuse to dismiss someone, and I think that's a mistake.
We've been talking a lot lately about the feud that erupted when Hillary Clinton flatly refused to call Bernie Sanders "unqualified" for the presidency, and Bernie turned around and accused her of saying that he is "quote-unquote not qualified to be president." He literally said the words "quote-unquote." It's on video.
Yesterday, Cenk mounted a lengthy defense of Bernie's attack, almost all of which I agree with. I encourage you to watch the whole thing, and not just rely on my description:
Where I agree with Cenk is that calling a political opponent "unqualified" isn't some kind of moral outrage, it's actually what every political candidate does without actually saying it. Like many Sanders fans I've spoken to lately, Cenk points out that Hillary didn't say Bernie is qualified, but unlike them, he points out that she's his political opponent, so OF COOOUUURSE she didn't say that.
He also makes the excellent point that Hillary Clinton did the same thing to Barack Obama in 2008, and I would argue she did much worse. The message of the "3 a.m. ad" was clearly a disqualifying one, although it did stop short of using that word. I'd call it a tie with Bernie, at best:
But as Cenk pointed out with some grainy video clips, Hillary took it a step further by fairly campaigning for John McCain. Imagine if Bernie said that he and Donald Trump are both more qualified than Hillary.
Here's where I part ways with Cenk, though, because what he fails to mention is that Bernie's "unqualified" rant, unlike other liberal critiques of his opponent, will end up in the same place Hillary's ill-advised attacks on Obama did:
That ad was put out by the RNC in June of 2008. Bernie's rant should hit about a minute after the Republicans have a nominee.
The other big problem with Cenk's defense of Sanders, and it's a big one, is that it completely ignores the most damaging part of this, the fact that Sanders lied. Cenk didn't play the very beginning of Sanders' rant, so here it is again:
She has been saying lately that she thinks that I am quote-unquote 'not qualified' to be president.
Now, there is a YUGE difference between directly quoting Hillary saying something she did not fucking say, and saying that CNN described a "disqualifying" strategy and The Washington Post made a headline and Hillary didn't say he wasn't disqualified and she implied it.
Instead of just admitting that Jeff Weaver fed him bad information, Bernie and his camp have been trying to backfill a justification for hitting Hillary this way, instead of just owning it. She didn't say it, and although I will concede that both of these candidates have been running disqualifying campaigns against each other for months, she didn't even imply it in that Morning Joe interview. Her critiques were all related to his depth of knowledge on policies, not a single one of which any reasonable person would consider disqualifying.
There were plenty of critiques she could have made from that Daily News interview that would have been self-evidently disqualifying (more on that later), but she confined them to policies that are specific to Bernie's campaign, and promises that he's made. When I watched it, I was surprised at how easy she went on him.
That brings me to the first of several of Cenk's defenses of Bernie's Daily News interview. Again, he makes some good points, but misses a few. In this segment, he discusses the various gradients of "Gotcha!" questions, which I mostly agree with, to the degree that such questions can be revealing about the questioner. I don't agree, though, that there are no good answers to these questions:
That Daily News headline was definitely yellow, and Hillary going out of her way to hit him over it was also too much, but this is a self-inflicted wound. For months, Bernie has been slowly and painfully ripping off this Band-Aid, when he ought to just do it already. The media is also blowing it, though, because not one person has thought to ask Bernie, when he says manufacturers shouldn't be held liable for this reason or that reason, isn't that what judges and juries are for? Does he think Smith & Wesson is going to be bankrupted by the deep pockets of Big Massacre Victim?
Beyond that, there was still a better way to answer this than he did, more compassionately rather than defensively. Cenk brings up the Kitty Dukakis moment as an example of a question that has no good answer, and while I agree that was a yellow question, all Dukakis had to say was "Hell yes, I'd want to kill the guy myself, but it wouldn't make me want the government to kill him."
Cenk also noticed something that I missed, that the editors began referring to the Federal Reserve when they clearly meant Treasury. There's every chance that fouled Bernie up enough that you could give him a mulligan if you were so inclined. Even before that, though, Sanders appeared to be unsure, offering a choice between passing a new law or using authority under existing law:
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.
Next, Cenk accuses the Daily News of crossing Bernie up by asking for a chapter-and-verse statute for putting Wall Street executives in jail, but the problem with his answer wasn't that, it's that he couldn't offer a description of the laws he thought were broken. When he described, accurately, Wall Street's "fraudulent business model," he was talking about things that were permitted under a loose and toothless regulatory framework, not crimes.
Cenk also accuses the Daily News of demanding the specific resolutions that Israel is violating with "illegal settlements," but that's not what they did, and of lying about Bernie's position, which Cenk says is to stop settlements, which is current U.S. policy.
That's not true, though. Sanders' position is for Israel to pull back settlements, so he was asked how far, and who decides on the illegality:
Daily News: I was talking about something different, though. Expanding settlements is one thing; 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, and I'm wondering how far and what you want Israel to do in terms of pulling back.
Sanders: Well, again, you're asking me a very fair question, and if I had some paper in front of me, I would give you a better answer. But I think if the expansion was illegal, moving into territory that was not their territory, I think withdrawal from those territories is appropriate.
Daily News: And who makes the call about illegality, in your mind?
Sanders: Well, I think that's based on previous treaties and ideas. I happen to think that those expansions were illegal.
Daily News: Okay, so if we were to find Israeli settlements, so-called settlements, in places that has been designated to be illegal, you would expect Israel to be pulling them back?
Sanders: Israel will make their own decisions. They are a government, an independent nation. But to the degree that they want us to have a positive relationship, I think they're going to have to improve their relationship with the Palestinians.
This should have been an easy answer, as I said before, because it's one that even I know off the top of my head. The baseline for negotiations should be the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed land swaps, forever and ever, Amen.
In a longer defense of Sanders' interview, Cenk and Ana Kasparian cite a Huffington Post article that points out some of what the NYDN editors got wrong, and which, along with Cenk's commentaries, ably makes the case that they were sloppy and maybe a little aggressive, although editorial board interviews are known for their granularity.
They're absolutely right about the drone policy, which is why I left it out of my critique of Sanders. No one running for president would have the level of top secret information needed to determine which agency is best-equipped to handle the drone program, and I don't think that's the issue with the drone strikes, anyway.
But on the issue of what to do with a captured terrorist, "Actually I haven't thought about it a whole lot" is never a thing you want to say, especially if you're running as a Democrat and have an already-weak foreign policy resume'. A better answer would have been "Not GITMO, and not a black site, and no torture. The rest depends on the details."
Cenk and HuffPo also leave out some of Bernie's other, rather egregious missteps, like this one:
Daily News: Do you support the Palestinian leadership’s attempt to use the International Criminal Court to litigate some of these issues to establish that, in their view, Israel had committed essentially war crimes?
Daily News: Why not?
Sanders: Why not?
Daily News: Why not, why it…
Sanders: Look, why don’t I support a million things in the world? I’m just telling you that I happen to believe…
He goes on to accuse Israel of having been too "indiscriminate" in killing civilians, yet he can't explain why they shouldn't face war crimes charges in the ICC, even though he overestimates the number of civilian deaths by a factor of five. How is that not a big deal?
Daily News: And I’m going to look at 2014, which was the latest conflict. What should Israel have done instead?
Sanders: You’re asking me now to make not only decisions for the Israeli government but for the Israeli military, and I don’t quite think I’m qualified to make decisions.
This is mostly a stylistic problem, saying "I don't think I'm qualified," but he could've said Israel is our ally, but he would have "urged restraint" or something, anything but "I don't think I'm qualified."
The other excellent point that Cenk makes is that the media really has jumped all over this, when Bernie's worst answer on his worst day is still miles ahead of every single thing Donald Trump ever says. That's probably a combination of bias and the high expectations people have for Bernie, but it's still no excuse.
I understand what it is that appeals to people in Bernie Sanders, and in Hillary Clinton, and I also get the need to point out when they're being treated unfairly, but if you really love and support a candidate, or even don't care as long as one of them wins, you should also demand that they do better.