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The crazy thing about Bernie Sanders's plan to save America

Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) delivers remarks while officially announcing his candidacy for the U.S. presidency during an event at Waterfront Park May 26, 2015 in Burlington, Vermont.
Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) delivers remarks while officially announcing his candidacy for the U.S. presidency during an event at Waterfront Park May 26, 2015 in Burlington, Vermont.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The crazy thing about Bernie Sanders's platform is that it's pretty sane. The Vermont senator has always been something of an iconoclast, partly because he's identified himself as a socialist Democrat and won House and Senate races as an independent.

But the political pendulum has swung toward the Vermonter's view of the world, and while he's one heck of a long shot to even make waves in the Democratic presidential primary, everything he talked about in his official announcement is well within the foul lines of American politics.

  • "The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time, it is the great economic issue of our time, and it is the great political issue of our time. And we will address it," Sanders said.

"If you're born poor today, you're more likely to stay poor," Republican Jeb Bush said last month. "We need to deal with this."

Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have talked about it.

And Hillary Clinton's staking a good portion of her campaign on closing those gaps.

Aside from the merits of fairness, there's a good political reason to talk about changing the distribution of wealth and income in the US (though Sanders is much more likely to talk about wealth than other candidates), as this Gallup survey shows.

Gallup

The percentage of Americans who believe wealth should be more evenly distributed is growing. Gallup

  • "As a result of the disastrous Supreme Court decision on Citizens United, the American political system has been totally corrupted and the foundations of American democracy are being undermined," Sanders said, according to his prepared remarks. "According to media reports the Koch brothers alone, one family, will spend more money in this election cycle than either the Democratic or Republican parties. This is not democracy. This is oligarchy."

Okay, so don't expect Republican candidates to attack the Koch brothers as they vie for vital financial backing. But Clinton has made campaign finance reform one of the four pillars of her campaign. It is, at the very least, turf she feels safe taking in a general election.

  • "The scientific community has spoken in a virtually unanimous voice. Climate change is real. It is caused by human activity, and it is already causing devastating problems in the United States and around the world," Sanders said.

While some Republican candidates, including Jeb Bush, have struggled at times to enunciate clear views on dealing with climate change, a majority of the rank and file believe that global warming will be a serious threat in the future, according to a New York Times/Stanford University poll in January.

54 percent of Republicans say global warming will be a very serious or somewhat serious threat in the future.

The New York Times

  • "I’ve introduced legislation which would invest $1 trillion over five years to modernize our country’s physical infrastructure," Sanders said. "This legislation would create and maintain at least 13 million good-paying jobs while making our country more productive, efficient and safe. And I promise you as president I will lead that legislation into law."

Again, don't expect Republicans to jump at the idea of how Sanders would pay for it: a financial transactions tax. That comes straight out of the playbook of John Maynard Keynes. And this is the place where Sanders's spending and taxing plans put him furthest afield of the presidential candidates. But Europe has adopted the approach, and both the tax and the infrastructure spending have gained traction among Democrats. Larry Summers and Joseph Stiglitz, both of whom advise Hillary Clinton on economics, have at times supported the idea of a financial transactions tax — Stiglitz recently and Summers long ago.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland — nobody's idea of a radical — introduced a version of the tax this year as a way of reducing risk on Wall Street. Sure, he's trying to show he's liberal enough to win the Democratic Senate primary in Maryland, but he also voted for the Wall Street bailout in 2008.

At $200 billion a year, Sanders is looking to roughly double the size of the federal investment in infrastructure over a five-year period. That's a serious increase that would make up for what has been a sharp decline in spending on highways and water projects over the past several years. Federal spending on transportation and water infrastructure peaked at $122 billion in 2002 in terms of 2014 dollars, according to the Congressional Budget Office. By 2014, that number was down to $96 billion.

Congressional Budget Office

  • Sanders wants to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour. His political challenge is one of degree, not of direction. Polls have consistently shown a majority of Americans back an increase to $10.10 an hour but are less supportive of the $15 level. A Pew survey in January 2014 found that 73 percent of Americans, including 53 percent of Republicans, favored a boost to $10.10 an hour. Polls taken more recently have had similar results.

All in all, it's a pretty standard liberal Democratic platform. It goes further on taxing, spending, and government intervention in the marketplace than most politicians, or even most Democrats, would embrace on the stump. But it's just not that far out.

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