Foon Rhee

Foon Rhee: Love Grandpa Bernie, but listen to Grandma Hillary

Sen. Bernie Sanders checks his notes as Hillary Clinton walks off stage during a break of their combative debate Sunday night in Flint, Mich.
Sen. Bernie Sanders checks his notes as Hillary Clinton walks off stage during a break of their combative debate Sunday night in Flint, Mich. Associated Press

Bernie Sanders is like that grumpy grandfather who complains about the same thing over and over but gives you really expensive presents. Hillary Clinton is that earnest grandmother who lectures you on life lessons and gives you “educational” gifts.

Many of us loved the generous grandpa growing up but later came to appreciate the wise grandma more. It’s one way I look at the Democratic presidential race, in particular the fight for young voters.

Millennials are “feeling the Bern” in part for all the goodies he’s offering – free college, better health care, higher wages. They grew up during the Great Recession, worry about making a good living and don’t trust the “system” to help them. Their gloomy outlook fits perfectly with the message Sanders is preaching, and they’re drawn to his anger against Wall Street billionaires. They find in the rumpled Vermont senator the authenticity they prize and don’t mind his brand of socialism, according to the polls.

In contrast, young people aren’t flocking to the more cautious Clinton, who wants to limit free tuition to needy students and to expand national service. Her “New College Compact” includes tripling the size of AmeriCorps to 250,000 members and doubling the maximum award to $23,000 a year. At a Fox News town hall Monday, she said she doesn’t blame young people for being “really disturbed” at their situation, but doesn’t want to overpromise.

Even as Clinton pulls ahead in the delegate race, Sanders keeps winning the youth vote, collecting small donations and drawing huge, screaming crowds in college towns. Eventually, however, millennials may figure out that Clinton’s more demanding and practical advice was better for them.

For one thing, some of the numbers Sanders is putting out just don’t add up. Some prominent Democratic economists have pointed out that he’s counting on unrealistic growth rates to pay for all his additional spending, including free tuition, universal health care and more. So all the freebies would come at a price, either in higher taxes or national debt.

An analysis out Friday from the liberal Tax Policy Center said Sanders’ tax increases would total $15.3 trillion over the next decade. While the rich would be hit hardest, everyone would pay more. It’s difficult to imagine anything close to that getting through Congress. That compares to $1.1 trillion over 10 years for Clinton’s tax hikes, nearly all of which would be paid by the top 1 percent, according to the center.

Older, less idealistic voters are already supporting Clinton, whose mantra is that she’s a progressive who gets things done – that her solutions actually have a prayer of being approved.

Political reality is central to another key issue in the campaign: Who would be the stronger candidate in November?

Clinton’s supporters say she’s battle-tested after decades on the national stage as first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state and would better withstand the inevitable and withering Republican attacks. But she remains under the cloud of the FBI investigation of the private email account she used while the nation’s chief diplomat – a stupid decision for which she has apologized.

Sanders’ backers say that Clinton has way too much baggage and very high unfavorable ratings, and they point to some polls suggesting he might do better against the Republican contenders. But you have to wonder how he’d hold up against no-holds-barred attacks in his first national campaign.

Besides proudly calling himself a democratic socialist, there’s his application for conscientious-objector status during the Vietnam War and his quasi-honeymoon to the Soviet Union in 1988. He has perfectly good explanations. His CO application was denied, but by then he was too old for the draft. While the trip to the USSR was shortly after he was married, it was part of an official visit to Burlington’s sister city when he was mayor.

It’s totally unfair to take these decades-old episodes out of context. But just think what a candidate who has no scruples would do in a barrage of TV ads or debate attacks – someone such as Donald Trump. Trumped-up charges will get a whole new meaning.

It’s looking more likely that it’ll be Clinton who will have to face the GOP attack machine, with her string of wins on Super Tuesday and her overwhelming support from elected officials and other “super delegates.” While Sanders won three of four contests over the weekend, Clinton split the delegates up for grabs by securing the largest state, Louisiana.

To flip the trajectory of the race, Sanders badly needs to pull an upset in Tuesday’s primary in Michigan. During their debate Sunday night in Flint, Sanders was more combative, hammering Clinton on 1990s trade deals that he said killed manufacturing jobs in the Midwest. He believes that black voters outside the South will be more receptive to his message on income inequality, though he didn’t help himself when he said white Americans don’t know what it’s like to “be living in the ghetto.” Awkward.

If Clinton wins Michigan and does well March 15, when delegate-rich Florida, Illinois and Ohio hold primaries, she could be on a glide path to the nomination.

But to win in November – especially with higher turnout and enthusiasm on the Republican side so far – Clinton must sweet-talk many young Sanders backers into voting for her.

If Trump is the Republican nominee, you might think he’d pull his punches, at least a little, against someone trying to become the nation’s first female president. But he is already vowing to go after Clinton, bragging that when Clinton accused him of sexism, he hit back hard by bringing up her husband’s sexual scandals.

Maybe if young voters feel like Trump is unfairly picking on Clinton, that’s what will finally bring them to her side. After all, we will stick up for our grandmas.