Give The New York Times credit for publishing, over the weekend, a long investigative piece about the strange enthusiasm of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders for the communist strongman Daniel Ortega, who ruled Nicaragua in the 1980s and is in power there again today.
It bears remembering, though, that the group of Democratic presidential candidates who might be described as Ortega groupies extends well beyond the self-described socialist senator from Vermont.
One of the newest additions to the Democratic presidential field is the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio. The Times reported back in 2013 that during the 1980s, de Blasio "helped raise funds for the Sandinistas in New York and subscribed to the party's newspaper, Barricada, or Barricade."
Sanders visited Nicaragua in 1985; de Blasio went there in 1988.
The Times reported that in the late 1980s, when Ortega was in power, de Blasio "oversaw efforts to solicit and ship millions of dollars in food, clothing and supplies to Nicaragua." The Times reported in 2013 that de Blasio "to this day…speaks admiringly of the Sandinistas' campaign."
Then there's the man polls indicate is the front-runner for Democratic presidential nomination, Joe Biden. A former aide to George W. Bush, Peter Wehner, has written in The Wall Street Journal that "In the early 1980s, the U.S. was engaged in a debate over funding the Contras, a group of Nicaraguan freedom fighters attempting to overthrow the Communist regime of Daniel Ortega. Mr. Biden was a leading opponent of President Ronald Reagan's efforts to fund the Contras."
The voting records bear that out. On October 3, 1984, Biden voted to prohibit the Reagan administration from spending money against Nicaragua from the intelligence budget. The amendment was rejected, 42-57. On June 6, 1985, the Senate approved an amendment offered by Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn to release $38 million in humanitarian aid to the Contra rebels fighting Ortega's Sandinistas. The amendment passed, but Biden was one of 42 Senators who opposed it. Both votes wound up on the annual scorecards of Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal interest group.
Biden voted again in March 1987 for halting aid to the Contras. In 1986 Biden wanted to require the Reagan administration to negotiate with Ortega's government before sending any money to the contras.
Somewhat comically, Biden fetched up in December 2018 with a piece in Americas Quarterly headlined "The Western Hemisphere Needs U.S. Leadership." Now, Biden concedes, "Instead of respecting the will of their people, the governments of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua have confronted peaceful protesters with force, even armed vigilantes. They have limited the freedoms of expression and assembly necessary for political dialogue and arrested their political opponents."
In fairness to Biden, one can be a critic of a regime, a leader, or its polices while simultaneously thinking that it is unwise for the American government to provide financial support to a group dedicated to overthrowing that regime. Just as President Trump is hesitant to move militarily against Iran for fear of repeating the Iraq War, politicians in the 1980s were hesitant to back anticommunist forces for fear of repeating the Vietnam War.
For Democrats hoping to run against President Trump in 2020, though, the Ortega story is a complexifier. It makes it harder for Democrats to criticize Trump for cozying up to North Korea if the Democrats themselves were cozying up to Ortega. It makes it harder for Democrats to criticize Trump as an isolationist who is abandoning U.S. interests and principles overseas if the Democrats themselves wanted to cut loose the Contras and consign the people of Nicaragua to a communist authoritarian strongman.
The real resonance, though, has less to do with Daniel Ortega and Nicaragua as a foreign policy case about the merits of American intervention, and more to do with the threat of Ortega-style policies here in the United States. Reasonable people may disagree about how involved America should get in rescuing Nicaragua from socialism. What's troubling, though, is the idea that a significant wing of the Democratic party might want to emulate precisely the policies—redistribution, central planning, disrespect of property rights—that have left Nicaragua as the poorest country in Central America.
If President Trump wants to illuminate the point, he might offer the Nicaraguan strongman a visa to the United States. Let Ortega campaign alongside Sanders, de Blasio, and Biden in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Let the 2020 Democrats compete for the Bolshevik comandante's endorsement.