Democratic presidential hopefuls Mike Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders clashed Tuesday night over which authoritarian communist regimes are worth praising. Both fumbled what should have been straight-forward responses.
Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, was asked about his past praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping. In a 2019 interview, Bloomberg said, "Xi Jinping is not a dictator; he has to satisfy his constituents or he's not going to survive." Given a second chance, Bloomberg did find the courage to criticize China's lack of press freedoms and what he called an "abominable" record on human rights—but then he pivoted, weirdly, to argue that Xi is not a dictator because he "serves at the behest of the Politburo" of the Communist Party of China, the 25-member political committee that runs the country.
That is hardly the same thing as being democratically accountable, of course. It is roughly equivalent to arguing that National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell is accountable to the American people because he is elected to his post by the owners of the league's 32 teams.
Sanders pounced on the mistake. "The Chinese government is responsive to the politburo, but who the hell is the politburo?" he asked. Yes, that's a self-described socialist criticizing a government run by a politburo—a thing that is a feature almost exclusively of socialist governments.
But Sanders quickly stumbled over a chance to correct his own record of praising authoritarian regimes. His past praise of longtime Cuban dictator Fidel Castor and his own literal honeymoon in the Soviet Union figure to be fodder for negative ads if he wins the Democratic nomination, and Sanders only made that situation worse for himself on Tuesday by arguing that "when dictatorships, whether it is the Chinese or the Cubans, do something good, you acknowledge that."
In praising authoritarian foreign governments that refuse to recognize basic human freedoms, both Bloomberg and Sanders have something in common with the man they ultimately hope to unseat from the presidency. President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said he "loves" Xi, cheered Turkish authoritarian thug Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as "a hell of a leader," commended Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte for the extrajudicial murder of drug offenders, and just this week partied with nationalist Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
It should be fairly easy to answer these questions, especially for the Democrats who are trying to defeat Trump. Don't praise dictators. It's literally that easy.
Sanders' insistence on finding a silver lining in Castro's bloody reign over Cuba reads as especially churlish considering he insisted tonight that America has not fully owned its history of propping up dictators around the world. "Occasionally, it might be a good idea to be honest about American foreign policy," he said, mentioning American-backed coups in Iran and Guatemala during the Cold War. That is a very good idea.
If Sanders can't find a silver lining in U.S.-backed coups, fair enough. But he should stop proclaiming the upsides of a dictatorship with so many victims that the world's foremost experts cannot count them all.