fb-pixel Skip to main content

For Sanders, no constraints on his principles

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe; Globe file photo

Call it a righteous bow to principle over politics, or to intellect over emotion.

However you frame it, Bernie Sanders’ defense of the Boston Marathon bomber’s right to vote represents another lurch to the far left. Even people who support voting rights for felons might want to carve out an exception for terrorists who put pressure cooker bombs on sidewalks where children stood.

But Sanders puts no such constraints on his principles, nor on the destination he envisions for the Democrats in 2020. For those with long political memories, his stubbornness is a reminder of another true believer in ACLU politics: Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee who was asked by CNN’s Bernard Shaw during a debate with George H.W. Bush whether he would support the death penalty if his wife, Kitty, were raped and murdered. He dispassionately replied, “No, I don’t, Bernard. . . . I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.”

Dukakis never understood why his answer was a mistake or why his overall brand of Massachusetts liberalism was a hard sell to the rest of the country. And that was long before Donald Trump won the White House and yanked the Republican Party to the far right.


The Republican National Committee wasted no time using the weapon Sanders handed the GOP, blasting an e-mail that said, “The Boston Marathon bomber killed three people and injured 280 more. Bernie’s concerns? That he gets his absentee ballot.” Sanders even crossed a line with Hollywood super-liberal Cher, who questioned whether he really believes murderers, rapists, and child molesters deserve voting rights. Of course, Cher’s tweet, which she deleted after pushback from the left, was celebrated by Donald Trump Jr.


Unlike Dukakis, Sanders did understand the impact of his words, and in real time. When he answered the question from a Harvard student at a CNN town hall about whether “the Boston Marathon bomber, a convicted terrorist and murderer” and “those convicted of sexual assault” should still be able to vote, he said he knew Republicans would make an ad from it. Still he persisted, saying: “I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy — yes, even for terrible people — because once you start chipping away — you’re running down a slippery slope. I do believe that even if they are in jail paying their price to society, that should not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy.”

But sometimes you do lose your citizen rights — such as when the bombs you put down kill three people, including 8-year-old Martin Richard, and injure scores more; and when you ambush and kill Sean Collier, an MIT police officer. Richard H. Donohue, the MBTA police officer who was severely injured during a shootout with the Boston Marathon bombers six years ago, said on Twitter that it would be nice to talk to Sanders about his advocacy for felon voting rights.

Oddly enough, while Sanders is quite certain felons should have the right to vote, he is less sure about what should happen to Trump in light of the Mueller report. He dodged the impeachment question, saying Congress should “take a hard look at that and do a hard investigation.”


With a loyal following from 2016, Sanders presents a real dilemma for Democrats. In a large field, he can easily dominate primaries. If he wins enough of them, Democrats will end up nominating their most far-left candidate since George McGovern. In 1972, McGovern was supposed to benefit from a surge of support associated with lowering the voting age to 18. But on Election Day, he won only one state — Massachusetts (and the District of Columbia).

Maybe Sanders can win Vermont and Maine too. They are the only states where people convicted of felonies never lose their right to vote.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.