In my previous post, I gave my personal endorsement for Bernie Sanders in the upcoming Democratic caucuses and primaries.
In this tough electoral fight between Sanders and Hillary Clinton, I want to address what I see as some of the serious and spurious reasons to be concerned about a Sanders nomination.
Nothing in life is guaranteed. Anything can happen in an election. But the prospect of a Pres. Trump (or just about any of the Republicans this time around) is so alarming, there are good reasons to seriously evaluate whether Sanders could win in the general election. The electability issue takes several forms:
He hasn’t been vetted!: It is true that Hillary Clinton has taken decades of abuse from her political opponents are mostly come out on top as a successful politician and civil servant. It’s comforting that there’s very little more, seemingly, that can be thrown at her. However, it also means that many people do not see her in a favorable light. Sanders does not have a similar problem – right now. That could change as the Republicans begin their attacks. But it also means that Sanders has a better opportunity to write his own story. Hopefully Democratic party operatives are taking steps to address this now before it becomes a serious issue.
Socialist!: Similar to the vetting concern is the fact that Sanders self-identifies as a democratic socialist. It is hard to imagine the U.S. electing anyone that does so. A six-month-old Gallup poll even showed that a socialist candidate would be less popular than any other group examined. However, eight years ago it was hard to imagine the U.S. ever electing an African-American candidate. And as mentioned above, since so few people know him, Sanders will get a chance to try to write his own definition of democratic socialism for the American people. He’s attempted to do this on several occasions already. Done right, democratic socialism can be identified with popular American programs, like Social Security and Medicare. One would hope the Democratic party would help in this effort should he become the nominee. Ironically, other self-identified socialists can even chip in by stressing, as several have, that they don’t even regard Sanders as a real socialist.
Taxes!: Similar to the the U.S. never electing a socialist, American voters, it is believed, will never vote for someone who promises to raise their taxes. This will be a serious messaging problem, and the Democratic party better start working on this now. To be fair, Sanders is not simply promising to raise taxes. He is also promising to lower health care premiums. There’s a trade-off there that needs to be driven home to the American people.
Revolution!: Again, I think Sanders will encounter a messaging problem as he continues to describe what he is trying to do as a revolution. Frankly, I think this talk is a bit silly, and even I worry that it will turn off centrist voters. If I were to describe it, I would say he’s not trying to implement a revolution, but a restoration – a restoration of the democratic promise of America that has gone off the rails in recent decades. Given that goal – and the reality of the constraints of legislating in a divided Congress – and his foreign policy positions – my prediction is a Pres. Sanders would be a fairly mainstream figure in the end.
The unknown unknowns, aka the Bloomberg candidacy: The possibility of yet another plutocrat besides Trump – people wealthy enough to self-fund and operate their own campaigns – shaking up the race came up with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg threatening to get in the race. One of my favorite writers, Paul Krugman, spun out a story about how a Bloomberg/Sanders combo would lead to Pres. Trump. I guess that’s a possibility. But after a certain point, we can’t live our lives guessing what madmen with means will do. Hopefully this scenario won’t come to pass. If it does, as I often joke, we’ll fall off that bridge when we come to it. Maybe after he loses, Bloomberg can then use his billions to start electing moderate Republicans to Congress.
Bottom line, the only pieces of solid counter-evidence I have right now regarding the electability question are the head-to-head national polls between candidates. In those, Sanders does as well as, or better than, Clinton. I agree with many analysts that such polls are largely meaningless this far out from the election, but they certainly don’t give any solace to people who argue Sanders can’t possibly win, either.
Next I’d like to turn to some spurious reasons to be concerned about Bernie Sanders getting the Democratic nomination:
Questionable policy positions: A great many policy wonks that I respect haven’t thought much of Sanders proposals to improve medical insurance coverage or to better regulate financial companies in comparison to Clinton’s. I take those criticisms seriously. However, the details of policy positions are always open to change. Just ask Clinton, who witnessed Pres. Obama eventually adopting some of the more contentious parts of her health care position from 2008. And then there’s Congress, of course, which has a bit of a say. Presidential policy positions during campaigns are not necessarily a good guide to the actual policy you’ll eventually see.
Incrementalism: A great many opponents of Sanders have tried to argue lately that his supposed extremism won’t lead to any tangible policy. First off, Sanders has a record of actually getting things passed in an unfriendly Congress. (Some of them are even a black mark on his record.) But beyond that, if Sanders is unable to get some of his more ambitious goals passed, that only proves his point. There cannot be a reasonable chance to deliver policies that disproportionately benefit middle- and lower-income Americans with the plutocratic lock on our political system.
Democrat-come-lately!: I get that some Democrats are upset that Sanders is doing so well in the Democratic primary after so many years of being an independent. In that sense, he’s not a loyal Democrat. And given the tribal nature of party loyalties, I can understand how that would be grating. But it remains a fact that many Democrats – perhaps voters who never would identify as Democrat before – are willing to vote for him and see his views as being well within the values of the party. Because of that, I’m curious whether, should she lose, Clinton will be willing to stump for Sanders – or if Pres. Obama will. I think with the threat of Pres. Trump looming, they would have to put aside any hesitations and do what’s necessary.
Nader!: Finally, several times I have read that Sanders running is the second coming of the what they see as the Nader campaign in Florida. Regardless of where you come down on that, Sanders is running in the primary, so it’s simply not possible for Sanders to effect the general election in that same way. Stop making the analogy.
In my next post, I have a final few words for Hillary Clinton and her supporters.