It’s time we had a chat. I’ve been out sick (not with the Coronavirus, fortunately), but it’s time we talked about Bernie.
If you haven’t heard, there’s some panic in some Democratic circles that Bernie Sanders — the clear front-runner and possibly in position to be unstoppable after Super Tuesday — would be a disastrous candidate who would not only lose to Donald Trump, but also lose control of the House.
Is the panic justified? Can a self-described Democratic Socialist win the presidency?
And even if he could, is it too great a risk to find out? (Look, if you want risk, there’s a virus that’s threatening the world, not to mention Donald Trump’s beloved stock market. If you want political risk, there’s Mike Bloomberg, who is proof that you can be very, very, very rich and still walk away from a debate looking as if you’d lost every cent. If Joe Biden has a big day, as he might, doesn’t Bloomberg have to drop out?)
But even if it might be too great a risk to nominate Bernie, is it too late to even do anything about it? Maybe it’s just me, but I wonder if all those establishment Democrats who spent so much time and effort knocking Elizabeth Warren out of the lead while basically ignoring Sanders have any regrets now?
As I said, it’s time we had a talk, if, that is, we can be heard above the screaming.
I’ll start. I’m in the “very liberal” polling camp. Occasionally, I do one of those online which-candidate’s-positions-are-closest-to-yours tests, and I always come up with Bernie. And while some find his cranky-old-man personality off-putting, I’m a bit of a cranky old man myself — though not nearly as cranky or as old — and Bernie won a piece of my heart when he said he was still upset, 60-plus years later, that the Dodgers had abandoned Brooklyn. I love the Dodgers. And I love lost causes.
I worry about Bernie’s electability, even as the experts tell me (and I believe them) that we really have no reliable way to measure electability in this race. It’s a crap shoot in a season where we need a sure thing. One reason so many candidates are still alive at this point is that voters are desperately trying to figure out which candidate is the best bet to beat Trump and just can’t decide.
The head-to-head matchup polls that Bernie likes to cite — in which he and most Democrats outpoll Trump — may not be entirely meaningless, but they may not be meaningful either. I mean, this is easy. Jimmy Carter was once 22 points ahead of Ronald Reagan. Mike Dukakis was well ahead of George H. W. Bush. And maybe most significant, Hillary Clinton led Trump for most of the campaign.
In any case, the Dem-Trump numbers come before Trump singles out one candidate to go after in the ugly way that we know Trump and the right-wing noise machine will.
When I first voted in the ‘70s, Republicans routinely called liberals socialists and communists and long-haired-hippie-pinko-commies. And Democrats, who had held the reins of power in Washington for most of the time since FDR and the New Deal, would soon be overtaken by the Reagan revolution.
Democratic candidates would deny being socialists, and soon just being a liberal was a pejorative, which is why, I guess, we have progressives today instead of liberals. But you should forgive any Democrat of that age for worrying about how a self-avowed Democratic Socialist would do.
It is often said that Bernie would be the most liberal Democratic candidate since George McGovern. Gary Hart, who was McGovern’s national campaign director, just wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post saying McGovern was not nearly as far to the left as Bernie. McGovern was an early and strong opponent of the Vietnam war, but he was also an internationalist and a decorated bomber pilot who flew 35 missions in World War II. He certainly didn’t run on a platform, Hart writes, for programs that would fundamentally alter the economy.
Here’s what I remember. It was 1972 and my first vote in a presidential election. I voted for McGovern against the evil Richard Nixon, and McGovern won exactly one state. Yes, one state, Massachusetts, plus the District of Columbia. There used to be a bumper sticker: “Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts.” And even though Nixon was forced out of office two years later, it’s fair to say I was scarred forever by my first foray into national politics.
The problem many of us have with the Bernie supporters — and often with Bernie himself — is that anyone who expresses such doubts about electability is somehow either intent on undermining Sanders to protect the establishment or is part of the anti-Bernie corporate media or can’t be simply opposed to Sanders’s views, prefer another candidate or have voted once for George McGovern. I tire of Bernie supporters always playing the victim. Don’t we already have a president doing that?
If you want an honest look at how Bernie might fare against Trump, there’s an excellent piece on Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball website by Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman, who rate Bernie a slight underdog who would have trouble expanding Democrats’ chances in the Sun Belt, but who would probably hold on to every state Hillary Clinton carried. In a race against a generic Democrat, they have it rated as a tossup. That doesn’t sound like panic. And here’s Bernie’s pollster making the case that the worries about, say, moving everyone off their present insurance are overstated.
Meanwhile Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report shows why he doesn’t think Bernie would be much of a drag on Democrats down-ballot, whatever he has said about Fidel.
The big argument now is whether someone with a plurality of delegates at the convention in Milwaukee should automatically be the winner. Though it’s a little premature to ask the question, the obvious answer is, it depends. There are dozens of scenarios that could play out between now and then.
Let’s talk about now. Bernie is the front-runner, and it’s possible, with the speeded-up calendar, that he could win enough delegates on Super Tuesday to build a lead that no one could catch. But Bernie is currently polling at 29% nationally. If he gets 29% of the vote on Super Tuesday, I doubt he’ll clinch anything. The polling does show that Bernie should win easily in Colorado, where his recent rally drew more than 11,000 people. I’d be shocked if he didn’t. If Warren finishes second, that would make a major statement on just how progressive Democratic voters in Colorado have become.
But here’s where we are nationally. Primaries get ugly. They always get ugly. I can remember a primary where one now-Trump loyalist had his wife called ugly and his father accused of plotting to kill JFK. Democrats don’t get that ugly.
But this is what I’ve thought we should talk about. It’s not crazy to worry about whether a Democratic Socialist who once found time to praise Fidel Castro’s educational system can beat Trump. It’s not crazy, either, to think that the Bernie Revolution is real and has legs. What is crazy is for any Democrat to leave the convention in Milwaukee this summer with any thought other than to do what is best to beat Donald Trump in November.