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Bernie’s Choice: Ride or Die

Does he want to make his followers feel righteous, or beat Donald Trump?
March 17, 2020
Bernie’s Choice: Ride or Die
Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during a town meeting at the South Church May 27, 2015 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire the day after he declared his candidacy (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

“Donald Trump must be defeated,” Bernie Sanders insists, “and I will do everything in my power to make that happen.”

But will he?

After Tuesday’s primaries, Sanders will confront a defining choice: continue his doomed campaign—further attempting to damage Biden in the minds of both swing voters and his most fervent supporters—or seek an accommodation which preserves his influence and maximizes Biden’s chances.

His course remains worrisome. As Paul Krugman puts it, “Sanders and those around him have a bad habit of suggesting that anyone who questions their political strategy is a corrupt tool of the oligarchy.”

In the narrative too often embraced by Bernie’s base, Sanders never actually loses—he gets screwed. His designated antagonists are “the Democratic establishment” and the “venomous” and “corrupt” “corporate media.” From this perspective, the media slights his agenda. As for the party: “One of the things I was kind not surprised by was the power of the establishment to force Amy Klobuchar [and] Pete Buttigieg… out of the race.”

Conveniently omitted from this storyline is the free will of voters. But Sanders’ acolytes are more flammable than rational. Here is Current Affairs’ Nathan J. Robinson—think of him as the progressive version of Breitbart’s Joel Pollack—on Bernie’s disastrous Super Tuesday:

It Biden wins the nomination, it will be a real lesson in how power works. Bernie was on track to win, Biden had no campaign, and they all knew it. So a few phone calls were made behind the scenes to Amy, Pete, Beto. Several million was put into a pro-Warren Super PAC. Voila!

Left unrevealed in Robinson’s analysis was precisely how the conspirators mesmerized millions of voters overnight. But other kindred spirits found the answer: vote tampering.

The progressive “investigative journalist” Greg Palast claimed that California’s voter registration rules were “stealing hundreds of thousands of votes from Bernie Sanders.” Another ally on television asserted that Massachusetts may have been rigged because the first wave of exit polls, not adjusted for turnout, put Sanders ahead.

The revolution would have succeeded, one infers, but for these shadowy yet omnipotent forces.

Now, reality: From the start, the majority of primary voters rejected Sanders’ candidacy—beginning with his tie in Iowa and narrow plurality win in Iowa. Nevada gave Sanders a larger plurality though, as a caucus state, it did not truly represent of the Democratic primary voters. Conversely, Biden had a base of voters—African-Americans—who had not yet voted in significant numbers.

Like Sanders, the other moderates lacked support from black voters – as their candidacies flagged, center-left Democrats consolidated behind Biden. The party’s larger electorate confirmed what many suspected and polling evidence had long since suggested: Sanders was incapable of expanding his ardent but limited minority into a consistent majority.

Inexplicably, Sanders’ campaign seems to have believed that the race would be a steady state: that zombie candidates would stay in the race, week after week, allowing him to win more plurality victories. Instead he began losing – decisively. And so his loyalists converted the normal winnowing process of any primary season into the linchpin of a self – exculpating conspiracy.

Enough. Very soon Sanders and his supporters will have to stop fabricating fantastical excuses for losing to Biden, look in the mirror, and decide what to do about Donald Trump.

That starts with internalizing an unpalatable truth: from its outset Sanders’ campaign was fatally flawed.

First, Sanders failed to transcend his limited demographic appeal.

In 2016 Sanders lost to Hillary Clinton by 3.7 million votes. Now, as then, his base represents a finite minority.

For that, blame Sanders. As veteran pollster Stanley Greenberg says: “Sanders has made no effort to reach out beyond his voters, his movement, his revolution. It just has not grown. It is an utterly stable vote that is grounded in the very liberal portion of the Democratic party, but he’s so disdainful of any outreach beyond that base. He seems content to just keep hitting that drum.”

Sanders’ shortfall among African-American voters was even greater in 2020 than it had been in 2016. Michael Harriot’s scathing and hilarious essay in the Root neatly skewers the problem: “Sanders’ political failings are his own, and black people are not here to channel the political yearnings of white progressives. We are not here to carry your water or clean up your mess. It’s not that black people don’t believe you… You quite literally need more people.”

Including white people. So far in 2020, Sanders has lost college-educated whites, badly. More surprising, he has hemorrhaged the same working-class whites he carried in 2016—which suggests that their transient adherence was driven more by aversion to Hillary Clinton than enthusiasm for Sanders himself.

Especially telling was that more non-college whites have turned out in 2020 than in 2016—and most of them have voted for Biden. Similarly, white suburbanites—so critical to Democrats in 2018—surged to support Biden.

Overall, Sanders never reached large chunks of the Obama coalition – an essential predicate to any chance of long-term success.

Second, Sanders’ alternative turnout model was delusional.

Despite the total absence of any real-life precedent, Sanders claimed that he could fuse young people with the previously disengaged—people who rarely, if ever, vote—into a decisive bloc of new voters who would respond to him alone. Wrong. In primary upon primary, Sanders’ phantom army never materialized.

Little wonder. Even in theory, it made no sense to imagine that the politically comatose would awaken as a monolith to support Bernie Sanders. In an extensive study of non-voters by the Knight Foundation the authors conclude that “If they all voted in 2020, non-voters would add an almost equal share of votes to Democratic and Republican candidates.”

In sum Sanders, his campaign, and too many of his followers embraced an electoral strategy premised on magical thinking.

This, too, is no one’s fault but their own.

Finally, Sanders “democratic-socialist” agenda unnerved many voters.

Actual votes here tell the story. To succeed, Democrats must begin with their base—the coalition which Sander is losing by a wide margin. But they also need to add the votes of the same people who buoyed Democratic candidates in 2018: moderates, independents, persuadable Republicans, suburbanites, and college-educated women.

Here, as well, Sanders fares poorly. As reported in Vox, a study by two political science professors at Berkeley and Yale concluded that these voters would be more likely to favor Trump were Sanders the nominee.

Here, again, political science meets common sense. David Leonhardt nails Sanders’ willfully wishful analysis:

[M]any progressive activists misread public opinion. Their answer to almost every question of political strategy is to insist that Americans are a profoundly progressive people who haven’t yet been inspired to vote the way they think… They are conflating our own opinions with smart political advice. They are choosing to believe what they want to believe.

Sanders insists that his campaign is winning on the issues, and losing only because primary voters fear that he’s not electable. But this misses the point: Voters fear he’s unelectable because of his positions on the issues.

Take his centerpiece proposal: single-payer healthcare. A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 60 percent of swing voters in the pivotal states of Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin consider it “a bad idea.” Without winning at least two of those states—and in reality they probably need all three —Democrats will lose to Trump.

More broadly, voters across the spectrum fear that Sanders’ utopia would be too much to swallow.. Take cost. The consensus of economists is that his agenda would double the federal budget—to $60 trillion over 10 years. The same experts agree that Sanders cannot pay for this explosion of spending—even by taxing the wealthy as aggressively as he proposes—without a substantial increase in middle-class taxes, a further bloating of our deficit, or both.

In terms of political and legislative reality, many voters find that several bridges too far.

To be sure, some of Sanders’ individual proposals are popular among Democrats. But Sanders should contemplate that the adverse verdict of primary voters implicates his overall agenda—and that, if anything, this judgement minimizes the misgivings among the electorate writ large.

Certain of Sanders’ fellow progressives get that. Here’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on appealing to voters: “I come from the lens of an organizer, and if someone doesn’t do what you want, you don’t blame them—you ask why. And you don’t demand that answer of that person—you reflect. And that reflection is where you can grow.”

This is the lens Elizabeth Warren uses. Distinguishing Warren from Sanders, an associate says: “She values the Democratic party. She thinks it has flaws but is overall a force for good. She doesn’t want to be on board with efforts to villainize or alienate many people who were the lifeblood of the party.”

Among many Sanders supporters, good luck with that. Some have criticized AOC for being too conciliatory. As for Warren, the ever-aggrieved Robinson says of her failure to endorse Sanders: “She bears some responsibility for the catastrophic harm to the planet that is going to come from the Dems running an ailing Biden only to have him trounced.”

Once more, a hard look in the mirror would be helpful. It’s one thing to criticize Biden on the issues. But if one worries about Trump beating Biden at such terrible cost to the globe, then it would be best not to call Uncle Joe, as Robinson has, “a sleazy dishonest person, the kind who should not be rewarded with a position of extreme trust like the presidency.”

But that’s what comes of treating the Democratic party as the target of a hostile takeover—as Sanders himself so often does. Soon enough, for his acolytes the party itself becomes the enemy, along with everyone within it who disagrees with their leader. And when that disagreeable majority includes primary voters, then participatory democracy itself is portrayed as an inimical force co-opted by malignant actors.

From there, it is but one step further to sabotaging Biden as an act of revenge. After the Michigan primary, pro-Sanders commentator Krystal Ball said: “The responsibility is placed solely on the voters to suck it up and vote Joe. I’m not buying it. If the choice is Donald Trump or Joe Biden, you can mark me down as officially undecided.”

The Sanders twitterverse is often less sanguine. A typical comment: “I will absolutely not vote for Biden. When they try to guilt you into it… remember: they are trying desperately to hang onto THEIR privileges, which they will never, ever extend to you.”

The last hope for such dead-enders was crudely stated by Cenk Uygar: “If they have [Sunday night’s] debate, and Joe Biden falls on his face, then Bernie can win Florida, Ohio, Illinois, etc. Biden has the lowest bar in human history. All he needs to do is not collapse in the debate and people like [James] Clyburn are worried that he can’t clear that bar.”

In the event, Biden more than cleared the bar—he carried the evening.

Neither man wavered: Instead they conducted a spirited two-hour debate about their policy differences in a time of pandemic. But Biden personified the practiced leader prepared to be president; Sanders recited past grievances and future aspirations. Biden was at his best; Sanders was feisty but all-too-familiar, thereby squandering a last opportunity. Advantage Biden.

Tuesday’s primaries—in Florida, Illinois, Ohio, and Arizona—should extinguish Sanders’ chances. In 2016, he lost all four states. Absent oddities in turnout related to the coronavirus, he should lose them even more decisively this time. And after that, the his map, and math, only get worse.

But why wait?

With each loss, Sanders’ leverage dissipates; the bitterness of irreconcilables escalates. One of the many reasons Clinton lost in 2016 is that too many Sanders supporters ditched her. The essential choice for Sanders in 2020 is between facilitating Trump’s second term, and helping Biden become a candidate more of his voters can accept.

That involves doing four hard things:

  • Nudging Biden closer to his position, but only in areas where Biden has room to move.
  • Reminding his supporters that their campaign was a cause, not a suicide mission.
  • Denouncing the rancor through which principled advocacy becomes personal animus.
  • And doing his damnedest to help Biden become president.

For Sanders, that last may be hardest of all. He’s a progressive prophet; Biden is a legislative horse trader. But with Donald Trump in the White House, progress as Sanders envisions it is impossible.

That cannot be the future he wants.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.