The Burning Question

Isn’t It About ‘Electability’?
Defeating Trump is the number one goal for many Democratic voters (Wikimedia Commons/Mathias Wasik)

Super Tuesday delivered an astonishing reordering of the presidential race, in the person of a newly revived Joe Biden. Did you see that coming? Before Super Tuesday, headlines were blaring about Sanders’s tightening grip on the liberal wing and the demise of the establishment. Now it’s all about the Biden “miracle.” What a difference a day made.

The reversal brought relief to Democrats obsessed with preventing a second Trump term. For these Americans (full disclosure: I’m one of them), the nadir of the past three years was the bizarre exoneration party Trump threw for himself after his impeachment acquittal, an obscene spectacle in which a preening, sneering American President—speaking publicly in the White House—dismissed his impeachment as “bullshit” while spewing insults at the “losers,” “lowlifes,” “sleazeballs,” and “scumbags” who opposed him. Before him sat all the Republican senators—his courtiers and capos, applauding and sycophantically accepting his tributes, as one by one he called on them and bestowed his blessing, like a mob boss. This display was followed in short order by brazen actions: the firings of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Gordon Sondland, who testified against him; and the crass intervention in the sentencing of Roger Stone. The whole series of events made dismally clear that our government exists at the mercy and whim of a president who views its institutions as his personal playthings and its employees as his vassals. 

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party was busily plowing ahead, cultivating a field of candidates who seemed ill-suited to the brutal heat of the coming campaign. Who among them could win? Super Tuesday exposed broad doubts about Bernie Sanders as that optimal anti-Trump candidate. Are those reservations well founded? A number of planks in the Sanders platform are, as has been widely noted, unpopular with the majority of Americans, including eliminating all private health insurance, letting prisoners vote, decriminalizing illegal border crossings, and providing free health care to undocumented immigrants. In the past he’s also argued for nationalization of the energy industry; public ownership of banks, telephone, electric, and drug companies; and a 100 percent income tax on the highest income earners in America.

It’s reasonable to doubt that an astronomically costly socialist agenda—one that cancels private health insurance overnight—can win a majority of American voters. Moreover, while Sanders’s primary rivals mostly didn’t test his special vulnerabilities, as the nominee he’d face a withering onslaught. Can you say, “Honeymoon in Moscow”? (Yes, that’s where the Sanderses went in 1988, celebrating their commitment in the capital of world Communism.) There will be the video of Bernie in the USSR, shirtless and singing “This Land Is Your Land” after relaxing in a sauna. There will be his pilgrimages to Nicaragua and Cuba, his fawning praise of Castro and Ortega. The GOP has this material locked and loaded. When “Curb American Imperialism” goes to the polls against “Keep America Great,” who do you think wins?

In one sense it has seemed fitting that Bernie might face Trump. The two are creations of the same urgent national crisis. Both are outsiders responding to a widespread sense that the system is not only broken but rigged. As candidates of anger—Trump of grievance and resentment, Bernie of righteous indignation—both have a populist appeal categorically different from that of other candidates; each turns to hurting Americans and says, It’s not your fault—it’s theirs. In Trump-world, the enemy is liberal elites—in media, government, academia, and the professions—who feel snootily superior to working-class Americans and who are opening the gates to hordes of immigrants. In the Sanders critique, it’s a ruling class that over the last three decades—prompted by Reaganomics and abetted by Wall Streeters of both parties—has gone on a grotesque spree of greed while capturing our politics. Sanders’s gestural tic of pointing his finger perfectly captures today’s accusatory zeitgeist. Up against his—and Trump’s—vehement blaming, the coolly technocratic establishmentarianism of a Pete Buttigieg never had a chance. I like Mayor Pete. But he was speaking very politely into some loud headwinds.

As candidates of anger—Trump of grievance and resentment, Bernie of righteous indignation—both have a populist appeal categorically different from that of other candidates

But would Bernie beat Trump? Biden, less loudly supported, might be more broadly supported (see his convincing primary victories in Virginia and Texas, along with a slew of endorsements from former candidates)—and more likely to win. To compensate, Bernie’s strategy for November all along has been to deliver masses of new voters to the polls. Yet evidence in the primaries doesn’t suggest this is happening. And who is Bernie spurning? I recently had dinner with a middle-aged professional couple, political independents repulsed by Trump and eager to vote against him. They will do so, they say—unless the Democratic nominee is Bernie, in which case they’ll either sit it out, or hold their noses and vote Trump. Meanwhile, the past positions that can be used against Biden—support for the Iraq war; support for punitive criminal-justice policies in the ’90s—are not likely to hurt him with swing voters or working-class whites.

The Biden-or-Bernie decision will clarify things for Democrats, since the two candidates represent competing theories about the direction of the party. How did Trump succeed in getting elected in 2016? The argument began immediately, and fiercely, after Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Did she lose because she was insufficiently progressive? Or because she had failed to connect with—had neglected and even insulted—white working-class America? Biden and Bernie are useful proxies for this ideological tug-of-war over what the Democratic Party did wrong, and what it should do now. One camp argues that the loss of white working-class male voters was critical and needs to be reversed. The other says it’s better to continue to focus on the party’s progressive ideas and constituencies and look ahead to the all-but-inevitable demographic and political evolution already underway.

Gloom among liberals deepened palpably this winter, following the impeachment debacle and ominous coverage of Trump’s big New Hampshire rally, crowded with thronging, passionate supporters. It bears keeping in mind, though, that however deep their passion, their number is limited. Given this fact—given that Trump remains a broadly unpopular president—what really frustrates is the tantalizing sense that the right candidate could beat him easily. For Democrats, the Holy Grail of this electoral cycle has been the desperate search for the candidate who simply can’t lose. Well, such a hero isn’t on the menu. We’re going to have to make do with a choice between two elderly white men—one a genial grandfatherly type well past his prime, the other an angry ideologue who never stops shouting. We have the candidates that we have.

The pro-Sanders camp believes that Americans are eager for a more thoroughly socialized system, and that Bernie, as its avatar, has the best chance of beating Trump. The anti-Sanders camp believes that a $30 trillion spending plan is political suicide, and that given the choice between a louche, crass, pseudo-populist businessman-celebrity and a cranky, impassioned Jewish neo-Marxist, America will opt for the former. Who is right? Regarding Sanders, is the relevant comparison the Barack Obama of 2008, who defied doubters by enlarging the turnout? Or is it the Barry Goldwater of 1964—a candidate whose passionate adherents insisted that their man would bring hidden conservatives out of the woodwork, and who instead went on to suffer an overwhelming defeat?

So more than policy differences, perhaps it comes down to differences of tone and tactic. What kind of Democrat are you? Do you still believe in, or at least hope for, a politics of conciliation, civility, and compromise? Or like the so-called Bernie Bros or “dirtbag left,” are you done with all that, and believe that the struggle requires giving back tit for tat, identifying enemies and calling them out, and adopting a no-holds-barred approach to gaining and wielding power?

Bernie Sanders has always seemed the toughest of the Democratic candidates, the least likely to come apart under the pressure of Trump’s scornful insinuations, and a part of me would welcome seeing his prophetic wrath aimed at the hedonist pagan. But I can’t get past the feeling that he would lose. Politicians who lose campaigns routinely reach for a refrain—we moved the discussion; we changed the framework—and should Bernie lose his supporters can say this and really mean it. Strangely enough, they might even find solace in the Barry Goldwater precedent:  Someone quipped recently that Barry Goldwater actually won the 1964 election—sixteen year later, in 1980, when Reagan came to power. It isn’t hard to imagine a candidate in 2036 who owes everything to Sanders, some charismatic progressive down the road who will emerge to play savior and fulfill the message of Bernie’s John the Baptist. Vindication is not always immediate in politics.

Meanwhile, our house continues to burn. If Sanders ends up the nominee—we should know more about that after the impending primaries in Michigan and five other states—so be it; I’ll be out there making phone calls and driving people to the polls. Do his supporters pledge likewise? A surprising report on NPR notes that 10 percent to 15 percent of disappointed Bernie supporters went on to vote for Trump in 2016, arguably giving him the margin over Hillary in a few key states. It’s irksome to think that peevish Bernie voters caused Trump’s election. What will they do this year? A recent poll revealed that four out of ten Bernie supporters are threatening to pack it in and sulk at home if their man doesn’t prevail.

They had better not. For Democrats this election will be about getting the voters out—all the voters—and overwhelming Trump’s base. Come November, and whoever the eventual nominee, Democrats of all stripes should never for an instant forget the mantra: strength in numbers. Those numbers will be necessary to put out the raging bonfire of the vanities that has been President Donald Trump.  

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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