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On Bernie Sanders’ Presidential Bid

Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination is taking on an air of inevitability, and that likelihood has been met with elation by some people, and feelings of dread in others. Is the Vermont senator the party’s best hope of motivating and leading an inspirational movement to defeat Donald Trump in November, or would he be the easiest opponent of them all for Trump to stigmatise, isolate and defeat? Is Bernie Sanders a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform America, or a once- in-a -generation calamity who is likely to entrench in power the worst President in American history? No pressure, people.

History isn’t much of a help, either. The last time the Democratic Party chose a strongly left-wing nominee – the anti-war, anti-Wall Street, anti-party maverick George McGovern in 1972 – the Republicans ended up winning every single state in the Union, as the country re-elected Richard Nixon. Typically, the commentariat seems to be evenly divided as to whether the Sanders campaign bears some striking similarities to the insurgency of youthful idealists that McGovern led to a landslide defeat in’72, or whether the two situations are not comparable at all. Certainly, there are a few eerie resemblances, as laid out by Derek Thompson in the Atlantic article linked to above:

  1. A profoundly unethical Republican sits in the White House during a fairly strong economy.
  2. In the Democratic primary, the early front-runner and establishment favourite is a veteran East Coast senator [Joe Biden now, Ed Muskie back then]
  3. But after months of leading in the polls, [Biden/Muskie] falter in the early primaries, soon after the GOP President and his cronies concoct a scheme [the Ukraine “scandal” for Biden, the so-called ‘Canuck’ letter “scandal” for Muskie] to undermine him —part of a dirty-tricks campaign that ultimately figures in an impeachment inquiry.
  4. Rising at the perfect moment to steal the momentum is a left-wing senator from a small, lily-white state. [Sanders from Vermont, McGovern from North Dakota] This senator advocates for single-payer health care and calls for the redistribution of wealth to the middle and lower classes. Over time, he consolidates the left-wing vote and bypasses an apoplectic Democratic elite with a grassroots campaign that—somewhat ironically, given his age— depends on the enthusiasm of young voters.
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Yikes. Yet according to reasons spelled out in this article Sanders and the Democrats won’t necessarily repeat the McGovern outcome of ’72. Times are different, the Democratic Party is a more cohesive/inclusive entity than the amalgam of southern racists and urban liberals it was back then, Nixon enjoyed 62% approval ratings going into the ’72 election that Trump can only dream about, the labour movement shunned McGovern but is strongly behind Sanders, and Sanders (hopefully) won’t run the same shambolic presidential campaign that McGovern did, and will choose a less disastrous running mate. Time isn’t always a flat circle, right?

Stigmatising Sanders

As others have already pointed out, the re-election of Trump will rely on the Republicans being able to retain and energise their MAGA base. This will require continued daily doses of White House extremism, even as the Republicans try to tell everyone else that the Sanders alternative is even more dangerous and divisive than they are. How dangerous? Well….as veteran liberal analyst Ed Kilgore says, the overall aim will be to portray the Democrats as a bunch of baby killing, job-killing hippies obsessed with political correctness, and resentful of virtuous ordinary folks and the billionaires who employ them.

In addition, the socio-economic change that Sanders advocates will be depicted as posing an existential threat to those on the lower rungs of capitalism’s ladder. On this very point, the benignly vacuous campaign of Joe Biden has been fashioned to foster the impression that a transition led by him would replace Trump, while posing no risk whatsoever to anyone else at all. (Biden has succeeded in being so innocuous that even many moderates in the Democratic Party are despairing of him). When not painting Sanders as a Satanic socialist, the GOP will be telling swing voters that while Sanders himself may seem like a decent enough fellow, he will be the willing tool of left wing extremists who allegedly hate everything that America represents at home, and abroad.

Crazy stuff, of course. In Europe, Sanders would be just a run of the mill democratic socialist. In Germany, let alone in Scandinavia, his positions on universal access to single payer healthcare, and on worker and trade union involvement at boardroom level are taken virtually for granted by mainstream parties of the left and the right. The current split over tactics between the US Democratic “progressives” (Sanders, Elizabeth Warren) and the “moderates” (Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bloomberg) would make little sense anywhere else in the world, so miniscule are the differences in the goals they hold in common. Despite all the headlines about “ Democrats in disarray” the actual divisions among the Democrats have been nothing remotely like the insult strewn debates among the Republicans in 2016, when even the penis size of some candidates was being publicly called into question.

Super Tuesday..and beyond.

Sanders is widely expected to be confirmed as the runaway favourite after the “Super Tuesday” primary results on March 3, when 14 states will be holding their primaries at once, including large, delegate-rich states like California and Texas. On current projections, Sanders could well win nearly half of the delegates up for grabs. If he does, the Democratic Party establishment would have little room left for any rearguard “Anyone But Sanders” actions in the lead up to the Democratic convention in mid-July.

If backroom shenanigans did eventuate at the convention – such as the “superdelegate” elites using their votes to deny Sanders the nomination he would have earned via his primary successes – many of his supporters would probably stay home in November. For party pessimists, that’s the dilemma now looking them in the face – either confirm Sanders and (possibly) lose in November or choose someone else, and watch the legions of Bernie believers sabotage that Democratic alternative, anyway.

Sometime before reaching that point, one can only hope that the party establishment will have decided to respect the primary outcomes, treat Sanders as a viable candidate and get in behind him. In return, the Sanders campaign will need to show an as yet unseen capacity for tolerance and for compromise, and will hopefully desist – in the name of party unity – from rubbing the noses of party moderates in the dirt of defeat. The choice of VP could be vital to that unifying process, and will be relevant to the legitimate concerns about Sanders’ age and state of health. This person would be an interesting choice : especially since she is from the swing state of Wisconsin.

How viable a presidential candidate would Sanders be likely to be? Among the Bernie faithful, Sanders is seen to be the only candidate able to tap into the wellsprings of voter resentment of the status quo, mobilise a racially diverse mass movement and basically repeat the populist success of Donald Trump in 2016 – but this time, from the left. If Sanders fails in that quest…well, the left has a long tradition of valorising its virtuous failures on the long march to deliverance from capitalism. Besides, many Bernie believers appear to hate the Democratic Party establishment just as much as they hate Trump….so for some of them, winning one out of two may not seem quite so bad.

To state the obvious: there’s an entirely different scale involved in winning a party nomination as opposed to winning the presidency. In 2016, Sanders won 13 million votes in the primaries. Yet in that year’s presidential contest, 160 million people voted. Can Sanders step up successfully? For the many people who regard getting rid of Trump as a planetary imperative, there is reason for concern that some of the policy positions Sanders has taken to win the nomination may return to bite him during the presidential campaign.

Such as…heathcare

Sanders pure advocacy of single payer universal health care has definitely helped him to clear the “progressive” lane to the nomination against Elizabeth Warren, who advocated a more gradualist path to the same goal. Warren sought the same end result, but called for gradualism for two tactical reasons : one, that the upfront cost could be depicted as prohibitive (and redolent of the familiar “tax and spend” liberal stereotypes) and secondly because an abrupt transition could be easily mis-portrayed by the GOP as Democrats taking away ( ‘robbing’) the private insurance net on which millions of voters currently depend. (In the Nevada primary the concerns raised by the leadership of the large Culinary Union on this point seem to have been ignored by union members.)

Warren’s transitional approach certainly cost her support among progressives and robbed her campaign of momentum at a crucial stage. Yet arguably, it would have had the virtue of better protecting the Democrats during the presidential phase of the campaign against a Republican onslaught which will now be free to attack Sanders on both the ‘cost’ and the ‘robbery’ fronts.

And… gun control

As Vox has pointed out, Sanders has two political identities – his Vermont one, and the one to do with his presidential aspirations - and his positions on gun control have thrown those contradictions into sharp relief.

Ironically in the past, Sanders has defended his relatively conservative (and unpredictable) positions on gun control with exactly the same tactical logic that Warren has used on healthcare provision : namely, that by moving too far, too fast on gun control, this would rule out the political compromises necessary for eventual legislative success.

Initially, Sanders was a strong proponent of the notion that gun control is an issue best handled at state level, not federal level. "It's a local control issue," Sanders said of gun control in 1988. "In Vermont, it is not my view that the present law needs any changing," he added on the issue of a waiting period for handgun purchases. In 1993, Sanders voted against the Brady Bill, which sought to make federal background checks mandatory and impose a waiting time for handgun purchases but – paradoxically - he then voted six months later for a federal ban on semi-automatic assault weapons. (So he does appear to see some role for federal regulation on guns.)

In 2003 and 2005, Sanders voted in favour of laws that insulate gun companies from accountability by making it impossible for the victims of gun violence to bring lawsuits against gun makers and vendors. Yet he also voted against legislation allowing for the concealed carry of weapons within state lines. In 2013 and in the wake of tragic mass shootings, he told Vermont media that “If you passed the strongest gun control legislation tomorrow, I don’t think it will have a profound effect on the tragedies we have seen.” During the 2016 campaign his ‘moderate’ position on gun control caused him a great deal of trouble in his attempt to take the high moral ground against Hillary Clinton, since it clashed so obviously with his “straight talking /big solutions/ right now” progressive brand. In 2016, he told CNN that gun control was different, in that it entailed a cultural divide :

[Sanders] said there's a major difference between Vermont, a rural state with little gun control where hunting is a way of life, and cities like Chicago, where guns are used by gangs. "Folks who do not like guns is fine. But we have millions of people who are gun owners in this country -- 99.9% of those people obey the law," Sanders said. "I want to see real, serious debate and action on guns, but it is not going to take place if we simply have extreme positions on both sides. I think I can bring us to the middle."

Obviously, these varying positions on gun control have had a whole lot to do with his political base. Vermont is relatively liberal, but it is also rural and has a strong hunting ethos ; and Sanders has repeatedly warned the Democratic Party against abandoning elderly white and rural voters to the Republican Party. Yet this time around, Sanders is projecting a more coherent line on gun control, one that’s more consistent with what one would expect from a candidate running for national office – and not for re-election in Vermont - in the progressive lane of politics. Yet aqs Vox says in summary, the current bag of contradictions still includes :

He opposed waiting periods for gun purchases, but supported background checks and bans on deadlier firearms. He backed limits on liability lawsuits against gun companies, but he supported banning high-capacity ammo magazines carrying more than 10 rounds.

As Vox also points out, it has been very fortunate for Sanders that on his path to the nomination, Democrats don’t seem to care about gun control anywhere near as much as the gun rights enthusiasts on the other side of the political fence. That zone of tolerance will vanish once the presidential phase of the campaign begins, and Sanders can count on being grilled for his diverse stances on this issue, which can be depicted as flipflopping for political advantage. Again, that will not be helpful as he seeks to project the straight talking brand that has made him such a beloved figure on the progressive left.

To repeat : the qualities that make Sanders an appealing candidate for the party nomination will both help and hinder his ability to recruit wider support in his bid for the presidency. To the Bernie faithful, it is axiomatic that Sanders is the only option capable of motivating voter turnout on the scale necessary to defeat Trump. That blind faith can be touching, but it is questionable. It is simply too early to judge how transformative a prolonged exposure to Bernie Sanders, presidential candidate, will be in the states crucial to the Electoral College outcome. It may back-fire. On the upside, there is a strong pre-existing desire to replace Trump that will provide an immense advantage to any Democratic candidate chosen for the job.

The current poll numbers say as much. Nationwide, Trump’s sustained period of poor approval ratings are unprecedented in a modern US presidency. Yet – in November – the rejection of Trump by huge numbers of coastal liberals living in California and New York will matter less than how Trump is perceived in the states that determine the Electoral College outcome. Currently for example, Trump enjoys a solid polling lead against all of the Democratic options in the state of Wisconsin that he won only narrowly in 2016, but he is lagging behind in key states like Pennsylvania and Michigan. As you would expect in such states, it is the moderates ( Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Bloomberg) who are running further ahead of Trump than the progressives, Sanders and Warren.

Meaning : it is by no means a given that working class and middle income voters in such states would flock to Bernie’s banner. Yet increasingly, it is looking as though the entire world will have to start living in hope that they can, and will. Soon, we may all be in Bernie’s corner, regardless.

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