Bernie’s mistake: giving his opponents a name to call him
Four years ago, with Bernie Sanders launching his 2016 campaign for President, some of my old college friends decided to support him in the primaries, one calling his campaign a “moral crusade.”
My response at the time was unfortunately prescient. I responded on Facebook “well maybe the Republicans will be able to win after all.” When I pointed out that all a Republican would have to do is point out that Bernie was a socialist and he would become unelectable, one of my other friends argued that “everybody already knows that, and at any rate, nobody cares about it anymore.”
For the record, I have a deep level of respect for Bernie Sanders and have followed his career since he was mayor of Burlington, VT back when I was in high school and college. I think he is a person of integrity and commitment, and his position in American history is assured whether he is elected President or not. As a result, I think we could do a lot worse that electing Bernie.
That said, although Hillary Clinton was deeply flawed as a candidate and lost for any number of reasons, many of them her own making, one factor that hurt her campaign was Bernie’s primary challenge and the way Trump and the Russians manipulated his supporters.
I understand their anger and frustration over their candidate not winning the primaries, but there has never been one shred of evidence to support the argument that he lost due to bad actions on the part of party leaders. In fact, most evidence points instead to the gross incompetence of DNC leaders actually hurting Clinton’s campaign, a campaign most of them clearly, and justifiably, favored. After all, Clinton was a long-time active Democrat while Bernie was a proud independent.
Just what is the Democratic party?
The party is not some monolithic organization that controls who gets elected and who doesn’t
The aim of this article is not to relitigate that question. I know and respect the position of Bernie’s supporters. Instead, I wish to express alarm at what I view to be a strategic mistake on his part.
I have no inherent hostility to socialism. Indeed, in college I supported a self-avowed communist for campus president, and proudly wore a Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) button at a rally.
What’s more is that young people clearly do not have the negative feelings about socialism that we older folks were raised with. Many of them came of age after the fall of the Soviet Union, so the horrors of the Cold War are lost upon them. Instead, socialism brings Scandinavia to mind, with its free college education, free childcare, vital economy, and more egalitarian society. Compared with what young people face in American, socialism looks pretty good.
But young people and liberal activists like me and my college friends are still a minority. Despite the claims of my friend, most American voters do still have a negative view of socialism.
According to a poll from last year, an overwhelming majority of respondents, 76 percent, said they would not vote for a socialist candidate, while only 24 percent said they would favor such a candidate. That’s a big hole to dig out of.
What’s more is that as voters have gotten to know Bernie better, they like him less. Throughout this year, his favorability rating has been going down. Indeed, according to Real Clear Politics, a poll aggregator, Bernie’s favorability rating currently stands at 43%. That’s actually a lower favorability than Donald Trump (43.3%), a candidate who is generally viewed as damaged goods coming into this election campaign.
Even among Democrats his numbers have been falling. A recent poll of Nevada voters, one of the critical early primaries, showed that Elizabeth Warren has surpassed Bernie, taking the number 2 position behind Biden. Clearly Bernie’s campaign is in trouble.
Contrary to what my college friend indicated, people knew next to nothing about Bernie in 2016. All they knew was that he wasn’t Hillary Clinton, and for many people, that was enough.
Clearly Bernie and his campaign know what is going on. In an effort to re-energize his effort, Bernie gave a speech entitled “How Democratic Socialism Is the Only Way to Defeat Oligarchy and Authoritarianism.” Clearly Bernie is trying to redefine what it means to be a socialist.
That’s going to be a tough sell. Americans overwhelmingly support much of Bernie’s policy agenda, so they ask themselves, why not support one of the other candidates like Elizabeth Warren who has a similar agenda but without the socialist label? Indeed, my research has shown that Warren is actually more progressive than Sanders.
If you want a progressive President, elect Elizabeth Warren
What the data tell us about the potential Democratic Presidential candidates Right off the bat I have to reveal my own…
I applaud Bernie’s effort to redefine socialism. The problem is that he is swimming against over a hundred years of anti-socialist propaganda. He doesn’t have a hundred years to change people’s minds. He doesn’t even have a year.
Indeed, it appears that Bernie’s Democratic opponents are thrilled to see him doubling down on his socialist identity. One can only imagine what Donald Trump is thinking. He has two great strengths as a candidate. One is to tell the crowd whatever it wants no matter what the truth is. He will have a harder time pulling that one off now that he has a record. As a result, he will no longer be able to promise a better, cheaper healthcare system than Obamacare because he has never even proposed one.
His one remaining strength, then, is his ability to goad his opponents. He is like a playground bully, nicknaming his opponents and dragging them into his game. Remember “low-energy Jeb” or “Lyin’ Ted.” Trump doesn’t even need to think up a new one for Bernie. He’s already got “Socialist Sanders.”
Frankly, the only chance Bernie has to get back into this race is to deemphasize his socialism. He can argue that socialist was just a catch-all term describing a pro-people agenda. But by doubling-down as he has, he makes people wonder what is more important to him, getting elected and achieving his policy goals or maintaining his socialist bona fides?
Unfortunately, Bernie can’t do both. It might not be fair that the powers that be have demonized the socialist brand over the past one hundred years, but life isn’t fair. As a candidate who must get elected in the real world, Bernie needs to come to terms with that reality.
If you liked this post, you might also like: