Bernie Sanders won’t win the Democratic nomination, won’t even get close. In fact, I’d argue that rather than representing a real challenge, a real alternative, to Hillary, he assures her win, earlier rather than later. He is the wrong challenger and disappointingly so. Let me explain.
Before going any further, I like and greatly respect Bernie. I agree with much, perhaps most, of what he says. Sanders is absolutely right to focus on issues like income inequality and has the record to do so credibly. I share his view that it perhaps the most significant economic issue of our age and have written about it in earlier posts. Until and including now, no one has meaningfully taken up that cause, and most importantly no ones — plural — have done so. While millions of Americans are personally and directly impacted by inequality, there has been no popular uprising. That continues to mystify me. A few demonstrations here and there don’t stimulate change. Politicians and the public at large simply don’t take efforts that quickly peter out seriously. That’s especially true post Citizen United when elected officials are so disturbingly dependent on the 1% to finance super expensive campaigns.
It is also true that many Democrats, myself included, still harbor doubts about or lack real enthusiasm for Hillary. But equally true is that it seems no expected contender — a sitting popular senator or governor, for example — has even hinted that she or he might consider a run. Yes, Sanders is a sitting senator, but again he has long claimed to be an independent not a Democrat. So far the only other candidates are two ex-governors (one a former Republican) and a former one-term senator. None of them is risking their day job for a candidacy as Clinton, Obama, Biden and others did in ‘08.
Don’t misread this. I have long hoped for and advocated a strong challenge to Ms. Clinton both because of my doubts but more importantly to give her a real test, make her a better candidate if she gets the nomination. She did a great favor to Obama in that regard. Bernie Sanders won’t do the same for her. Does he have the capacity to turn the conversation and perhaps push her further to the left? To some degree that may happen but, in my view, only at the margin and probably with minimal substance. As I’ve written before Hillary in 2016 is not Bill in 1990. Thanks to the hard right shift of Republicans, Democrats (including Clinton) have generally moved more left, though I doubt very far left. One could actually argue that the GOP’s rightist turn may ultimately keep Democrats in the center aiming to fill the vacuum left when moderates like Lincoln Chaffee abandoned their party. The common truism that most Americans are in the center may be overly simplistic and overblown, but so too is any idea that they have substantively shifted to the left. Any candidate in either party must win among so-called independents many of whom pride themselves in not being too ideological.
I saw a photo of an enthusiastic group of young people cheering at a Sanders rally. I’m not surprised since, just at in 2008, they hunger for something new. Understanding that, one of Mark Rubio’s major arguments is that Hillary (and by extension Jeb!) represent yesterday not tomorrow. Leaving aside his overall message, I think he touches on one of her challenges and perceived weaknesses. But moving beyond a rally of cheering young people or even a series of them, does Bernie Sanders really represent tomorrow in a time where optics are so very important. More pointedly, if you really want the next president to enter office at age 75, wouldn’t you rather have someone with the national experience of a Joe Biden at 73? I would. Just as it will be difficult for a multi-millionaire and friend of the super rich to argue the income inequality case, so too will it be difficult for Bernie Sanders to argue the “tomorrow not yesterday” case.
We’re told that the Clinton campaign is taking the Sanders candidacy seriously and they should. He may gain some traction in Iowa and in his neighboring state of New Hampshire. I welcome any influence he might have on pushing her further from the center. Nevertheless, risking making a forward prediction (always precarious) and admitting that I may be totally wrong, my sense is that there is a good chance she will dispatch his candidacy early and often. Would that be the case had Elizabeth Warren decided to run? Perhaps, but she would have been a much stronger contender.
Bernie Sanders is an excellent human being and senator. The senate and we are better for having him in the room, but I suspect also only marginally so. He is getting a fair amount of attention, as he should. Some of it I fear is because the press desperately wants to attract eyeballs and, as such, seeks to invent a hot contest even if one hardly exists. Is that too harsh, not on the press but on Bernie’s effort? Well, I didn’t mean it that way, but perhaps it reflects my frustration that we still seem to have but one viable option, as Frank Rich has put it, “no Plan B”. Bernie Sanders candidacy hasn’t changed that at all.