If you are plugged into caucus coverage, there is no bigger story right now than Bernie Sanders. His come-from-nowhere campaign is the only novel thing happening on the Democratic side of the ledger, and Bernie may well be the solitary viable non-Hillary candidate. He is drawing huge crowds of young people in liberal enclaves across the country. So, since the Senator from the great maple-flavored state of Vermont recently finished an Iowa swing, I think it is a good time to talk about his campaign.
I attended his event in Sheldon on Friday. But before I begin, I feel like there are few disclaimers to get out the way. First, I was a Hillary Clinton delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 2008. So I have a history with the other (significant) Democratic candidate. Second, the Bernie Sanders event in Sheldon was hosted by a group called the SOLO Democrats and my Mom is a co-founder of that group. (The SOLO Democrats hope to host all the Democratic Candidates before the caucus and have not endorsed anyone.) Accordingly, I need to make clear that my comments don’t reflect anything other than what I think.
Now that we have that out of the way, there are a lot of things to like about Bernie Sanders. He is the living embodiment of the Democratic id. His stump speech is a rapid fire listing of all the complaints Democrats have against big business: the loss of the middle class, income inequality, environmental destruction, workforce displacement, campaign finance corruption and support of cynical, self-serving Republicans. His campaign events are like distilling a month’s worth of MSNBC’s lineup into a half hour speech. Every word he shouts gets a sympathetic nod from the audience, and his passion for his key topics (such as free higher education) is infectious.
Sanders has ignited interest in young people and is an easy replacement for liberals who were disappointed that Elizabeth Warren did not enter the race. Sheldon, where the event I attended was held, is located in the far Northwest corner of Iowa. (It is the hometown of Bob Vander Platts.) Bernie’s early morning event drew a crowd of nearly two hundred, a number which is amazing for the part of Iowa where the population of Democrats is roughly the same as the population of panda bears. (And his crowds elsewhere, such as in Council Bluffs, are even bigger.) Not only did Bernie’s event in Sheldon draw many of the local Democrats, many members of the audience were from out of state. Minnesota and South Dakota were both well represented in the standing-room-only crowd. Finally, Sanders’ staff and volunteers are energetic believers willing to do what it takes to support their man. I think Sanders is here for the duration of the campaign.
But there are problems with Sanders’ insurgency. First and foremost is Sanders’ past refusal to identify with the Democratic Party. Sanders’ base is extremely fervent and there are arguments across the internet about how party affiliation is irrelevant. But those arguments are wrong. For better or for worse the United States has a two party system and Bernie is running to be the standard bearer for the Democratic Party. The fact that he has heretofore refused to join the party is a liability. It opens himself (and all down-ticket Democrats) to attacks by Republican’s about the party. (“Why would you support a Democrat?! Even their presidential nominee was embarrassed to join the party.”) Part of being the nominee of the party is about helping other Democrats get elected. Any Democratic President is an instant lame duck if the rest of the government is controlled by the opposite party. (A problem that President Obama faces every day.) By distancing himself from Democrats, Bernie does a disservice to the party he hopes to lead.
At the event in Sheldon, I asked Sanders about this point. His response was that he energizes young people, that he increased voter turnout in Vermont and that Democrats need to employ a 50 state strategy. Now, I agree those things are important. The Democratic Party has to be the party of young people. The Republicans are the party of older people and as long as there is a Fox News, that is not going to change. So I’m glad Bernie Sanders is engaging young people. I hope that once the school year begins he brings even more young people into the process.
Moreover, the 50 state strategy is the best idea Howard Dean ever had. Many poor people in rural states consistently vote against their own best interest and in recent years the Democratic Party has given up trying to engage those voters. That is insane. Democrats need to stop being pseudo-Republicans in Red States (Joe Manchin) and instead engage the people that they are trying to help and convince them to vote in their own best interest. My number one hope is that Bernie forces the 50 state strategy to be a permanent part of the Democratic plan.
But Sanders’ answer failed to address my underlying question. How does someone who has disparaged the Democratic Party in the past become an effective leader of that party? How does someone who has spent their career talking about the importance of being an independent convince voters to vote for the Democratic candidate for mayor, governor, congressman and senator? To succeed, Bernie Sanders must answer those questions.
Second, as I noted above, Sanders is a self-described socialist. Now, most of us who are ears deep in politics understand that almost all Americans are socialists. If you are for any government sponsored program that helps the disadvantaged you are a socialist. Donald Trump, current Republican sufferer of foot-in-mouth disease, is vocally in favor of maintaining Social Security and Medicare. By definition, that makes Trump a socialist. But that is an academic point impossible to distill for the masses. Instead the term socialist is, and will remain, an albatross that no nominee should want around their neck. Instead of conjuring pictures of the idyllic lifestyle enjoyed by the citizens of northern Europe, the word socialist reminds people of Stalin, the Cold War, dead puppies, soggy French Fries, skunky beer, Hitler, the Godfather Part 3, and everything else that is wrong with the world. Because of Sanders’ embrace of the term, the Republican attack ads will almost write themselves.
Moreover, Bernie Sanders doesn’t have a great answer for why he has been an independent socialist. The real answer to why he has refused to join the Democratic Party has, I believe, a lot to do with local Vermont politics. New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine all have long histories of “independent” politicians. In those states it can be more politically beneficial to be “independent” than to join a party. I don’t think Sanders’ independence has a lot to do with actual political beliefs. The Democratic Party in Vermont is very liberal. Howard Dean was the governor there. Bernie Sanders would have fit right in. It’s just a matter of political spin. In fact, Sanders’ political positions are probably more conservative than some regular old Democrats from liberal states like New York, California and Massachusetts. That’s why Bernie’s independence is mostly a Vermont thing. And that doesn’t make a good bumper sticker: “BERNIE SANDERS: INDEPENDENT BECAUSE IT WAS POLITICALLY EXPEDIENT IN VERMONT AND THE LOCAL DEMOCRATIC PARTY SAID IT WAS OKAY.” (And if you can’t – or won’t – explain Sanders’ independence as a Vermont thing, he just seems like a jerk for refusing to join the party that is actually trying to do the liberal things he says he wants to do.)
Additionally, because of his ‘independence,’ Bernie Sanders has not been a popular leader in Washington, a fact noted by the New York Times when he was initially elected to the Senate. Besides espousing liberal policies, Sanders has spent his career critiquing the system. The problem with spending your time attacking the system is that you often fail to work in the system to achieve your goals. In that respect, Bernie Sanders shares characteristics with other outliers such as Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul. They are all energetic critics of the system. Additionally, if you are very liberal, it is hard not to agree with Kucinich and Sanders, and if you are far to the right, it is hard not to agree with Paul.
But they all lack mainstream success. I think this is a problem. The President of the United States has to work within the system to achieve goals. If you are Democrat, that means you will absolutely have to work with other Democrats to make things happen, and you may have to even work with Republicans. Working together requires compromise. But being an ideologue – on either side – does not go well with compromise.
If fact, in that regard, the parallels to Ron Paul are prescient – both Sanders and Paul hold idiosyncratic ideological views that have kept them at the fringes of the two party system, both were/are extremely popular in their home districts and have extremely devoted followings comprised largely of young people and neither were/are terribly effective as legislators. But is that good company to be in? Even if I agree with all of Sanders’ positions, I understand that being President requires more than having the right point of view. Being a good President is a three part proposition. You need to see the problem, conceive a way to fix for the problem, and have the ability to implement the fix. Bernie Sanders sees the problems. But he needs to convince people that he can fix the problems too. (This is especially true in light of the Obama presidency. There is no doubt that Obama can see the problems. But we all know he has had some problems fixing the problems.)
Also, Sanders’ candidacy is mostly about economics/social issues. His favorite topic is free higher education. But because he focuses on economic and social concerns, he has a hard time addressing other issues on the stump. He only hits the foreign policy highlights. (The wars are costly and bad; peace is good, we need to engage diplomacy.) During his stump speech Sanders actually encourages questions only about economic issues and, at least at his event in Sheldon, the campaign screened questions to make sure they were on point. Those are definitely problems. When debate time rolls around, Clinton will not be afraid to get into the weeds on foreign policy issues. But, the campaign is still early, and Sanders has the better part of six months to round out his platform to include all issues relevant to the presidency.
Now, I hope this doesn’t sound like a hit piece on Bernie Sanders. I said, and I mean, there is a lot to like about Sanders and his campaign. But Bernie is what is happening now, and since my views always tend towards the pragmatic over the ideological, I see problems with his campaign. (Lord knows that the Clinton campaign has faults. I can hardly read a story about the Clinton campaign without seeing echoes of 2008. One popular book about the McGovern campaign was called, “How to Lose Everything in Politics except Massachusetts.” I’m reminded of that title every time I see the Clinton campaign bobble something as simple as walking in a parade. But the problems with Hillary’s campaign are another blog for another day.) I’m glad Sanders is out on the stump. I think competitive caucuses are a good thing for Iowa, and I think competition makes all the candidates better. And, as I’ve said elsewhere, the most important thing is getting new people engaged in the political process. Sanders seems to be doing that.
That said, I’ll end with Bernie’s final problem. Later over the Fourth of July weekend, I was on the main street of Sibley, my hometown. Sibley, just down the road from Sheldon, is very small and the liberals are few and far between. I spotted a lady I know to be one of the few reliable Democrats. “Hey,” I said, “I didn’t see you at the Bernie Sanders event in Sheldon.” She looked at me confused. “Bernie Sanders,” she said. “Who is that?”
by Jason Winter