Bernie Sanders knows he has a problem. Despite all the national momentum, the massive crowds he turns out from coast to coast and his 400,000 small-dollar donors, the former independent has been hitting a ceiling of support lately. While he’s pulled ahead of Clinton in neighboring New Hampshire, he remains stuck in the 25%-30% in Iowa and most national polls. Clinton struggles with her email server problem, yet instead of seeing worried Democrats turn to Sanders, all the talk this week was about Vice President Joe Biden joining the race.
Why? Most speculate that Democrats are concerned about Sanders’ electability in the general election as a 73-year-old self-described Socialist with the distinctive wild hair. So Sanders tried to reverse the conversation in front of the very establishment audience most concerned on that front. At the DNC’s annual meeting in Minneapolis on Friday, the Vermont Senator pitched his potential weakness as his actual strength.
“When I announced my candidacy less than four months ago, I think that it’s fair to say that few took our campaign seriously,” Sanders told the crowd. “But a lot has changed in these last few months.”
He recounted his campaign’s many successes and the enthusiasm he’s seen his message generate on the trail. Then Sanders honed in very specifically and bluntly on his electability argument, in a notably focused and direct way he hasn’t used in his speeches often.
“The Republicans did not win the mid-term election in November,” Sanders stated. “The Democrats lost that election because voter turnout was abysmally low, and millions of working people, minorities and young people gave up on ‘politics as usual’ and stayed home. Let me be very clear. In my view, Democrats will not retain the White House, will not regain the Senate, will not gain the House and will not be successful in dozens of governor’s races unless we run a campaign which generates excitement and momentum and which produces a huge voter turnout.”
“With all due respect, and I do not mean to insult anyone here, that will not happen with politics as usual,” Sanders continued, aiming directly at many of the DNC leaders in the room “The same old, same old will not be successful … we do not need more establishment politics or establishment economics. We need a political movement which is prepared to take on the billionaire class … In other words, we need a movement which takes on the economic and political establishment, not one which is part of it.”
It was an intriguing case to make (read the full text here). In many ways, Sanders is absolutely right about Democrats’ past woes. In the last two midterm elections, Democratic rank-and-file voters simply weren’t motivated to turn out. Cookie-cutter state campaigns, a President who couldn’t translate his effective personal brand to the rest of the Party, lack of progress in D.C. and some lousy candidates contributed to disastrous wipe-outs, even though Republican policies remain unpopular in the polls. Worst of all was that Democrats essentially didn’t learn a single thing from 2010, making many of the exact same mistakes in 2014. So a change is certainly needed in 2016. Is Bernie Sanders the right one to do it, though?
It’s undeniable that he has awoken a movement in the country. And unlike on the Republican side, the appeal isn’t just based on theatrics alone like Donald Trump, but also has a deep backing in the populist, progressive issues Sanders pushes on the stump. Add in Sanders’ outsider, tell-it-like-it-is personality and he could bring a full package to a potential general election. But that outsider, socialist background would also certainly cost him votes among swing voters or those who don’t see him as a serious commander-in-chief. The big question really is: would grass-roots enthusiasm for Sanders be enough to overcome whatever losses from his unconventional appeal? That’s something all Democrats will have to ask themselves before they vote – and neither Sanders supporters nor detractors should dismiss both sides of the Sanders electability equation.
by Pat Rynard