We are about to find out a whole lot about Bernie Sanders’ chances at winning a general election and how he will meet the key challenges his naysayers believe will doom us to four more years of Donald Trump.
Many pundits are saying that Bernie has made two mistakes in recent days. One is refusing to go to AIPAC’s conference and, worse in their view, stating that AIPAC provides a platform for hate and bigotry. The second is the comments he made about education in Cuba.
The two “transgressions” are actually very different, but one thing both have in common is that they are very risky things to put out there right before a crucial debate in an already heated primary race, ahead of what is very likely to be one of the most explosively rancorous general elections in U.S. history. Yet this will also provide a great opportunity to find out just how potent the Sanders candidacy is.
Much of the hand-wringing over Sanders is exaggerated to say the least. AIPAC and the anti-Cuba lobby in Florida were going to gun for Sanders no matter how low he kept his head regarding their respective issues. They already were, and they were not holding back, even before this. They were right to do so, too. Sanders, should he reach the White House, is damn near certain to try to reinstate Barack Obama’s détente with Cuba right away and move on from there. Steps he would take on the issue of Palestinian rights are less certain, but no one will have ever come into office with more concern for that approach to the issue, and in the Persian Gulf it’s a sure bet he’s going to immediately move to get us back into the Iran nuclear deal, and move us away from the close relationship with Saudi Arabia.
I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if a President Warren would act in a similar fashion, but her background and campaign do not make it as clear as Sanders and, from the point of view of lobbying groups and campaign financiers, she has not shown, to date, that she’s a major contender, much as I hope that will change. But none of the other candidates will be that resolute on any of these issues, although all of them, with the lone exception of Mike Bloomberg, are likely to back policies that are much closer to Barack Obama than Donald Trump.
Yet while the criticism of Sanders is overblown, it’s not completely wrong. By bringing Cuba and Israel into the campaign at this point, Sanders risks giving his opponents on these issues a boost. They don’t have to work to put the questions in the spotlight anymore and that will give them a leg up in their efforts against him and free up resources they might have used just to draw attention to their issues that they can now use for more ammunition against Bernie.
But the upside for Sanders is arguably even greater. One of the main talking points many have used to make the case against Sanders is that, whether or not they might like his ideas and policies, he can’t win the general election when Trump calls him an antisemite and a communist because those charges will stick to Bernie. While we can’t know for sure until we get to the general, we are going to have a lot more data on that question a week from today than we have now.
It will start with the debate. Mike Bloomberg must have his staff working overtime to come up with the most vicious and devastating ways to attack Bernie on these issues. We can count on Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Tom Steyer to go on the attack as well, perhaps not with quite the same mean-spiritedness as Bloomberg, but as the centrist candidates, this is the very meat of their electability argument. They can’t pass this opportunity up. Joe Biden, who has been reluctant to get in the mud with anyone because he hasn’t been winning the wrestling match when he does, might try to let the others go after Bernie, since he is still the front-runner in South Carolina, even if his lead has slipped by quite a bit.
The most interesting, and most telling, debater will be Elizabeth Warren. Consider her position here. The result in Nevada was a huge disappointment for her after the stunning victory she had in that debate and the big fundraising bump it got her. The money wasn’t going to help much in Nevada since the caucus was already so close and, in any case, she had already shut down much of her operation both there and in South Carolina. But she had to be hoping the debate itself would translate into something better than fourth place, under 10% of the vote. Now she really needs a push before Super Tuesday and must hope that a strong showing in the South Carolina primary provides it.
Does she try to go after both Bernie and Mike Bloomberg in this debate? She hasn’t let up on Bloomberg since the last debate, and I’m sure she won’t now, but will she split her attacks between the two? If she does, it’s a good sign that she believes Bernie to be vulnerable after the Cuba and AIPAC comments. Warren has not been a serious contender in any of the three early primaries, and she desperately needs to be more than an afterthought in South Carolina. She’s proven herself to be the smartest person in the field, but smart doesn’t always mean your decisions are correct. But it does mean they’re well considered. If she goes after Bernie now, after a couple of similar attempts have not worked out for her, she is seeing a weakness there.
My read is that attacking Bernie has not done her any favors so far, and that she should stay out of the fray and keep going after Bloomberg on Tuesday. Bloomberg is very likely to come into this debate prepped for Warren’s attacks, but mostly focused on all the things he’s going to say about Bernie. Hitting Bloomberg is Warren’s best play; continue taking him down and let the others go after Bernie. That’s what I’d do if I were her.
Ultimately, the big tell here is how Bernie’s controversial words this week are going to play in the next eight days. Whether he intended this or not — and I think it is very possible he did — he’s testing his electability in the general election right now. Angering the Florida anti-Cuba lobby and the pro-Israel lobby runs counter to all conventional wisdom.
While one of the more offensive talking points among the anti-Bernie punditry is that he is the Democrats’ version of Trump, they’ve both mobilized large numbers of disaffected people from outside the center, the mainstream, the elites of the two parties. That was what made Trump bullet-proof every time we thought he had done himself in, whether it was the Access Hollywood sexual harassment tape, the affairs with porn stars, the racist comments about a judge, or the mocking of a reporter’s disability. Nothing hurt him, and that was because he had a movement that knew he was a hateful boor and that is what they wanted.
Bernie’s most ardent supporters see him as a man who will speak truth to power, no matter what. They know full well that he’s a socialist, and that he has not been afraid to criticize authoritarianism, but also acknowledge that things are not all good and evil. It’s really not a complicated thing to understand that Castro was an authoritarian who also massively raised the level of education in Cuba. It’s a plain fact that AIPAC has always promoted racism, by having speakers who spew hate at their conferences, but more importantly, by being so opposed to the end of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians that even Yitzhak Rabin had to warn them to stay out of his way and then went to set up another organization — the Israel Policy Forum — to counter them in his quixotic attempt to come to an agreement with the Palestinians.
These are absolute political minefields, and Bernie is challenging them. He is betting that the support he has built, and the basis on which he has built it, will mean his challenges to these powerful forces are boons, rather than hindrances, to his campaign. At the least, if he isn’t hurt by them, he will have shown conclusively that the electability argument is simply wrong. After all, the Cuba comments speak directly to his alleged affinity for left-wing authoritarians (which is nonsense).
One way or another, we will have the best evidence one could ask for in the next eight days, in the debate and then in South Carolina and Super Tuesday.