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If Bernie is the answer, are we asking the right question?

2020 isn’t going to be a re-run of 2016, and Sanders’ electability is going to face far greater scrutiny next time around.

Bernie Sanders speaking at a town meeting Phoenix, Arizona in June 2015. Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr (via Creative Commons).

I’VE been copping flak from my progressive friends for not appropriately genuflecting to the altar of Bernie Sanders since he announced his candidacy for the 2020 US presidency a few days ago.

Seriously, from the reactions of some people, you’d have thought I’d come out as a closet Trump supporter.

So, I feel I owe these people some explanation for why I’ve failed to show due reverence towards the great man.

The reasons are … complex.

I’ve been a fan since Bernie Sanders first floated into my consciousness in 2015 as a serious challenger for the Democrat nomination which it had been assumed was a lock for Hillary Clinton.

Sanders has been a Senator for tiny Vermont (population 624,000) since 2006, but outside of the Beltway was pretty much an unknown until he launched onto the national stage in 2015. He appeared at just the right time, this gruff, proudly radical plainspeaking politician with the unadorned Brooklyn accent and attitude. The perfect antidote to the polished phoniness of the Clinton campaign.

Bernie Sanders’ candidacy was the best thing about the 2016 election (let’s face it, there wasn’t much else to be excited about that year).

It forced the Democratic Party to shift to the left and adopt a platform that now includes such ideas as healthcare for all, fee free university, real action to tackle climate change, a crackdown on corporate greed, and a much higher minimum wage. He identified and articulated what was wrong with America, even after eight years of Obama, and put forward concrete solutions. Here was someone who was not afraid to describe himself as a socialist and who appeared to reflect real working class values. Hardly radical really from our perspective in Australia, but earth shattering in the US.

Just as importantly his campaign inspired a new generation of young activists to enter politics, and we saw the outcome of that last November with the election of a diverse assortment of boldly progressive fresh-faced Democratic Congress representatives being elected, not least among them Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who worked as an organiser for Sanders in 2016.

And he’s forced major reforms to democratise the — ahem — Democratic Party, not least an overhaul of the corrupt super delegates system which prevented him winning the nomination in 2016.

Like many, I was disgusted at the way the super delegates were used to crush the votes of millions of rank-and-file Democrat supporters. Without that establishment fix to ensure Hillary Clinton won the nomination, who knows, maybe he would have beaten Trump.

And he did all this without taking a cent from Wall Street or big corporations.

Until recently, our car carried a faded bumper sticker for ‘Bernie for President 2016’, over which we’d scrawled “shoulda been”.

SO I’m no anti-Sanders hater. To the contrary, I’m glad he has announced his candidacy.

We need him there to keep the bastards honest and force the other candidates to adhere to a left-wing agenda.

But what really got people riled was my glib assessment on social media of his candidacy:

Well, I thought it was funny … but apparently making jokes about Bernie is a no-no these days.

I got accused of ageism, false equivalence, of elevating identity above policy, and a number of other sins. To some people, criticising Sanders — like criticising that other messiah of the left, Jeremy Corbyn — is verboten.

But no-one should be above criticism. What people have misunderstood is that my reservations about Sanders are not to do with his policies, but his electability.

The point I was trying to make was that 2020 isn’t going to be a re-run of 2016, and American politics has moved on a great deal since an outsider with a radical past was the only alternative to the horrible Sophie’s Choice of Clinton or Trump.

It’s simply not an answer to a critique to respond lazily by saying: “well, he would have won in 2016”. Great, but tell me how he is going to win in 2020?

In 2016, Sanders ran a highly-effective insurgent anti-establishment — and cleverly populist — campaign backed by a suite of strong, radical policies that he had spent years finetuning before put them up for judgement by the public.

It’s a measure of his success in 2016 that since then much of his platform has been adopted by the Democratic mainstream so the policy differences between Sanders and the Melbourne Cup field of other primary candidates will not be anywhere near as stark they were in 2016. That is, unless Sanders goes that next step, such as advocating the nationalisation of the banking system or unilateral nuclear disarmament.

No, in 2020, the battleground is as much going to be differences of style, attitude, tone and temperament as they will policy.

Here, I think, Sanders has a disadvantage compared to some of his opponents.

The field for the 2020 Democratic primaries is looking like the most diverse in history. We have a working mother (Kirsten Gilibrand), a woman of mixed Caribean-Indian background (Kamala Harris), a Latino man (Julián Castro), an African-American Gen X man (Cory Booker), a Hindu Gen Y from Hawaii (Tulsi Gabbard), a grandmotherly Boomer with Native American heritage (Elizabeth Warren), and a gay man from the Midwest (Pete Buttigieg).

Among that lot, 77-year-old Sanders, a white, male, non-practising Jew, looks like a throwback to the past, a continuation of the long line of straight white men who apart from the period of 2008–2016 have occupied the White House since George Washington.

Why all this talk about identity? I hear you say. What about the policies? It would be wonderful if elections were decided on politics alone, but we live in the real world, which means that particularly when voting for an individual (as opposed to a party), personality does matter.

In the real world, the electorate is less ideological and hung up on the nuances of policy than in the Twitterverse.

I myself have never been much of a fan of identity politics, but like it or not, Trump’s election has made identity a big deal. If the Republicans are pitching themselves as the party of the angry white Fox News audience, the Democrats should be building a diverse multi-racial coalition that is welcoming to all genders, sexualities, age groups and religions. Their candidate needs to reflect that diversity.

And I also wonder how all those people who have most felt the brunt of Trump’s abuse and his policies – particularly women and people of colour – would feel about seeing him replaced by yet another septuagenarian white man, regardless of how right on his politics are? Is a 77-year-old white man really the best person to lead America into the post-Trump era?

THERE’S also the question of whether Sanders’ polarising, combative approach is the right fit for 2020.

I could be completely wrong, but my gut instinct is the next president will need to be a peacemaker, not a fighter. The 25-30% of unaligned voters who decide elections will be looking for someone who can heal, not widen, the wounds created by Trump.

Surely what will be needed post-Trump will be someone who can inspire Americans about the future, and who can unite deeply divided Washington. The next president must not only reverse the damage done by Trump and take the action needed to begin correcting all that is wrong with America, but they also need to have the political skills to implement their program in the face of hostile opposition from the Republicans.

The American public must be sick of the hyper-partisan conflict which culminated in the longest government shutdown in history.

I still think it’s unlikely Trump will run in 2020, but even if he does, the measure of success is not just how you will defeat Trump, but what you have to offer once you are in the Oval Office.

Perhaps Sanders would change in office, but from everything I have seen of him, including his candidacy announcement, Sanders appears to have little interest, nor the ability, to be a unifying force.

On a very basic, practical level, how would a President Sanders actually get anything done? How would he successfully negotiate with Congress to get his policies passed into law? Has he ever had to explain that?

To many people, Sanders is just as polarising and divisive a figure from the left as Trump is from the right. This is great in the primaries when your job is to win the support of the Democrat base, but it’s hard to see how his grumpy old man schtick translates into a successful general election campaign, nor how it provides a pathway to effective government if he does win in 2020.

THERE’S little doubt that Sanders was robbed of the Democratic nomination in 2016, and the sense of injustice still burns brightly three years later. But that doesn’t automatically mean he deserves to have the nomination in 2020.

I get the sense that a lot of the people who remain full-blooded Sanders supporters do so out of both a sentimentality for the near-revolution he caused in 2016, and a desire to right past wrongs.

That kind of thinking is both deluded and dangerous. 2020 will be nothing like 2016.

In 2016, it was a simple contest of Hillary Clinton versus Bernie Sanders, a two-horse race. Sanders was fortunate that no other serious candidates entered the field that year, particularly Elizabeth Warren.

We have to remember that in 2016, Hillary Clinton not only represented the Democratic establishment, but she was also a standard bearer for American neo-liberal imperialism. She had taken tens of millions of dollars in donations from Wall Street, and voted in favour of the Iraq War.

But in a crowded 2020 primary field, Sanders won’t find it so easy. Because she was always the front-runner, and because of the quarter of a century of baggage she had accumulated since her husband’s term as President, Clinton faced a level of scrutiny that is almost unparalleled, while Sanders got off relatively lightly.

But this time around, he will no longer be the rank outsider. Sanders is now one of the best known and most senior members of the Democratic Party leadership, and he will under heavy examination of not only his policies, but his personality and temperament. He will be considered the frontrunner by many, and it will be him walking around with a metaphorical target on his back.

And then there’s the question of whether Sanders can translate his popularity within the Democratic party base to the broader electorate. How many of those who backed him in 2016 are diehard Sanders supporters, and how many were just anyone-but-Hillary people?

It’s one thing to win the support of millions of adoring progressives inside the party, quite another to convince the 25–30% of independents who will decide who gets their hands on the nuclear codes.

The reality is that in 2020, Democrats will be spoilt for choice and Bernie Sanders will be just one name in a huge field of candidates, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. It will not be the binary anyone-but-Hillary choice of 2016.

Kamala Harris at a rally to defend the Affordable Care Act in 2017. Photo: Mobili/flickr (via Creative Commons)

WITH his obvious strengths and the success of his 2016 campaign, Sanders undoubtedly deserves another shot at the nomination.

The sentimental part of me would like him to be successful, but the pragmatic part of me feels compelled to question his electability.

If this marks me in the eyes of some as a cynic or a coward, then so be it. The purists can be purists, but I don’t want to see Trump, or another Republican, win again in 2020.

Electability is a strange cocktail of policy, personality, charisma, authenticity . . . even a candidate’s race, gender and the state they come from can be a factor. And there is that X factor that partly explains why Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were both able to win two terms, but Jimmy Carter only one.

When it comes to electability, none of the other declared candidates is flawless either.

Elizabeth Warren is a policy wonk who I think will have trouble igniting a movement behind her. She’s also an apologist for a softer side of capitalism, so given a choice between her and Sanders, I’d probably plump for Sanders.

As for the others, Kirsten Gillibrand looks like an opportunist who changes position with the wind; Cory Booker has too many skeletons in the closet from his years in the shady world of New Jersey politics, least of all his willingness to take a dime from Wall Street; Tulsi Gabbard says she has recanted her homophobic past and support for conversion therapy, but I’m not sold; and Amy Klobach is just too right wing. Beto O’Rourke, if he decides to run, strikes me as shallow and untrustworthy. Julián Castro and Pete Buttigieg seem to be in it just to raise their name recognition with an eye on 2024.

As for Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg or Howard Schultz … please just stay away.

So that leaves Kamala Harris, and in this crowded field she seems at this early stage the closest to the complete package. She has a progressive policy agenda, proven executive experience, and seems relatable and authentic.

Importantly also, with her multiracial background she is more representative than Sanders of the modern America the Democrats need to speak to in order to build a winnable coalition, particularly the constituencies of women and blacks.

Harris has her weaknesses as well: her period as California’s Attorney-General is highly contested, and to some progressives that is enough to already rule her out. I happen to think a background as the “chief cop” of the largest state may actually be an asset by acting as a ballast to win over some independent voters who remain wary of an overtly progressive platform.

In any case, the merits of Sanders’ candidacy need to be examined rationally, without any sentimentality for 2016. And I find the Messiah complex which has built around him since 2016 to be quite disturbing.

AT this stage, Sanders is the clear frontrunner. He has the most money, the best infrastructure, the highest name recognition and an army of supporters who are ready to turn out for him again after the disappointment of 2016.

But none of this means Sanders is entitled to have the red carpet rolled out for him on the way to the 2020 nomination. You have to earn it, buddy.

So don’t waste my time with the “he would have won in 2016” argument. The world has moved on. I wonder if Bernie has.

My genuine hope is that Sanders will run for the early primaries to keep the bastards honest and force the other candidates to adhere to a progressive agenda; but he is going to find it much harder going this time around.

Unlike the equivocation of 2016, when it was not clear if Sanders even really wanted the nomination, this time around there is no doubt he wants to win, and he undoubtedly has skills that may see him rise to the occasion.

But it’s also just as likely that if a new favourite emerges after the first few primaries, Sanders will have to decide whether to drop out and give his endorsement and considerable resources to someone who is more electable than he is. I would hope he would make the unselfish choice if it comes to that.

There is little doubt the next Democratic candidate for president will be the most progressive we have seen for decades, in no small part due to the fire Bernie Sanders lit in 2016.

The real question is whether Bernie will still be the best person to sell that platform to the voting public in 2020.



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