Be under no illusions. The 77-year-old Senator from Vermont — the man who tried to bring Sandinista radio to Burlington, and the runner-up to Madame Smart Power for the Democratic nomination in 2016 — may very well be our next president. Bernie can win.
Some have said that Sanders overperformed in the 2016 Democratic primary because Hillary Clinton is a uniquely bad candidate. (Well, Rich Lowry has said that.) Sanders would fade under closer scrutiny. If it seems like he’s a real contender to grab the nomination, people will research the weird things he said in the 1970s and 1980s. Or they’ll get more accustomed to his personal quirks and affect. And then he’ll fade. A gap between the austerity of his democratic-socialist politics and his relatively comfortable personal lifestyle will overwhelm him.
My response: Where have you been the last four years? Polished candidates are out. Candid candidates are in. Voters can and will forgive their politicians almost any verbal lapses, so long as they believe the candidate doesn’t hate them. Sanders has the manners not to talk about huge swathes of the American public with disdain or contempt. We know he won’t repeat Mitt Romney’s “takers” moment. But, crucially, while Sanders will denounce racism and divisiveness, he won’t imply that Trump’s supporters are economically useless “deplorables.” Bernie is not “intersectional” — at least, not in the alienating way. His declared enemies are the millionaires and billionaires who buy up public policy. He will not be tempted, as some other candidates may be, to mimic or adopt the young-lefty-media views on intersectionality that remain avant-garde and alienating to key swing constituencies.
He’s not too far left for his party. The Democratic party is shifting left, according to Gallup polling, and the number of voters in it who call themselves liberal is rising over and above those who call themselves moderates and conservatives. Also, perhaps paradoxically, the flood of upper-middle-class educated voters into the Democratic party may be an advantage for Sanders, for these voters are the most attuned to their status inequality with the “billionaires” that are the target of Sanders’s campaign.
Sanders’s version of left-wing politics will ring out as almost nostalgic and comforting to voters lower on the socioeconomic scale. In fact, he may have more crossover appeal. The possibility of “Obama-Trump-Sanders” voters flipping Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania is a real one. If the age of Clinton has officially ended in the Democratic party, Sanders offers the party a pre-Clintonite identity. His ambitions are to expand on the New Deal and the Fair Deal, to overcome the resistance that national health care met in the famous do-nothing Congress.
He’s more organized than he was last time. The Democratic primary is structurally more open to him. After his 2016 campaign, and in recognition of the energy, organization, and fundraising prowess he could bring to the party, he was brought in from the cold by leadership within the Senate Democrats. Unlike Trump, Sanders will come in with less friction from his own party and a better chance of staffing the executive branch with people committed to his vision.
And he is well positioned to win the early states. Sanders raised $6 million on the day he announced. Even after a losing campaign, Sanders has had at least as large an effect on changing the orientation of his party, and the ideas that are discussable in it, as Donald Trump. Probably more so.
None of the “candidates of the future” has so far excited Democrat voters. Not Kamala Harris. Not Amy Klobuchar. The only serious polling challenge is Joe Biden, who is not currently in the race — perhaps because of his tendency to implode his own presidential candidacies, or other bad memories. The normal phalanx of high-powered Democratic consultants and policy entrepreneurs are not attaching themselves to Biden. Unlike Biden, Sanders never opposed student busing and doesn’t have a history of racially inflammatory comments.
Finally, and this is an important point: One of Sanders’s greatest advantages is his stubbornness. Sometime in the 1990s, Americans got used to the idea that politics is entirely phony. It’s all “spin.” All candidates “pivot.” Donald Trump has a very unfaithful relationship with the truth. At the same time, Trump’s character is transparent. People knew what kind of man Trump really was when they voted for him. Sanders’s lifelong adherence to social-democratic politics, his willingness to sit on the margins because of his fidelity to that vision, is his greatest asset. The whole world has grown soft and inconstant. Sanders is a rebuke to that. Republicans and conservatives need to take him very seriously.