Elections

Sanders Stands to Benefit from Trump’s Conflict with Iran

Sen. Bernie Sanders holds a campaign rally in Detroit, Mich., October 27, 2019. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)
As the most authentic antiwar candidate in the field, the Vermont senator may be helped more than any other 2020 Democrat by Qasem Soleimani’s killing.

Donald Trump’s decision to order the killing of Iran’s arch-terrorist general Qasem Soleimani split the Democratic party.

Democratic centrists agreed that Soleimani should not be mourned even if they couldn’t quite approve of the way in which he was killed. But to the party’s liberal base, Trump’s willingness to break the foreign-policy establishment’s rules about not provoking Iran brought back memories of past anti-war movements. Though it was not clear where Iran would take its decades-long conflict with the U.S. in the wake of Soleimani’s death, the Left responded in the same way it had protested past American wars.

The likely beneficiary of all this? Some anticipate that it will be Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg, given the former’s foreign-policy experience and the latter’s military credentials. But the candidate who stands to gain the most from the conflict with Iran is the most authentic antiwar voice in the race: Bernie Sanders.

Biden and Buttigieg are wrong if they think Democratic-primary voters want a lecture on the geopolitical complexities of the Middle East or a candidate running on his military record. What they actually want, as much as a candidate who will beat Trump, is someone who can speak to their rage at the thought of an American military expedition abroad, whether or not it is successful. And only Sanders — who in the aftermath of the strike on Soleimani eschewed his rivals’ equivocation in favor of comparing the killing to Vladimir Putin’s assassinations of Russian dissidents — is likely to give it to them.

In this sense, the Soleimani strike is fortuitously timed for Sanders, because it gives him a chance to revive the anti-war messaging he used to such great effect against Hillary Clinton four years ago. In 2016, Sanders made great hay out of Clinton’s support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Four years later and competing for a primary electorate that seems to have shifted to the left, Sanders now has a chance to repeat the same pattern against Biden, who, like Clinton, supported both wars and was intimately involved in their execution as Barack Obama’s vice president.

Sanders, already riding a surge in the polls as his main progressive competitor, Senator Elizabeth Warren, has lost momentum, now has a new rhetorical weapon with which to hit his rivals, who should be worried. As a recent Politico analysis quoting Democratic-party professionals pointed out, the assumption on the part of many pundits that Sanders is too old and too extreme to win the party’s nomination may be mistaken. While Biden has maintained his status as the front-runner, Sanders has also shown remarkable consistency and resiliency.

It might have been expected that the heart attack Sanders suffered in early October would put an end to his campaign. At 78, Sanders is a year older than Biden, running in the notoriously grueling presidential primaries for the second time in four years; voters could be forgiven for worrying about his health. But he seems to have not missed a beat after a short hiatus, and has seen his polling and fundraising numbers rise in the subsequent months.

Sanders raised the most money of any of the Democrats in the last quarter of 2019, bringing in an impressive $34.5 million, around $10 million more than Buttigieg and $12 million more than Biden. More important, he has gained ground in both national and state polls. He currently sits in second place in the RealClearPolitics national average, at 20.2 percent, 9.5 points behind Biden, with both Warren and Buttigieg trailing far behind.

Sanders has also now edged into the lead in Iowa, narrowly ahead of Buttigieg and Biden, and he maintains a four-point lead in New Hampshire over the former vice president.

The Democrats’ proportional delegate-allocation rules make it impossible for any candidate to score a knockout in the early primaries. But it’s easy to envision a scenario in which Sanders benefits from Warren’s decline and ultimately becomes the main liberal alternative to Biden, whose strength among African-American voters makes him the favorite in the southern primaries where they predominate.

Sanders’s chances against Trump aside, he’s already won the affection and loyalty of the activist portion of the Democratic base — the voters who think choosing the candidate that conventional wisdom deems more electable will be just as much a disaster for their party in 2020 as it was in 2016.

The more that Iran overshadows impeachment, the better his odds of claiming the nomination get.

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