The Problem with Bernie
The 2016 election was very close, with Hillary Clinton losing to Donald Trump in the Electoral College despite a decisive win in the popular vote. Her loss was attributable to about 77,000 votes in three states, so small that any one factor would have spared us the degradation and disintegration we are now experiencing.
If James Comey hadn’t made his announcement about Her Emails a week and a half before the election, if Republican governors hadn’t closed so many precincts in Democratic-leaning districts, if hostile foreign governments hadn’t manipulated popular sentiments and hacked voting machines …
… and if supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders had held their noses and voted for the one person who had a chance of keeping Donald Trump out of the Oval Office. And his supporters might have done the right thing if Sanders had acted like a professional and done the right thing for the country.
For the Record
Other than in the title, I will not refer to the Vermont Senator by that diminutive avuncular name his supporters insist on using; it’s undignified and precious. He’s Sanders or Senator Sanders. Never “Bernie.”
Sanders’ polices are closer to mine than any of the other candidates’. My own views are to his left.
I am not
- a corporate shill
- a Hillbot
- deluded by opposition advertising
- incapable of thinking for myself
- beholden to establishment Democrats
or any of the other mischaracterizations that some readers are already trotting out. I think he is a good man, I think he has stood up for “the little guy” for most of his career in politics.
I don’t think he can win.
Ron Paul Part II
Sanders has a cultic following. I am daily reminded of the presidential aspirations of Texas Representative Ron Paul, whose followers saw him as a “kindly country doctor” when in reality he was a racist and a libertarian. In their eyes Paul was the answer to every question and his inability to gain much political traction was seen as the same sort of conspiracy people now see around Sanders. Paul’s followers refused to believe in his vicious racist newsletters.
Hillary Clinton got the nomination in 2016. She was seen as the one with the best chance of winning over Trump. And indeed she received three million more votes than the man now occupying the Oval Office. The DNC committed some major improprieties in favoring her; I’m not sure what else Sanders’ supporters expected her and them to do.
Should she have stepped aside? Really? Why? This is politics, it’s not high school and it’s not sportsmanlike, people want to win. Politics is dirty. You don’t have to like that, I certainly don’t, but there is only one nominee and there is no silver medal.
Sanders’ followers will find a poll favorable to him, perform some spurious arithmetic, and proclaim that he is best suited to beat Donald Trump. They select polls about policy positions and show that Sanders’ views align best with voters. There are two things wrong with this conclusion.
People Don’t Vote for Policies
In 2004 George W. Bush ran for re-election. The leading topic of national discussion was torturing prisoners of war, something Bush favored. The election was a referendum on torture. Many Americans were aghast to find themselves citizens of the country that electrocuted and waterboarded captured prisoners at Abu Ghraib while soldiers leered at cameras.
But why did George W. win a second term? Because people approved of his presidency? Because torture made them proud? Because people were happy about the twin invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, both going badly? No.
People voted for the man they called W because he sounded like a guy they’d like to have a beer with.
People didn’t vote for their self-interest, they didn’t vote for their jobs or their security, they voted on the their personal impressions, on how they perceived the man. George Bush felt like a neighbor they’d have over for a barbecue and pop a few tops.
Sanders supporters coo lovingly about how popular his positions are with voters. Sanders will stand up for them, Sanders is the working man’s candidate. Sanders will win because Sanders will fight for them.
Sanders supporters don’t have a clue.
People Vote for Superficialities
This is a mistake that liberals make every election; we tend to be rational thinking people, we tend to be educated, we think about what is good for us and good for other Americans and good for the world. We vote on those ideas.
But most voters don’t live in a world of ideas. They are more interested in entertainment than in politics, they don’t read much, they don’t care for well-educated people and they feel that others are looking down at them. They respond to people they think are like them.
George W. Bush had a bumbling demeanor; his Texas brogue, his mispronunciations and limited vocabulary, these appealed; voters looked at Bush and saw someone like them.
Bernie Sanders isn’t someone who 70 million people would like to have a beer with.
Whoever gets the Democratic nomination has to win on personal appeal, and that is secondary to policies, distantly second. And here is the hard and sad part.
Sanders is old.
On election day Sanders will be 79 years old, and he looks every day of it. This isn’t a judgment on the state of his mind nor the quality of his character; his mind is clear and, again, he is a good and decent man. But Americans don’t vote for octogenarians. He reminds people of their grandparents.
Sanders’ wild hair looks old. When he shakes his fist with real indignation at the injustice of wealth inequality and poverty he doesn’t look like a crusader; his age makes his indignation appear ineffectual. He looks like the angry old neighbor the kids make fun of.
His northeastern accent doesn’t move people like Bush’s twang.
On superficialities, Sanders loses.
He isn’t the Nominee
In 2016 Republicans had little to say about Sanders. They were devoted to attacking Hillary Clinton, as they had been doing for 35 years. They were hoping Sanders would win the nomination, figuring — correctly — that he would be easier to beat.
While the Democratic primaries continue, Republican attacks will be equal opportunity, but whoever appears to be the easiest to beat will receive the gentlest treatment. Whoever is seen as the most credible opponent will get the harshest treatment. However.
Once the nominee is chosen, the Republican Turret of Hate will turn his or her way and start firing.
And it will be brutal.
If the nominee is Sanders, the ads write themselves:
- drool jokes
- incontinence jokes
- senility jokes
- photoshops of Sanders with a cane
- doctored videos
The attacks will be vicious and unrelenting and some of them will even be funny; people who would never vote for Trump will be snickering and sending GOP attacks in joke emails. There will be Socialist! jibes for Cold War Republicans but everyone will get old man attacks.
This is the part that Sanders’ supporters don’t understand. Any polls taken before this begins don’t mean anything. There’s one thing Republicans are good at, and that’s selling hate.
Hate is what they do.
Hating Trump Isn’t Going to Win the Day
Donald Trump’s supporters are much worse, Trump isn’t just one of them, Trump is the one they’ve waited for all their lives, the man who hates all the same people they hate. Trump is their guy. Trump can contradict what he said ten seconds before and they will neither notice nor care.
Those voters are of course lost to whomever the Democrats choose as their nominee. It doesn’t matter who the Democrats run , the MAGA crowds are going to vote to re-elect Trump. And that’s fine. They’re a minority.
It’s not enough that “disapprove” means “disapprove strongly.” That helps; it certainly helped in the 2018 midterms when Republican losses set records.
Democrats have a bad habit of skipping midterms; they didn’t skip 2018. And they didn’t turn out because they disagreed with Trump’s policies; they turned out because they despised the person. State by state, district by district.
If they voted against their Republican because of caged children it wasn’t a vote against immigration policy, it was a vote against cruelty. Stephen Miller’s cruelty. Trump’s cruelty.
But this is the big one, the quadrennial puppet show. The Electoral College wasn’t a factor in the midterms; it will be the most important factor in 2020. Getting out the Democratic vote means having a candidate whom people see as one of them, not just someone they agree with.
Voting against was great in the midterms but it isn’t enough for the Electoral College. They need to vote for.
It’s too important this time. Republicans are taking us backward, dismantling democracy, destroying the social safety net, reveling in cruelty. Trump has a deep hatred of all things environmental and hopes to leave nothing for future environmentalists to protect. He has alienated America’s allies where he hasn’t betrayed them.
America absolutely cannot take another four years of Donald Trump or the alt-right wing of the Republican Party. Democrats must win this time, and that means having a candidate for the top slot who will win because people see that candidate as one of them.
And progressive though he is, decent and kind man though he is, passionate though his supporters are, Bernie Sanders does not yet inspire that fellowship that people felt for Bush, certainly not the fierce loyalty that Trump inspires in the MAGA crowds.
And that is the problem with Bernie.
Edit 12/15/2019: I read an actuarial analysis of Sanders and even discounting the great stress of the presidency and his recent coronary, Sanders’ chances of surviving his first term are under 20%. Given those two factors he would likely be dead before the 2022 midterms. He should stay in the Senate. We don’t need a president dying in office.