bernie sanders

Should Establishment Democrats Fear Bernie Sanders?

An image that makes some Democrats nauseous. Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images

Intelligencer staffers Benjamin Hart, Ed Kilgore, and Eric Levitz discuss the unease with which some Democrats view Bernie Sanders’s primary candidacy, and whether he’s actually any less electable than his rivals.

Ben: A New York Times piece published today outlined some Democrats’ fear that Bernie Sanders could pull a Trump ‘16. That is, he could ride an unshakable die-hard base and abundant cash flow — and, in the case of the Democratic primary, a proportional delegate system that allows for candidates to hang around for months — all the way to the party’s nomination, as a horrified establishment looks on. Taking ideology and preference out of it, are their fears justified?

Ed: Sure, Bernie could win, but it’s just one of a number of plausible scenarios. Comparing him to Trump’s more than a little specious. Bernie ran in 2016; he wouldn’t be coming out of the blue like Trump, and as Eric pointed out in his latest piece, Bernie’s policy positions are mostly those shared by his Democratic rivals.

Eric: Their belief that it is a possibility is certainly justified. But a lot of the arguments for why Bernie is so formidable applies with more force to Biden (i.e., the fact that 40 percent of delegates will be allocated in the race’s first months, giving early front-runners the chance to amass a commanding lead early on).

Ed: Yep, the calendar could produce an early knockout, or a deadlock. I don’t think the deadlock scenario would be good for either Biden or Bernie.

Ben: This also assumes that Bernie is uniquely ill-suited to take on Trump in a general election, which would be news to the “Bernie would have won” brigades that populate social media.

Ed: Personally, my only fears about Bernie as a nominee are about his age (which is why I wrote that neither he nor Biden should run) and the stuff that’s going to come out about him from the old days when he was hanging out with Sandinistas and serving as an elector for the Trotskyists.

Eric: Right. In my view, Bernie is (at least at the moment) running as a labor liberal in socialist’s clothing. If not for his odd personal branding — and advanced age — I think it’d be hard to make any electability argument against him.

Ed: I mostly agree, though I think the hypothesis that he has special appeal to Trump voters because he sometimes dissents from Democratic orthodoxy on economic issues is suspect. That sort of ignores the cultural angle on Trumpism.

Eric: I think Democrats are strongest when they’re talking about economic issues and exploiting widespread resentment of the rich. And Sanders is very good at steering any and all conversations toward those themes.

Ed: No question that he knows how to stay on message, since he’s been making much of his argument for decades.

Eric: I do think that it isn’t possible to know how his radical past will play in a general election, or whether his nomination would invite a third-party centrist spoiler, or whether he will be as spry in October 2020 as he is today. So there is risk. But it’s not clear to me that he is vastly more risky, from an electoral perspective, than the others — except for maybe Biden, whose head-to-head numbers against Trump are quite strong.

Ed: Again, I don’t see him or Biden as being likely unity figures, and I don’t see Bernie in particular scoring an early knockout, so I wonder what kind of condition a Democratic Party that nominated him would be in. And also whether his “Bernie or bust” supporters would react well to another narrow defeat.

Ben: Right. What about the fear that he, or his supporters, might denigrate a rival in a damaging way, as some accused him of doing in 2016? Will this be a much different ball of wax this time around, given that he’ll be running against 73 people instead of just Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley?

Ed: I think all the candidates should be lecturing their supporters on unity right now. But I haven’t heard of too many “Harris or bust” people.

Eric: I think it’s tricky because part of Sanders’s project is to heighten the contradictions in the Democratic coalition — and thus far, the Democratic donor class appears to be helplessly affirming his “the political revolution versus the Establishment” narrative. So he’ll always have a bit more difficulty herding his supporters. Still, it is worth remembering that fewer Bernie backers defected to Trump than Clinton ’08 voters broke for McCain,

Ed: I dunno. Most of the whining I’ve heard from the Bernie folk involves alleged media efforts on behalf of Beto and Buttigieg, who, whatever else they are, are not exactly campaigning to go easy on Wall Street.

Eric: I just mean that the Bernie campaign couldn’t have scripted a better print advertisement than that Times article. “The billionaire donors are terrified by my strength!”

Ed: That’s true.

Ben: It seems probable that any party effort to kneecap Bernie will backfire by burnishing his insurgent credibility. One problem, not to make too sweeping a generalization, is that beyond the actual institutional bias in 2016, some of his supporters also have a tendency to see conspiracies where none exist.

Ed: Well, don’t want to go down an old rabbit hole of my own here, but there has always been a tendency in some elements of the serious left to assume that any opposition to its champions must be animated by corruption. That, after all, has been the career-long signature of Sanders speechwriter David Sirota. As applied to rivals like, say, Elizabeth Warren, that’s just absurd.

But in any event, this is a particularly bad year for anybody or bust claims.

Eric: I think one question here is whether the “anyone but Bernie” sentiment is as common among Sanders’s primary rivals as it is among these donors. If it isn’t, then it might be harder to persuade the 2020 Democratic analogue to Marco Rubio to drop out and rally behind the 2020 Democratic analogue to Ted Cruz to stop Bernie.

Ed: Well, aside from the fact that each of them dislikes the idea of “anyone” other than their own selves… Among their supporters, probably not, outside Team Hickenlooper.

Ed: I think it’s more likely that someone younger than Biden or Bernie emerges fairly early to win some primaries, so it’s not a matter of “stopping” anyone.

Eric: Sure. A lot of ways the cookie could crumble. Harris still seems to me like the logical nominee, but it does feel like her reception has been somewhat lackluster, after a promising initial rollout. Though her fundraising is more than healthy.

Ed: But I agree that a months-long “Democrats in Disarray” scenario where Bernie’s in the lead and Politico is scooping up panicked blind quotes would not be good for prospects against Trump. No matter who wins the nomination.

Should Establishment Democrats Fear Bernie Sanders?