Bernie Sanders has entered a rough stretch in his 2020 candidacy. As my colleague Gabriel Debenedetti reports, his campaign has been struggling with how to handle the recent rise in the polls and in media attention of his Senate ally but presidential rival Elizabeth Warren. The Sanders campaign, typically in not-for-attribution comments, has been regularly pointing to an electability advantage their candidate has over Warren. And now, in an appearance on Chris Cuomo’s CNN show, Sanders himself has voiced the same argument, in a less-than-deft manner, as Tommy Christopher observes:
On Wednesday night’s edition of CNN’s Cuomo Prime Time, anchor Chris Cuomo described recent polling showing Warren catching — and even surpassing, in some cases — Sanders in the polls, and asked him, “What do you think the reason is that Elizabeth Warren is catching up to you in polls? Do you believe that people see her as the more electable version of Bernie Sanders?”
“Well, I think we are running against a lot of problems,” Sanders said, and then described two of those “problems.”
“I think that there are a certain number of people who would like to see a woman elected, and I understand that,” Sanders said. “There are people who would like to see somebody who was younger, and I understand that also. There are a lot of factors out there.”
While technically accurate, Sanders’s way of introducing the idea that it would be good to elect a woman as president after 45 consecutive men seems a mite cold for a man struggling with sexual harassment charges against his 2016 campaign, and a history of dismissing “identity politics” in Democratic presidential politics. Like Joe Biden with his reminiscences of segregationist buddies, Sanders is drawing attention to a vulnerability when he should be focused on fixing it. And by introducing the electability argument, he made it worse:
“Elizabeth is a friend of mine, I think she’s running a good campaign,” Sanders continued, “but at the end of the day, Chris, whether it’s Biden or Warren, Elizabeth Warren, or anybody else, what I believe is that in fact I am the strongest candidate to defeat Donald Trump, and I think some of the polling shows that.”
Again, Sanders’s argument is technically accurate when it comes to Warren (Biden routinely performs better than Sanders in head-to-head trial heats with Trump), but in combination with his gender comment it smacks of the Women Aren’t Electable smear that male candidates generally try to avoid. Yes, it’s a fear that is widespread in the Democratic ranks, based on one interpretation of the still-difficult-to-understand Clinton defeat in 2016. But Sanders himself should not be out there fanning that particular flame with its implication that sexism is just something Democrats have to accommodate.
In the same Cuomo interview, Sanders had to juggle another self-created problem:
Cuomo also asked Sanders about a tweet that has been perceived as an attack on Warren. On Wednesday, Sanders retweeted a Politico tweet that read: “Centrists are coming around to Elizabeth Warren as an alternative to Bernie Sanders,” and added his own comment: “The cat is out of the bag. The corporate wing of the Democratic Party is publicly ‘anybody but Bernie’.”
Challenged on that association, Sanders claimed his tweet was about the Third Way organization (quoted in the Politico piece), not Warren, and tried to change the subject by asking, if he gets the nomination, “Are they going to support Donald Trump, or are they going to support Bernie Sanders?” Trouble is, Third Way had already responded:
You don’t issue this sort of public challenge without going to some trouble to find out how it will be answered — and then repeat it after it has been answered.
Now the Cuomo interview and the surrounding set of challenges for Sanders are just moments in a long campaign with months to go before voters start voting. He remains a strong candidate with tons of money, a solid campaign infrastructure, and many devoted followers. But the Warren challenge is not likely to go away, and the fact that the candidate himself seems to be picking up on dubious arguments his staff was making behind the scenes is not a good sign. Aside from the faintly sexist aroma of his electability argument, his campaign should be careful about making it the central pillar of his rationale for the nomination. As Perry Bacon Jr. recently documented in detail, general-election trial heats this far out are not usually very reliable. And any candidate who publicly emphasizes electability is one bad stretch of polling away from disaster. Sanders did remarkably well in 2016 by defying conventional poll-driven politics. He would be wise to return to that posture.