Extinguishing the Bern
For Democrats, the off-year elections this month served as an invigorating breath of fresh air. Their base is energized, and winning allows the party to gain some confidence and hope for the future. (Full Disclosure: I campaigned for Democratic candidates in Virginia and was pleasantly surprised and encouraged by the results). Nevertheless, I believe that large parts of the party have refused to critically analyze the failures of 2016, decide what lessons to draw from them, and determine the correct path forward for the party in terms of policy and messaging. For now, Democrats can benefit from Trump’s unpopularity and the GOP’s difficulty governing. But they will need to make difficult decisions soon: being against Trump is not enough.
Ultimately, the main division in the party is between moderates and progressives, at least on economic issues. Essentially, the “Bernie/Hillary” divide persists (although this conception is a little oversimplified and media-driven). Over the past year, Hillary has stayed mostly quiet, which makes sense given the narrow and painful nature of her loss. Bernie (and the general political environment) has succeeded in moving the party somewhat to the left, especially on health care. For the next presidential cycle, however, I don’t think either of them would be the right candidate to face Trump.
For Hillary, I do not think that my argument is very controversial. I always thought Hillary was a bad candidate. She had experience and would have probably been a good president. But her legitimacy would have been questioned, Republicans would have been relentless in investigating her, and most Americans do not like her or trust her. One could argue about whether her huge amounts of political baggage and her legacy of scandals are her fault or whether they are a result of decades of partisan attacks. Either way, Hillary was not a good candidate for 2016. Hillary is the epitome of the establishment and was a ‘continuity’ candidate. Although she recognized high levels of anger and frustration in the electorate, she did not know how to respond to it. But I do not think it would have been possible for her to harness any of that energy. All those emotions run counter to who she is as a person and a candidate.
Of course, 2016 was a close election and there is no simple story of why Hillary lost. But I think a lot of Democrats do not appreciate that Hillary should not be blaming external factors such as Comey’s letter and Russian hacking. With Donald Trump as the opponent, the election should have been a landslide. It wasn’t, in short because Hillary was a perfect foil for Trump’s anti-establishment, anti-PC, anti-politician mood. Hillary relied on focusing on Trump’s (admittedly terrible) flaws and shaming moderate Republicans to abandon him. Because of this, she had few positive reasons as to why voters should vote for her.
In any case, Hillary is most likely not running again. But I do not think Bernie should run again either. In 2016, I was proud to vote for Bernie in the primary. I felt that he reflected my own political views very closely, and I appreciated his authenticity and his willingness to stand up for what he believed in. I still like Bernie and I still agree with most of what he says. And while I would vote for any Democrat over Trump in the next election, I think the party would be better off if Bernie stays out of the race.
One reason is that Bernie is still not a Democrat, and his relationship with the party and his supporters gives me pause. I have mixed feelings about Bernie’s hardcore supporters. I understand not liking Hillary and being upset about Bernie’s loss. But a lot of the beliefs and attitudes of Bernie’s supporters are counterproductive. Most importantly, the primary was in no way “rigged” against Bernie. The DNC obviously preferred Hillary to win. However, the race was not particularly close, and Hillary clearly had more support from Democrats than Bernie did. Additionally, many progressives have simply impractical attitudes toward the Democratic Party. One group, called the Justice Democrats, aims to not only wipe out Republican members in Congress but replace most Democrats with progressive candidates. Others are extremely quick to disavow and criticize Democrats such as Kamala Harris and Ralph Northam for extremely slight reasons. Acting like that is not the way to gain back power.
Bernie either does not realize these aspects of his “fanbase”, which seems unlikely, or he does not care very much about trying to steer them towards supporting Democrats. Bernie campaigned for Hillary, but he insisted on dragging on his candidacy to the bitter end, and his endorsement was not particularly strong. He has made few efforts to integrate himself with other Democrats and refuses to join the party. Bernie, to his credit, knows that relitigating 2016 is not helpful to anyone, and his focus is on combatting Trump and the GOP. But he has shown himself to not be a team player.
With Bernie as president, I wonder how he would even fill his Cabinet, let alone maintain good relations with Congress. As I mentioned before, Bernie truly believes in his political philosophy and his consistency is admirable, in a way. But I doubt how effective he could be as President. I am unsure how much of Bernie’s agenda could pass even in a Democrat-controlled Congress. Bernie has been in Congress for decades and has little to show for it. Would he really be effective at setting an agenda, forming relationships, compromising, and whipping votes? Trump has been ineffective in part because he had few political allies when he was elected, and his ensuing White House team was divided and dysfunctional. Of course, Bernie is more ideological and has core issues and ideas. But I can see him falling into some of the same pitfalls.
Bernie’s age is also a legitimate concern: he is 76 years old now and would be pushing 80 during a future campaign. Trump just became the oldest inaugurated president at 70. Bernie would be almost a decade older than that, which is essentially unprecedented. Although Bernie seemed relatively healthy and energetic during the 2016 campaign, his age is too big a factor to ignore. If Bernie were to win, running for a second term would be unlikely, which could go a long way to limiting his influence.
I also think electing Bernie, in particular, would lead to a huge backlash from the right and even from moderates. I do think progressive-style politics are the right way forward for the country, and I think they will help the greatest number of people. But it is easy for me to envision a scenario where Bernie fails to live up to his promises. In many ways, this is the most realistic scenario: consider Obama’s promises of “hope and change”. A failure of Bernie to deliver on his promises could discredit progressive politics for an entire generation, as disaffected voters move on to other “outsider” candidates. I think a backlash is likely because I do not believe Bernie will be the kind of candidate that citizens want in three years. Many Americans already long for a competent, experienced, and stable candidate who can provide leadership and truly try to unite the country. Simply put, I doubt Bernie can fill that kind of job description. America needs a candidate who can transcend the cycle of polarization and ugliness. Bernie is not that candidate.
Some have also argued that Bernie would have won against Trump. Intuitively, there seems to be something to this argument. Frustrated white-working class voters, for example, likely would have been more attracted to Bernie, which could have had great influence in states such as Michigan and ultimately the Electoral College. However, Bernie had his own problems with minority voters, who are an integral part of the Democratic coalition. I also believe a great number of independents would have been disheartened by the choice of two populist, unorthodox candidates. I heard many adults during the election dismissively refer to Bernie as a “socialist”. Now, Bernie does (unhelpfully) give himself this label when he is a “social democrat” who is ultimately not that different from FDR. But Bernie could easily have been attacked in the general for his “crazy” politics. Imagine how a flood of super-PAC ads attacking Bernie’s honeymoon to the Soviet Union would have gone over in certain swing states.
In short, then, Bernie’s treatment of the Democrats, his lack of political allies and concrete accomplishments, his age, and possible backlash from his status as a “socialist” have convinced me that he should not run again in 2020. Even if he does run, the primary field will likely be wide and varied and Bernie will not be able to benefit from being one of two choices. If Bernie does win, I will strongly support him. But he is not the best candidate for the Democrats.
Photo credit Tim Pierce, Creative Commons