Terry H. Schwadron
Feb. 15, 2020
Bernie Sanders’ primary successes seem to be generating a strange backlash from Democrats who want his support, donor lists and voters, but are less happy about offering the same to Bernie himself, and thus some Bernie supporters want to withhold from anyone not named Bernie.
The Bernie movement ought to get over that early; there is too much at stake in a Donald Trump reelection.
The primary turmoil is feeding this near-insane insistence to declare “front-runner” status in the primary race, as can easily be recognized by would-be donors, the television pundits and, eventually, you and me. I’m holding my hand up to remind all that this is a label without meaning, a distinction without difference, and a plea for pundits to stop talking.
Bernie, like Mayor Pete Buttegieg, has gotten a quarter of the vote so far. If our political system hangs on the difference between 25.9% and 24.6% of fewer (by far) voters than fit into a single New York borough, we’ve got bigger problems in this country than who wears the front-runner crown for a week or two.
The primary and caucus results to date might serve to highlight whose message is not catching on, of course, or who doesn’t have one, but so far do not point to a certain winner. That’s why Mike Bloomberg could choose to skip the first four contests, flood the airwaves with endless advertising, and practically sit back to watch the resulting chaos.
Instead of focusing political muscle on Donald Trump, we are watching the descent of Democrats into those voting for heart and those voting what they see as practicality — as if there is a wild difference. Frankly, I think Democrats should be a whole lot more worried that in two contests to date, the turnout is not proving to be outstanding. It actually was down in Iowa, and up maybe 20% after specific campaigns aimed at enrolling new voters.
I try to watch the election campaigns as something other than a horse race, but I must admit television is making that effort almost impossible. All the talk is about who’s out and who’s ahead to a degree that dwarves any attempt to find out what people are really thinking about.
Indeed, the number of interviews on the night of New Hampshire voting should have re-taught television pundits not that there was so much uncertainty about the politician personalities, but much less concern about the who than about removing Donald Trump from office.
What keeps getting lost for me in these constant political prognostications is that what Bernie really wants is evidence of a popular uprising at the polls, an insistence by an angry nation to turn on billionaires, drug companies, health institutions and private, for-profit insurance companies and bloated military spending at the expense of the balance needed to support our daily living.
It is possible, of course, that the country could simply say yes to Bernie, and no to a laundry list of Trump no-nos, starting with cutting health care and offering insults by the bushel.
But love Bernie or fear him, let me repeat that the reality in two contests is that his call for revolution is drawing about a quarter of Democrats who show up, not even a quarter of all voters. Even throwing in all of Elizabeth Warren’s votes, the so-called progressive wing where I usually feel most comfortable maybe accounts for a third of Democrats who actually vote — although the number not voting is huge.
My fear all along is that even if a Democrat wins, it will be someone who doesn’t want to talk too much about these Democratic values, in lieu of a centrist approach more likely to appeal to “moderate” Republicans who only dislike Trump style, not the central core of his policies. That said, Mayor Pete and Amy Klobuchar and even Tom Steyer seem to support policies that are quite likeable to progressive, not really to moderate Republicans. We still can’t quite see how liberal Mike Bloomberg is going to allow himself to be.
My point is this: At this moment, for Bernie to gather the kind of following that he wants most, the numbers that would form the basis of a true structural revolution, seems beyond the pale.
Oh, I think the math says that Bernie could win. As he moves to other states, Bernie can rack up more wins — but could face diluting his message to do so.
Bernie could actually be the Democratic candidate, even an effective one running against a Donald Trump who lies daily, who wants to cut Medicaid, Social Security and undercut Obamacare, who is diametrically opposite Bernie would make for an entertaining and interesting election pairing.
But to get to that point, I worry that Bernie will lose his movement.
Despite expressions of fear about his “socialist” label (without actually being anything close to a socialist), Democrats will vote for Bernie, should he win the nomination.
But they will do so without also subscribing to the vision, to the movement for which Bernie wants to stand.
By contrast, Democrats who vote for Mayor Pete, for Mayor Mike, Amy or Elizabeth can tell themselves they are voting for someone who can win — without spending any belief systems on a need for a structurally more liberal, more empathetic approach to national politics.
Any Democrat who wins is still going to be tied in knots by the likelihood of a returning Republican majority.
A President Bernie, elected by voters who don’t necessarily Feel the Bern, could end up unable to count on the populist agenda that birthed his candidacy if people vote for him without believing in the cause. Since Trump believes only in Trump, his chameleon-like politics can support any agenda. Bernie doesn’t seem to do that.
It’s not head-or-heart, it is a commitment to program alone versus a commitment first to win the election.