I'm No Bernie Fan, But This Is Getting Ridiculous

by Neil H. Buchanan

There has long been ... shall we say ... concern among even the most liberal of the "respectable" Democratic opinion makers about the prospect that Bernie Sanders could become their party's presidential nominee in 2020.  Lately, however, that concern seems to be giving way to full-on panic -- so much so that the party establishment's overreaction and exaggerated attacks are likely either to spur a sympathetic reaction in Sanders's favor or, worse, to create a schism within the party.

I am fully on the record as being no fan of Sanders.  I do like his policy agenda (more on that below), but I concluded during the 2016 primaries that he was simply not the best candidate either in substance or style.  I thus have received my share of angry emails from Sanders fans claiming that I was on the Clinton Foundation's payroll, that I am no better than Trump, and so on.

But if the anti-Sanders forces were successful in creating the negative Bernie Bro image in 2016 -- and they were, albeit with plenty of help from actual Bernie Bros (who, to be clear, are not representative of Sanders's wider support, even though they are obvious targets for media attention) -- then the danger now exists that the anti-Sanders people themselves are becoming the unthinking bullies who have stopped paying attention to the bigger picture.

Put differently, if even I now find myself feeling sympathy for Sanders, maybe it is time for a recalibration of the debate among those who want Donald Trump out of the Oval Office.

In my most recent Verdict column, published last Wednesday, I decided to put some numbers behind my longstanding assertion that the supposedly "far left" policies that Sanders advocates are actually mainstream and popular.

Toward the end of the column, I offered some sense of the broad popularity of four of Sanders' signature issues -- attacking economic inequality, advocating universal health care, proposing free college attendance, and joining the Fight for 15 (a phased-in minimum wage increase to $15) -- providing representative polling results showing public support in the upper-50-percent range or higher on each issue.  In my next Verdict column, I will add to that list, using polling results compiled by my excellent research assistant team.

My purpose in reporting those results was not to say that polls are completely accurate or that one can translate support for "reducing inequality" or similarly vague notions directly into bullet-proof policy proposals.  The point was that Sanders -- widely described by pundits and establishment politicians as out of touch with America -- is in fact not at all far to the left.  That description might bother Sanders himself, who seems to revel in his image as a "democratic socialist" outsider, but the fact is that he is not as a matter of substance much different from anyone else in the Democratic Party.

As I emphasized in that column, I am still not endorsing Sanders.  Instead, I am offering evidence that the entire "leftward shift" among Democrats that the press and the NeverTrump right constantly decries is in fact a matter of coalescing around policies that are somewhat more liberal than used to be the median position in the party but that are not at all extreme.  They are, in fact, just about what one would write down if asked to come up with a list of the most popular policy positions among the American public today.

Again, I will offer in my upcoming column more evidence for the claim that these policies are quite popular.  What animates me today is the intensifying oh-my-God-we-can't-let-Bernie-win-he's-going-to-destroy-us-all narrative among the comfortably polite Democrats who view their role as protecting the conventional wisdom.

That growing overreaction in part explains the prodigious efforts to push Joe Biden's potential candidacy.  With early polls showing Biden and Sanders as the only two candidates in double digits, Biden immediately became the establishment's darling to stop the "crazy left" from taking over.  This is silly, both because the early polls are obviously meaningless (reflecting nothing more than name recognition) and because Biden is so deeply problematic as a candidate.

Consider an argument offered by E.J. Dionne, a liberal columnist for The Washington Post who is in many ways among the deepest thinkers in the pundit class (which is admittedly faint praise, but hardly meaningless).  He offered an argument in a column earlier this week that Biden should run because only then can we know whether anyone could beat Biden:
"[A]s a noncandidate, Biden would hang over the rest of the field like an absent giant who makes everyone else look small. The heart often longs for what it can’t have. ... Cries of 'Where is Biden?' would rise up whenever a major candidate stumbled. And, God forbid, if President Trump were reelected, we would again live through the 'If only Joe had run' lamentations.
"And if he fails, the ultimate nominee will be far better off for having faced down Biden and not be haunted by the ghost of a candidacy that never was."
This has a great deal of initial appeal, but it ultimately makes no sense.  If Biden runs and loses in the primaries, after all, it will be quite easy for people like Dionne (and New York Times columnist David Leonhardt, another reliably smart commentator who explicitly endorsed Dionne's argument) to say that it all went wrong only because Biden's opponents wrongly conflated his over-touching with #MeToo issues, or that Sanders's people hijacked the process, or that Biden's supposedly sensible centrism could not overcome the fact that primaries are dominated by the party's liberal base voters.

Interestingly, Dionne is making an argument that Sanders's 2016 candidacy actually disproves, which is that everyone will accept the results of a primary fight and that the winner is stronger for having "faced down" a hardy opponent.  The people who continue to say -- quite incorrectly, in my opinion -- that Sanders would have beaten Trump in 2016 are essentially saying that the process produced the wrong result.  "If only ..."

I am not saying that some people will not pine for Biden if he is not the nominee.  I am saying that the lamentations will happen whether Biden runs or not.  Even if he turns out to be as weak on the campaign trail as he has been in the past, there will nonetheless be a default among the establishment class to say that Biden would have been stronger in the general election.

Even so, Dionne's argument at least has the virtue of not being libelous toward any other candidates.  I do think that he is wrong, but his argument is simply that Biden running -- win or lose -- would be better overall than Biden not running.  Probably wrong, but fine.

As I noted in last week's Verdict column, however, the establishment's growing panic about Sanders does not merely manifest itself in trying to find a "not scary to suburban voters" candidate like Biden.  The sliming of Sanders has begun in earnest.

In particular, I noted a recent column by Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of The Post (a position that all but screams "Democratic establishment"), which engaged in absurd false equivalence regarding Sanders and Trump.  Hiatt framed his piece as a matter of what voters who hate Trump should be worried about among the Democrats who are running.  (It was, in other words, classic concern-trolling.)

Perhaps his worst moment -- in a column that was little more than a long series of false equivalences -- was the claim that people should "be nervous" when a candidate tells us that "everything would be fine if we just went after billionaires, or big banks, or big tech, or . . . "  As I argued in response, describing Democrats as "going after" billionaires or whomever dangerously confuses the real stakes in policy debates.

Hiatt allows that Trump is horrible and scapegoats people, but he solemnly intones that Democrats should not scapegoat people, either.  But Democrats are not talking about, say, putting the children of billionaires in cages at border facilities, or encouraging people to view people who work in "big tech" as not Real America.  The targets of Democrats' ire are not the weak and vulnerable, and the policies offered by Democrats would merely make the most comfortable people on earth a tiny bit less comfortable -- and, more to the point, somewhat less able to buy the political system that they find most congenial.

At least Hiatt, however, presented his attack on Sanders as a general warning about an unnamed candidate on the left who might go too far.  The Post's Dana Milbank, by contrast, threw off all pretense in a subsequent column, directly calling Bernie Sanders "the Donald Trump of the left."  (Again, I almost cannot believe the list of columnists that I am criticizing in this post.  On almost any other topic, this group -- Milbank, Dionne, Hiatt, and especially Leonhardt -- are typically among the best voices out there.  But there is something about the Biden-or-Bernie thing that has set them off.)

Milbank does not hold back, to say the least:
"Sanders isn’t Trump in the race-baiting, lender-cheating, fact-avoiding, porn-actress-paying, Putin-loving sense. But their styles are similar: shouting and unsmiling, anti-establishment and anti-media, absolutely convinced of their own correctness, attacking boogeymen (the '1 percent' and CEOs in Sanders’s case, instead of immigrants and minorities), offering impractical promises with vague details, lacking nuance and nostalgic for the past."
So if Sanders is not all of the horrible things that Trump is -- most especially a bigot and a sexist -- where is the similarity?  Channeling Hiatt, Milbank is upset that Sanders identifies villains, even as he acknowledges that Sanders's villains and Trump's villains could not be more different.  Both Trump and Sanders are loud old outer-borough guys who are insufficiently nuanced for Milbank's tastes, and that makes them the same type of candidate with a "flair for demagoguery."

It might not seem possible, but it gets even worse.  Mocking Sanders's performance at a recent campaign event, Milbank actually presented the following statement by Sanders as somehow troubling: "[If Republicans] don’t have the guts to participate in a free and fair election, they should get the hell out of politics."  Other than the stylistic flourish, what exactly is wrong with pointing out that Republicans are trying frantically to disenfranchise voters and gerrymander legislatures?

Milbank does get around, finally, to acknowledging the false equivalence -- but then he simply embraces it: "It’s less hateful, perhaps, to blame billionaires than immigrants or certain 'globalists' for America’s troubles, but the scapegoating is similar."  ("Perhaps"?)  Milbank continues:
"Universal health care, higher education and child care are within reach, Sanders said to cheers, if only 'we stand up and tell this 1 percent that we will no longer tolerate their greed.' In real life, it’s not so simple. But in our new politics, maybe it is."
It is all clear now.  Sanders is bad because he identifies a group of people whose actions have corrupted our politics, just as Trump has identified a different group of people to blame.  "This doctor says that I am suffering because I don't exercise or eat right, and that guy over there says I'm suffering because the humors of my body are out of balance and need to be bled out.  I hate people who merely look to cast blame!"

Again, I absolutely do not want Bernie Sanders to be the Democratic nominee, but not because he is too far to the left or because he is willing to identify actual bad actors.  If this is the best that the guardians of the non-Bernie center left can come up with, however, then we are truly in trouble.