How Democrats Treat Sanders Now Will Define Them -- Perhaps Not Well

by Neil H. Buchanan

It is hardly news that the liberal establishment is absolutely freaking out about Bernie Sanders, just as it previously freaked out in an (apparently successful) effort to tear down Elizabeth Warren's candidacy last summer and fall.  Now that Sanders seems on the verge of locking up the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, things are truly getting weird at the top.

It is not as though things have been sane in the suites of Democratic influencers up until now.  Last April, I wrote two columns describing the group panic that had Democratic insiders making all kinds of scurrilous attacks on Sanders.  And even on a less panicked level, the so-called moderates (whose moderation nearly always manages to lean right on economic and foreign policy) have been deliberately maligning the progressive candidates' positions.

Thus, just a couple of weeks ago, the editors of The Washington Post wrote that "Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) not only want to make sure that all Americans have access to health care, as do all the Democrats, but they want maximum government control in achieving that goal."  Even as jaded as I have become when reading self-identified centrist liberals' smug attacks on progressives, after reading that particular passage I found myself saying out loud (thankfully in an empty room): "Oh, f_ck you!!"

But that kind of casual red-baiting is not the worst of it, by any means.  And now that the party's guardians of the status quo are in the midst of a collective breakdown, it is useful to ask just how far they will go in attacking Sanders -- and where that will leave them if (most likely when) Sanders overcomes their opposition and wins the nomination.

The short version of this is that the anti-Sanders people have a choice of defining themselves as being either guardians of the rule of law or protectors of the "malefactors of great wealth" (in Theodore Roosevelt's immortal words).  Thus far, it is not looking good for the rule of law.

Let me remind readers at this point that I honestly view this conversation as a waste of time.  Especially given Donald Trump's post-impeachment rampage of vindictive firings and politically motivated pardons -- and the eerie near-silence from Republicans and Democrats alike in response, along with the press's short attention span ("Let's all focus on socialism now!") -- my continuing belief that Trump will not accept a loss in the 2020 election has gone from "possible, but overwrought" to "well, obviously."

So no matter who wins the Democratic nomination, and no matter who badly she or he beats Trump, Trump is not going anywhere.  And the Republicans, even if they lose their Senate majority in the November elections, will have the lame-duck period in which to enable Trump's power grab (aided by the Gorsuch/Kavanaugh-reinforced Supreme Court) and probably nullify their own losses as well.

In short, I believe that this is a dead democracy walking, with only the death throes in front of us.

I can make (and have made) arguments about how the Democratic establishment's timidity and self-interest have gotten us here, but that is not my point today.  Here, I am simply observing that, for some combination of reasons, it is already too late to save us.  Trump is unbound, and any Democrat will be smeared as a commie by Republicans as they assist Trump in subverting the Constitution so that he (and they) can stay in power.

But we have time on our hands, so let us assume arguendo that the election matters.  As the title of this column suggests, the anti-Sanders leaders of the party have a choice to make about what to do now, a choice between fatally wounding their party or making sure that their attacks on Sanders do not go too far.  And the early signs are worrisome, to say the least.

To state the obvious, Trump is unique.  Even as the representative of a party that has been engaged for decades in race-baiting, voter suppression, buying elections, and on and on, Trump alone has brought us to the point where even Republicans who once hoped to be president are eagerly making him a de facto king.  (Maybe they are hoping that Trump will not last long and that the Trump children will be easy to defeat in internal power struggles.  Who knows?)

This means, as I put it in the title of a column almost a year ago: "Trump's Opponents -- ALL of Trump's Opponents -- Must Take the Solidarity Pledge."  That "pledge" is to support any nominee against Trump, no matter what.  Whatever differences I have with Pete Buttigieg or Michael Bloomberg, I will support them.  Whatever differences Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton have with Bernie Sanders, they (and their insider supporters) must support Sanders.

To his credit, neocon-turned-NeverTrumper Max Boot gets it: "Sanders is no Trump, which is why I would reluctantly vote for him in the fall."  True, Boot precedes that statement with idiotic pablum -- "Do you want to risk our democracy or our economy? Trumpism or socialism? Pick your poison." -- that clearly indicates that he is ignorant of everything about Sanders other than half of the term "democratic socialism."  Still, Boot says convincingly that even someone who (wrongly) views Sanders as a threat to the economy is nothing compared to Trump's threat to America.

The problem is that Boot, like his counterparts in the Democratic establishment, is willing to say completely crazy things to convince people to stop Sanders now.  The false equivalence that these people invent is amazing.  Boot writes, for example, that "[t]he '1 percent' are for Sanders what 'illegal aliens' are for Trump: objects of hatred who are unfairly blamed for all the ills of modern America while their contributions are totally ignored."

This echoes Post columnist Dana Milbank's piece from last year (which I lampooned in a column at the time) decrying Sanders as "the Trump of the left":
"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."
Yeesh.  I am still confused as to why pointing out that billionaires have caused serious problems with the economy and the political system, and then suggesting that we tax them enough that they become somewhat less fabulously rich, is supposedly not exactly the same as Trump's attack on immigrants but is somehow similar enough to draw the comparison.  Sanders, contra Boot's claim, does not "totally ignore" the contributions of billionaires; but Bernie does remind people that billionaires do not act alone in creating the good things that they have helped to create.  Sanders appropriately deflates the cult of the corporate titan.  Capitalism is a group effort.

Again, however, what we are seeing now is the Milbanks, Boots, and others fixating on the word "socialism" and acting as if that actually means what Republicans say it means: economy-destroying central planning and gulags.

It is hardly surprising that the youthful avatar of the Democratic establishment is on board with this.  In the most recent Democratic debate, "Mr. Buttigieg warned against making voters 'choose between a socialist who thinks that capitalism is the root of all evil and a billionaire who thinks that money ought to be the root of all power.'"  Sanders supposedly "thinks that capitalism is the root of all evil," even as he advances policies that leave capitalism firmly in place but bring back some of the policies that long defined the Democratic Party.  (I guess that must be how Sanders is "nostalgic for the past," per Milbank.)

We have come to expect nonsense like that from Mayor Pete.  He, like the patrons that he courts, is more than willing to talk like Republicans in ways that reinforce the narratives that will make Sanders's or Warren's job in the general election campaign decidedly more difficult.

Perhaps the most disappointing anti-Sanders analysis, however, came a few days ago from New York Times columnist David Leonhardt.  Leonhardt, who has admitted that he was long a true-believer neoliberal who has only recently started to come around to the progressive point of view, apparently cannot shake old habits.

But it is not merely his anti-Sanders arguments (to which I will turn momentarily) that are annoying.  Leonhardt begins by putting Trump in the same category as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.  How does that work?  While admitting that they are "very different politicians," Leonhardt insists that "they have one crucial similarity: They all tried to appeal to voters who weren’t obvious supporters."  How did Trump do this: "Even Trump, radical as he is, flouted Republican orthodoxy by sounding like a populist Democrat on Social Security, Medicare and trade."

So Trump won in 2016 because he was not a typical Republican?  No, Trump won because of Russian disinformation (which the Obama White House could not publicly rebut, once Mitch McConnell told them that he would make that a partisan issue), James Comey's last-minute intervention, and the press's willing amplification of a campaign of personal vilification against Hillary Clinton.  Trump was the beneficiary of a confluence of events that turned a blowout loss into a non-majority win.

Even so, Leonhardt might say that Trump was only able to take advantage of those things by being willing to reach out to non-obvious voters.  Right?  If that is his argument, however, I wonder what campaign he was watching.  Trump's defense of Social Security and Medicare (which he will soon abandon, by the way), as well as his protectionism, were not a way to reach non-obvious supporters.  They were a way to lock down his most obvious supporters: aggrieved white voters.

Trump never has, and never will, reached out beyond his base.  What apparently confuses Leonhardt is the "R" next to Trump's name, which means that it is somehow surprising that Trump did not sound like Mitt Romney or John McCain.  Yes, it was surprising that the Republicans who claimed to be anti-government free-traders did not abandon Trump, but that in no way means that Trump was trying to appeal to non-obvious supporters.  Indeed, he did everything he could to alienate people along the way.

Having completely misread Trump's non-majority appeal, Leonhardt then says that voters "respond to gestures of respect from politicians who are willing to say, in effect: We may not agree on everything, but I see you and understand what matters to you."  Again, that is not true of Trump at all, whose "gestures of disrespect" -- more like outright insults and threats of violence -- were the centerpiece of what seemed to be a doomed campaign.

But fine.  How does this supposed general lesson about political appeals apply to Sanders?  Leonhardt writes that
"... the left is hurting its own ability to win elections and enact sweeping change, by insisting on an orthodox version of progressivism.  To put it another way: Can you think of one way that Bernie Sanders is signaling respect to voters outside of his base?  He has taken a nearly maximalist liberal position on every major issue."
I suppose it all depends on what one thinks of as Sanders's base, but it is at this point old news that Sanders's unique appeal among the Democratic candidates is that he seems most likely to pull in some of Trump's now all but mythic blue-collar white voters.  Moreover, I will turn Leonhardt's question around: Can you think of one way that Bernie Sanders is signaling disrespect for voters?  Leonhardt's answer seems to be that Sanders's full-on liberalism is disrespectful to non-liberals, but that is fatuous at best.  Whatever positions one takes, some voters will be turned off.  That is not disrespect but taking a position.

Moreover, even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently admitted that Sanders would be pragmatic when in office, even on health care: "The worst-case scenario? We compromise deeply and we end up getting a public option. Is that a nightmare? I don’t think so."  Sanders will not say as much on the campaign trail, of course, but just like Warren, he knows how to be realistic when it matters.

So Leonhardt's objection is that Sanders is not telling everyone in advance that he will give up more than half a loaf in order to get something done.  Only someone who looks back longingly at Bill Clinton's and Barack Obama's negotiations against themselves would think that this is a brilliant strategy.

But the larger point is that Leonhardt's chin-stroking nonsense is the mild version of attacks on Sanders by those who prefer their Democrats always to be in a defensive crouch.  They cannot say merely that they disagree with Sanders on tax policy or the minimum wage or how to get to universal health care coverage.  They have to say that he is positively Trumpian, a humorless (seriously?) didact who disrespects people by actually seeming to believe in liberal policy views.

Moreover, the Leonhardt view is based on the false assumption that "nearly maximalist liberal positions" are unpopular.  Sanders is not merely figuring out how to increase turnout through political organizing.  He is counting on making those people actually want to turn out because he respects their intelligence and sees their suffering.  They like progressive taxation and liberal government policies.

The self-styled voices of reason in the party and the punditocracy, however, are sure that Sanders cannot win.  If so, then they have every right to tell people so, and to campaign for a milquetoast alternative like Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, or Joe Biden.  What they must not do, however, is to carry the Republicans' water by making false claims about Sanders that will carry over to the general election.

Again, as Boot said: "Sanders is no Trump, which is why I would reluctantly vote for him in the fall."  Given that I think Warren is the better candidate, I would also be reluctant.  But I am not going to smear Sanders now, not when every slimy thing that Democrats say about him will be endlessly repeated on Fox for months to come.

Anyone who is horrified by Trump needs to understand that this is a moment to stand up and be counted.  Sanders is not extreme (and certainly not disrespectful), and telling lies about him does the devil's work.