Bernie Sanders is—from a policy perspective—the best choice for president of my lifetime. It is disappointing to consider the possibility that the United States may miss this opportunity. If Bernie fails to win, it will likely be due to the unholy alliance of those who intentionally mislead voters about what a Bernie candidacy would mean and the well-intended, but terribly confused do-gooders who think Bernie supporters need to be saved from themselves. This piece will use the best available evidence to debunk the misleaders, straighten out the confused do-gooders, and provide rhetorical ammunition for those already feeling the Bern.
Dispelling The Argument that Even if Bernie Could Win, He Could Not Govern
Perhaps the most pernicious argument for not voting for Bernie is that even if Bernie was elected president, he could not accomplish anything. Voters are being repeatedly told that Democrats need a nominee who can reach across the aisle. To this person, I ask, “Have you been unconscious over the past seven years?”
President Obama has taught voters and Democrats an important lesson (even if it took Obama six years to learn it). That lesson is: There is not a single congressional Republican willing to work with a Democratic president to enact meaningful legislation. This principle does not change if the Democratic president: proposes legislation initially thought up by conservatives; puts forth ideas that had recently been supported by Republicans; offers up significant Democratic concessions; or surrounds himself with Wall Street advisors and supports pro-corporate policies. In fact, Paul Krugman—ordinarily an Obama ally—unmercifully wrote an article about Obama back in 2011 entitled “President Pushover,” in which he went after Obama for having the bad habit of giving away the farm before negotiations began. For being reasonable, moderate, and trying to adopt Republican ideas, Obama has won zero Republican support on any meaningful bill in Congress in seven years of trying. Additionally, he gets labeled by the right as a dictator, a Communist, a secret Muslim, and the anti-Christ. Please tell me again how Hillary is going to reach across this aisle to get things done.
The Hillary campaign is aggressively peddling the lie that Hillary is the candidate “who knows how to get things done” despite Obama very clearly showing us that getting congressional Republicans to cooperate is—for all intents and purposes—impossible. If Hillary expects us to believe that she can get anything done with Congress, as she states in every speech, she needs to provide us with some details. Specifically, what will Hillary try that Obama has not tried? We will never hear Hillary answer this question because no one can.
Hearing the Hillary surrogates cover this talking point is often embarrassing. Most pundits fail to push back against the mindless talking point of “Hillary knows how to get stuff done,” but Lawrence O’Donnell will. Several days ago Mr. O’Donnell interviewed a Hillary surrogate who went on for some length as to why Bernie’s proposed ideas had no legislative hope of passing. Mr. O’Donnell, to his credit, asked the Hillary surrogate, “Please tell me how Hillary plans to convince Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan to pass her desired legislation.” The Hillary surrogate, with a deer-in-the-headlights look said, after a long pause, “I think we need to give Hillary a chance.” That very well boils down the intellectual depth of the “Hillary can get stuff done” argument.
While it may not always be politically wise, Bernie is honest and deals in reality. He often explains that no Democrat, including himself, will be able to get anything done with the current Congress. The only way he or Hillary can accomplish anything legislatively is to elect new members of Congress, or bring enough new voters to the polls so that the current legislators face real pressure to work for the bottom 99% rather than their campaign contributors. Bernie is also quick to point out that as long as voter turnout hovers between 37% and 50%, this nation has little hope of things getting better. So how does Bernie expect to make things better? Before we get to that, let’s turn to the question of which candidate provides Democrats the greatest chance of defeating the eventual Republican nominee.
Cross-Over Appeal and Voter Enthusiasm: The Keys to a Bernie Landslide
There is much talk from the political establishment that Bernie cannot win a general election. These conclusions are often given by Hillary surrogates who want to scare Democrats into voting for Hillary, but they are also repeated by people who legitimately believe that a Bernie nomination would doom Democrats’ chances of retaining the White House, and hurt Democrats up and down the ballot. While these arguments are not baseless, such concerns are not supported by the best evidence.
The Problems with Hillary
Hillary is, quite simply, not good at running for office. While I admire Hillary for her unquestionable intellect and think she has the best resume to be president of any person ever to run for the office, she is a lousy candidate. Not Al Gore lousy, but pretty bad. This is evidenced by the fact that Hillary blew a 20-point lead in Iowa to win the state by just ¼ of 1%, and blew a 40-point lead in New Hampshire to lose by 22 points. That is a 60-point swing! Strong candidates do not do this.
The problems with Hillary are many. Most problematic is that most people do not find her particularly likeable. This is due in large part to many feeling Hillary is too calculated and not genuine. This is worsened by unfair and slanderous attacks—to which Hillary is constantly subjected. The problem for Hillary is that such attacks are much more likely to stick to a candidate when he or she lacks likeability. Chris Christie is the opposite of this. By most accounts, he really is a pretty terrible human being, but I’ll be damned if I don’t like him a bit more most times I hear him speak. He can sell authenticity even when he lacks it. Hillary cannot sell authenticity even when she has it.
For the past 25 years, Hillary has been subjected to the GOP hate machine, and she brags that she “has the scars to prove it.” Unfortunately, Hillary is correct. She has a lot of scars, and those scars, combined with her lack of warmth and genuineness has led a lot of people to strongly dislike her. Hillary’s net favorability with all voters is negative 8. Perhaps even more frightening is that her favorability rating among independents is negative 27! These numbers would be disastrous for any candidate running for office, but they are especially disastrous for someone like Hillary for whom people’s opinions are already pretty well baked in the cake. Good luck finding a single voter who does not already have a very firm view of Hillary Clinton.
Hillary also lacks good political instincts, and like Al Gore, she has shown an inability to grow as a candidate. To the contrary, she seems more robotic than ever on the campaign trail. And now she is making the same mistakes she made in 2008—i.e., being so sure of winning her party’s nomination that she has failed to put together a compelling message. I know why Bernie is running for president (e.g., reform political system that serves only the top 1%). Why is Hillary running? Other than promising to do a really good job (whatever that means), Hillary has given us little reason to vote for her. Bernie’s campaign is drubbing Hillary’s campaign with respect to providing a coherent theme, implementing an effective campaign strategy, and inspiring/mobilizing its supporters.
There are a lot of really interesting theories as to why Bernie has the best chance of winning a general election in November (i.e., 2016 dynamics similar to France in late 19th century; Bernie is uniquely impervious to external events like economy worsening or terrorist attack). Similarly, there are several theories as to why Hillary will win (e.g., Bernie is like George McGovern; voters fear change).
We can, however, put away the creative theories and comparisons from 50 or 200 years ago because no matter how convincing any one of these theories may be, reality has a funny way of dispelling nifty theories. Reality #1 – Bernie Sanders unquestionably has major cross-over appeal to independent voters and moderates.
I grew up in the most conservative county in Oregon, and now live in one of the most liberal cities in America. I have had the pleasure of knowing a lot of people with very different beliefs and people who fall all over the political spectrum. And you know what I find when I speak with any one of them who is not a Democrat? They detest Hillary. Most of their reasons for hating Hillary are based on distorted facts or outright lies, but these people would likely vote for Joseph Stalin before voting for Hillary Clinton. In contrast, I know many conservatives and independents who view Bernie Sanders quite favorably. I regularly hear from these people that they will vote for Bernie if their choice is between Bernie or Donald Trump (which is appearing more and more likely). I even know some independents who have re-registered as Democrats just so they can support Bernie in the primary. Bernie’s cross-over appeal is real.
Bernie’s cross-over appeal is also evidenced in the polls. In Iowa, Hillary won Democrats quite handily, but Bernie beat Hillary among independents by 43 points. That is not a typo. Bernie won 69% of independents and Hillary won just 26% of independents. In New Hampshire, it got even worse for Hillary. Bernie won 72% of independents there.
No person will win the White House without support from independents. Strong evidence exists that Bernie can win over these people. I do not see any evidence, empirical or anecdotal, that indicates Hillary can win over a meaningful number of independents.
These numbers also undermine the argument that Bernie cannot win a general election because his views are too extreme and outside the mainstream. This is not the case. Bernie’s so-called extreme positions are supported by a majority of Americans: Breaking up the big banks – supported by 58% of Americans; making college tuition free for those who need it – supported by 62% of Americans; Medicare for all – supported by 58% of Americans (including 25% of Republicans); closing off-shore tax loopholes – supported by 85% of U.S. small-business owners; raising taxes on people making more than $1 million per year – supported by 64% of Americans, and 2/3 of millionaires (!); raising the minimum wage – supported by 71% of Americans; and overturning Citizens United – supported by 78% of Americans. How broken does our political system have to be that a person representing the beliefs of most Americans is labeled extreme? We are so used to our elected officials representing the interests of the top 1% donor class that our heads explode when we see someone who actually represents the views of everyday people.
The result of Bernie’s candidacy is a movement. And unlike Obama’s movement in 2008, this one comes with specific policy proposals. And this movement is leading millions of people to get fired up. Really fired up. The evidence of this is all around. For instance, Bernie is raising money from more people than Hillary, and not by a small amount. Hillary has raised money from 670,000 individual contributors, but Bernie has collected individual contributions from 1.3 million people (breaking Barack Obama’s record for shortest length of time to reach 1 million donors), and I suspect this number will explode in the 48 hours following his resounding win in New Hampshire. Somehow an obscure figure from Vermont is inspiring twice as many people to give money than a former first-lady, secretary of state, and New York Senator. Amazing.
Hillary still has more money than Bernie because Bernie’s individual contributions are much smaller, and Hillary has multiple SuperPacs who have raised $48 million. Things may be changing though. January marked the first time that Bernie outraised Hillary–$20 million to $15 million. This feat is especially impressive when you consider that Bernie raised his money, on average, $27 at a time. And again, Bernie will likely raise a ton of cash following his 22-point win in New Hampshire.
The enthusiasm can be also be seen in the youth vote. Despite being 74 years old, Bernie absolutely crushed Hillary in Iowa among voters under 30—84% to 14%. He did the exact same thing in New Hampshire.
Bernie’s ability to generate enthusiasm and appeal to independents (and even some conservatives) makes him a formidable opponent come November. His unfavorable rating is currently quite good. He is the only candidate running for president on either side who has a net positive favorability with the American people. While Bernie’s negatives will inevitably go up if he were to become the Democratic Party’s nominee, he would be more impervious to these attacks than an Al Gore, John Kerry, or Hillary Clinton because Bernie is innately likeable, and his ideas are clearly articulated and widely supported. Candidates like Gore, Kerry, and Hillary get easily “swift-boated” because they lack the likeability and clarity of positions to ground them.
There is also the little discussed detail that Bernie Sanders is quietly racking up support of uneducated, white people. This was a demographic Obama struggled to win over, and never did in a meaningful way. Bernie is though. Imagine the landslide a Democratic nominee would experience if he or she could add a good chunk of uneducated, white people to the Obama coalition! It could be 1964 again for Democrats (where LBJ defeated Goldwater by over 20 points). The demographics Sanders is currently struggling to win over are minority voters. While Democrats should never take minority voters for granted, it is very difficult to imagine African-Americans and Latinos not coming home to the Democratic nominee in the general election—particularly if Donald Trump is the nominee.
How a President Sanders Gets Stuff Done
And this brings us back to the question of how Bernie expects to accomplish anything if elected. The answer comes out of the enthusiasm and energy Bernie has already generated and expects to continue generating. Enthusiasm results in high voter turnout—as we saw in New Hampshire last night, where turnout set records and required voting stations be left open well beyond the scheduled poll closings. When voter turnout is high, Democrats win. When it is low, Republicans win.
If voter turnout is just 50% like it was in 2000, Democrats probably lose the White House just like we did in 2000 regardless of who we nominate. If voter turnout is 55%, like it was in 2012, Democrats probably win the White House whether we nominate Hillary or Bernie. But if we can get voter turnout to 60%, Democrats likely take not just the White House, but also take back Congress. It is reasonable to expect voter turnout with Bernie at the top of the ballot could reach 60%. When Bernie says he wants a “revolution,” this is exactly what he is referring to: getting enough people to vote so that elected officials start taking actions that benefit the 99% rather than the 1%. Bernie has a chance of doing this. There is no reason to believe Hillary will.
If Hillary is the nominee, diehard political junkies on the left (like myself) will muster the energy to cast our ballots for her on Election Day, but who else will? The sad truth of American politics is that on Election Day, Democrats look to fall in love, and Republicans look to fall in line. I very much fear that if Hillary is the Democratic Party’s nominee, young people, fence sitters, disgruntled liberals, and the uninspired will stay home. As we saw in 2010 and 2014, that is a disaster for Democrats and progressive values.
Hillary Struggles to Maintain A Positive Tone While Trying to Convince Voters None of What They Want is Possible
The fact that Bernie is espousing specific and popular policy proposals, and Hillary has not, has painted Hillary into one heck of a corner. She can either adopt Bernie’s positions (which would look like she is following rather than leading), or she can say his ideas are bad. Hillary has gone with the latter strategy, and it is killing her.
While somehow trying to remain upbeat, Hillary is trying to convince Democratic primary voters that all of the noble goals being espoused by Bernie are impossible and unattainable. Rather, Hillary is attempting to win over Democratic primary voters by assuring them that tinkering at the edges (without any specifics being provided) is going to be good enough because the Supreme Court—or something. Robert Reich wrote a great piece on this on Monday (by the way, Robert Reich is probably the most thoughtful person discussing the Bernie/Hillary race and does so in an engaging and funny manner; if you are not following him on Facebook, I highly encourage you do so).
Hillary’s depressing campaign strategy concerns me because she is still the odds-on favorite to be the Democratic Party’s nominee. She had better figure out real soon how to start inspiring people. Giving speeches every day that tell people to lower their expectations to Washington, D.C.’s infinitesimally small notion of possible is depressing as hell.
Hillary is essentially running for president to govern a broken system, and Bernie is running for president to fix the broken system. Hillary’s strategy is a challenge in any election cycle, but an unmitigated disaster in 2016—a year people are looking to dramatically change the system.
A Vote for Bernie Gives Us a Chance for Substantive Change
My question to Democratic voters is this? If you aren’t excited about voting for Hillary in the primary election, why would you think 51% of Americans would vote for her in the general election?
Vote for the person who you think would do the best job. And if electability is a big issue for you, it is my sincere hope that this piece went a long ways in demonstrating that Bernie will be a formidable opponent for any Republican in the general election, and he is the only Democrat running for president who has the potential to inspire millions of new voters to show up and elect new congressional members who are interested in passing legislation to help the other 99%. If nothing else, he has shown he can manage and run a great campaign—something Hillary has repeatedly shown she cannot do.
Republicans who wish to face Bernie in the general election ought to be careful what they wish for. They just might get it.