This article was originally published in June 2018 but we are republishing it today.
2020 will be here before we know it. And in 2020, it is absolutely critical that the Democratic Party is fully prepared to oust Donald Trump from the presidency. It should be quite clear by now that anyone keeping their fingers crossed for impeachment or indictment is thinking wishfully. There is one way to get rid of Donald Trump, and it is through voting him out of office, which means that there cannot be the kind of colossal screw-up that there was in 2016. This time, Democrats need to be ready with a plan, and there is only one clear one that I can see. Barring the emergence of some heroic unforeseen alternative, everyone on the left should ready themselves for it. Every single Democrat needs to come to terms with the fact that the most sensible plan for getting rid of Donald Trump is to unify behind a Bernie Sanders candidacy.
I realize that it’s still considered too early to talk about this, that there are midterm elections before then, and that A Lot Of Things Could Happen In The Meantime. Fine, we can put off seriously thinking about it for another six months, maybe even another year. But time goes by incredibly quickly, and since getting rid of Trump is important for ensuring human well-being and justice, it’s worth at least keeping the various possible scenarios for 2020 in mind. (After all, people like this guy are readying themselves for it.) I have this horrible fear that the Democratic Party, still out of touch, still having learned almost nothing about Donald Trump or the United States, will somehow manage to “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”
It should now be obvious, almost beyond dispute, that the Democrats should have nominated Bernie Sanders in 2016. During the primary, he polled better in match-ups against Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton did. The argument made by Clinton supporters was that this was only because America did not yet fully know Bernie Sanders. This argument turned out to be false. The more America gets to know Bernie Sanders, the more it likes him: Since Trump’s election, Sanders has been the most popular politician in the country, and a poll from last year showed he “would defeat Trump by 13 percentage points if a general presidential election was held at that time.” Suggestions that only white people like Bernie Sanders are also false: In fact, his favorability rating is far higher among people of color than white people and “is highest among hispanics (66 percent) and African-Americans (77 percent).” The phrase “Bernie Would Have Won” can be a bit of a nasty, unhelpful taunt, but it seems to be the case. That’s especially true considering how important turnout was in deciding the 2016 outcome. If Democrats are to win in 2020, they don’t just need someone with high favorability ratings, they need someone people will show up for, because they care enough about that person’s victory to actually go to the polls. As with Obama, it helps a lot of you can actually produce not just approval but “energy.” People may prefer Generic Democrat over Donald Trump, but are they willing to knock on doors for Generic Democrat? Are they willing to take time off work? Perhaps, but it’s obviously far better to have voters who like your candidate and the things the candidate says and promises to do.
Needless to say, if your party contains a wildly popular politician, with an enthusiastic fan base of young activists, who is adept at speaking to the concerns of the “Rust Belt” states that lost you the election the last time around, it would seem criminally foolish not to nominate that person as your presidential candidate. (And he’s definitely running, by the way.) But I also think the Democrats have almost no other good options. Every other candidate put forward is either uninspiring, deeply flawed, or both. Look, for instance, at Joe Biden. Biden has a terrible record on racial issues, a creepy history with women, and has said he has “no empathy” for millennials suffering with debt and economic precariousness. Doesn’t exactly seem like the right person to energize the Democratic base. Or look at Kamala Harris, who oversaw and defended an “epidemic” of prosecutorial misconduct while serving as California’s attorney general, and accepted a donation from Steve Mnuchin after inexplicably failing to prosecute his former company for illegal mortgage foreclosures. When two of the most important issues to millennials are criminal justice reform and the unaccountable predation of the 1%, why would you nominate such a candidate?
In February 2016, I argued that unless the Democrats nominated Sanders, “a Trump nomination means a Trump presidency.” It did, although I don’t think I was quite right, because the election was fully winnable even for Hillary Clinton. The argument I gave there was that Trump thrives on a particular kind of politics: the politics of the television spectacle. Hillary Clinton was a perfect opponent for him because she gave him plenty of “material” for his show: the FBI investigation, Bill Clinton, Iraq, Libya, Wall Street. To defeat Donald Trump, you need an opponent who won’t get mired in these kinds of debates, who will be able to draw Trump back to discussing the issues. This is why I think Elizabeth Warren would not do well against Donald Trump. Trump would love Warren as an opponent. First, she’s not actually a very good campaigner; she’s more of an academic, and she had a hard time beating a Republican even in deep-blue Massachusetts. But second, the Native American thing is the sort of scandal that Trump thrives on. Don’t underestimate how bad it is for her; she has repeatedly waffled on the question, and has ticked off Native advocates with her bad answers. With anyone other than Trump on the other side, one might be able to get past it. Against Trump, however, it’s disqualifying, because of the way he practices politics and the use to which he will put something like this.
Here’s a rule: Never, ever give Donald Trump an opportunity to seize the moral high ground. If you think that just because Donald Trump is pro “law and order,” he won’t use Kamala Harris’ record of defending prosecutorial misconduct against her, you do not understand Trump. He will have a field day with it. It will totally kill her ability to criticize Trump over criminal justice issues. He will read from the damning statements by federal judges about Harris’ office. And he will be right. He’ll do the same with Joe Biden and segregation, or Cory Booker and Wall Street. Against Trump, you need someone whose past does not contain obvious instances of hypocrisy that they will struggle to explain. This is why Bernie has a unique advantage: He is probably the most principled and consistent of any U.S. politician. That might not actually be saying much (being the most principled politician is like being the most compassionate ICE agent), but he happens to be unusually committed and honest. (There is one potential issue for Sanders, the controversy surrounding Jane Sanders and Burlington College, but I think this can be gotten past easily if it’s dealt with honestly, through the simple admission that Sanders screwed up and that it’s really hard to keep a cash-strapped small college afloat and sometimes you get overambitious and things don’t work out. The only way this would be truly harmful is if Sanders tries to cover it up instead of explaining it in a frank and sympathetic way.)
I’m talking here about advantages against Trump specifically. I admitted in 2016, and admit now, that Bernie Sanders would never be the most “electable” candidate against a traditional moderate Republican. I would be nervous to put him up against, say, Marco Rubio. But Trump turns the traditional “electability” calculus topsy-turvy: You don’t need a candidate who is good against “the Republicans,” but against this president. Sanders happens to be the best anti-Trump weapon we have: Trump’s “anti-establishment” message simply doesn’t have the same effectiveness against a guy who is, himself, anti-establishment. Look at how effective Sanders was in his televised debate with Ted Cruz. Cruz is a champion debater, a formidable lawyer, but because Sanders is a leftist who disowns bad Democratic policies instead of defending them, Cruz’s arguments about all the bad things Democrats did were useless against Sanders. Trump loves to score points by pointing out hypocritical things that Democrats have done, such as posting a video of prominent Democrats talking about the problem of illegal immigration. Notice who wasn’t in this video: Bernie Sanders, because this attack doesn’t work against him.
Let’s talk briefly about age, because it’s honestly the only serious argument against nominating Sanders. Sanders is old. Here, again, though, I think we shouldn’t think about abstract opponents, but the actual opponent. Trump is 72, Sanders is 76, which is still younger than some of the top Democratic congresspeople, Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer. It’s a four-year difference. And sure, that difference matters. But Sanders seems to be in far better health than Trump: He can still play basketball, for goodness’ sake! When did you last see Donald Trump running for a train? Health matters a lot more than the raw number of years somebody has been alive. There are 90-year-olds who could beat me in an athletic contest, and there are 60-year-olds who are unlikely to survive a presidential term. Our current president seems to eat about nine cheeseburgers a day, never sleeps, and barely moves, all in his seventies. I am not sure he will be able to make much of the age criticism, and if he does, Bernie Sanders should challenge him to a game of one-on-one basketball.
Okay, so age is an easy campaign issue to deal with, but should we be concerned about it? Personally, I don’t think so. As I say, I care far more about someone’s health. And, frankly, I don’t really like the way young people talk about old people, as if they’re all just at risk of keeling over any moment. I think there’s something very ugly in the way the elderly are written off and discarded in this country, and I (quite seriously) think it would be inspirational to have such an old president. Grandma Moses began painting at 78 and lived until 101. As long as someone appears to be in good health, I don’t think we should care very much about age in selecting them for office. It’s not a civilizational calamity if they end up having to resign for age-related reasons, just as it wouldn’t be a civilizational calamity if a younger president came down with some medical issue. Instead of seeing Sanders’ age as a “risk,” I think we should see it as an inspiration and it should make us all feel ashamed of how comparatively inactive we are.
Here’s one more advantage Sanders has: It’s not, as they say, “his first rodeo.” Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2008 prepared her very well for her primary victory in 2016. Bernie Sanders learned a lot from the 2016 campaign. I recommend reading Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver’s How Bernie Won, which shows that while the campaign made a lot of mistakes and could have done things better, they know what they did badly and what they did well, and they learned from it. I’d be far more confident in a national campaign being waged by the Sanders people than I would with one being waged by someone with no previous experience outside of their state such as Chris Murphy or Kirsten Gillibrand. We need someone experienced, who knows exactly what they are doing and doesn’t have to learn it on the fly.
One final point: All of this has been a “pragmatic” argument for why Bernie Sanders should be considered the “presumptive” nominee. There is also, of course, a principled argument: Sanders is a guy who has spent his whole life actually pushing for progressive social change, and who is capable of “bipartisan” compromise and pragmatic legislating without diminishing his radicalism. I wouldn’t push for a Bernie Sanders nomination if I thought it would be politically disastrous for the left, because I want to have a politics that actually gets things done, but I do happen to think his vision of the future is a hopeful, just, and powerful one. I want to live in the world he describes, where you can go to college without worrying about a life of debt, and where you can go to the doctor without having to launch a GoFundMe campaign for your bills. Sanders is not perfect, but I like him a lot, because I feel like he’s a genuine person who actually cares about what happens to other human beings, and that’s rare. (I think this anecdote from a witness about the time Sanders met Sandra Bland’s mother tells us a lot about his sincerity: “He did not impose upon Ms. Geneva to ask for a picture of his own. He did not use the moment as an opportunity to promote his campaign. He took no record, he made no statement. He did not try to turn it into a publicity stunt. He simply made space for a sacred moment, and then let it pass without trying to gain anything from it. For that, I respect him. For that, I am grateful. That choice may not have made him a very good politician, but it made him a better man.”)
I do not want Democrats to lose the next presidential election. I think it would be an absolute calamity. Four years of Trump is already four years too many. And if there was some dynamic Obama-like centrist political superstar who would obviously be more “electable,” I would weigh carefully my interest in having a politician who actually represented my values against my interest in seeing Donald Trump ousted. But the fact is, all the other options are worse from a pragmatic perspective. The Democratic Party is very fortunate: It has, in its ranks, a secret weapon against Donald Trump, a popular politician who can neutralize all of Trump’s advantages and who speaks to all of the people who sat out the 2016 election in disgust. A candidate who can hold bigger rallies than Trump, out-debate Trump, and out-fundraise Trump. Who can make Trump look petty, cruel, and out of touch, and who can produce a clear and incredibly inspiring vision of a different kind of America. A candidate who is on the left but who doesn’t have contempt for Trump’s voters, and who is capable of speaking to people who strongly disagree with him. If the Democratic Party wants the presidency back, it has one clear way to do it: Treat Bernie as its de facto nominee and make sure he gets the 2020 nomination.
If you appreciate our work, please consider making a donation, purchasing a subscription, or supporting our podcast on Patreon. Current Affairs is not for profit and carries no outside advertising. We are an independent media institution funded entirely by subscribers and small donors, and we depend on you in order to continue to produce high-quality work.