Too much down-side risk with Bernie Sanders by Marjorie Arons-Barron

If the latest Iowa polls are to be believed, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are the front-runners. Since the peculiarities of caucus system turnout favor Bernie,  he is poised to win in Iowa.  

The Vermont senator also appears to be well ahead in New Hampshire, and he could upset expectations in Nevada.   It is increasingly clear that he could become the 2020 Democratic nominee. Sanders’ odds are one in four.  But, if Democrats want to beat Trump, they must halt the momentum building for a Sanders nomination.

He has justifiably  focused relentlessly on the critical issues of social and income inequality and the existential threats of climate change. And while Sanders often misses the mark on trade, his instincts are more on target regarding war and foreign adventurism.  He has inspired  great passion among his followers, especially younger voters,  who see their visions of the American Dream  slip away for themselves and their children. Some followers may be intoxicated by promises of free everything, but there is a romantic idealism to his “political revolution”  rhetoric  in support of “basic economic rights”, “quality health care” and a “clean environment” that has spurred millions of dollars in small donations to fuel his candidacy.

Sanders’s lone-claim-to-truth message hasn’t changed for  half a century; he is the undisputed my-way-or-the-highway prototype.  As fiction writer and political commentator Richard North Patterson has written: Sanders is “America’s least supple politician, captive to an unyielding inner vision which brooks no compromise. His candidacy is rooted in the unwavering belief that America is about to awaken to the rightness of his unwavering beliefs.”

The price tag on his proposals is staggering at a time when (due partly to Trump’s tax profligacy) the federal debt is off the chart. Take Sanders’ Medicare-for-All budget buster, which would also deprive more than 150 million Americans of private health insurance on which they comfortably rely, including union members who have given up wage increases for years to get better health insurance benefits.  Dealing with crushing student loans and providing better access to community colleges or job retraining programs are important. But providing free public college for every applicant regardless of income and eradicating $16 trillion in student debt regardless of need are unlikely to attract serious support.

Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics estimates that Sanders’  wealth tax proposal would meet the costs of  just 40 percent to 45 percent of his  big ticket programs. The rest would be paid, directly or indirectly, by Americans at large.

Even beyond the downside consequences, there’s a yawning gap between Sanders’ aspirational  goals and the steps needed to achieve them.  How much of Sanders’ agenda would ever get through a divided Congress? Sanders told the New York Times in his editorial board interview that he wouldn’t need to negotiate with Mitch McConnell because he’d marshal enough public support to overwhelm  GOP Senate opposition to his proposals.  But a majority of public support never moved Mitch McConnell take up the Merrick Garland Supreme Court nomination. Nor was he affected by the 75 percent public support for calling witnesses in the Trump impeachment trial.

Sanders’ young loyalists are as single-minded as their candidate,  not given to compromise or playing well with others.  If he loses the nomination again, I fear he won’t persuade his followers to support whoever is the party nominee, mirroring his failure in 2016. While some of them sat home and many voted for third party candidates, about 12 percent actually voted for Trump, providing more than Trump’s margin of victory in some key states.

Because of this, Sanders has been treated by his Democratic rivals with kid gloves and thus still has not been thoroughly vetted. Trump will not be as gentle. More attention should be paid to his time in Vermont, assessing his executive leadership skills, his body of writing, and his legislative record in the U.S. Senate.

Trump, who will surely campaign on the economy, would love to run against Bernie Sanders.  Polls show that there’s little support among the broad population for an avowed Socialist or even Democratic Socialist.  To many, more government intervention in their lives means not just the end of their access to private insurance but their experience with motor vehicle registries – on steroids.  Jeremy Corbyn’s devastating defeat in last fall’s UK elections should be instructive.

Trump’s campaign gurus must be salivating at the prospect of running against someone who supported the Socialist Workers Party in 1980 and 1984.   Think of how they’ll capitalize on his soundbites supporting the Sandinistas and Fidel’s Cuba. The GOP has a trove of opposition research they never had to use in 2016.

An op ed today in The Hill encourages Iowa Republicans to register as Democrats and vote for Sanders as the nominee. It’s not a stretch to imagine Trump supporters donating to Sanders for the same reasons. There was also evidence that in 2016 Russians supported Sanders as a way of helping Donald Trump.   

The buzz is with Sanders right now. He has appeal to similar anti-establishment populism that elected Trump nearly four years ago. But, to win in November, Democrats must  hold Minnesota and carry battleground states  Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and, perhaps, North Carolina and Florida. They must successfully target  swing voters—including suburban moderates, blue-collar workers, rural Americans, Republicans disenchanted with Trump, and  independent-minded women. This is how Democrats took back the House in 2018.

Sanders has refused to modify those of his messages that could broaden his appeal to these groups. In any event, it’s probably too late for him to change his stripes. Atop the ticket, he could undermine gaining Senate seats,  risk losing the House and poison other down-ballot Democratic candidacies. The Number One goal is defeating Trump. Nominating Sanders is not the way to do it.