Can We Just Pretend that Bernie Can Win?

So, sometimes the feedback we get as bloggers can help clarify our thinking, and sometimes you can get two sides of a story that are equally compelling. In response to my recent piece on Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul, some people chimed in to argue that they’re seeing exactly the kind of thing that I talked about when I said that a lot of Rand Paul supporters are natural Bernie Sanders supporters. Others dismissed the whole topic of Sanders’ electability as irrelevant or boring or naive.

Let me provide you with two sterling examples, one of each type. I realize it may be hard to read these comments on some screens, but you can click on the images to embiggen them.

The first is from commenter MikeinOhio at Booman Tribune who hails from BoehnerLand in the archly conservative southwest corner of the Buckeye State.

Screen Shot 2015-07-10 at 1.30.41 PM

The second is from commenter Bruce S. at the Washington Monthly:

Screen Shot 2015-07-10 at 1.27.10 PM

In response, let me start by saying that the entire point, or premise, of my piece was that there is at least some way conceptually or in theory that either Bernie Sanders or Rand Paul could win the respective nominations of their parties and then go on to win the presidency. If you don’t accept this premise, then just go ahead and say so. But there’s a big difference between saying something is exceedingly unlikely and that it is ruled out by the laws of physics. In other words, either you’re willing to play this game or you are not, but you shouldn’t stick your toe in unless you believe there is some possible winning answer.

What MikeinOhio was confirming for me, at least anecdotally, is that the people he knows who are getting excited about Bernie Sanders were previously interested in Rand Paul. Is this a statistically significant number of people?

That’s hard to say, but they do exist. If Rand Paul’s candidacy flames out early enough, these voters are Bernie’s for the taking, and he’s going to need them if he hopes to actually win anything.

Bruce S., on the other hand, doesn’t want Bernie Sanders to pursue a strategy that could plausibly lead to victory because no plausible path to victory would allow Bernie to remain Bernie. He’s a realist, and he’d rather that Sanders give us the pure unadulterated progressive junk than see him cut it with shwiggity swag. The rationale is that Bernie can’t actually win but he can still have a very positive longer term influence on our politics just by being in the race, in the debates, and presenting the strong progressive case to the public. If he starts pandering for votes, he’ll neither win nor do as well as he should in leaving that lasting legacy.

These two views aren’t mutually exclusive, although some of Mike and Bruce’s conclusions at are odds with each other. The thing I’d like to say to Bruce, though, is that he’s making an assumption that Bernie needs to compromise his principles in order for him to court the kinds of voters that Mike is talking about. I don’t think this is necessarily the case.

To see why, let me bring in another Washington Monthly commenter, bluestatedon, who said that my idea that some potential Sanders’ votes are presently toying with Rand Paul was “the stupidest [effing] thing I’ve read about Sanders in quite a while.”

Why does Don think this?

Rand Paul is a glibertarian who professes to hate all government activity regardless of its nature while Bernie Sanders is an unapologetic advocate for government action in a wide variety of policy arenas. Anybody who asserts that they are open to voting for both is somebody who has no fucking clue what either of them stand for, or just wants to smoke pot.

Or, maybe, these people care more about what Sanders and Paul have in common than they do about what distinguishes them from each other. You can call them idiots, but that doesn’t give us an accurate count of how many of them there are out there. Since we’re primarily concerned with two groups here, one being the universe of voters who are either disengaged from or alienated by the status quo political situation and the other being the semi-mythical low-ideology true swing voters, we should not expect these people to know or necessarily care that Bernie Sanders endorsed Jesse Jackson and Rand Paul employed the Southern Avenger. They might want the candidate, any candidate, who is convincingly against the War on Drugs, or that best questions the War on Terror, or that seems most sincerely outside the two-party system. Maybe government surveillance is their big issue. Maybe prison reform is their big issue. Maybe they’re generally a libertarian on non-economic issues that Paul speaks about, but they’re really opposed to free trade and outsourcing.

The point is, there’s a lot of commonality between Paul and Sanders, and for someone who wants to send a message that they don’t want more Bush v. Clinton nonsense, either one of them can do nicely.

I don’t even think Sanders’ potential appeal on the right is limited to Rand Paul supporters. It’s just that I think Paul’s supporters are riper for the picking than, say, Mike Huckabee’s supporters.

On the other hand, what I want to say to Mike is that he should go back and read my piece about Sanders’ supporters not succumbing to irrational exuberance. Can Bernie Sanders capture a lumbering giant and “change the political landscape for generations”?

I don’t think it is very likely, and I just have to be blunt and honest about that.

What this is is merely a thought exercise about what Sanders and Paul, respectively, would have to do to win. Hopefully, part of what becomes clear as a result is just how close to impossible it will be for them to pull it off.

But what should also become clear is that unorthodox candidates can only win by attracting unorthodox coalitions. Arguments that Sanders can outflank Hillary from the left are just wrong, as are arguments that Rand Paul can hold the Republican coalition together and then add enough to it win the Electoral College. No, if either of these gentleman want to win, they need to do it by reshaping the dividing lines, and that’s particularly hard to do in a system with a lot of closed primaries where only registered Democrats and Republicans can vote.

If either of them could somehow pull off the near miracle of winning the nomination of their party, they’d have a freer hand, but it’s doubtful that they can get that far.

If you’re a Sanders supporter, you’re probably in either Mike’s camp or Bruce’s camp, but either way you should be looking to see if your candidate has a plan beyond winning the progressive purity award.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.