Last week, Jim Geraghty of National Review Online identified four overlooked weaknesses of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. These can be condensed down to:
1. He’d never be able to weather a second major health scare
2. He has no emotional range and struggles with empathy
3. His consistent worldview is a liability when he has to address things that don’t neatly fit within it
4. His support for the working man is selective (see, e.g. fracking industry)
In a subsequent NRO post, Ramesh Ponnuru added a fifth overlooked weakness, that Bernie is soft on crime because he wants to vastly reduce the number of people who are incarcerated.
I’m not very impressed with this list. Even if I grant that Sanders’ health is a potential land mine, that isn’t something too many people are overlooking. Having a heart attack on the campaign trail tends to drive the point home for the American people. As for items two through four, consider how President Trump stacks up. If these are weaknesses for Sanders, the problem is not unique to him. Finally, if he’s soft on crime, at least he hasn’t been pardoning a slew of famous crooks and scoundrels.
These are not the weaknesses that cause many Democratic officeholders to panic at the prospect of Sanders leading their ticket. Whether they believe Sanders will certainly lose to Trump or not, they think he will do poorly in many of the districts the Democrats used in 2018 to win back control of the House of Representatives. Likewise, they think he will be a liability in many of states holding critical Senate races, like Maine, North Carolina, Georgia, and Arizona. They don’t think this risk is related to some personality quirk or lack of empathy for energy sector workers. It has to do with how they believe his economic and social policies will play in the suburbs.
I’ve been talking about this subject since a couple of days after the 2016 election and I feel like a broken record. But there is a weakness that is still overlooked that I need to emphasize.
Although Elizabeth Warren might create some of the same vulnerabilities, Sanders is fairly unique among the Democratic candidates in the approach he’s taking to winning an Electoral College majority. Hillary Clinton pursued a suburban strategy and won a sizable popular vote victory. She succeeded in driving up her suburban performance, just not by enough to offset her rural losses. The 2018 midterm strategy for the Dems did not reverse Clinton’s strategy but instead doubled down on it. And it worked largely because President Trump was diligently alienating suburbanites and making the task easy.
What this means is that a lot of newly elected Democrats are dependent on the party keeping to a similar strategy in 2020. A candidate who is happy to trade suburban votes for rural votes could conceivably do better than one who seeks to consolidate and grow the suburban advantage, but that won’t necessarily be good enough to get vulnerable officeholders reelected or for committee chairmen to keep their gavels.
So, the somewhat hidden vulnerability for Sanders is that the party doesn’t feel safe or comfortable with his strategy. When people talk about this, they usually refer to the word “socialism,” but that’s really shorthand for something else. What’s important is that many Democrats will spend the 2020 campaign trying to distance themselves from Sanders in a way they would find unnecessary with the other candidates.
The question isn’t so much whether or not their fears are justified. Since they have these fears, the question is whether or not this lack of unity and message discipline up and down the ticket is going to create an insurmountable weakness for Sanders’ general election campaign.
This is where the difference between Democrats and Republicans really shows up. The GOP establishment was hardly unified behind Trump but they bit their lips and eventually got in line after he was elected. They don’t like to get on the wrong side of their leaders or their base, and will sometimes march into electoral oblivion (see 2006 midterms) rather than seek to distance or distinguish themselves from an unpopular president. Democrats show comparatively little reluctance to fashion themselves as critics of their president. And, unlike Senator Susan Collins of Maine, they tend to follow through. This is why President Bill Clinton couldn’t even get a committee vote on his health care plan when his own party was in control of Congress.
For Sanders, a misshapen coalition that doesn’t jibe with the shape of the Dem’s House Majority will be an obstacle to winning the general election, but it’s not necessarily insurmountable. It will make it harder to win because a divided Democratic Party is weaker than a united one, but there is more than one path to Electoral College victory.
If Sanders were to actually win and become president, he’d discover that this weakness did not go away. While some doubters would get in line, many would not. It’d be different if he brought in dozens of new congressmembers from small town/rural America, but that is almost definitely not going to happen. The Democrats don’t have a lot strong and well-funded people running for those districts, and even if Sanders performs well enough there to carry the states he needs, he’ll probably still be a drag on the ticket in those areas, just as any other Democrat would be.
Of course, Sanders is strong enough that there will be a schism in the party if he is not the nominee, Someone like Elizabeth Warren might be able to minimize this schism but, regardless, the schism would be less likely to persist into an actual administration for the other candidates.
Few people believed that Trump could win traditionally blue Rust Belt states, but he silenced the doubters. Bernie Sanders might silence his doubters, too. I think his platform would do better than people predict in many areas where the Democrats are currently weak. But I also think he’d underperform in the suburbs, and it’s a tradeoff that is never going to win the consent of the party as it is currently constituted.
So, the overlooked weakness for Sanders is that he has no realistic prospect of uniting the party either during or after the election. That doesn’t mean he can’t win, and for people who want to remake the party, it’s not a problem that he’d disrupt it and cause it to change shape.