Bernie Must Start Making the Electability Argument. Right Now.

by Keaton Weiss

Summer’s over, folks. And with the crisp air, falling leaves, football Sundays, and pumpkin spiced everything, comes the time for everyone to start getting serious about the 2020 Presidential primary. Contrary to CNN’s laughably, though predictably, biased analysis billing this a now two-person race between Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, the primary campaign is now a pretty close three way contest which, despite the corporate media’s best efforts, does include Bernie Sanders.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Elizabeth Warren has had a great summer, reviving a campaign that was once thought to be DOA and “planning” her way to bona-fide frontrunner status, and Joe Biden is stubbornly maintaining a solid lead atop the pack. Bernie’s numbers have also been stubborn, in that they’ve stayed pretty much the same since the Democratic field took shape with Biden’s entry into the race in late April.

I don’t say this to alarm you. And it’s hardly panic time. Yes, the media has written Bernie off. What else is new? As long as he’s in the game polling-wise, he’s got a shot. In a crowded field, the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, are especially important in establishing momentum and viability. Bernie’s one million individual donors will give him the resources he needs to compete in those states, and his one million volunteers will give him an extremely robust GOTV operation. In a tight three-way race where perhaps only 28% of the vote in Iowa is enough to get a win on the board, that could make all the difference.

Having said that, his campaign could certainly use a boost – a political B-12 shot, if you will. The question is, if you’re Bernie Sanders, how do you get one? It’s not so easy when the entire corporate media apparatus either attacks you constantly or ignores you altogether. There’s also the problem that Sanders is more or less a known quantity, especially within the Democratic Party. To whatever extent his populist, redistributive policy agenda is attractive to the Democratic electorate, those inroads have already been made. To continue appealing to the party base on policy grounds at this point may be more of a drawing-blood-from-a-stone exercise than we’d like to admit. The fact is, much of the Democratic electorate simply can’t be won over on those grounds, because many of them just don’t have an interest in such a policy program. The power base of the Democratic Party is no longer the working class, but the professional class, especially professional class women, for many of whom the greatest injustice of our time is the fact that they make $85,000 a year while some man in the office down the hall from them makes $95,000. They’re homeowners, they’ve got healthcare, and they can afford to pay off their student loans. Plainly put, the system works for them. Asking them to join a democratic socialist-led multiracial working class movement is a non-starter. You’d have an easier time selling an Eskimo an air conditioner.

Now, can Bernie win without any of those voters? Possibly. He and his volunteer army would have to register scores of thousands of first time voters, and make sure independents register as Democrats in closed primary states and turn out for him on primary days. If he manages to grow the electorate in this way, he’s got a shot. But to feel good about his chances, he’ll want to give himself some sort of breakthrough with the aforementioned problematic class of Democratic voters. And there might just be a way to do it.

Granted, a lot of these voters hate his guts, for one absurd reason or another, or in Mimi Rocah’s case, for no particular reason at all. But one old, straight, white man they really hate, even more than Bernie Sanders, ostensibly at least, is Donald Trump. And this is why Bernie must start making the electability argument. Right now.

The electability argument allows him to differentiate himself from Elizabeth Warren without attacking her explicitly. The corporate media is already suggesting that it’s sexist to support Sanders over Warren given their supposedly similar policy stances, and even smaller, more independent feminist outlets are of course making the case that using the electability argument against Warren is itself a misogynistic smear against an intelligent, accomplished, ambitious woman. So Bernie himself might not be able to point out the obvious fact that Warren’s passing herself off as an American Indian, and subsequently being lauded as Harvard Law’s first woman of color with tenured professorship, is the reddest of red meat for Donald Trump and the white working class who’s both available to the Democrats and also susceptible to racial demagoguery. Or that a professorial Ivy League technocrat isn’t exactly the ‘way to the industrial-midwestern Rust Belt heart.’ Those arguments are probably too hot for him to touch. Making them will of course be our job as outsiders.

What Bernie himself can do quite convincingly, though, is make an affirmative case for why he is the candidate best positioned to defeat Donald Trump in a general election. He can point to the polls, which consistently show him faring very well against Trump, both nationally, and in critical swing states. He can even point to a recent poll in Texas which had him beating Trump by six points. In Texas, where a win would guarantee Democrats the White House.

But beyond polling well in head to head matchups with Trump, he can tout his high favorability ratings across the board, outside the Democratic Party, including very impressive spreads among independents (54-35, favorable to unfavorable), and even Republicans, 26% of whom have a favorable view of him. He can invoke his very successful town hall appearances in Trump country, one in West Virginia in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, and of course, his widely praised FOX News Town Hall  in Pennsylvania. Remember, Warren declined to appear on FOX, calling it a “hate for profit racket,” a line that no doubt won her some points with the Democratic rank and file, but, to my point, foreshadows a lack of mass appeal come general election time.

He can also go one step further; and this, some might say, would be too bold, too risky, too “divisive.” But I think he can “go there” on the topic of 2016. He can tell the Warren-backing, professional class pearl-clutchers who abhor Trump to no end that he would have won that election if they gave him the chance, and that perhaps they shouldn’t make the same mistake twice. Sure, he’d get tons of shit for saying that. Some of it would come from people who will never vote for him anyway. Some of it would come from media outlets who will never be without a Bernie hit piece up their sleeve no matter what he says. And some of it will come from upper class, so-called “liberals,” who, despite their distaste for Trump, would rather he be president than Sanders, for reasons of pure self interest. But some of it will come from people who know in their heart of hearts that he’s right. He would have won. And some of these same people won’t give him any shit at all. Some of them will get that gnawing feeling in their gut that they were wrong to support Clinton four years ago, and perhaps they should just admit that to themselves, and correct their mistake this time around.

Let’s also remember that a fairly large plurality of Joe Biden supporters name Sanders as their second choice, and that Biden’s support is primarily based on the premise that he’s the safest bet to defeat Donald Trump. To those voters, the electability argument would be a much easier pitch, as electability itself is far and away their most important consideration. The case against Biden’s electability is becoming clearer by the day, as he seemingly can’t get through a public appearance of any kind without bewildering his audience with nonsensical tangents and diatribes on everything from his friendships with segregationists, to forgetting Barack Obama’s name, to the need, in 2019, for black parents to turn on their “record players” for their children so they can “hear words.” And being that Biden is a fellow old, white man, Bernie can probably get away with executing this more direct line of attack against him.

And finally, making such a case would be, in Bernie’s case, something different. And because Bernie is often criticized for being too repetitive in his messaging, this shift in approach would get people’s attention by virtue of simply being new for him. And of course, the haters will all say that this is a sign of desperation, and that he’s simply fear-mongering about how his rivals are more likely to lose than he is, and so on and so forth. But again, they all remember 2016, they remember they said the same things back then, and most of them know they screwed up. And if only a small percentage of those who know they screwed up are big enough to admit it and course correct, that could provide the 2-3 point bounce in the polls that may just be the difference between wins and losses in the all-important early states.

This strategy must be implemented promptly; as I mentioned earlier, this isn’t summertime anymore. The next two primary debates in October and November will be hugely important. It’s time to go on offense in a way that answers the Democratic electorate’s most pressing question: who can win? Bernie has the best “plan for that,” and he’s gotta start rolling it out.

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