by Anis Shivani
**The following memo was written to the Bernie Sanders campaign in September 2019 at their request.**
From: Anis Shivani
To: Heather Gautney, Nina Turner
Subject: The Campaign Has a Warren Problem
Date: Sept. 11, 2019
The upcoming third debate is a crucial moment to reset impressions. It will be the first time all the leading candidates will be on stage together, providing new opportunities for joint interaction. After this debate, significant changes in image will become more difficult to accomplish. Therefore, this debate is key to begin altering some counterproductive perceptions that have set in: 1) Warren and Sanders are indistinguishable on policy; 2) Warren is an acceptable alternative to Sanders; 3) Any Democratic nominee is good enough, because at least they’re not Trump, and at least we’ll be resetting to the Obama years. 4) Trump can be beaten easily, he’s ready to be had (since Hillary already won the last popular vote); and 5) All the Democrats are more or less on the same side, their idealism comes from the same roots, so there is no urgency for any big philosophical issues to be worked out.
To the extent that voters believe these five things, they are more likely to view Bernie as needlessly cantankerous and edgy. If there had been an economic crisis in progress, he would easily be the runaway winner at this point, there would be no contest. It would sharpen people’s minds in a way that no amount of rhetoric can. However, lacking an economic or any perceptible crisis at the moment, the average low-information liberal voter continues to be more easily persuaded by optimism and so-called “moderation.” Pessimism is a tough sell in the absence of a palpable crisis that people can readily understand, yet the kind of big ideas Bernie is pushing presume, by definition, a deep pessimism about current approaches. I think Bernie has to blend his pessimism with an equally great dose of optimism about what can still be possible, given a democratic revolution. Voters have to stop seeing him only as someone who promises to take on the fossil fuel industry and big pharma (which he will), and to see him as someone who depicts a utopian future which they barely dreamed possible before.
1. Warren’s successful attempt to morph into Sanders-lite is potentially fatal. On issue after issue, from Medicare for All to college tuition, medical debt, wealth tax, monopolies, and the Green New Deal, she has played caught-up, brilliantly. Always her plan is a little short, a little less than universal, a little hedged in and qualified, and shy of open-ended public commitment (her statement that there are “many paths to Medicare” is typical). The very use of the term “plans” is meant to imply that she’s practical and pragmatic, knows how to get things done, unlike the woolly-headed Sanders with his grandiose philosophical notions. Therefore, her “plans” need to be contested as being too little, too accommodative, too reliant on the goodwill of the elites and Wall Street.
Her plans need to be brought down a notch: “Senator Warren, the Green New Deal I have proposed fully phases out fossil fuels by 2035, and ends the export of fossil fuels, whereas your plan doesn’t.” Or, “Senator Warren, your plan for student debt relief leaves a large gap, whereas my plan cancels all student debt. Why are you reluctant to cancel all debt?” If Bernie does this with humor, and a good dose of camaraderie, he won’t be accused of misogyny (though some will do it regardless). So far, she’s been careful not to resort to realism, but if she ever does she’s cooked. Bernie should genuinely wonder, as a philosophical proposition, when she lost faith in markets, at what point did that happen? Or does her continued faith in markets, at least when they are regulated, suggest that she’s still basically a believer in markets? Can the market deliver health care? Can it deliver on climate change? Don’t her plans rest on this faith? Yet didn’t markets create the immense inequality she says she wants to reduce? A tough task, to demonize markets in an America that remains bound to capitalism, but they have to be demonized, markets can’t defend themselves.
The sharp differentiation from Warren wouldn’t just be on the part of Bernie, of course, the whole campaign should undertake it at different levels, at different degrees of personalization or abstraction, but at the third debate she cannot be seen glued to the hip with Bernie. There cannot be another dominant image coming out of it with her hands on his shoulder, literally leaning into him. She should be presented as a follower, not a leader, when it comes to progressive ideas. Bernie is very grateful for her support, and for picking up the baton at times, but as far as he’s concerned, the time is up for small corrections, and for having any faith in markets to bring about the kind of change we need with even the most expert regulation. “We need a political revolution, empowering the people, not a new faith in regulators.” I see Bernie’s movement as a twenty-first century poor people’s campaign, and this can be a way to differentiate him from Warren, who’s all about boosting the middle-class. This is going to be very difficult, given how Warren has carefully constructed her image in recent years as a defender of the people, but she can’t (like Harris, except in a less extreme sense) go all the way, so pointing out the gap is the only way to do it. As is the next strategy, which is:
2. Candidate Warren must be morally disqualified. There is no other way to win the nomination than to disburden well-meaning liberal voters of the delusion that they can, in all good conscience, vote for Warren over Sanders, and still get something of a progressive (while realizing full well that she’s not as progressive as Sanders on any of the issues), yet someone who doesn’t call herself a socialist, who’s younger, less edgy, a woman, more likely to appeal to the mythical suburban voter, and in their view more likely to beat Trump. But these well-meaning liberal voters, who constitute the majority of the Democratic party over the fully conscious leftist voters, only believe this because these propositions have not been challenged. Warren cannot be beaten, at this point, simply by shedding a little bit of doubt on her; second-best is still good enough for too many primary voters.
Earlier it would have been possible to get past her by noting that her conversion was recent and incomplete and in many ways unsatisfactory, but now she’s too established already in the minds of many voters as a progressive who’s reached a threshold of acceptability. The third debate must at the least convey the point that the Sanders camp does not believe she has crossed this threshold. If this attitude does not come across, yet again, then the game might be lost, and it’s possible that there might be a stampede toward her. Voters might go for her rather than Sanders (in the absence of an economic collapse or other crisis) because it lets them have their cake and eat it too, which is what many of them want. They don’t really want to struggle with the big ideas Sanders is presenting, challenging their very mode of existence, so they think that voting for Warren is acceptable, and perhaps even morally superior, because the fact that she is a woman more than compensates for any superiority Sanders might have in terms of ideas.
So they need to stop thinking that she is progressive enough (by having met the threshold), that she can beat Trump, that she can be an effective leader (in the way Sanders can), and that she even has the experience or charisma to handle the conservative backlash, which Sanders must accept and present as almost an overwhelming obstacle which only his people power movement can overcome. Again, Warren must be gradually disqualified (it can’t be done in one shot), if the present parameters are to change, but this is very difficult to do now, because of her folksy presentation, combined with the well-established perception that she’s been a lifelong fighter against Wall Street and political corruption (even if she has decades less experience than Bernie, her efforts haven’t made much headway, and she’s been a supporter of capitalist markets rather than an opponent).
So how do you take on someone who projects herself as a fighter for the middle class by challenging her credentials? a) By presenting Bernie’s own personal story, such as his experiences with illness in the family and the health care industry (although I’m aware of his deep reluctance to engage in such personalization), as a way to offer a narrative more compelling than Warren’s. b) Again, by making the point that her piecemeal policies haven’t worked in the past, that just regulating Wall Street and expecting the financial and political elites to toe the line because of new regulations or restrictions on lobbying is not good enough anymore. “It may have worked in previous years, but the time for such an incrementalist approach to compromising with Wall Street is over.” It must be made clear that many of her ideas are weak tea indeed compared to the political revolution Sanders offers, and if voters go that route they will be legitimizing inequality and control of politics by the elites. “Senator Warren wants to fight the corruption of political elites. Our movement wants to end their power, we want to stop them from getting the power in the first place. Senator Warren wants to reign in Wall Street and make markets work better. Our movement wants to move us beyond our reverence for markets and toward a new economic system that stays ahead of technological change.” Very difficult task at this point to redefine her, but there’s no other way. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was a good idea, but it had its limits, and saving the middle-class from financial predators is not the same as rethinking our economy for future generations.
To restate, the moral disqualification comes from the idea that Warren’s policies are too mild and scattered to reverse the unacceptable inequality that led to Trump, that putting faith in her regulatory approach would lead to the same kinds of compromises that we have seen with recent Democratic administrations, and that this would lead to a backlash even worse than what we have seen with Trump. Voters must feel compelled to ask, Is Warren’s approach enough to reset the economy on a different foundation? Each of Sanders’s plans, such as for workplace democracy, fits in with all the rest, and empowers people and is driven by their needs, whereas Warren turns every question around to “taking on Washington corruption,” which is just the kind of thing we’ve been hearing forever from Washington insiders who think reforming their own set is the solution. If voters start thinking of Warren as compromised, as going too easy on Wall Street relative to the scale of what needs to be accomplished, then the moral disqualification sets in.
This goes back to the same kind of doubts about Hillary’s character that disqualified her in the minds of many: she’s an insider who’ll do anything to make a compromise and advance her own cause, which is what killed Gillibrand too. Is any particular issue disqualifying by itself? No, Warren is not giving away anything so easily, so it has to be an accumulation of inconsistencies and choices (leaning toward big donors, too cozy with banks to really go after them). She can always say she evolved, but then this evolution language has to be discredited. Her personal story is her fortress, but the way she presents herself as evolving from (Reaganite) capitalist, as she sought at first to prove that people went bankrupt because of their own irresponsibility, and realizing, eventually, that they didn’t do so because of their carelessness, is hard to digest. You have to research that, to realize that poor people are not poor because of bad choices? Past support for school vouchers, present support for bloated defense budgets, all of it together might add up to a character flaw so deep as to be unacceptable. How do we know once you’re elected you won’t become a moderate again?
3. The Obama years must be discredited. I don’t see how the nomination can be won, unless this is done. If voters continue to think that the Obama years were good enough, then why not go with Biden? From that point of view, Warren sounds terrific, because she was a financial regulator under Obama, and she promises to improve upon the Obama years, which were already a pretty good deal. What is the need for political revolution, if we can reset the clock to 2016? This goes back to the previous point, where Warren’s “plans” have to be presented as suitable for what we took as acceptable during the last administration, but far behind where we need to be today. This sure is asking for a lot: to take on not just Warren, and present himself as the only progressive, but also to take on someone who is said to be a very popular Democratic president?
Except he would never take on Obama personally, but restrict his criticism to Obama’s policies: “We were not even-handed in the Middle East, we did not deal with terrorism well by relying on drones and extra-judicial assassinations, we allowed a financial rescue package to go forward that skewed heavily in favor of the big banks rather than reestablishing the foundations of the economy so that it once again works for everyone, and we accelerated the collapse of the working class and the middle class. We can’t go back to that. But guess what, our Green New Deal is a vision for a new kind of economy, where we end the 500 to 1 ratio of corporate executive pay to average workers’ pay, where we end rampant insecurity with regard to jobs and housing and medical payments. Just five years ago, under Vice-President Biden we were celebrating fracking, and the popular debate centered around whether climate change was human-made or not. Our Green New Deal is a new American vision for a good life, moving past the economic anxiety the elites thrive on. And no, we don’t think regulating Wall Street [back to Warren] while accepting their fundamental power over our lives is good enough anymore.”
Taking on Obama-era inequality is a two-fer: it gets both Biden and Warren, to the extent that Warren can (and must be) pinned down as stemming from that era’s mildly reformist reactions. Neoliberalism is not easy to translate in popular terms, but one way to do it is to keep saying, “Markets ruled in the last Democratic administration, and for too many years under previous Democratic administrations too. I’m from the wing of the party that has always believed, like FDR, that the people take precedence over markets.” Critiquing the inequality-enhancing policies of the Obama years, and Biden and Warren by implication, can be done in a profoundly optimistic way, because those were years of shrunken dreams and visions. To the political class, optimism sells. That’s one reason they like Warren. Bernie’s optimism wouldn’t be of the same kind. But it is a kind of profound optimism. Otherwise, why aim for a political revolution?
I believe that every time Bernie leans into the narrative of Trump as an unmitigated disaster, as an existential threat to the country and democracy (which of course he is), he strengthens the relative “moderates,” Warren and Biden and everyone else, because the paramount task becomes to remove Trump, and if voters feel that a less radical candidate like Warren or Biden or anyone else is best suited to remove this existential crisis, then why elect Sanders? Why roll the dice, when doing so might get Trump reelected? So I see this leaning into the dominant narrative of what Trump means (he’s unprecedented, etc., or relying on Russiagate as any kind of an explanation), as really counterproductive. It lessens Bernie’s appeal, and the need for him.
4. Trump can’t be beaten unless there’s a clear ideological contrast. “Only I offer that contrast [or something like that, said more humbly]. Trump won’t be easy to beat. Without an economic crisis, and of course we don’t pray for one, he’ll be very difficult to defeat. Even with one, he has tremendous advantages as an incumbent. His base is firmly behind him. We have to beat him in the electoral college, and this is where I believe I’m the best candidate from the Democratic party, because nowhere does my agenda appeal to voters as much as in the Midwestern states Trump was able to capture because of economic fears and anxiety, and in other places around the country beset by the same problems. By now we’ve had a few years to look at how his actions line up with his promises, and here the picture, for farmers in the Midwest or workers anywhere in the country, is not pretty. Angry trade wars, which only increase the cost of living for American workers, are not the way to go. Neither is throwing temper tantrums at international forums. At the same time, we recognize that Trump came to power because of genuine economic insecurity. Regulating markets [a dig again at Warren, she has to be repeatedly presented as someone who just doesn’t go far enough in taking on the crux of the problem] won’t do it, it wasn’t enough in the last Democratic administration, and it won’t be enough now. What we’re talking about is creating a new kind of economy [with a nod to Andrew Yang, for his keen analysis of technology, and to Castro, O’Rourke, and Booker for their frustration with the racial violence and anti-immigration hysteria that result from an unequal economy], which is what the Green New Deal is. Did you think the original New Deal was a good enough deal? Wait for this one, it’s going to be even better, and the best thing is, it’s not a creation of the elites, but a genuine upsurge by the people. I didn’t write the damn bill, the people did! The more people hear about it, the more they like it and the more Trump won’t be able to beat us with the canards about democratic socialism. What I’m actually proposing is a new way to organize our lives and think of the meaning of work. Nobody here has a bold enough plan as I do with the Green New Deal. Let me give you some examples of how it makes your life better.”
And here comes Warren—not just in the debates, head-to-head, but in other public forums, as though it were all a continuation of an unstated dialogue with Bernie and the radicals—“So, I’ve got a plan for that,” Or, “I’ve signed on to the Green New Deal, I’m with Bernie on that, we need to end the era of fossil fuels, etc.” What do you do at that point? I don’t think there’s any other way to deal with this than to say, “Well, I appreciate Senator Warren’s support for the Green New Deal, but we do have a fundamental difference in approach when it comes to envisioning the economy of the future. Our vision thinks about the nature of employment and health care and education from the ground up, and it’s the only plan that takes us from where we are to where we need to be.” Explain again why Trump got elected for good reasons—it wasn’t just that the electoral college favored him over the popular vote, or that Russia interfered, or it was Comey and the FBI, but that there were, and remain, structural reasons why he was elected and remains popular among his base. “And now I want to speak to every American, including those who support Trump. What if there was a way we could regain security and health and well-being, without indulging in racist paranoia and immigrant bashing? I understand your frustration, and why you voted for him. Now it’s time to move past the anger, and think and dream much bigger than Trump lets us do. If we don’t offer a dream bigger than his, then we surely will lose next year.”
In 2016 the task was easier because it was contesting on the terrain of issues like free trade, which were basic but uncontested. Now we’ve moved to more complex, comprehensive goals like the Green New Deal, which are just being introduced into the broader public sphere for the first time, so moving beyond the basics, like NAFTA, makes it a more difficult campaign to run. Especially when everyone sounds like they’re on board too. But Bernie is the only candidate to stand so clearly for the abolition of private insurance, so he should take on the media for confusing giving up private insurance versus giving up health care. Those are two different things. He can say he’s tried to make that distinction before, and the people understand, but the media doesn’t.
Hit hard on 2035. A number people can remember. It makes things concrete and real and within grasp. It’s within your lifetime. If you’re a kid, by the time you’re a young adult, it will have happened, 100% clean renewable energy. Warren’s past support for market-based solutions to climate change? Or any of her recent changes of heart with respect to the radical parts of the Green New Deal? As for Yang, we do address the problem of technological change, but our proposal, the Green New Deal, goes far beyond playing catch-up, because we want to create millions of new jobs, a permanently sustainable economy. So UBI, and Yang’s approach in general, starts sounding like a reactive idea from the past, compared to the Green New Deal’s futuristic scope (again, without demeaning Yang in any way, but genuinely treating him as a potential ally). Castro’s and Booker’s and O’Rourke’s concerns about incarceration and racial injustice are addressed by the Green New Deal, because it takes on every component of poverty and inequality. What Trump is doing with the trade wars is unacceptable because it only adds to inequality. We acknowledge the existing problems—which, by the way, forty years of both Democratic and Republican administrations helped bring about with trade deals that benefited the wealthy—but go about it differently so that we all come out as real winners. The Green New Deal is the optimistic side of the picture, which people need to see, beyond the curmudgeonly side they have been taught to see in Bernie.
5. Start roping in all the idealistic energy out there, particularly manifested in Castro, O’Rourke, Booker, and Yang, the missing Gabbard, and even Williamson and Gillibrand, the last three of whom represent different types of feminist energy that seems heartfelt and must be part of the big tent appeal reaching beyond hardcore socialists. Castro in particular seems more progressive than Warren on some issues, and is the most promising of the lot as an ally, if Bernie visualizes him as a real partner because of his sincere feelings about migration, poverty, and inequality. Castro says simply to “decriminalize immigration,” which is exactly the right attitude. To some extent all of these candidates are earnest (despite their varying doses of “realism”), especially on incarceration, deportation, and racial violence, and Yang clearly recognizes the impact of technological change, so Bernie needs to do better to connect his own ideas, during the course of honest conversation, as encompassing and enfolding these other candidates, and being fully sympathetic to their legitimate concerns.
This is his opportunity to shine as an insurgent who’s not yet found his métier, but once he does he will take along everyone else on a new journey that Americans have not yet experienced, a journey that was once deferred by the Cold War, and then again by the resurgence of a misguided imperialism after the end of the Cold War, which put the whole project of economic democracy on hold. Here, he can out-wonk Yang on UBI (and present a bolder economic vision), Booker and Castro on mass incarceration, O’Rourke on immigration, and the absent but ever-present Gabbard and Williamson on the anxiety that propels war and violence (though these two are somewhat constrained, Gabbard by her nationalism and Williamson by her ethic of personal responsibility, they do represent opportunities to expand what seems to have settled down as the 20 to 30% ceiling). Potential allies Castro, O’Rourke, Booker, and even Yang, all have to feel that they have more to gain from a Bernie presidency than Warren’s or Biden’s, that they will be able to find their place in the big tent and their favorite causes will be genuinely advanced by Bernie. Bernie needs to convey this sense of lifting them up and appreciating them when they are all together. Again, Warren has done a masterful job of jumping on the bandwagon, but she is only an eager student, not a leader.
Some people are afraid of Bernie. Many people are afraid of him. The media is, the elites are. Warren, as moderate as she is, wasn’t their first choice, they didn’t even dare to move toward her. Bernie can’t be a false optimist. But there’s real optimism on the ground, and has been since 2015, the whole equation of what’s possible has been shifted. If he presents Warren, in a negative light, as being within the old window of possibility, and some of the other more sincere candidates, in a more positive light, as still thinking within that window of possibility, and challenges them outright, in a genial way, to go past all the old paradigms of what’s “politically possible” and who’s “electable,” then we can move not just beyond Trump, which we need to do, but the underlying cynicism and pessimism that has made Trump possible. “Look, we had a great opportunity to realize full economic democracy and human rights including the right to health care and free higher education and affordable housing and the right for each person to live up to his or her potential, especially when the Cold War ended and we didn’t need to have such high military budgets. In a sense, we lost the last thirty years. But the technological capability is there to move to a new economy. I’m not a socialist in the way the demagogues want you to think of me, but I’m a socialist in a very American sense, in the way that FDR was, or LBJ in his best moments, in the way that [name other favorite icons] were. Trump’s xenophobic neofascism, versus our democratic socialism. That’s how we beat him. But Trump’s xenophobic neofascism, versus expectations that capitalism will work for us if only we regulate it a bit more? I don’t think so. That’s not a winning proposition.”
Conclusion: Even many Sanders supporters seem to think that there’s some kind of a deal between him and the Warren camp for a truce. This perception is fatal, because again it makes her acceptable, whereas the idea is to disqualify her from consideration: that’s the only way to win the nomination, unfortunately, there’s no way around this problem at this late stage in the game—and in some senses it is early, but in other senses it is very late. People on the surrogate scene need to dismiss this idea that the two of them can be on the same ticket, one as president and one as vice-president. They are just too different, they have different goals and aspirations, for that to ever work. So don’t even think about that as a fallback. In this campaign season—and the DNC couldn’t be happier about that—many fallbacks have emerged: so-and-so is an acceptable alternative to Bernie, so-and-so can also beat Trump, such-and-such is also a good way to overcome the problem of economic anxiety. Each of these fallbacks needs to be shot down, one after the other—although sometimes they will be in play simultaneously, so that by knocking down Warren’s microscopic plans you also knock down topside regulation as a viable approach to inequality—so that in the end only Bernie remains standing.
For this to happen, Bernie needs to speak as though he can see himself already as president. He sees himself not just as the incipient leader of a burgeoning political revolution, still on the fringes, but in that office, bringing along the people, making it the people’s office again. That’s one way to counter Warren‘s folksy persona, which she’s been able to bring herself to believe, by putting it up against the force of vision of Bernie seeing himself in that office, as the representative of the people who have been left out, and conveying how powerful an antidote to elite cynicism that can be. Warren is defined as a wonkish, isolated, elitist planner (sorry, yes, this needs to be said, because it is the source of her power), whereas Bernie is the visionary leader who’s always been decades ahead of others with his ideas, it’s just that now reality has finally caught up with him.
Raise the bar of acceptability for Bernie. Can people see him as their president? He should directly address that. Can he see himself as president? Does he? He should say, if we don’t seize this moment, and think we can just go back to life before Trump, then all the positive energy will fritter away. This is the time to make a clean sweep, break with the whole last forty years of compromise, and I’m offering that. “I will never change, I give you my word. People change after the primaries, move to the center, move back to the elites, but I won’t.” Implicit in that is Warren as flip-flopper, as we proceed by stages toward her moral disqualification by Iowa. Sow the seeds of doubt about Warren, that she’s going to compromise and change, which will embolden Trumpists more than ever, long after Trump himself is gone. Creating that kind of anxiety about what can happen if Bernie is not chosen is a step in the direction of the moral unacceptability of an alternative to Bernie.
Goal of the next debate: One, only Bernie is the real progressive, you don’t want Bernie-lite. Two, break through the ceiling, which seems to be established around 20% or at most 30%, by way of optimism, by letting people envision him as president, by tapping into Castro, O’Rourke, Booker, and Yang’s idealism. He has to be collegial with Castro and the others. Bring Gillibrand on board, I see hope there. They each represent valid desires (Gillibrand: white feminism; Castro and O’Rourke: fairness to immigrants; Yang: recognition of technological change). Now they’re all liberated to some extent from Clintonism. Just as Bill Clinton redefined what it meant to be a Democrat in 1992 under the DLC umbrella, the same task of redefinition needs to be completed now. It was easier to reach 50% when it was just Hillary, because maybe 30% of the Democratic electorate disliked her personally, but now she isn’t there, and there are a bunch of “likable” candidates, so it sets up a difficult ceiling to cross, with all the split votes. Driving down their favorability ratings (aside from Warren) is not the task, but making policy differentiations is: being able to visualize Bernie as president can lead to a breakthrough in the ceiling.
**Postscript (April 24, 2020). All the challenges bedeviling the Sanders campaign throughout its 2020 incarnation are addressed in this memo: consolidating left-populist opposition and extending a hand to potential allies, breaking through the 20-30% ceiling which confounded them until the end, reaching out to moderate, suburban, technocratic, and African American voters, knocking down both Warren and Biden by way of critiquing the Obama administration’s manifest failures, and expanding on an optimistic vision to counter Trumpian and DNC pessimism—all of it is here in this piece of advice, which I’m sure is representative of a lot of counsel coming their way. None of this is particularly private, because legions of progressives offered similar advice in all sorts of venues for as long as the campaign lasted. The point of publishing this is to show that those interested in the advancement of a genuine progressive movement are by no means playing a hindsight is 2020 game when it comes to our disillusionment with the Sanders campaign. The campaign was well aware of this entire winning strategy from the beginning, yet chose to pursue a diametrically opposite path guaranteed to fail. The question is, why?
*Photo: Gage Skidmore*
You can also support us on Patreon.com, where for as little as a dime a day you can access exclusive audio podcast & written content! Just click the logo and sign up!
Listen to our latest podcast episode below!