It's time to talk about the very real possibility of President Bernie Sanders.
I know, I know: The midterm elections are just barely over. And the 2020 presidential election is more than 700 days away. But the sad reality of the U.S. electoral system is that positioning over the 2020 election has already begun. And it seems likely that Sanders will run again, despite his advanced age, and that he will be by far the favored candidate for the American left — by simple process of elimination if nothing else.
Donald Trump is a weak, unpopular president whose party got wiped out in the midterms despite unemployment being at a 50-year low. Sanders consistently tops Trump's approval numbers by 20 to 30 points. He could legitimately beat Trump in a general election, as could plenty of other would-be Democratic nominees.
But if Sanders and the rest of the left is actually going to not only win, but govern, they will have to develop a will to power that they have so far failed to display.
When he announced his run in 2015, Sanders was regarded as an adorable joke by the political media. When his campaign rapidly caught fire, and suddenly he had a legitimate challenge to Hillary Clinton, Sanders was palpably nearly as surprised as anyone. His candidacy had been meant as a long-shot challenge mainly to raise the profile of his ideas, but it turned out he had tapped into a huge wellspring of discontent with centrist liberalism.
Sanders struggled to put his entire weight into the quest for victory. At a debate, he famously shut down a question about Clinton's private email server, saying "the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!" It was a gentlemanly move, but it also left a potent line of attack unused, as the email issue would continue to dog Clinton throughout the election, becoming the single most-covered issue of the entire campaign.
Worse, Sanders barely even contested the South. As a barely-known old white guy from Vermont, it was obvious that he would struggle with the African-American vote and thus the Southern primaries. But he had no top-level black advisers, dragged his feet on bringing some on, and failed to make inroads in the complicated black political structure in the region. As a result, he got absolutely crushed in the South, losing by over 60 points in some states. (To be fair, he has since addressed some of these problems, and now posts his best favorability numbers among black Americans.)
This offers a marked contrast with how Barack Obama dispatched Clinton in 2008. Obama pressed the attack in every single state, rolling up big margins where he could and keeping his losses low where he could not. He did not hesitate to fight dirty, including deliberately leaving an individual mandate out of his health-care reform program, then savaging Clinton with lying mailers that recalled Republican attacks on Bill Clinton's failed health-care plan. (Of course, when it came time to write the ObamaCare bill, the mandate went back in.)
Sanders has all too often taken the high road. This is admirable. But admirable does not win elections. If he really wants to win the Democratic nomination, and the presidency, Sanders will have to get his hands dirty and really fight.
This is not just a Sanders problem. Much of the left suffers from the same vague high-mindedness and near-disdain for the grunt work of politics and governing.
David Dayen reports for The Intercept that in return for supporting Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House, the Congressional Progressive Caucus has negotiated 40 percent of the seats on the five most powerful House committees: Ways and Means, Appropriations, Financial Services, Intelligence, and Energy and Commerce. (The logic here is that the CPC represents 40 percent of the Democratic caucus.) But the CPC is having trouble finding people to fill those seats. Older members are reluctant to give up their seniority on objectively weaker committees, and many incoming freshmen have expressed little interest in the complicated minutiae of tax policy or financial regulation.
When it comes to policy, centrist liberals are very often cringing cowards, if not straight-up trained circus seals who bark and clap their flippers on cue from their big-dollar donors. But in politics, they have an instinct for the jugular that the left largely lacks. They're already coordinating with big medical providers and insurance companies to try to stop Medicare-for-all. The former bankers and lobbyists who make up the New Democrat Coalition are licking their chops at the prospect of stacking those powerful committees — and keeping the lefties out — because that's where the money and power is.
The budget, tax policy, financial regulation — these are the pulsating guts of the American state. Centrists know how to become deeply familiar with the complicated inner workings of these committees, and use the influence thus gained to sell out the American people to big corporations. If the left wants to stop that from happening — let alone actually pass ambitious policy like Medicare-for-all — they are going to have to buy some elbow-length gloves and get to work.
I suspect the reason the left is so hesitant to grab for power is simple lack of practice. Historically, the left has often been violently suppressed by the state, and even left-liberal New Dealers were largely hazed out of the party in the 1970s and '80s. A whole generation of lefty thinkers and politicians internalized the idea that America was impossible territory for leftist organizing, if not completely irredeemable. As actually running the country passed out of imagination, symbolic and moral protests became the sum total of politics for many.
But Sanders and his congressional allies better get a knack for power, and quick. America and the world can't afford another decade of feckless centrists screwing everything up, or losing to Trump again. It's time to develop a little swagger.