Why Bernie is stalled

His grievance tour is limiting his potential

Bernie Sanders.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Richard Tas/iStock, JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)

This week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) passed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for second place in the Real Clear Politics polling average of the Democratic primary. She has also taken over second place in Iowa and Nevada and become the betting market favorite. While this isn't the first time that Warren has inched ahead of Sanders, he and his supporters have to be wondering what happened — and if they can fix it.

There's definitely still plenty of time for a Sanders comeback — we're still five months from Iowa — but he would do well to position himself more clearly inside the fold of the Democratic Party, let go of some of his resentments, and instruct his surrogates to strike a different tone.

What happened? Heading into the beginning of America's interminable presidential primaries, Sanders could point to a number of clear strengths. Like Hillary Clinton in 2016, Sanders was the runner-up in the party's most recent contested primary, having captured about 43 percent of the overall vote as well as 23 primaries and caucuses. Because he stayed in the race until the contentious end, Sanders rolled into this cycle with a pre-existing network of volunteers and supporters in almost all 50 states. He had also helped mollify many Clinton supporters by hitting the trail for her in the fall of 2016 and did his earnest best to convince Bernie-or-Busters to show up. And because Clinton went on to lose the election, and because opinion polling had always shown him performing better against Donald Trump, Sanders even sported a pretty credible electability argument. After his announcement, he surged to within striking distance of frontrunner Joe Biden.

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All of those strengths were on clear display in an April town hall he did, controversially, for Fox News, when he took his message directly to the network's audience, tussled memorably with the hapless hosts, and refused to take the bait on attacking fellow Democrats. That event showed a candidate at the top of his game, someone who wouldn't just appeal to the party's progressive base but who could persuade enough people on the other side to usher in the kind of majority any Democrat will need to make meaningful change beginning in 2021.

But little has gone right for him since then. While he was averaging around 24 percent at the time, Sanders has dropped to just over 16. He did fine in the first two debates, but didn't get a bounce of out them. And it's getting increasingly tough to dispute that he's at least been caught, if not passed, by Warren.

It's impossible to pinpoint the origin of these troubles, but some of his personnel decisions might help explain them. In March, his campaign announced that it had hired as his speechwriter the firebrand progressive journalist David Sirota, who days before the 2012 election wrote that it didn't matter whether Mitt Romney or Barack Obama appointed the next Supreme Court justice. Sirota's public record of Obama-hating actually stretches back more than a decade and bringing him on board indicated that Sanders privately shares his distaste for the former president, who remains wildly popular with Democratic voters.

While most people are blissfully unaware of these kinds of campaign machinations and couldn't care less who writes anyone's oratories, Sanders was still placing one of the most important posts of campaign into the hands of someone who loathes the Democratic Party. And whatever you may or may not think of Sirota, this was an enormous strategic misstep. Whereas Warren has run an above-the-fray campaign in which she rarely criticizes the other candidates directly and doesn't waste time warring with the press or feuding with the Center For American Progress, Sirota has repeatedly plunged his candidate into internecine battles with other camps and continued Sanders' self-destructive fixation on media unfairness.

A case in point was the late August kerfuffle over a Washington Post fact-checking story that deemed (wrongly) a Sanders claim about medical bankruptcies to not be entirely accurate. Should Sanders have pushed back on it? Sure. It was a nonsense article. But what I'm talking about here is a certain style, and that style is "constantly aggrieved" — at other Democrats, at the same national media organizations that President Trump calls "the enemy of the people," at polling that Sirota doesn't like, and on and on and on.

I'm not anyone's six-figure campaign hand, and unlike Sirota I'm not working for any of the candidates, but it seems to me like maybe spending your time attacking the integrity of The Washington Post and MSNBC journalists is maybe not where Democratic candidates should be right now. It's not the genre of anger that primary voters are looking for. In 2016, you could make a plausible case that criticizing President Obama and his heir apparent tapped into a tangible sense of frustration with the party. But in 2020, popular rage is directed almost exclusively at President Trump, and the kinds of people who show up for Democratic primaries mostly don't want to see the Sanders camp lighting into the other candidates, let alone America's besieged journalists, day after day after day. Frustration with elected Democrats, inasmuch as it exists, is mostly of the fight-harder, impeach-faster variety.

Look, Sirota is just one guy. Sanders isn't out there every day railing against the DNC and The New York Times and his own Twitter account has mostly been above the fray. But putting Sirota's words and more importantly his attitude in Bernie's mouth has allowed Warren to position herself as the happy progressive warrior in the race despite negligible policy differences and an equally radical agenda, and has helped isolate Sanders as the only top-tier candidate with a sullen attitude about the party itself. It has contributed to the consolidation of Warren's support from Clinton's 2016 primary base. It has driven the Sanders campaign to feud with 4th-place Kamala Harris rather than with Biden.

The trouble with a plan to run against the Democratic Party is that there aren't that many people who vote in the primaries who nevertheless despise the party as an institution. Even in many states where Sanders beat Clinton in 2016, like Indiana, he lost self-identified Democrats, according to exit polls. His performance, there and elsewhere, was driven by success with independents, and it's no coincidence that in states where only registered Democrats were allowed to vote, he did poorly. The critical "Acela Corridor" states — New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York, and Maryland — still hold these "closed" primaries. There are more Democrats than independents in the primaries. It would then stand to reason that someone who wants to win the nomination shouldn't engage in behavior and rhetoric that alienates those voters. If anything, he should be bending over backwards to appeal to them. And he can do that! Did you see him looking like Mike Trout on the softball field?

That's why hiring journalist and former contributor to this site Briahna Joy Gray, who publicly announced on Twitter that she voted third-party in 2016, was another curious choice. It is why the decision to allow actress and Ralph Nader/Jill Stein enthusiast Susan Sarandon to introduce him at campaign events in Iowa is so mind-boggling. Sarandon is near the top of a short list of people who cause the heads of Clinton diehards to explode. And hey, maybe you hate Clinton and Clintonism and Clinton voters, but this remains a not-winning strategy in a Democratic primary in which you need to persuade a certain number of them to join your team.

Maybe all of this is just inside baseball, the kind of extremely online, Beltway-based stories and rifts that most ordinary people don't care about. But the people who pay the most attention to these things are the very elite media figures who drive the narrative. If you don't like your coverage and your WaPo fact-checks, maybe stop calling it "the corporate media." If you want to flip enough Clinton voters to win, quit kvetching about the "establishment" and the "corporate wing" of the party. They know who and what you mean. If you don't want national reporters turning your speechwriter into the story, maybe ask him to tone it down on Twitter.

The whole siege mentality vis-à-vis the media helps entrench the very dynamic it is meant to fight against, and it has transformed Sanders from arguably the favorite to someone who is going to need a lot of breaks, and a new attitude, to win.

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