Bernie Sanders needs to find the killer instinct
"I wish he would just call her 'Pocahontas' once," an early and enthusiastic Bernie Sanders supporter told me a few weeks ago, only half-jokingly. "Then he should start making jokes about Trump's appearance."
I would never presume that this person speaks for all or even most of those who want to see the 78-year-old but still, alas, junior senator from Vermont win the Democratic presidential nomination. But the feeling to which his comment attests is, I would guess, well-nigh universal in those circles. Of all the things that prevented Sanders from carrying the field in 2016 and seem to be stalling him once again in 2020 — his inability to connect with African-American voters, right-wing scare-mongering about gulags, limitless skullduggery from the Democratic establishment — the one that has received the least public discussion is among the most obvious. I am referring to Bernie's lack of killer instinct.
There is no greater contrast imaginable than the one between the popular (and frequently exaggerated) image of so-called "Bernie bros" and the almost painfully conciliatory instincts of the man they support. This was fully in evidence on Wednesday afternoon when Sanders responded to arguably the worst defeat of his political career by chatting with journalists about how "disgusted" he is at unspecified online comments directed at Elizabeth Warren and her supporters and what a "decent guy" Joe Biden is. He did this despite the fact that Warren, with the connivance of debate moderators, recently called him a sexist in front of an audience of millions, effectively announcing that she had no interest in making even a tacit alliance with the only other progressive candidate in the race and, one imagines, despite thinking that the former vice president's record on virtually everything — finance, health care, race relations, the environment, foreign policy — should render him ineligible for office.
It should go without saying that offering these pleasantries will do Sanders few if any favors. The DNC has already thrown its full power against him with the unprecedented winnowing of the field after Biden's victories in South Carolina and 10 Super Tuesday states. It should be clear by now if it had not been already that Sanders will never be the Democratic nominee if these people have any say in the matter. If he finishes the primary and caucus season with a mere plurality of delegates, he will be rejected at the convention in favor of Biden. His only chance is to win a majority of at least 1,991 delegates outright before July.
How should he go about doing this? I think the answer is that is time to get tough. Sanders should announce immediately that the Democratic Party itself is irrelevant, that a choice between Trump and Biden is one not worth making, and that his supporters have nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying to secure the nomination for him and no one else. He should commence a parallel campaign against the party that has been conducting one against him for half a decade now. No more calls for Democratic unity, no more making nice with people who fear him more than they do the guy they pretend is an existential threat to both the American republic and the global order. Reject their deceitful clemency. Rally the troops instead. Do everything possible to increase turnout. Try to squeeze a few endorsements out of whatever elected officials are willing to go on the record, including the rather large number of former presidential candidates who have so far declined to come out in favor of Biden. If all else fails, use the spoils system. Convince mid-level Democrats who are popular in crucial states that a primo cabinet job will open up if they say the right things. And for goodness' sake, ask Tom Steyer for help: If this rich dork is willing to spend upwards of a hundred million dollars for the chance of shaking your damn hand, he is probably good for a hundred million more for turnout operations and so on. Abandon proceduralist strictures about campaign finance. Unleash the Green New Deal PAC or whatever. In the words of Francis Bacon:
Mahomet made the people believe that he would call an hill to him, and from the top of it offer up his prayers, for the observers of his law. The people assembled; Mahomet called the hill to come to him, again and again; and when the hill stood still, he was never a whit abashed, but said, If the hill will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet will go to the hill.
How likely are these tactics to work in Bernie's favor? Not very, if only because thanks to his Super Tuesday showing the delegate math already looks so bad for him. But there is something to be said for the Neil Young principle here. Does he really want to throw away his credibility by telling his supporters that, once again, they should vote for an uninspiring DNC-approved centrist who loses to Trump in humiliating fashion? Wouldn't it be better, not only for him but for his movement, such as it is, to be able to say in 2021 that once again presented with a choice between an uninspiring liberal and an engaging populist they opted for the latter?
But a better question is not whether a scorched-earth campaign would succeed, but whether Sanders is actually capable of launching one. Here, I think, the answer is no. If he were, it would have happened already, in 2016, when without prompting he disclaimed all interest in Hillary Clinton's emails — and indeed abandoned all but the most anodyne criticisms of her, ceding the huge territory of Clinton scandals to Trump. Instead he endorsed her and she (predictably, despite what observers said at the time) lost.
Why is Sanders unable to fight? For two reasons, I think.
The first is simply that he is an amiable old man who does not relish combat, verbal or otherwise, with anyone. It's not that Sanders is never truculent in his rhetoric. But his targets are always safe, and more often than not vague — the infamous and anonymous "millionaires and billionaires" who have been the source of a thousand stump speeches.
The second is that he has too much faith in the democratic process, believing, despite hundreds of years of evidence to the contrary, that what voters care about most is that sublime object of ideology, viz., "the issues." The truth is that "the issues," however defined or understood, fall somewhere in the middle of a huge continuum of voter concerns that also includes prejudices, aesthetics, opinions about candidates' personalities, and perhaps above all, the desire to be entertained. Whatever else it would be, hearing Sanders use Trumpian rhetoric to mock his liberal enemies would be hilarious. It would also foster a much-needed feeling of solidarity among his most fervent supporters, who are sick of being caricatured in the media, betrayed, lied to, and then asked to fall in politely in line behind whatever non-entity the DNC has decided to crown.
Sanders's benevolent disposition does him credit. But the same character traits that make him an honorable politician also make him fundamentally unsuited for the difficult task of waging a successful outsider campaign for the nomination of a major political party.