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Some Comments on the Sanders Campaign

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Some Comments on the Sanders Campaign


I’ve held off from saying much about Bernie Sanders’ decision to suspend his presidential campaign. In part that is because Naked Capitalism is a finance and economics site, but the Sanders campaign was particularly important because he ran on a full-bore attack on neoliberalism. He not only made ideas heretofore regarded as political third rails, like wiping out the private health insurance industry, as proposals to be reckoned with, but also built funding, media, and canvassing operations entirely outside the Democratic party structure, which were impressive operational accomplishments.

I wish he had soldiered on a bit longer, but with key senior staffers pushing for him to effectively withdraw, he may have felt he had no choice (he could not continue with these disaffected aides in key roles, and it would have been extremely difficult to replace them). And keep in mind that coronavirus ending the campaign’s ability to hold large rallies and canvass in person, and potentially have supporters show up en masse in Milwaukee if he had over 40% of the delegates but not a majority as a testament to their loyalty to him, were additional crippling blows.

There will be more analyses and no doubt books written about the Sanders campaign, what it achieved and why it fell short. Lambert is toying with working up “matrix of failure” based on a structure of analysis devised in the classic book Military Misfortunes, and he has discussed both some questionable decisions other have highlighted, like why didn’t Sanders present policies in Iowa that addressed the needs of farming communities, or why didn’t he try harder to win over black leaders in the South, particularly South Carolina, so as to keep his loss to a respectable level.

Today, we’ll stick to a narrow issue, a meme which has become popular and Lambert and I regard as fundamentally wrong: that Sanders should have become more aggressive with Biden and tried to deliver a “knockout punch”. Lambert rejects the idea because among other things, it perpetuates the horserace framing of the contest, which he sees as wrong-headed. I’ve been put off by it because first, it’s too often comes from Sanders backers and members of the left calling for what they’d liked to see as opposed to what it would have taken to win over fence-sitting voters.

Second, the desire for a “knockout punch” is too reminiscent of action movies, where the outmanned hero somehow through ninja moves and/or impressive gunplay manages to kill a whole lot of baddies and emerge only a bit scratched up. It’s an admission of how much of an underdog position Sanders was still in. The mainstream media, day in, day out was gunning for him when it wasn’t ignoring him, and that continued at the debates, which him regularly getting the most “When did you stop beating your wife?” sort of questions, and often denied rebuttals when attacked by other candidates. The superdelegate system, though less heavy-handed than in 2016, still set an extremely high bar for him to win the nomination. The Democrats got rid of many state caucuses, which as we saw in Iowa, are more transparent than elections (so his backers had the dubious pleasure of seeing Sanders win the popular vote and even the eventual delegate tally had it been honestly counted….but the press would not touch that chicanery with a ten foot pole). There was obvious vote suppression in Texas by removing polling stations in poor neighborhoods, and in Maine by not having enough ballots in many districts. And exit polls consistently found support for Sanders higher than the eventual totals, by higher than the margin of error…which in third world countries is seen as a likely indicator of election rigging.

One also has to wonder if Pelosi’s curious decision to sit on the impeachment referral was largely driven by wanting to cashier Warren and Sanders and allow Biden and Buttigieg to make inroads against them in Iowa.

Yes, it would have been fun to see Sanders slap around Biden in a debate the way Warren did Bloomberg. But Warren got no bounce for accelerating Bloomberg’s exit (which was bound to happen given all his baggage and the fact Bloomberg had no loyalties to the party). Harris got only a short-lived pop from attacking Biden on his race record. Gabbard never got above 5% even with the flurry of coverage for her kneecapping of Harris.

Sanders did hold his fire against Biden, but attacking a fellow candidate at the podium is tricky business. What if Sanders had gone after Biden’s supposed greatest point of vulnerability, his record on Social Security? That had already been undercut by a Sanders ad that misfired and failed a Poynter Institute fact check: Sanders’ misleading Social Security attack on Biden. Biden would have turned the tables on Sanders and said, “There you go again. You ran an ad that misrepresented my record of supporting Social Security, a fact check even said so. And you’re doing it again.”

And the Sanders campaign was already under attack for being too angry. Even though Sanders worked to soften his public persona after his heart attack, his habitual stance is finger-punching about injustice. Generally speaking, Americans are very uncomfortable with disagreement and want emotional displays to be strongly biased towards happy (look at our movies compared to film out of Europe and Asia). Sanders’ regular shows of righteous anger is on the edge of what many will accept.

Disappointed Sanders supporters are also ignoring the elephant in the room: his “electability”. I don’t think most understood what that dog whistle signified, since to any Sanders fan, the charge was ludicrous on its face. Sanders had beaten Trump by 10 to 20 point margins in every one-on-one poll in 2016, every time, larger than Hillary’s point spread, and in 2020, almost always did best of all the Democratic party contenders in one-to-one polls.

Sanders voters were often too deeply vested in his policies to understand what the beef was. Studies on cognitive bias have shown again and again that people will react to the same economic proposition differently, depending on its framing. So even though polls for the last 30 years have consistently found that a majority, or the very worst, a clear plurality favors progressive positions like higher minimum wages, strengthening Social Security and Medicare, ending the wars, and taxing the rich, most Americans identify as centrists or even conservatives.

So “electability,” particularly for older voters, is code for “Sanders is McGovern 2.0.” “Even if you like him, he’s too far to the left. Too many big government schemes, too much in tax increases.” That’s also the point of attack with the Trump “Crazy Bernie” monicker: Pie in the sky, big spending.” And that’s before you get to the “s” word.

Sanders did not help himself by failing to knock back predictable and repeated attacks on his major policies. Biden in particular would repeatedly claim Sanders was lying about how much his health care plan would cost and would bandy about scary numbers. Sanders never rebutted that effectively when he had an easy first line of response:

Yes, Joe, taxes will go up. But guess what? For all but the very richest, you’ll have more cash in your pocket at year end. Right now, you are paying for expensive middlemen and overpriced drugs. Studies have found America’s health care admin costs are 18% to 30% of total costs, versus 2% for Medicare. That’s money we can save right away. We also pay more for drugs than any country in the world even when our government paid for the R&D! Those are savings we can get quickly too. There’s even more we can do over time.

The Green New Deal was also part of Sanders platform, but as least based on tweets of his operatives and supporters, it seemed to be getting 1% of the attention from the campaign as his Medicare for All push. That may have been a blessing in disguise. “Green New Deal” on the left is a hodge-podge of ideas. The Sanders plan does show a lot of initiatives, but even with various programs listed and price tags attached, it still winds up feeling weirdly abstract. If he had wanted to feature this more prominently (or his opponents wanted to corner him into defending it), it would have helped to make it more concrete: “Here are some of the things it would do in Wichita, Kansas.”

But again, for those who have not accepted a Green New Deal as the way to tackle climate change (and this site has reservations, since these schemes rely over-much on building new infrastructure, which means front-loaded energy costs using our current heavily-fossil-fuel-dependent energy sources), it sounds like costly leftie empire-building.

We’re not the only ones to be generally of this point of view. In comments yesterday Mark Giselson stated:

I’m a former party hack. Always a socialist, but up until 2000 I always worked within the framework of D party politics (labor issues excepted as the socialist labor folks were ALWAYS more helpful than the D’s).

I do not think Bernie ran a bad campaign. I’ve never seen stronger ground support or better discipline (Tweeters are not the campaign). I’ve also never seen such a massive disconnect vote-wise. For the life of me I cannot make sense of any of our election results this year.

Normally you can ALWAYS deconstruct an election after the fact. In 2016, I could not do that. The numbers did not add up and the general election numbers reinforced that analysis.

This cycle, not only do the numbers not add up, the case for count manipulation is incredibly well documented.

I honestly doubt that we’ve seen an honest national election in this century.

Bernie ran the kind of campaign you need to run to win. You cannot go scorched earth in the primaries, period. It cost Obama the PUMA vote and it cost HRC more Bernie votes than she could afford to lose. The PUMAs were, btw, the first organized super sore losers I’ve seen since the Vietnam War ended.

You win in the fall by prevailing in the spring in ways that do not unnecessarily offend your opponents’ followers. Bernie was running that kind of campaign; he was running to win in November.

He could still be fighting, but that would just assure he gets the blame when Biden gets humiliated by Trump. I have no problems with Bernie, or how he ran this campaign.

He didn’t bring a knife to a gunfight, he brought his guns. The other side had water cannons, the media, the police, the governors and all the machinery of corrupt governance because they knew that in a fair fight, Bernie would kick their ass.

He still has my full and complete respect. And I am still well on his left. We could not have done better without a better candidate and we didn’t have a better candidate.

The amount change Sanders was seeking to achieve normally takes more than a generation. The concerted right wing push, backed by open-ended corporate spending, Madison-Avenue phrasemaking, and an orchestrated effort to reshape jurisprudence, took 20 years to start getting real traction. Sanders looked to have an opening to carry his program forward much faster due to the fact that the elites did almost nothing to reform a broken and deeply unfair economic system after the 2008 crisis. The Democratic party had performed badly with and under Hillary Clinton, giving Sanders an opening no one had imagined was there.

The overly-large 2020 primary field, as many party insiders worried, had the potential to drain candidate coffers early, leaving them with less funding than they’d need to trounce Trump. And it didn’t help Sanders to have Warren as the more moderate progressive, not just splitting the left-leaning vote but also helping to show those nervous fence-sitters that Sanders really was out there….by some standard.

In fact, Warren may have been the perfect spoiler. Trump can be unnervingly accurate:

But on top of that, she did seem to accelerate Bloomberg’s demise. If Bloomberg had stayed in the race longer, say at least through Florida, he would have sucked votes mainly from Biden. It’s not clear the post-South-Carolina salvo against Sanders would have been as effective with Bloomberg still running.

Unlike the many Sanders critics, Thomas Frank is quite clear that Sanders not a self-saboteur but on the wrong end of a hatchet job. A snippet from his important piece in Harpers, How the Anti-Populists Stopped Bernie Sanders:

But the danger of anti-populism is that it goes far beyond objecting to one vile politician. This was demonstrated in March as the anti-populist establishment came together to pummel the campaign of Bernie Sanders. Whatever its target, anti-populism is always a brief for elite and even aristocratic power, an attack on the democratic tradition itself. That is ultimately what’s in the crosshairs when commentators tell us that populism is a “threat to liberal democracy”; when they announce that populism “is almost inherently antidemocratic”; when they declare that “all people of goodwill must come together to defend liberal democracy from the populist threat.”…

Here is David Brooks, making the connection between “populists of left and right” in a New York Times column denouncing Sanders. The Vermont senator, Brooks asserts, embraces

the populist values, which are different [from liberal ones]: rage, bitter and relentless polarization, a demand for ideological purity among your friends and incessant hatred for your supposed foes.

And here is how The Economist made exactly the same point, whining that Americans may soon be forced to choose

between a corrupt, divisive, right-wing populist, who scorns the rule of law and the constitution, and a sanctimonious, divisive, left-wing populist, who blames a cabal of billionaires and businesses for everything that is wrong with the world. All this when the country is as peaceful and prosperous as at any time in its history. It is hard to think of a worse choice.

As it happens, the men of quality did their job, and working Americans will not face the ignoble prospect of voting for a candidate who takes their side against billionaires and businesses. The larger message of anti-populism, regardless of where it comes from on the political spectrum, is always one of complacency. Elites rule us because elites should rule us. They are in charge because they are the best.

And so we come to understand the real task before us today: to rescue from the enormous condescension of the comfortable the one political tradition that has a chance of reversing our decades-long turn to the right.

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