As anticipated, Bernie Sanders has announced that he’s in the 2020 race for president. I’m an old Sanders fan, and I supported his presidential candidacy in 2016. This time I’m not sure, but I will most probably not be going with Bernie.
Sanders made a huge contribution to progressive politics with his 2016 candidacy. In his call for a serious assault on economic inequality and its roots in corporate power, he moved the national conversation to the left, and with it, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. Sanders’ candidacy was pivotal because there was no prominent Democrat (Sanders is an independent) willing to challenge the prevailing centrist liberal orthodoxy represented by the party’s odds-on presumptive nominee. Sanders’ surprisingly strong showing against Clinton continues to shape Democratic Party politics: many of the countless prospective 2020 presidential hopefuls are staking out aggressively progressive positions that would have been almost unthinkable just a decade ago.
So, I’m very grateful to Bernie, but precisely because of his success, his candidacy for 2020 doesn’t play the unique, critical role it did last time. There are other progressive stalwarts who are in or likely to join the race—Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown and maybe Jeff Merkley. And so, I’m less willing to overlook Bernie’s negatives than I was in 2016. Those negatives start with his age (77), which is a political liability even if you think it shouldn’t be. They also include past difficulties, which perhaps can be overcome, in relating to important feminist and African-American constituencies in the Democratic Party. (For a fair-minded assessment of Bernie’s plusses and minuses, see David Leonhardt’s opinion piece in today’s NY Times on line.)
Most importantly, Bernie is politically vulnerable on policy grounds. Many voters will not be happy once they take a good look at his version of Medicare for all, which would end private health insurance and require large-scale tax increases that would extend to the middle class. (To his credit, Sanders was up-front about advocating such tax increases, though even still they were probably not quite enough to fully pay for his agenda.) His advocacy of free college for all is also an expensive proposition that would disproportionately help the upper middle class. These proposals didn’t get much scrutiny in 2016 because Hillary was loath to alienate Sanders supporters by hitting him too hard, and because he didn’t make it to the nomination. Maybe he will modify these positions for 2020, but I rather doubt that he will.
Sanders’ negatives don’t seem to show up in the public opinion polls, which continue to give him high favorability ratings, but I fear that that could change quickly in a general election campaign. I know solid Democrats who, fairly or not, see Bernie as at least a little wild and irresponsible. I’m afraid that there must be some independent voters who don’t like Trump but would be scared off by Sanders.
On the other hand it is possible that Bernie can compensate for whatever queasiness he evokes in some voters thanks to a quality that is highly valued by the electorate: his authenticity. Personality counts for a lot in US politics, often more than policy. Hardly anybody doubts that Bernie is for real, that he is serious and passionate about his cause and unbought by anybody. (The misperception of authenticity is a major basis for Trump’s popular appeal.) So, I am not prepared to rule Bernie out. It is conceivable that he would be as strong a candidate as any of the other Democrats, maybe stronger. I don’t think so, but who can really say at this point? Let’s see how the campaign develops.