As Matthew Yglesias wrote in a Vox article earlier today, Bernie Sanders is really the frontrunner for President in 2020. Not only is he the frontrunner, he’s ahead of the pack by a large margin. No other potential Democratic contender, be it Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, or Al Franken, has that national campaign infrastructure nor the remarkable approval ratings of Mr. Sanders. To further the case, Sanders has built the biggest grassroots campaign funding mechanism that country has ever seen, receiving contributions from nearly 2 and a half million small dollar donors.
And, as Yglesias points out, Sanders appears to be doing all he can to position himself for another run at the Presidency.
“He’s established a national political organization, he’s improved his ties with colleagues on Capitol Hill, he’s maintained a heavy presence in national media, and he’s traveling the country talking about issues,” Yglesias writes. “In subtle ways he’s shifted his policy commitments to the center, making himself a more broadly acceptable figure in the party. At the same time, he’s held on to a couple of signature issues — Medicare-for-all and tuition-free public college — that give him exactly the kind of clear-cut and broadly accessible agenda that mainstream Democrats lack.”
But could Sanders really run again, and if so would he win? After all, it’s much easier to be the honest little man speaking truth to power that was cheated out of the nomination by a corrupt DNC than to be a candidate again in the spotlight of a critical press. As Sanders and his team have noted, the press has often been dismissive of the Sanders platform, which could prove a difficult obstacle in a path to the White House.
The answer is yes, Bernie could win in 2020 against President Trump, but he needs to take some critical steps if he wants to do so.
Bridging the divide
Despite calls to hold the line from some of the Senators more ardent left wing supporters, Sanders must recognize the divisions in the party and do his part to bridge them if he wants to be successful. No matter how popular Mr. Sanders is among the American people, the structural realities of American politics still necessitate party support in order to win election. Even with his unprecedented grassroots army of campaign donors, Sanders would likely have to rely on party fundraising in a primary election. Lord knows the Koch network would pour hundreds of millions of dollars into opposing Sanders.
Like almost all arguments, the answer lies in the gray area rather than in the black or white. Both sides of the Democratic divide need to understand this. If the progressive faction simply shouts at moderates to become more progressive, the party is never going to be able to organize itself in a unified way needed to win a general election.
As noted in the Vox piece, Senator Sanders seems to understand this principle. His endorsement of Hillary Clinton and more notably his touring of the country with DNC chair Tom Perez, whose candidacy he opposed, shows the Mr. Sanders at least understands the optics of unity.
Policy wise, Sanders will no doubt have to moderate if he’s intent on winning a general election. A crafty bit of populism would allow Sander to do just that without abandoning his core principles. Single payer healthcare, a minimum wage increase, and free public college poll very well with the American people. If Sanders keeps these core components of his agenda but moderates on things like raising taxes and immigration, his campaign will be set up nicely to defeat President Trump.
Age is going to be an issue
If Senator Sanders was 70, his age wouldn’t be a huge issue. Trump just turned 71 years old and is in far worse shape than Mr. Sanders. But Sanders is 75, meaning he would be 78 when he took office, which is going to be an enormous liability in spite of his energy and health.
This doesn’t mean Sanders can’t win. Those who are pro Sanders will point out how healthy he is and that he’s only 4 years older than an overweight and out of shape Trump. Those arguments would likely be convincing enough to dissuade enough people from turning away from Sanders because of age.
The key for Sanders here, than, is making his Vice Presidential pick a priority. He should be open to discussing his age early on in the campaign, and he should announce a Vice President before it’s usually considered optimal. Choosing a young and capable Vice President before inevitable attack ads and deceptively edited clips about him being too old to be President really sink in with voters. Piggybacking on the previous sections emphasis on bridging divides, Sanders would be smart to pick a Vice President who is to the right of him as well. Amy Klobuchar is a name that comes to mind.
Along with being the frontrunner in terms of campaign infrastructure, enthusiastic support, and grassroots popularity, Sanders is simply the best choice to defeat Donald Trump. If Sanders was 10 years younger, it’s hard to see anyone else even having a remote chance at becoming the Democratic nominee.
President Trump is a populist, and to the dismay of many elite Democrat Hillary Clinton types, the best way to beat populism is to match it. If Trump is going to attract huge swaths of the population with anti-immigrant and pro-military rhetoric, the opposing candidate needs to mirror that enthusiasm. In this context, it’s not all that surprising that Clinton lost in 2020. While Trump promised to build a wall to keep all the immigrants out that were brining crime into the country and taking jobs, Hillary Clinton was promising detailed policy on moderately regulating the financial industry. A tough sell when juxtaposed to Trump’s populism. If Trump hadn’t had such a laundry list of personal deficits, he very well may have won by a larger margin.
Sanders, and he might be the only one, has also crafted the right message for Democrats in opposition to Trump. While the other members of his party (I know, not technically his party) have been screaming about collusion and Twitter rants, Sanders has consistently attacked the administration on policy. That’s the winning ticket for the left in opposing Trump. If they continue to obsess over the Russia investigation day in and day out, and Robert Mueller’s team comes back with nothing showing explicit collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, Democrats are digging their own grave. As things stand, that actually seems like the most realistic possibility. Sure, Mueller might reprimand Trump in the way that Comey reprimanded Clinton of her reckless use of e-mails, but it seems pretty unlikely that Trump was unequivocally complicit. As his defenders have correctly pointed out, if there was a real smoking gun it likely would have leaked by now.
Policy wise, Sanders has a golden ticket
There’s been two results of the Trump administration’s policy prescriptions thus far; they’ve either failed to achieve them, or they’re extremely unpopular. All of Trump’s popular campaign proposals, from infrastructure to building the wall, have largely disappeared from the agenda. The travel ban was poorly received and the GOP Obamacare replacement bill is polling in the low teens. Trump has three popular accomplishments thus far: the nomination of Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, freezing Obama’s environmental regulations, and striking Syria for using chemical weapons. While Gorsuch was an unquestionable win, Trump’s EPA freeze has been struck down in the courts and the Syrian strike poll bump quickly faded away as no further action was taken.
Sanders has a whole litany of issues to attack Trump on and a laundry list of his own proposals, all of which will play well with the American people. He can excoriate Trump for attempting to take away people’s Medicare and Medicaid and attack him as a phony for breaking his promise to invest in infrastructure. He will then advocate for single payer, free college tuition, and the infrastructure investment Trump failed (assuming he does) to provide. Sanders would win big on each of these issues.
It is in the arena of foreign policy in which I feel Mr. Sanders is most lacking. Sanders struggled with both depth and a clear stance on a number of foreign policy issues during the 2016 primary, oscillating between swearing oath that he wasn’t an isolationist and lambasting Hillary Clinton’s support for regime change. Throughout, he never articulated any real foreign policy vision.
As Yglesias notes in his article, Sanders appears to be trying to address this deficiency. He has hired Matt Duss, a well-respected Middle East policy expert. Duss is a critic of both Saudi Arabia and Israel, a position Sanders would most likely build into his foreign policy platform. As with all Democrats who are critical of Israel, Sanders would be wise to walk a fine line and make sure not to upset pro-Israel voters. Unlike Saudi Arabia, which a large majority of citizens have come to hold disdain for, a huge portion of the electorate is still fervently pro-Israel.
While Trump and Sanders have differences on foreign policy, their core message during the 2016 campaign was essentially the same, albeit in different language. Trump’s message was to the point and explicit, “America First.” If you listen to Sanders during the primary debates, he pretty much makes the same argument, often answering foreign policy questions by discussing how the American people are hurting and we should be focused on them first. Sanders would have to find a way to differentiate himself from Trump in order to succeed in the primary.
On trade, it would be wise for Sanders to craft a sort of prototype trade policy that he would support. Despite his ‘fair trade’ rhetoric, Mr. Trump is clearly opposed to free trade. Senator Sanders has a big problem here, as he is the one who spearheaded the anti-TPP movement against Obama, a movement Trump seized upon. Sanders should angle for a trade policy that protects wages, encourages exports, and affirms a commitment to fighting global climate change.
On the military, Trump’s poor performance on the global stage would give Sanders a real opportunity. Sanders could affirm our commitment to NATO and article 5, reaffirm American support for negotiations with Iran, and work with foreign policy advisers like Matt Duss to craft a plan for dealing with Syria and North Korea.
Senator Sanders has a number of steps to take if he’s genuinely interested in running for President in 2020. His behavior in recent weeks and months suggest he’s gearing up to do just that. Choosing a young moderate Vice President, matching Trump’s policy populism, and schooling up on his foreign policy are the keys if he so chooses to run.
If he takes the right steps there’s no reason to believe Senator Sanders couldn’t be President Sanders in 2020 and, if Trump remains historically unpopular, he would likely have a lot of political capital to achieve his progressive agenda.