Mainstream Democrats shouldn’t fear Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders’s win in Nevada following his New Hampshire victory marks the Vermont senator as the clear frontrunner for the Democratic Party nomination.

Alarm, clearly visible in a range of mainstream Democratic circles over the past several weeks, is now going to kick into overdrive.

But this frame of mind is fundamentally misguided. For all the agita around Sanders’s all-or-nothing rhetoric, his behavior as a longtime member of Congress (and before that as a mayor) suggests a much more pragmatic approach to actual legislating than some of the wilder “political revolution” rhetoric would suggest.

On the vast majority of issues, a Sanders administration would deliver pretty much the same policy outcomes as any other Democrat. The two biggest exceptions to this, foreign policy and monetary policy, happen to be where Sanders takes issue with an entrenched conventional wisdom that is deeply problematic.

Some of the anti-Sanders sentiment is driven by pique at his followers’ most obnoxious behavior. But it would be better to bring these voters into the tent than leave them outside attacking inward.

Sanders’s wins are hardly the end of the 2020 Democratic primary. Joe Biden remains a contender; there are many delegate-rich states with large African American populations that may be more favorable to him, and it’s been known for a long time that the idiosyncrasies of the caucus structure give Sanders an edge he won’t have in future primaries.

And, obviously, nominating a 78-year-old self-described socialist is a risky move and not an outcome that would have been cooked up by political scientists working in an electability lab. But at this point, all the main contenders have some electability risks. Sanders comes with a strong electoral track record in practice, and he brings some unique assets to the table as someone who appeals precisely to the most fractious elements of the anti-Trump coalition.

Sanders has a strong electoral track record

The specter of “socialism” hangs over the Sanders campaign, terrifying mainstream Democrats with the reality that, when asked about it by pollsters, most Americans reject the idea. Given that Sanders tends to anchor his politics in Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, it seems as though everyone involved would be better off if he labeled himself a New Deal Democrat and let us revert to the normal pattern where Republicans call mainstream liberals “socialists” and liberals push back rather than accepting an unpopular label.

All that said, in current head-to-head polling matchups with Donald Trump, Sanders does well and is normally winning. Skeptics worry whether that lead will hold up against the sure-to-come cavalcade of attack ads from Trump. It’s a reasonable concern.

But it’s worth underscoring that Sanders’s electoral track record in Vermont is strong. Winning elections in Vermont is not, per se, incredibly impressive. There are plenty of left-wing Democrats who win elections while underperforming simply because they run in such blue states (Elizabeth Warren fits that mold), as well as plenty of moderate Democrats who overperform in tough races even while losing (former Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill is a good example).

Sen. Bernie Sanders waves to supporters at a campaign rally in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 21, 2020.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Sanders, however, overperforms in his easy races. He consistently runs ahead of Democratic presidential nominees in his home state, which suggests he knows how to overcome the “socialist” label, get people to vote for him despite some eccentricities, and even peel off some Republican votes.

He first got to Congress by winning a tough three-way race in 1990, when Vermont was an only slightly blue-leaning state. He went on to consistently run ahead of Democratic presidential campaigns as a candidate for Vermont’s at-large seat in the US House of Representatives.

  • In 1992, Sanders got 58 percent to Bill Clinton’s 46 percent (it was a strong state for presidential candidate Ross Perot, but Sanders also faced a “third-party” challenge from a Democrat).
  • In 1996, Sanders got 55 percent to Clinton’s 53 percent.
  • In 2000, he got 69 percent to Al Gore’s 51 percent.
  • In 2004, he got 67 percent to John Kerry’s 59 percent.
  • Sanders got elected to the Senate in 2006, so he wasn’t on the ballot in 2008 or 2016. But in 2012, he won 71 percent to Obama’s 67 percent.

This is not definitive proof of Sanders’s skills. But it would have been easy for Vermonters who had doubts about Sanders to cast meaningless protest votes for his opponents.

Instead, Sanders appears able to make lemonade out of the whole “not officially a Democrat” thing by getting the votes of some non-Republicans who backed Perot in the 1990s and, more recently, other third-party candidates such as Jill Stein, Ralph Nader, and Gary Johnson. Indeed, one noteworthy thing about Sanders is that in head-to-head polling matchups against Trump, he tends to do better than you’d expect simply by looking at his favorable ratings.

And, critically, Sanders’s popularity seems to be concentrated among certain blocs of persuadable voters (likely those considering a third-party vote), while a chunk of those who disapprove of Sanders are hardcore partisan Democrats who don’t like his lack of party spirit but will vote for him anyway.

Sanders knows how to govern effectively

Mainstream Democrats also worry at times that Sanders would simply prove too extreme to get things done as president. And, indeed, on occasion his campaign lapses into rhetoric that suggests an unreasonable aversion to compromise.

But it’s worth remembering that Sanders is a 30-year veteran of the US Congress, not a 20-something hardliner with a red rose on his Twitter bio. We can evaluate his actual track record as a politician.

In that capacity, Sanders has sometimes staked out lonely, courageous stands (against the Iraq War or the Defense of Marriage Act, which barred same-sex couples from enjoying the same federal benefits as married couples). He’s also frequently cast meaningless protest votes against big bipartisan compromises that sail through with huge majorities. But he’s never pulled a Freedom Caucus-type stunt and refused to cast a pragmatic vote in favor of half a loaf.

Sanders has always talked about his blue-sky political ideals as something he believed in passionately, but he separated that idealism from his practical legislative work, which was grounded in vote counts. He voted for President Barack Obama’s Children’s Health Insurance Program reauthorization bill in 2009, and again for the Affordable Care Act in 2010. He voted for the Dodd-Frank bill and every other contentious piece of Obama-era legislation.

Indeed, this has been somewhat forgotten in the wake of the 2016 primary campaign: While Obama was in the White House, it was Sen. Elizabeth Warren who attracted the ire of administration officials and congressional leaders by occasionally spiking executive branch nominees or blowing up bipartisan deals.

The policy area in which Sanders has had the most practical influence is veterans-related issues, as he chaired the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee for a two-year span, during which Congress enacted substantive reform to the veterans’ health system.

Given the objective constellation of political forces at the time, this required bipartisan support, so Sanders (working mainly with Republican Sen. John McCain) produced a bipartisan bill that, in exchange for a substantial boost in funding, made some concessions to conservatives in creating “private options” for veterans to seek care outside of the publicly run Department of Veterans Affairs.

It’s fine if you want to be annoyed that Sanders’s self-presentation as a revolutionary who will sweep all practical obstacles aside is at odds with his reality as an experienced legislator who does typical senator stuff in a typical way. But there’s no reason to be worried that Sanders is a deluded radical who doesn’t understand how the government works.

Sanders’s annoying fans count in his favor

One of the odd developments of the social media era is that the extremely online set — which is not most people but does include a huge number of journalists, think-tankers, activists, and other influential people — reacts as much to their perceptions of different candidates’ support bases as to the candidates themselves.

MSNBC host Joy Reid, for example, is a frequent Bernieworld antagonist and earlier this month posted a poll showing that Sanders fans were much less likely than Biden or Warren supporters to commit to backing the eventual nominee come what may.

Her followers, in turn, reacted by castigating Sanders voters as “useless” and “a cult-like following,” while one observed this “looks bad for Sanders.”

John Weaver, one of the leading Never Trump ex-Republican personalities, sniffed that “one of them isn’t a Democrat.”

It is all well and good to be annoyed by people who will not commit to voting Trump out of office regardless of the identity of the Democratic Party nominee. But if you are a person who worries about electability, which many highly partisan Democrats are, then you are by definition a person who worries about courting the votes of people who will not commit to voting Trump out of office regardless of the identity of the Democratic Party nominee. The fact that Sanders has unusually strong support among people like that is a strength of his campaign, not a weakness.

Whenever I make this point, mainstream Democrats get grouchy and start grumbling about how you don’t negotiate with terrorists or give in to your toddler when he’s throwing a fit.

Those are funny analogies, but any effort to court swing voters has that same basic structure. Party loyalists are asked to make concessions to the views of people who are not loyalists, precisely because the non-loyalists’ irresponsibility and flightiness gives them more objective leverage. But if you pull it off successfully, what party loyalists get in exchange is partisan electoral victories — exactly the thing that, by definition, is most important to party loyalists.

If you’re a loyalist, it’s natural to feel grumpy about the non-loyalists who love Sanders, but if you’re trying to win the election, you need to get the votes of non-loyalists. By the same token, if you’re annoyed by Sanders’s Twitter’s attacks on mainstream Democrats, you’ll start finding them a lot less annoying if he gets the nomination and they start directing that energy against Trump and the GOP.

Sanders has some good ideas

Last but by no means least, some of Sanders’s out-of-the-mainstream ideas are good.

Some of his ideas are not so good, but it’s important to understand that on the vast majority of topics, the policy outputs of a Sanders administration just wouldn’t be that different from those of a Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg administration. Whether a new president promises continuity with Obama or a break with neoliberalism, the constraints will realistically come from Congress, where the median member is all but certain to be more conservative than anyone in the Democratic field.

On foreign policy, by contrast, the president is less constrained, and Sanders’s real desire to challenge aspects of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus makes a difference. He’s much more critical of Israel than most people in national politics, he’s a leading critic of the alliance with Saudi Arabia, and he’s generally skeptical of America’s expansive military posture.

These ideas are coded as “extreme” in Washington, where there’s significant bipartisan investment in the status quo. But polls show that most voters question the narratives of American exceptionalism, favor a reduced global military footprint and less defense spending, and are skeptical of the merits of profligate arms sales.

In practice, essentially every president ends up governing with more continuity than his campaign rhetoric suggested (Trump hasn’t broken up NATO; Obama never sat down with the leadership of Iran), so the differences are likely to be more modest than the rhetorical ones.

But differences are welcome and needed. The misbegotten invasion of Iraq should have, but largely didn’t, shake up the establishment “blob” that’s obsessed with pursuing US military hegemony and endless entanglements in the Middle East. Recent reporting by the Washington Post revealed that military and political leaders across three administrations have been lying to the public about the course of the war in Afghanistan — and it barely made a dent in domestic politics.

Nobody should have illusions about Sanders somehow unilaterally ushering in a bold new era of world peace, but he is by far the most likely person in the race to push back against expansive militarism — and that’s worth considering.

Foreign policy isn’t the only hidebound institution he is poised to shake up, either.

Pro-worker monetary policy could make a real difference

Monetary policy attracts even less attention in the primary than foreign policy. But the Washington Post surveyed the candidates’ views on interest rates when it asked whether the Federal Reserve’s current rates are too high, and the results were fascinating.

Buttigieg, Biden, and Warren all demurred, citing the dogma that the Federal Reserve should stay independent of politics (though Warren, to her credit, made a strong statement in a subsequent speech on the economy about the need to emphasize full employment).

Sanders, by contrast, offered a clear statement, saying he “disagreed with the Fed’s decision to raise interest rates in 2015-2018” because “raising rates should be done as a last resort, not to fight phantom inflation.”

Sens. Cory Booker and Michael Bennet, two minor then-candidates who weren’t really seen as Sanders’s fellow travelers when it comes to ideology, had somewhat similar things to say. “Historically, the Federal Reserve raises interest rates when the economy has reached full employment,” Booker said, adding that “our economy’s not there yet.”

Bennet nodded toward independence before saying that the Fed “has often fallen short of its full employment mandate, which has harmed workers, especially those trying to make ends meet.” He also said that his appointees to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors “will prioritize the employment mandate and consider every tool available to meet that mandate.”

Unfortunately, this is a niche issue many people don’t care about. Almost everyone does and should care about “the economy,” though, and the main government institution responsible for the state of “the economy” is the Fed.

What’s more, this is a particularly important issue precisely because it’s a little bit obscure. Any Democratic president’s Environmental Protection Agency director will come from the universe of “people the main environmental groups like and for whom moderate senators are willing to vote,” because that’s how politics works. But there are no strong interest groups that lobby around monetary policy.

A president who wants to install well-qualified people inclined to side with Sanders/Bennet/Booker will probably be able to do so, but a president who doesn’t care (like Obama) will probably end up appointing people whose views are all over the map (which is indeed what happened with Obama).

These aren’t the only two issues in America that matter, but they’re the main ones in which different nominees are likely to lead to different results. Almost everything that’s currently being debated, by contrast, is mostly pointless.

Stop freaking out

At the end of the day, Sanders’s record is not nearly as scary as many establishment Democrats fear. His “revolution” rhetoric doesn’t make sense to me, but he’s been an effective legislator for a long time, and he knows how to get things done — and how hard it is to get them done.

Some of his big ideas are not so hot on the merits, but it’s not worth worrying about them because the political revolution is so unrealistic. And on a couple of issues where the next president will probably have a fair amount of latitude, Sanders breaks from the pack in good ways. He’s perhaps not an ideal electability choice, but his track record on winning elections is solid and his early polling is pretty good. There’s no particular reason to think he’d be weaker than the other three top contenders, and at least some reason to think he’d be stronger.

Sen. Bernie Sanders campaigns in El Paso, Texas, on February 22, 2020.
Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images

A Sanders presidency should generate an emphasis on full employment, a tendency to shy away from launching wars, an executive branch that actually tries to enforce environmental protection and civil rights laws, and a situation in which bills that both progressives and moderates can agree on get to become law.

That’s a formula the vast majority of mainstream Democrats should be able to embrace.

Lots of moderate Democrats nonetheless find it annoying that Sanders and some of his followers are so committed to painting mainstream Democrats in such dark hues. But annoying people won’t stop being annoying if he loses the nomination. If anything, they will be more annoying than ever as some refuse to get enthusiastic about the prospect of beating Trump. But if Sanders wins, partisan Democrats who just want to beat Trump will magically stop finding Sanders superfans annoying — the causes will be aligned, and the vast majority of people who want Trump out of the White House can collaborate in peace.

That leaves us where we started. The president really does have a good deal of latitude in conducting national security policy. If it’s very important to you that the US maintain a hawkish military posture in the Middle East, that’s a good reason to worry a lot about Sanders.

But most likely, a Sanders presidency will simply mean that young progressive activists are less sullen and dyspeptic about the incremental policy gains that would result from any Democrat occupying the presidency. It’ll also mean a foreign policy that errs a bit more on the side of restraint compared with what you’d get from anyone else in the field, as well as an approach to monetary policy that errs a bit more on the side of full employment. That’s a pretty good deal, and you don’t need to be a socialist to see it.