Why Did Bernie Lose?

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Earlier today Andrew Stewart wrote an article explaining why he thought Bernie Sanders has lost the Democratic nomination to Joe Biden, as became apparent last night. (Yes, a miracle could happen in the age of coronavirus, but barring one the race is over.) I agree with some of what Andrew wrote, but I think he’s too hard on the candidate and his base, and misses some important reasons for the failure of his campaign.

Could Sanders have won the nomination? Sure, but it was never going to be easy and he was certainly not a shoo-in, even though a lot of people thought so after Nevada. Could he have been tougher on Joe Biden? Absolutely, I agree with Andrew that he should have blistered Biden with attack ads and generally been far more aggressive in going after him. Even at the Sanders-Biden debate he only went on the attack for a brief period. (From about 8:45 p.m. to 9:05 p.m. to the best of my recollection, which was by far his strongest period during the debate.)

Biden has an appalling political record compiled over decades as a senator and vice president to Barrack Obama, and for much of the race it appeared that the campaign didn’t have an oppo research file on him, or simply didn’t want to use it. Attack ads do work and I would have liked to see Biden firebombed with them from the second it became clear he was Sanders’s only remaining challenger.

Furthermore, there were warning signs in Iowa and New Hampshire, which he won by narrower margins than expected. One reason, of course, is that he wasn’t just running against the despised Hillary Clinton so voters had other options. But barely beating Pete Buttigieg in early states should have triggered alarm bells and showed that a race with many candidates, as opposed to a Sanders-Clinton race, was going to be far more complicated.

It’s too simplistic to say that Sanders lost only because of hostility from the media and Democratic establishment, but those were indisputably factors. The coordinated pre-Super Tuesday endorsements from Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and the pathetic Beto O’Rourke — plus Elizabeth Warren’s refusal to endorse him — certainly hurt.

Andrew applauds Sanders for “a sympathetic speech about the plight of the Palestinians,” which he called “a stellar act of bravery.” It was, and on many issues he pushed the political conversation far further to the left than it’s been in decades, including during his 2016 run. Medicare for All is popular with most Americans, especially at the moment when the country is set to be ravaged by coronavirus, but Sanders generally ran as far to the left as he could have in the context of U.S. politics, and have any chance of winning.

Would I like to see the Democratic Party destroyed? Yes? Do I want Sanders to support Joe Biden, as he has pledged to do? No. (Once again I won’t be voting for president, at least not for Donald Trump or Biden. I live in D.C. so my vote won’t matter anyway, given the electoral college.) Should Sanders have formed a third party after 2016, as Andrew suggests? Maybe, but there’s no way a third party can win in American politics and, if everything had broken the right way, he might have won the nomination and presidency by running in the Democratic primaries. (Even Joe Biden might win now, which I would have thought impossible before coronavirus and the ongoing economic melt down.)

It’s too early to write a postmortem of Sanders’s campaign and a lot more information is going to come out that will help us figure out what went wrong. But part of it, IMHO, is that the electorate is not as far to the left as Sanders’s leftist critics are. He generally ran a strong race, built a relatively diverse political coalition, made socialism a more popular idea — and there’s no putting that cat back in the bag — and excited younger voters. Were there failings? Sure, but I’d say that rather than trashing his campaign, lament that it failed and recognize that there’s a lot of blame to go around, and a lot of work to be done.

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