History will best remember Bernie Sanders for his role in helping elect Donald Trump. Happily for many (if not most) Democrats, Sanders is now fading big time.
The earlier assumption was that the 2020 Democratic race would boil down to a brawl between Sanders and Joe Biden. Now we see Elizabeth Warren edging Sanders out for second place in a few polls. Biden, meanwhile, remains comfortably ahead of both of them.
What did Sanders do wrong in 2016? It wasn’t challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. That was fair. Rather, it was his savaging her long after she had become the obvious victor. By May 3, Trump had become the presumptive Republican nominee, but Sanders withheld his endorsement for Clinton until July 12. The game was political extortion, threatening the Democratic Party and its candidate with chaos at the national convention if his demands weren’t met.
Interesting that some prominent leftists, Bernie people in the past, have recently moved to Warren, the other populist progressive. Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher of the left-wing Nation magazine, sang Warren’s praises in a Washington Post column that barely acknowledged Sanders’s existence — and even those rare mentions seemed designed to appease the democratic socialist’s avid fandom.
An oddity of the Sanders phenomenon has been its obsessive need to lecture the public on the beauties of socialism. In a recent spiel, Sanders went to great lengths to brand popular Medicare as a socialist-style program.
Is it? Medicare isn’t socialized medicine. It is, however, socialized insurance. But let’s not quibble. We can easily believe that conservatives in those gated retirement communities would grab their pitchforks if their Medicare benefits were menaced. But they might also turn the weapons around to anyone who calls them socialists. Sanders is not going to change their mindset.
Calling Medicare socialism does not help Medicare’s cause. When the health insurance program for the elderly was debated in the early 1960s, Ronald Reagan raged that Medicare would be a “socialized program.” If it wasn’t stopped, he warned, “you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in America when men were free.”
The last thing Medicare’s backers would have said at the time is that Medicare would be great because it’s socialism. The longrunning problem with Sanders is that he seems more interested in selling the socialism label than the products that allegedly lie behind it.
Sanders might find solace in a poll showing that almost 3 in 4 Democrats are cool with socialism. But one imagines that more like 11 out of 10 Democrats are not at all OK with re-electing Trump.
And that’s why affections on the left are steering toward Warren. She is a progressive, to be sure. Some of her proposals may be attractive, others less so. But when asked how she feels about capitalism, she says things like, “I am a capitalist to my bones,” and “I believe in markets.” Thus, she’d be far more electable than Sanders.
That Warren used to be a Republican — something some heretic hunters on the left use against her — is an attraction in my book. It suggests an understanding about how independents and moderate Republicans hear political messages.
Warren has her demerits. She can grate with her hectoring and incendiary rhetoric. And that weird dance over her claimed Cherokee heritage made one question her judgment. Why in the world, after Donald Trump challenged the claim, did she release a DNA test that showed it to be almost entirely untrue?
So Biden remains the strongest candidate to smite Trumpism. And a burden will be lifted off Democrats once Sanders again becomes the curiosity from Vermont that he once was.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.