Why Aren’t Democrats Issuing a Sanders Alert?

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Austin, Texas, February 23, 2020. (Mike Segar/Reuters)It’s in the interest of all the Democratic candidates to see him destroyed, but it’s in no one’s individual interest to play the role of destroyer.

In Jaws 2, Roy Scheider reprises his role as Police Chief Brody, the landlubber lawman forced to battle a great white shark. He’s convinced there’s another beast out there, but he can’t persuade anyone who matters. “Look at this. That’s a shark,” says Brody, waving a grainy underwater photo at the town’s political leaders. “I’m telling you and I’m telling everyone at this table, that’s a shark. And I know what a shark looks like because I’ve seen one up close. And you better do something about this one, because I don’t intend to go through that hell again.”

That’s how some of us on the Right feel watching Senator Bernie Sanders’s rise through the primaries. A rabble-rouser with at most a transactional relationship with the Democratic Party is sweeping through the early contests by pandering to populist discontent. He’s toxic to the suburban moderates who tend to tip one party or the other toward a majority. (The candidates who won enough swing districts to flip the House of Representatives in 2018 were almost entirely from this column, not Sandernistas.)

The Democratic presidential field suffers from a problem similar to the one that crippled the GOP in 2016 and saddled us with Donald Trump. It’s in all the candidates’ interest to see Sanders destroyed, but it’s in no one’s individual interest to play the role of destroyer. So Elizabeth Warren spends her time attacking Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg focuses his rhetorical artillery on Amy Klobuchar, and Klobuchar returns fire. Even Bloomberg seems too scared to nuke Sanders from orbit.

When Trump launched his hostile takeover of the GOP, there was ammo of almost every kind to fire at him. He was a lifelong Democrat who’d been pro-abortion rights and pro-gun control. He didn’t have even a rudimentary understanding of the issues a president has to deal with, domestic or foreign. The stories about his personal shortcomings — affairs, bankruptcies, sexual improprieties, etc. — were an opposition researcher’s dream. Conservatives had decades of experience arguing on this turf, and they still failed to stop him. So intense was the populist ire against “the establishment,” Trump could claim every attack was proof that the old guard was scared of him.

Sanders is playing that same card effectively with his base, but he has other advantages as well. First, he may be quirky, but there’s comparatively little personal baggage to dredge up. Also, he may be a left-wing ideologue, but he’s a sophisticated and experienced one who sounds like he knows what he’s talking about.

Even more problematic, Democrats have no institutional memory when it comes to arguing with socialists. It’s been 73 years since the centrist liberals of Americans for Democratic Action waged their war against Communists inside the Democratic Party in 1947. Those arguments were against the backdrop of the Cold War. Sanders descends ideologically from the losers in that battle, but none of the descendants of the winners seem to know how to make the right arguments anymore.

Instead, they’ve slowly come around to Sanders’s point of view, both on policy and on politics. They’ve mostly bought into single-payer health care being the ideal goal, even if some counsel pragmatism in achieving it. Democrats have also become besotted with the “coalition of the ascendant” — young people, minorities, and immigrants who will demographically and righteously overpower the old guard. If the anointed masses say they like socialism, who are Democrats to tell them they’re wrong?

In 2016, the head of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was asked countless times to explain the difference between socialists and liberals or Democrats, and she either dodged or failed every time. Buttigieg said this week: “I respect my friend Senator Sanders. I believe the ideals he talks about are ideals we all share.”

This isn’t exactly drawing a bright line.

Like Brody in Jaws II, James Carville, the Democratic guru who managed Bill Clinton’s successful campaign in 1992, has tried to sound the alarm. But unlike Brody’s warning, Carville’s sounds awfully anemic.

“If you want to vote for Bernie Sanders because you feel good about his program, you don’t like the banks on Wall Street or you don’t like pharmaceuticals, that’s legitimate, I understand that,” Carville recently said on MSNBC. “If you’re voting for him because you think he’ll win the election, politically, you’re a fool.”

Carville may be right politically, and that will matter to some of the voters who care most about giving Trump the boot. But as Sanders racks up wins, the electability argument loses its oomph, just as it did in 2016 with Trump. And, soon, attacks on the clear front-runner with the most votes will be denounced by those who insist the party unify around the people’s choice, again.

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