JVL
The Bulwark Presents
The Triad by JVL

Bernie Could Beat Trump. Here’s How.

The conventional wisdom says that Bernie Sanders can't possibly beat Trump. The conventional wisdom is wrong.
February 19, 2020
Featured Image
Frontrunner? (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

1. How Bernie Loses

I understand the Democratic panic about the possibility of Bernie Sanders winning their nomination.

He might be a weak challenger to Trump!

Alone among the field, he is uniquely vulnerable and has never been fully vetted!

Even if he beats Trump, he might be a terrible president!

I think we can grant all of that and stipulate that Sanders presents some very real vulnerabilities that are different not just in degree, but in kind, from the other major candidates. Just off the top of my head:

  • He is a “democratic-socialist” at a time when “socialism” polls poorly.
  • He favors a number of big-ticket policies which are, by the numbers, unpopular: The elimination of private health insurance, the decriminalization of borders, free college for everyone with no means testing.
  • He has a well-documented history of flirting with anti-American forces—from Castro to the Iranian mullahs to the Soviet Union.
  • No one has ever seriously aired the problems with his wife’s career.

These are all real things and it’s not hard to see how they could cripple Bernie’s campaign against Trump.

And then there’s the fact that the Trump campaign clearly wants to run against Sanders. They’ve been stanning for him for weeks now. In general, you do not want to give the other guy the challenger he is dying to see unless you think the other guy is either very stupid or has a fundamental misunderstanding of his own interests.

And say what you will about Trump, but while he may not be intelligent by intellectual standards—for instance, by knowing facts or history—he has a very deep sense of animal cunning. And he has demonstrated, over and over, that he has an instinctual understanding of his own interests that is truly awesome.

2. How Bernie Wins

On the other hand, it’s not difficult to tell a story about how Bernie wins, either.

Let’s start with the polls. Go look here and count the number of times Trump has led Sanders in match-up polling.

Are the margins small? Yes. Are Trump’s numbers better against Sanders in swing-states? Yes. Even so, these polls do not suggest a doomed race.

What about Bernie’s unique vulnerabilities? It used to be true that people really cared about a candidate’s past. John Kerry got blown up by the Swift Boat story. Mitt Romney was buried under Bain Capital and his record as governor. If this was 2015, I would agree that Bernie honeymooning in the USSR and his support of the Sandinistas would be electoral poison.

But post-Trump? I mean, if voters didn’t care about Trump saying that George W. Bush committed treason or that Barack Obama was born in Kenya or that when you’re a star you can do anything you want to women, then why do we think voters are going to care about Bernie loving the commies?

I would like to live in a country where the electorate holds someone like Bernie accountable for his past beliefs.

Instead, we live in a country dominated by low-information voters who have no idea what “USSR” stands for. Honest question: What percentage of the populace do you think could tell you what a “sandinista” is? If I set the over-under line at 5 percent and you took the over, you’d be a sucker.

So why would we think that the old rules are suddenly back in place for Bernie?

And maybe we can say the same thing about Bernie’s unpopular policy proposals. Trump ran on the impossible promise that he would build a wall across the entire southern border and that this wall would be paid for by Mexico. It was literally his signature issue.

It was also a deeply unpopular idea, even at the time.

Trump’s defenders explain that it was precisely the impossibility of the proposal that gave voters the freedom to take Trump seriously, but not literally.

Well, Bernie’s free-everything proposals are at least as impossible as the Mexico-funded wall. Probably more so. Why do we assume that voters won’t be willing to take him seriously, and not literally, too?

There’s one other thing about a Bernie-Trump matchup that would make me nervous if I was on Team Trump: Sanders is the one Democratic candidate who would not be running against Trump in any meaningful way.

Where Biden is proposing restoration and Mayor Pete is saying he’ll turn the page on the Baby Boomers, Bernie Sanders is mounting the same burn-it-all down revolution that he would be pitching no matter who he was running against.

In other words, Bernie is never going to settle into making “Trump So Bad” arguments. His relentless focus is on the future, not the past. He’s a change candidate who will carry the initiative on a daily basis by proposing his own version of “the system is rigged against you and if you vote for me, I’ll punish the people you hate.”

The difference is that when Trump makes this argument, he’s talking about half the country. And when Bernie makes it he’s talking about corporate America and the very rich. In a funny way, Trump is more of an identity politics candidate, while Bernie is much more of an economic populist.

All things being equal, I would make Trump the favorite against Sanders. But I think it would be an error to assume that there’s no universe in which Bernie could beat him.