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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Yglesias: Why Dems Should Stop Freaking Out About Sanders

Somebody had to do it, and Vox’s Matthew Yglesias rises to the challenge of confronting Sanders phobia head on in his article, “Mainstream Democrats shouldn’t fear Bernie Sanders: He’d be a strong nominee and a solid president.” Yglesias tries out a ‘calm down, let’s reason this out’ approach in discussing the very real possibility of Sanders winning the Democratic nomination for president, and writes:

Sen. Bernie Sanders’s win in New Hampshire following his quasi-win in Iowa dashes the Democratic Party establishment’s big hope of the past four years — that he’d just fade away…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 his 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.

Yglesias points out that “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.” But Yglesias notes further,

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 himself 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.

It is remarkable that in 2020, the socialist boogeyman still has staying power. Certainly the fear-monger in-chief will make the most of it to crank up turnout. But are genuine swing voters really that gullible? Won’t the fear-mongering get stale after months of it? Is Sanders adept enough to confront the accusations and persuade enough voters to support his candidacy anyway?

Yglesias notes that, “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.” Yglesias adds that Sanders has “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.”

“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,” Yglesias writes. “But there’s no reason to be worried that Sanders is a deluded radical who doesn’t understand how the government works…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.”

However, “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…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.”

In his concluding summation, Yglesias writes that “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.” Also,

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.

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.

Yglesias doesn’t address some legitimate concerns, such as Sanders’s’ policies on fracking, which won’t help Dems in the pivotal swing state of Pennsylvania. Sanders also embraces voting rights for all incarcerated people, which Trump-heads will spin into ‘Look, he wants to give terrorists and killers voting power.’ Then there is the equally-distorted ‘open borders’ meme, in which Sanders and other liberal Democrats are characterized as strewing welcoming roses in the paths of undocumented hordes crosssing our southern borders. But it may be that those who buy into these two exaggerations are probably not going to vote for the Democratic nominee anyway.

Yglesias’s strongest argument is that any Democratic nominee, not just Sanders, is going to present some serious problems, and Democrats are going to have to prepare for vicious attacks from Trump’s campaign regardless of who leads our ticket. Whoever Dems nominate is going to face a relentless and unprecedented assault, including nasty personal accusations. Our 2020 nominee has to be tough and well-prepared, and so far, Sanders looks like he can handle it.

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