In the Potential Twilight of the Sanders’ Campaign, Possibilities Remain for the American Left

Sanders Rally.jpg
U.S Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally at Great Meadow Park at Fort Mason on March 24th, 2019.  Photo accessed via The San Francisco Examiner.

So since I last checked into this blog, a few things have happened – President Trump is engaged with the Ukraine / impeachment scandal, Joe Biden is struggling to keep his front-runner status against a rising Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders, recovering from his mild heart attack two weeks ago, is in the process of revitalising a campaign sorely in need of some energy.  On October 9th, Sanders give way to a flurry of media pieces on the changing nature of his campaign after the following remarks:  

We were doing (in) some cases five or six meetings today, three or four rallies and town meetings and meeting with groups of people. I don’t think I’m going to do that,” Sanders said. “But I certainly intend to be actively campaigning. I think we can change the nature of the campaign a bit. Make sure I have the strength to do what needs to be done.

And I found Nate Silver’s comments from a few days ago reflective of this; in his response to Sanders’ comments to the press after returning home from hospital, Silver argued that the senator’s comments gave way to suggesting he was reforming (i.e. potentially winding down) his presidential campaign.  Certainly, I personally don’t see how Sanders can come back from his dwindling polling numbers, but I did find a pragmatism in Silver’s remarks that could lay out an effective mobilisation strategy for Sanders if he were to pull back from his presidential campaign. 

I think, like a lot of people, I was surprised at how graciously the press responded to Sanders’ heart attack.  However, this in itself could be a sign of how non-threatening the Sanders campaign has become as a challenger for the Democratic nomination.  Certainly, and for all of its softballs given to the Biden campaign, it would be hurt to imagine a more realistic candidate being given such courteous treatment in the wake of a heart attack.  However, the continued poll numbers are shown a campaign that is, regrettably, stuck in a distant 15% behind Warren at 25% and Biden at 27%.  Sanders has been stuck in a poor second / third place in the early primaries for months now, and has lingered at this point in the polls since June.  With Warren now hoovering up remaining voters from Sanders and the smaller candidates such as Cory Booker, the only possible inroad for Sanders would be to do a charm campaign aimed at Biden’s working-class support.  One of the major, yet undersold achievements of Sanders’ 2020 run has been his standing among non-white candidates (particularly Hispanics), so taking this route could be achieved without putting him in the same precarious position of his last run when he largely appealed to only white voters. 

But with Warren now skyrocketing in the polls, her ascendancy as a left-wing candidate contains a few bitter messages for the Sanders campaign, and how their campaign potentially misread the mood of the Democratic electorate.  For all of the disadvantages that Sanders’ supporters are right to point out, such as the rooted, cartoonish media biases against the senator, and the Democratic establishment’s hatred of him, they also undersell the senator’s huge advantages that he started with, such as his massive donor base, his nationwide recognition as a candidate, and his colossal national popularity with Democrats and Republicans alike.  Considering this, what did the campaign get wrong?  Firstly, I don’t think the Sanders campaign ever really had a concrete plan to win back Democrats who voted for Clinton in 2016.  Certainly a lot of these were already beyond the reach of Sanders, but I felt the campaign often viewed the progressive / moderate camps of Democrat in a rather demarcated way, and one that contrastingly, candidates such as Warren went on to wed more effectively.  Another often repeated, enviable reason was that Sanders was becoming crowded out in a field that was consuming his own policies and viewpoints.  Witnessing the mass plagiarism of every one of his decades-long policies by the likes of Sen. Cory Booker would be enough to make anyone’s blood boil, but his campaign never seemed to find an effective message that conveyed something along the lines of “I am the Original Champion” of these policies, which could convey a message along the lines of “I am the Most Trustworthy”, etc.  Rather, it often came across more like “I Was Here First”, which had an unfortunate, underlying ring to the coronation message of Hillary Clinton’s whole “It’s My Turn” message.  Turning aggressive may have backfired, but Sanders too often seemed content to allow other candidates with poor progressive credentials jump on the Bernie bandwagon, and in turn, allow himself to appear uninspiring by repeating his own hard fought messages and policies.

I think other elements, such as Sanders’ standoffishness at smaller town events and venues, and inability to insert his own life history into his campaign, probably haven’t helped much either in endearing him to larger groups of voters.  In his piece for Time Magazine that he wrote while riding along with the Sanders campaign, Anand Giridharadas’ incisive analysis of the senator’s campaign strategy was one of the first few pieces to really nail these deficiencies in his interactions with voters.  From his difficulty in tuning his message to more diverse audiences, to his struggle to take part in enforced campaign niceties such as taking selfies at Iowa corn dog stalls and other small-town interactions with voters, the spectre of “curmudgeon” hangs heavily over this particular reading of the Sanders campaign.  This divide between Sanders as a kind-hearted, popular champion of social justice and his perception in one-to-one meetings as a gruff older candidate who despised talking about his life history, made it very hard for these two elements to ever combine.  As Giridharadas notes, this often does a disservice to the immensely kind nature of Sanders: “He isn’t the person you want sitting beside you on a long boat ride, passing time. He’s the person who will notice when you fall overboard and begin to drown.”  Many people will dismiss these forms of campaign theatre as superficial, but they are nonetheless important, and could easily be combined with the structural, populist messages of Sanders’ campaign if wielded effectively. 

Of course, I could be wrong.  Sanders may find a way back from his lull in the polls, and Tuesday’s debate may be the start of a comeback for him.  Underlining the potential weaknesses in his campaign, or his current potential to win the nomination, isn’t meant to underestimate the amount of effort Sanders has put into his campaign, but rather, it questions whether his enormous potential as a major political figure could be used in other, more substantial ways.  Sanders has always underlined the importance of creating a movement over anything else, and he, more than any potentially any other American politician with the exception of Donald Trump, has the ability to do this.  I also think that, compared to the brutal schedule of a presidential campaign, and all the strained photo-ops and Iowa corn dogs that Sanders unconvincingly grinned through, a focused effort on mobilising progressive Americans to keep an Elizabeth Warren administration to the left would be an incredible, and plausible, scenario.  With tomorrow night’s Democratic Debate on the horizon, I could be proven wrong, but I no longer think the Sanders campaign is focusing all that heavily on winning the nomination.  For all of the inevitable glee his campaign’s descent will receive from the likes of Clinton Democrats, Sanders has the potential to solidly reform the Democratic Party.  Whether or not this is best done within the confines of the Oval Office, or within a major progressive campaign, is a question his campaign will be deliberating over very seriously.

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