Jonathan Chait's piece has already gotten a lot of attention. But I'd like to draw my own attention to a few of the points that he made. (Full disclosure: If I could vote in Arizona's Democrat primary, I would vote for someone other than Bernie Sanders.)
Nobody “cared” how Michael Dukakis looked in a tank, and probably not many voters cared about Mitt Romney’s dismissive remarks about the 47 percent, but both reinforced larger attack narratives. Vintage video of Bernie palling around with Soviet communists will make for an almost insultingly easy way for Republicans to communicate the idea that his plans to expand government are radical.
Sanders has never faced an electorate where these vulnerabilities could be used against him. Nor, for that matter, has he had to defend some of his bizarre youthful musings (such as his theory that sexual repression causes breast cancer) or the suspicious finances surrounding his wife’s college. Democrats are rightfully concerned about attacks on Hunter Biden’s nepotistic role at Burisma, but Sanders is going to have to defend equally questionable deals, like the $500,000 his wife’s university paid for a woodworking program run by his stepdaughter.
Let's set aside Sanders' current proposals and the merits of them. His past is a rich treasure trove of attack ads waiting to happen. This election will be fought in the suburbs. And Trump's team doesn't need to convince suburban moderates to vote for him. He just needs to convince them that Bernie is just as bad and that they should stay home on Election Day. Ads depicting Sanders as a nepotistic communist will certainly do that. When it happens, Sanders will need a surge of new voters to power him to victory. And any campaign that starts out saying "we'll win because the non-voters will vote for us" is already losing.
For obvious reasons, the Democratic Party’s left wing has always resisted this conclusion (as has the Republican Party’s right wing.) But Hillary Clinton’s surprising defeat created an opportunity for the party’s left to promote an alternative theory for how the party could and should compete. It deemed Donald Trump’s win a sign that capitalism had created such distress that voters were now rejecting conventional politicians altogether and open to radical alternatives who might promise to smash the failing system. Indeed, by this reasoning, Democrats would do better, not worse, by nominating more left-wing candidates, who could distance themselves more credibly from the discredited Establishment.
This is not a bad assumption. If American Carnage taught me anything, it's that there are far more voters willing to burn down the system and elect the craziest person possible than I had ever believed. So Progressives ran a lot of Progressive candidates, while the party establishment ran a lot of moderate candidates. It was a good experiment to see who was right. And it turned out to be the party establishment.
As we now know, it was a good strategy to win the House. Democrats flipped 40 seats. Tellingly, while progressives managed to nominate several candidates in red districts — Kara Eastman in Nebraska, Richard Ojeda in West Virginia, and many others — any one of whose victory they would have cited as proof that left-wing candidates can win Trump districts, not a single one of them prevailed in November. Our Revolution went 0–27, Justice Democrats went 0–18, and Brand New Congress went 0–6. The failed technocratic 26-year-old bourgeoise shills who were doing it wrong somehow accounted for 100 percent of the party’s House gains.
Progressives went a combined 0–51 in their house races.
The leftists chose to focus on a handful of left-wing candidates, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated center-left Democrats in deep-blue districts. The conservative media strategically elevated her in a bid to make AOC and her squad the party’s face. The mutual interest of the two sides made AOC the narrative center of the election. The fact that the party had just run a field experiment between two factions, and the moderate faction prevailed conclusively, was forgotten.
And I think this is worth emphasizing too. Progressives won running Progressive candidates against moderate Democrats, in Democrat districts. They didn't win running Progressive candidates in moderate or Republican districts. And winning the Presidency will require them to win moderate and Republican districts.
Public satisfaction with the economy is now at its highest point since the peak of the dot-com boom two decades ago. Trump has serious weaknesses of issues like health care, corruption, taxes, and the environment, and a majority of the public disapproves of Trump’s performance, but he does enjoy broad approval of his economic management. Therefore, his reelection strategy revolves around painting his opponents as radical and dangerous. You may not like me, he will argue, but my opponents are going to turn over the apple cart. A Sanders campaign seems almost designed to play directly into Trump’s message.
Whatever evidence might have supported a Sanders-esque populist strategy for Democrats after the 2016 election, it has since collapsed. But in the ideological hothouse of the Sanders world, no setbacks have been acknowledged, no rethinking has taken place, and the skeptics are dismissed as elitist neoliberal corporate shills, as ever. The project moves forward even as the key tests of its viability have all failed. Once enough energy has been invested in a cause, it has too much momentum to be abandoned. For the socialist left, which has no other standard-bearer to choose from, Bernie is too big to fail.
I will vote for anyone against Trump—even Bernie Sanders. But I feel that I'm distinctly in the minority on that viewpoint. I think Sanders is going to be a hard sell for many Americans and that he's polling well right now because Republicans have not yet begun to run ads attacking him as a godless Commie.