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Bernie Sanders Wants Us to Trust Him

But to earn black and Latino votes, he will have to get more pragmatic.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

In the last week or so, Bernie Sanders has been questioned twice on national television about high-profile endorsements that he didn’t win. Both times, he provided strange answers.

The most publicized incident occurred on MSNBC during an interview with anchor Rachel Maddow last Tuesday night. Asked whether he had competed for the endorsements of Planned Parenthood, Human Rights Campaign, and NARAL Pro-Choice America, all of which he lost to Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, the senator from Vermont replied that “some of these groups” were part of the “political establishment” that he’s “taking on.” Two days later, Sanders contradicted many of his own defenders, saying that the groups aren’t “establishment” and that “they’re standing up and fighting the important fights that need to be fought.” Walking it back helped to calm things down, as did belatedly joining Clinton on Friday in demanding a repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal funding for abortions.

Less noted—but arguably more damning—was something Sanders said two days before the Maddow interview, at the final Democratic presidential debate before next week’s Iowa caucuses. Moderator Lester Holt, the NBC Nightly News anchor, reminded Sanders that Clinton has been endorsed by Congressional Black Caucus chairman G.K. Butterfield—and that the congressman from North Carolina had written at theGrio that it “was not a hard decision.” Holt noted Sanders’s deep polling deficit among minority voters and asked, “How can you be the nominee if you don’t have that support?”

“When the African American community becomes familiar with my congressional record and with our agenda, and with our views on the economy, and criminal justice,” Sanders replied, “just as the general population has become more supportive, so will the African American community, so will the Latino community. We have the momentum, we’re on a path to a victory.” 

Bernie Sanders embraces Cornel West in Iowa.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

I can see why this line might make sense, especially to those white Sanders supporters who seem quizzical about why black voters have been slower to “feel the Bern.” His argument that he’s simply less familiar to voters of color than Clinton certainly holds weight; her husband may have been the most effective white politician as far as interracial political appeal in my lifetime. 

But Sanders has been running for president since last April, giving him plenty of opportunity to introduce himself and his platform to both black and Latino voters. And he has recycled the “wait until they get to know me” line repeatedly since late August, shortly after he released his racial justice platform following weeks of pressure from activists. Since then, the senator has learned the right names to say, and the proper diction with which to say them. Black celebrities like hip-hop artist Killer Mike and Princeton professor Cornel West have become Sanders surrogates; the latter was deployed earlier this month to kick off the Sanders campaign’s tour of historically black colleges and universities

Whether or not you feel Sanders has properly prioritized his outreach to voters of color, it’s clear that it hasn’t worked so far. In fact, he seems to be sliding back. A Monmouth University poll released last Tuesday showed Clinton leading 71-21 percent among black and Latino voters—an even wider gap than the 61-18 margin that Monmouth pollsters found in December. 

That leaves Sanders with a huge hurdle to overcome. As Jamelle Bouie noted last week, black voters are shaping up to be Clinton’s firewall if she loses the early contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. Though a number of President Clinton’s policies proved catastrophic for African American communities—and I’d venture that some voters haven’t gotten over Bill and Hillary’s treatment of Obama during the 2008 primary—the Clintons’ consistent engagement with voters of color has borne fruit. But it isn’t just familiarity with Clinton that is swaying voters of color into her camp. It’s also the effective case she is making that she has the best chance to get things done as presidenta case that Sanders has not yet made effectively.

Coming off a State of the Union address in which the president who eight years ago pledged to remake our politics admitted his failure, it is disheartening to hear yet another Democratic presidential contender offer up a platform high on aspiration and low on realism. For skeptical voters of color, you also have to factor in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s complaint that the democratic socialist who is calling for a political revolution transformed suddenly into a political pragmatist when reparations were brought up. (Yes, Clinton was also asked about reparations during the Iowa Brown & Black Forum, and she also gave an unsatisfactory answer. But she isn’t promising a political revolution). 

What does Sanders have to do to convince Democratic voters who are more results-oriented, specifically those who are black and Latino, that he’s their best bet? Much more than he has. Eight years after Obama’s “hope and change” captured the imaginations and votes of Americans of color, these voters are focused on the hard realities of the present. Those who are looking to protect the gains made under Obama want results, not rhetoric. No one, perhaps other than Obama and his staffers, is more possessive of that legacy than the black and Latino voters who were so key to getting him to the Oval Office in the first place. Despite the outreach efforts that Sanders has mounted, he has a lot of work to do to convince those same voters that he can realistically deliver on his ideas.

The commercial that Sanders released last week in Iowa and New Hampshire encapsulated both his appeal and his shortcomings in an incredibly artful way. It’s a stirring ad in the spirit of the “Yes We Can” mantra of Obama’s first campaign. Set to the tune of Simon & Garfunkel, the ad promises, as the song does, to “look for America.” Some have mocked it for that very reason: The multiracial America that actually exists, and that the Democratic Party ostensibly seeks to promote, is missing. There’s an overpowering whiteness to the ad, with just a sprinkling of melanin here and there in the crowd scenes. Surely it was produced with Sanders’s Iowa and New Hampshire audiences in mind, but no presidential campaign is purely local anymore, as the ad’s more than 2 million YouTube hits testifies. Clinton’s team seems to have understood this; its closing spot for Iowa shows a wide diversity of Americans as it touts her record.

Sanders’s “America” ad is a microcosm of the wrongheaded nature of his approach to winning voters of color. As opposed to several other of his web videos, Sanders mentions neither policy nor strategy—it’s all passion and enthusiasm from his nearly monochromatic audiences. One could argue that the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, by their mere presence atop the campaign calendar, prompt candidates to gear their pitches to white voters. In that context, Sanders is conveying his wish to be the kind of inspirational candidate that Obama was in his 2008 “hope and change” days. 

The problem for him is that a candidate can’t just rally white voters and hope to win the Democratic nomination for president. That has long been the case, but with the fight against structural racism becoming increasingly part of the public (and presidential) conversation, the “hope and change” days are over. Judging by the poll numbers thus far, black and Latino voters are not terribly impressed with Sanders’s version of “Yes We Can.” What they want to hear is: “How Will You?” 

Sanders has offered policies that could appeal powerfully to many voters of color. His racial justice platform has grown into one of the more sophisticated appeals to African American priorities I’ve seen from a candidate in some time. While Clinton’s plans compete, they are incomplete—lacking a call for ending the death penalty and making sufficient movement on marijuana legalization. With South Carolina and Super Tuesday looming, Sanders should be singing about these discrepancies from the mountaintops, but he isn’t. Instead, he repeats that line—just wait until they get to know me. The longer he draws out that “introduction,” the less likely we’ll ever get sufficient details about how he plans to accomplish his lofty goals.

Hillary Clinton supporters gather at the South Carolina Statehouse on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

For Latino voters, Obama’s strict enforcement of immigration laws, along with the alarmist rhetoric and proposals from the Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail, have made actual results as urgent as ever. As such, I’d understand if they had doubts about the practicality of Sanders’s sweeping immigration plan

Protecting and building on Obama’s expansion of health-care coverage is a high priority, particularly for communities of color where Obamacare has helped close racial discrepancies. And while Clinton’s attacks on Sanders’s single-payer plan have strained credulity, she has been effective in separating her desire to maintain and build upon Obamacare from Sanders’s thin single-payer proposal that he produced hours before the last debate. Close scrutiny of his proposal has reminded voters of single-payer’s failure in Sanders’s home state of Vermont, and exposed it as political fantasy. Leave aside the likelihood that single-payer would be blocked indefinitely by a Republican-led Congress. Even if by some political miracle it were to pass, fulfilling his single-payer promises to immigrants would require both doubling the number of undocumented people who receive executive relief and passing comprehensive immigration reform. “Sanders might as well be asking for a purple unicorn, too,” wrote MSNBC’s Amanda Sakuma.

As much as plans matter, we cannot discount the importance of how a candidate communicates them. There, with respect to communities of color, Sanders is also failing. In The Nation last week, Kathleen Geier offered a harsh critique of Sanders’s lack of comfort with (or interest in) issues of race and gender. “Politics is not only about walking the walk,” Geier wrote. “It’s about talking the talk.” However, Geier expressed hope that “the Sanders campaign will train future leaders who will be more fluent in the politics of intersectionality.” 

That hope appears to be in vain at the moment, as many Sanders supporters display an utter lack of intersectional thinking in response to questions or criticisms of Sanders, inspiring more antipathy than openness to their candidate’s agenda. (For one example of many, see the complaints of immigration rights activist Gabe Ortiz.) For that to change, Sanders himself will have to make a quantum leap in his own intersectional fluency.

Clinton has two selling points that are key to marginalized electorates in particular: She can perform the job she’s applying for, and she will protect the progress achieved during the Obama era. The former Secretary of State swore her fealty to Obama’s legacy to almost comic effect during the last debate, but none of the millions who watched it left with any other impression. And Obama, in a podcast interview with Politico reporter Glenn Thrush that was published on Monday morning, unequivocally backed Clinton’s businesslike, transactional view of the presidency. While stopping short of a formal endorsement, the president said, “I think that what Hillary presents is a recognition that translating values into governance and delivering the goods is ultimately the job of politics, making a real-life difference to people in their day-to-day lives.” 

While Obama didn’t openly criticize Sanders, he offered more limited praise of him throughout the conversation. We’ll see how this hits the ears of African American listeners in particular, given the threat the president’s accomplishments face from a potential Republican successor and the Congress that’s already there. 

We’ve also seen, unexpectedly, Clinton push Sanders, the supposed insurgent, further left in a few areas that are vital to social justice, including gun-manufacturer liability and the aforementioned repeal of the Hyde Amendment. When the Boston Globe endorsed Clinton in the New Hampshire primary on Sunday, it highlighted the gun issue, arguing she “is simply more credible on what for too many Americans is a life-and-death issue.”

There is no doubt that much, if not all, of what Sanders calls for in his revolution needs to happen. But that fact alone doesn’t mean he should be president. Sanders, with a less diverse coalition, is trying to win like Obama did in 2008. To make inroads with black and Latino voters, though, I’d argue that he needs to prove that he’ll govern like the Obama we’ve seen over the last several years—the one who turned, in Mario Cuomo’s famous formulation, from campaigning in poetry to governing in prose. Sanders needs to make a more effective case that not only can he get the revolution rolling, but detail how he plans to make sweeping change while also guarding the Obama legacy. 

Many, including the thousands who marched for Bernie this past weekend, long for what his tagline promises: a future they can believe in. But some folks out here, much more urgently, need a present they can rely upon.