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Rebooting Bernie Sanders

The Vermont senator has precious little time to retool a campaign that’s gone sideways.

Jeff Kowalsky/Getty Images

While these are still the early days of the Democratic primary, things are plainly not going well for Bernie Sanders. Joe Biden’s landslide victory in South Carolina and commanding performance on Super Tuesday have made him both the delegate leader and the presumptive front-runner for the Democratic nomination, a position few predicted he’d be in as recently as a week ago. For that, he can thank media coverage of South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn’s endorsement, which likely bolstered his margins in the state and set in motion the suspension of the rival moderate campaigns, the televised endorsements of those candidates, and the consolidation of the party’s rank and file behind him on Tuesday night. Sanders, meanwhile, has had to contend with worrying cracks in his campaign’s strategy. The long-anticipated explosion in turnout from young and potentially progressive but disengaged voters simply hasn’t happened; those new voters who did show up for Tuesday’s races went overwhelmingly for Joe Biden.

It’s become an article of faith that Sanders needs a miracle to win, but it’s worth being clear about where the race actually stands. As of Saturday afternoon, there’s a gap of 91 pledged delegates between him and Biden. That might seem like a small deficit, but closing it will require Sanders to dramatically improve his performance in the upcoming primaries. To do this, he has to significantly broaden his coalition, winning over many more Democrats who might not consider themselves progressives, including the moderate suburbanites and older African Americans who put Biden on top in so many places on Super Tuesday. There’s not much time to shift gears before the next slate of races on March 10. An earned media coup of some kind might be helpful in dislodging Biden’s wins from the headlines before those voters go to the polls. But whether or not fortune smiles on Sanders within the next few days, his campaign now faces a critical test that will speak to his capacity as a politician to weather the political challenges a Sanders administration would face.

That test—making meaningful changes in both his political style and the substantive emphasis of his campaign to win over ordinary Democrats without alienating many of his existing supporters—is one Sanders can pass with some creative thinking. The campaign is already toeing in the right direction. An ad featuring praise from Barack Obama was released earlier this week, for instance, and Sanders reportedly wants to talk up his plan to expand Social Security, which might increase his support among older Democrats. But the task ahead for Sanders isn’t just patching up vulnerabilities within an already strong campaign. He has to pull off a full reset—reinventing a campaign that was never built to win a majority of the Democratic electorate in an undivided field in the first place, and getting the Democratic rank and file to think differently about Sanders as a political figure.

The first hurdle to overcome is the electability question. However much they might like him as an individual, and whatever they think about his policy positions, many Democratic voters simply do not believe Bernie Sanders can defeat Donald Trump in November. That impression has been reinforced by his losses this week, which have called into question whether Sanders can truly inspire the unprecedented levels of turnout he’s repeatedly called necessary for a Democratic victory. But it has never actually been true that Democrats need a historically anomalous level of turnout and a tidal wave of new voters to win. The basic path to victory for both Sanders and Biden remains winning back some of the white working-class voters in industrial states who responded to Trump’s right populism, and bumping up turnout from African Americans just enough so that Trump isn’t as competitive in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania as he was in 2016. Boosting Latino turnout to put states like Arizona and Texas in play wouldn’t hurt, either.

As far as the white working class is concerned, Sanders has been a bit more reticent than his most ardent supporters in making the case that there are Trump voters disenchanted with this administration that Democrats can pull back in with the promise of economic opportunity. That should change, and he should make the argument without apologizing for or explaining away racism within the constituency. He can argue, in fact, that given the difficulty of the task, only his agenda, not Biden’s, is bold enough to truly break through with some Trump supporters.

The results of the primary so far have made it harder for Sanders to claim he can boost African American turnout. But Sanders should note that Biden’s victories, after remarkably poor showings in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, were made possible by the media, not his campaign’s capacity to reach and organize black voters. He won’t have the same earned media advantage against the president, and Sanders should say so, while promising to put the passionate young organizers behind his campaign to work registering voters in communities Republicans have worked hard to disenfranchise and that Democrats have done a poor job engaging. Meanwhile, Sanders has shown a remarkable amount of strength within the Latino community, and he should note that his campaign offers lessons the party could use for November.

Democrats apprehensive about Sanders’s self-description as a democratic socialist should be reminded that Republicans will likely call Biden a socialist or a radical leftist as well, just as they did with Obama. That never prevented Obama from winning a presidential election. Victory, Sanders should say, is always possible if the Democratic Party comes together to support the nominee in the face of right-wing rhetoric rather than echoing that rhetoric to attack candidates like him who share the party’s goal of beating Donald Trump.

But ultimately, whatever arguments he puts forward, Democratic voters will never believe Sanders is electable as president if they can’t imagine him as president. Democrats associate Biden with safety, experience, and competence—he’s created the impression that he’s someone who gets things done simply by virtue of having been in Washington for a long time. But Sanders has several recent accomplishments he can tout more loudly on the campaign trail, including his bipartisan war powers resolutions to end American support for the war in Yemen, which have passed Congress, and his success in getting Amazon to raise its minimum wage in 2018.

In general, Sanders should do a better job talking up all of the bills he’s authored and worked on with other Democrats and Republicans over his decades in Washington, even if they didn’t pass. He should say, in fact, that he’s spent nearly 30 years pushing things no one thought were possible but that Democrats can now achieve if they defeat Trump and work together. He should point out, too, that he’s now the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee. And it certainly won’t hurt to remind voters that he led a town for nearly a decade before he even came to Washington—he can take a page from the Buttigieg campaign in suggesting his municipal experience has prepared him in important ways to be the nation’s chief executive.

On policy, Sanders has to broaden the conversation. The primary has been dominated by the debate over Medicare for All. To Sanders’s enormous credit, the policy remains popular within the Democratic electorate despite the best efforts of other candidates in the field and the party’s leadership. In every single Super Tuesday state with available exit polls this week, a majority of Democratic voters supported implementing “a government plan for all instead of private insurance,” following a pattern established in the first primary states. Nevertheless, many Democrats still either oppose Medicare for All or worry that it could lead to defeat in November.

Ironically, to keep the Sanders campaign and the hope for Medicare for All alive, Sanders might have to talk more about the Affordable Care Act—not necessarily to defend the policy on its merits, but to note that Republicans made scurrilous attacks on the policy that didn’t come to fruition and didn’t prevent Obama from winning reelection in 2012. Doing so would help build the impression that Sanders has been a true team player who has worked with other Democrats to protect the party’s accomplishments.

He can do this without substantively retreating one inch from his support for Medicare for All. But Sanders absolutely cannot allow the policy to continue taking up all the oxygen in the race at the expense of his other proposals, including eliminating medical debt and other parts of his health care agenda. To the extent that he does talk about Medicare for All and broader reforms to the American health care system, he should peg those conversations to the coronavirus crisis, a situation the campaign should be seizing on more aggressively. Sanders should emphasize that many Americans stricken with the illness might not be able to afford treatment or a potential vaccine, and that our leave laws might keep the sick working rather than recovering—concerns that should be brought up at the next debate or even a major address on the crisis.

A post–Super Tuesday Reuters-Ipsos poll this week found that Biden has an 18 point lead over Sanders on the question of which candidate is best on jobs and the economysolid evidence that Sanders should work harder to convey the breadth of his economic agenda. That agenda now includes not only higher taxes on the wealthy and a $15 minimum wage but a job guarantee and a full slate of workplace democracy proposals, including a plan to have major companies gradually grant their employees a 20 percent ownership stake. These are the boldest economic proposals being offered by anyone in the Democratic Party, and they are remarkably popular: Polls have shown majorities of the electorate favoring a job guarantee for several years at this point, and a poll from the Democracy Collaborative and YouGov last year found that 55 percent of Americans would hypothetically support an ownership plan that transfers 50 percent ownership stakes to workers at an even broader array of companies than Sanders has actually proposed.

As the primary moves toward more of America’s major cities, Sanders should talk up his plan to build 10 million new affordable housing units and repair existing public housing. Rural voters should hear more about Sanders’s plan to break up the major agribusiness firms and protect farmers from predatory lawsuits. And Democratic voters just about everywhere might be interested in hearing about proposals like Sanders’s plan to cap credit card and consumer loan interest rates or his proposal to break up cable monopolies and require internet service providers to offer more affordable high-speed internet plans.

At The New York Times this week, Elizabeth Bruenig argued that Sanders should talk more about his proposals for America’s families, including his plans to offer free childcare through preschool and expand paid parental leave. He should additionally talk up his education platform, which includes renovating and modernizing American schools, establishing a minimum salary for teachers and funding their out-of-pocket expenses for school supplies, expanding summer and after-school programs, and guaranteeing free school meals to every child.

Last, Sanders should return focus to the Green New Deal, which remains popular not only with the Democratic electorate but climate activists and analysts, who have rated Joe Biden’s climate proposals extremely poorly. It can be said without exaggeration that given the platforms publicly offered by both campaigns, only Sanders addresses the crisis with the urgency it demands, and Sanders should take the initiative to press the issue at every reasonable opportunity. The time for politely waiting for a climate question to arrive at a town hall or debate has passed, and he should press the issue himself at every reasonable opportunity. All of this will help convey the overarching superficiality of the Biden campaign.

Conversations are underway about how to approach Biden’s other vulnerabilities. There have been signals that Sanders intends to double down on his criticisms of Biden’s past deficit hawkery, which threatened to undermine programs like Medicare and Social Security, as well as his previous support for the war in Iraq. This makes sense, but the campaign would do well to remember that similar criticisms weren’t enough to put Sanders ahead of Clinton in 2016, and that Biden is a more popular figure in the party than Clinton was.

Beyond specific hits on his record, the Sanders campaign should think more abstractly about the nature of Biden’s campaign. He’s less an ordinary candidate than a symbol to be punctured, and Sanders should make the argument that it’s Biden, not him, who embodies unreasonable, messianic expectations. Biden’s promises to work with Republicans on the Democratic Party’s central priorities are fantastical and demonstrate that he hasn’t learned the lessons of the Obama administration, which was paralyzed by the same conciliatory attitude.

Sanders should say so and insist that actually getting things done will require a president willing to truly fight for America’s future, not one who argues the battle will be half over if we defeat Donald Trump in November—that he is the candidate bold enough to offer the policies that will ensure our country never falls prey to the temptations of figures like Trump, or worse, ever again. Sanders should say too, that it’s his vision, not Biden’s, that has animated and energized the young people who constitute not only the future of the Democratic Party but the future of the American project. A candidate who cannot win them cannot win the future.

If Sanders shifts gears in these and other ways, victory will remain within reach. If he does not, the campaign may functionally be over soon. At this point in the race, Sanders has been bested not only by the machinations of the Democratic Party’s establishment and a complicit press but by the total ambivalence of the Democratic electorate. The task has always been making the movement a majority. Although Sanders is coming up short, it can and must be done.