Bernie Sanders announced Tuesday that he will run for president. This should not come as a shock, considering the wheels have been in motion for such an announcement since he ended his previous campaign four years ago.
In a sense, the campaign never ended. Immediately upon his (tepid, but notable) endorsement of Hillary Clinton last time around, activists began planning for this day.
In that spirit, let’s review some of the attack lines that will be used against Bernie by his more dedicated Democratic partisan detractors, many of whom are in a state of blithering rage right now.
He’s Too Old, White, and Male
Fixation on the inborn sex or racial characteristics of presidential candidates tends to be especially pronounced among operatives and elite media, who purport to be representing the views of the entire populace, but are generally just trying to superimpose their weird ideology on everyone else. Actual polling data shows that Bernie is highly popular among black Democrats—second only to Joe Biden, who helped advance the agenda of the first black president for eight years.
If you dig deeper into the data, you’ll find that the Democratic-leaning demographic most hostile to Bernie is white voters with a college degree, among whom he is far-and-away the least popular candidate. So while affluent Bernie-hating liberal pundits try to pretend that they are speaking on behalf of all blacks, Hispanics, and so on when they denigrate him, just understand the actual data contradict their arrogant pretensions.
Also, from the standpoint of raw political tactics, the fact that there will be multiple nonwhite candidates in the race this time (with the likely addition of Barack Obama’s trusty vice presidential sidekick) means that the black vote in particular will be a lot more diffuse than 2016, meaning Bernie only has to peel off a relatively small portion in order to ensure viability. (Another under-covered statistic that you won’t hear much in the media discussion: Sen. Kamala Harris is currently viewed more favorably by white Democrats than by black Democrats.)
On the age question: it’s the one factor that at least isn’t entirely confabulated by his opponents. There are objective measures of cognitive decline associated with age, and Bernie will have to demonstrate that he maintains the ability to function as a presidential candidate at full capacity. A big advantage in this area, however, is the comparison with Trump. You’d be hard-pressed to argue that Trump, at 72, is physically and mentally adept, while Sanders, at 77, is not.
For instance: Trump is technically obese, takes little or no exercise, and (according to his own aides and confidants) does not read beyond short bullet points. Sanders has none of these traits. He’s also just one year older than Biden. So while the age issue might be salient in a vacuum, the comparison it invites with other major 2020 figures lessens the impact.
He Got Help from Russia
As predicted all along by left-leaning skeptics of the “Russian interference” narrative, Democrats’ tireless obsession with bolstering this farce will boomerang on Bernie. There will be allegations that he received illicit assistance from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda apparatus in 2016.
The evidence for this will be virtually nil: there were some ridiculous Facebook memes, such as the one that portrayed a muscular, rainbow-colored cartoon Bernie wearing a Speedo. But the specifics won’t particularly matter, because any association with Russia, regardless of how vague or unsupportable, will be used as a political attack given the current paranoid climate within the Democratic-aligned media and electoral coalition.
Bernie is partly to blame for this, having validated some of the flimsier elements of the narrative, a strategy that is looking progressively foolish in hindsight. Whether he did it because he sincerely bought into the idea that a compromised Trump was advancing Russia’s foreign policy objectives, or because he thought rattling off the standard talking points was necessary to stay in the good graces of Democratic power-brokers, it doesn’t really matter. Either way, these establishment feints were pointless from a self-interested perspective.
No amount of vituperative Trump/Russia comments from Bernie will be sufficient to assuage the animosity of Democratic partisans who believe he was integral to the Putin-directed campaign to harm their glorious savior Hillary by “dividing America,” or whatever the latest cliché may be. He was always going to be vaguely accused of abetting Russia’s devious aims, and by giving credence to various inane aspects of the conspiracy theory, he only hurt himself.
He’s a Raging Sexist
Perhaps the most ridiculous of all the anti-Bernie accusations, one that will surely flower and flourish in the coming months, is that his 2016 campaign was a hotbed of virulent sexism in which all manner of abusers had free rein to terrorize women. Were there some bona fide creeps in the 2016 campaign? Surely — it would be strange if there weren’t, considering such people are present in all ranks of society.
But the way this narrative has already been instrumentalized is extraordinarily cynical and cheap. Last month, The New York Times resurrected the “Bernie Bro” myth, which posits that Bernie attracts a special breed of angry male online commenters who are deeply committed to harassing women on Twitter and Reddit.
Frequently the “harassers” identified have turned out to be pure trolls or fraudsters, but again, the specifics don’t matter. The very logic of assigning culpability to a presidential candidate for the online behavior of random trolls is insane on its face, but that logic has been mainstreamed to the point of wide societal acceptability. And it will only intensify this cycle.
Bernie Is. Not. A. Democrat
This is the aggrieved refrain you hear over and over on social media, largely from Democratic haters of Bernie who are still enraged about the 2016 primary for one reason or another. (The refrain is usually rendered in all-caps, often with frenzied “clap” emojis interspersed between the words for maximum irritant effect).
Of course, the haters fail to grasp that not being a Democrat is actually central to his appeal considering voters increasingly distrust and loathe both parties. Nevertheless, there will likely be fruitless attempts to block him from contention on the grounds that he’s not a full-fledged party member, even though the Democratic Party of Vermont formally recognizes him as such, notwithstanding his personal registration.
Anyway, Bernie is now very well integrated into the wider Democratic Party infrastructure, owing to the leverage he accrued from the past campaign. Much of the Senate caucus, especially those with national ambitions, have adopted the bulk of his policy positions, which were seen as radically farfetched just a few years ago.
He retains prominent committee assignments. He writes op-eds with Chuck Schumer, for Pete’s sake. So the notion that he’s some outside agitator trying to sabotage Democrats is silly (some on the farther left would actually prefer if he did that), but it won’t mollify the partisans still sore about Hillary’s coronation being interrupted.
What’s also funny is that the Democratic establishment’s overt attempts to placate Bernie—remember the famously awkward “Unity Tour” he mounted with Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman Tom Perez in 2017?—have backfired spectacularly, at least if the aim was to get him to ride off into the sunset. Most Democratic chieftains will say complimentary things about him in public, but privately grouse that he has the temerity to run again after everything that was done to ingratiate him since the last campaign.
While the DNC machinery did conspire to eliminate him in 2016—still routinely complained about by some of his more ardent online supporters—that machinery has been weakened in the interim. The fearsome superdelegates have been stripped of some of their powers, and states like New York are moving toward liberalizing voting laws. (States where political machines are still able to muscle out competition gave Hillary a big advantage in 2016.)
Should he get the nomination, Bernie would be a more challenging opponent than most Republicans likely presume. They are accustomed to running against center-left Democrats who get accused of wanting socialism, but are not socialists. As an actual socialist, the playbook could be upended in Bernie’s case.
And before anyone asks: Bernie is not envisioning the socialism on display in Venezuela. Attempts to cast him as some kind of Maduro-in-waiting will come across as hackneyed. The function of his previous run was that Americans who might associate socialism entirely with the Soviet Union or other failed states had their apprehensions dispelled to a large degree by Bernie, who does not generally come across as a ruthless authoritarian.
Rather, when asked to explain what version of socialism he espouses, he always takes great pains to emphasize the “democratic” part of democratic socialism: meaning there is no intention to supersede popular will. One may argue that socialism inherently seeks to supersede popular will, by dint of how the ideology is constructed. But he and countless others contest that point, and either way, it’s an argument that can be had without stale, irrelevant Venezuela references. (Not that Trump and the GOP will listen to me on this.)
Some have also wondered about the dynamic between Sanders and other 2020 candidates who are ostensibly allied with him. Granted, it will take some nuance to parse out. Elizabeth Warren, for one, emerges from a different political tradition and has a different set of priorities, even if the media generally group them both under the vague banner of “progressive.”
Tulsi Gabbard, the only 2020 candidate who actually endorsed Bernie in 2016, and has even been one of his most prominent surrogates, will also have a different emphases, namely foreign policy, which has historically been one of Bernie’s weaker points. (Although Bernie has taken some tangible steps to rectify this, having helped to shepherd through a groundbreaking, bipartisan resolution with Sen. Mike Lee to curtail U.S. involvement in the bombardment of Yemen. This accomplishment was mentioned in Bernie’s announcement video).
This is all to say: there’s no necessary tension between him and Warren or Gabbard yet. Especially at this early stage, their messages can be regarded as complementary.
In short, a multitude of factors culminate in the following inescapable conclusion: Bernie Sanders is the strongest 2020 Democratic candidate. Whether you’d call him the “front-runner” is immaterial. That’s kind of trite pundit terminology anyway. The bottom line is that the power and influence he garnered as a result of the previous run, during which he won 46 percent of elected delegates, is sufficient to assume that he is extremely formidable.
Whereas last time he entered the Democratic primary race with miniscule name recognition and a gadfly reputation, this time he enters as one of the most recognizable political figures in the United States, with a devoted core of activist supporters who will sprawl out across the country to work on his behalf. He’s also substantially more mainstream than four years ago, which is both a blessing and a curse: a blessing in that he’ll be taken much more seriously this time, especially with the backing of a sizeable pro-Bernie contingent in elite media that four years ago did not exist.
But it’s also a curse in that there will be temptation to compromise his principles, jettisoning what made him attractive to so many in the first place. Time will tell which bears out.