Bernie Is Frightening the Democrats

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks in Columbia, S.C., January 20, 2020. (Sam Wolfe/Reuters)

On the menu today: Establishment Democrats suddenly realize Bernie Sanders might win the nomination; a lot of ominous signs for Sanders in a general-election matchup; some other observations from the winter meeting of the “Stand Together” groups allied with Charles Koch; and some little-known sterling organizations making a difference.

The Sudden Democratic Panic about Bernie Sanders

One week before the Iowa caucuses, with Bernie Sanders leading most polls in that state and in New Hampshire, the rest of the Democratic party is suddenly realizing that the Vermont senator could well win the nomination. At NBC News, Politico, and ABC News, the big story this morning is that the Democratic establishment has been caught asleep at the wheel for a second straight cycle.

I know not everyone in the NR audience has such a warm-and-fuzzy perspective about our old friend and colleague David Frum. But Frum is a guy who at least spent some time in the conservative movement and GOP politics, and periodically he reminds the mostly left-of-center audience of The Atlantic of how the world actually works, and when he does, it can turn out to be hilarious. It’s like watching a parent try to explain to kids that the coins in their piggy bank cannot, in fact, cover the costs of a trip to Disney World:

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Bernie Sanders is a fragile candidate. He has never fought a race in which he had to face serious personal scrutiny. None of his Democratic rivals is subjecting him to such scrutiny in 2020. Hillary Clinton refrained from scrutinizing Sanders in 2016. It did not happen, either, in his many races in Vermont. A Politico profile in 2015 by Michael Kruse argued that Sanders had benefited from “an unwritten compact between Sanders, his supporters, and local reporters who have steered clear” of writing about Sanders’s personal history “rather than risk lectures about the twisted priorities of the press.”

The Trump campaign will not steer clear. It will hit him with everything it’s got. It will depict him as a Communist in the grip of twisted sexual fantasies, a useless career politician who oversaw a culture of sexual harassment in his 2016 campaign. Through 2019, Donald Trump and his proxies hailed Sanders as a true voice of the people, thwarted by the evil machinations of the Hillary Clinton machine. They will not pause for a minute before pivoting in 2020 to attack him as a seething stew of toxic masculinity whose vicious online followers martyred the Democratic Party’s first female presidential nominee…

Trump will terrorize the suburban moderates with the threat that Sanders will confiscate their health insurance and stock holdings, if not their homes. Trump accused Democrats of pro-ayatollah sympathies for noticing that his story about the killing of Qassem Soleimani was full of holes. In 1980, Sanders joined a left-wing party whose presidential candidate condemned “anti-Iranian hysteria around the U.S. hostages” being held at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, suggesting that “many of them are simply spies … or people assigned to protect the spies,” as Ronald Radosh reported in The Daily Beast. Imagine what Trump and his team will do with that.

A lot of stuff that was either no big deal or dismissed as “just Bernie being Bernie” in Vermont will look really bad in GOP attack ads in all of those swing states. I still can’t believe we haven’t seen a single commercial that even mentions Sanders’s otherworldly op-ed about women’s rape fantasies. The Sanders campaign will insist it was the foolish ramblings from a confused young man, written many decades ago. The Trump campaign will point out, accurately, that Sanders was 30 years old when he wrote it.

The whistling-past-the-graveyard assessment of Sanders for Democrats is that his particular quirks won’t much effect on the overall contours of the race; in a matchup between any Democrat and Trump, any Democrat just has to keep the blue states and flip the big three in the Upper Midwest — Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — to win the presidency. But . . . a new poll released Monday measured head to head matchups in Delaware, and . . . Bernie Sanders is ahead of Donald Trump only by a point. Maybe not all those blue states look so secure if Sanders is the nominee.

And did I say flip Pennsylvania? Maybe that’s not such a safe bet!

John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, and Bill Peduto, Pittsburgh’s mayor, both Democrats, agree on one thing: a pledge to ban all hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, could jeopardize any presidential candidate’s chances of winning this most critical of battleground states — and thus the presidency itself. So as Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren woo young environmental voters with a national fracking ban, these two Democrats are uneasy.

“In Pennsylvania, you’re talking hundreds of thousands of related jobs that would be — they would be unemployed overnight,” said Mr. Fetterman, who endorsed Mr. Sanders in 2016 before Donald J. Trump won his state, pop. 12.8 million, by just over 44,000 votes. “Pennsylvania is a margin play,” he added. “And an outright ban on fracking isn’t a margin play.”

Ramesh lays out an argument that the Trump campaign, or Trump supporters, will use to sway Trump-skeptical or Trump-weary conservatives if Sanders is the Democratic nominee. Even a minimally competent President Sanders would still make America significantly more open to socialist policies in the long run. “The limits of what’s politically possible will shift left as the political world adjusts to the new reality. Politicians, strategists, journalists, activists and voters who thought that certain ideas were too far left to make it in America would revise their sense of the country, and of what counts as extreme or as realistic within it. The ground on which future races for president, governor and Congress are contested would move left. That doesn’t mean the U.S. would be Venezuela, or even Denmark, by the start of 2022. But it is reasonable to expect that government policy 10 or 20 years from now would be considerably more socialistic than it would be if Trump were re-elected — or if Biden were elected.”

Signs of Hope for America, Well beyond the Beltway

Various news and notes from this year’s Koch/“Stand Together” winter meeting . . .

  • A jaw-dropping statistic mentioned Saturday: “People don’t see a system that values them — and they’re right,” Brian Hooks, president of the Charles Koch Foundation, told the gathered attendees. “They don’t see a system that gives them a chance, and increasingly, people don’t see a role for themselves in society. The consequences are devastating. People are losing hope. They’re literally dying. Life expectancy is down for the first time in over a century. Suicide, alcoholism, drug overdoses killing twice as many people each and every year than the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam war.”
  • Senator Mike Lee of Utah had planned to attend the Koch Stand Together meeting, but he was on jury duty in Washington, so to speak. He recorded a taped message that applauded the network’s movement into foreign policy, and in particular, that it is time to end our military presence in Afghanistan. Lee said, “we need an open, honest, robust discussion about what our goals are, particularly in Washington. With great power comes great responsibility.” I’m fairly certain that’s a deliberate quote of Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben. This is the senator who cited Tauntauns during remarks on the Senate floor.
  • Former Virginia senator Jim Webb was in attendance and spoke very briefly during the presentation on ending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. “I think when you look at where we are in foreign policy today, even those of us like myself who grew up in the military, served in combat, my son served as a Marine rifleman in Iraq, have to say that the foreign policy apparatus in this country is now broken and it needs to be fixed with positive leadership.”

The Koch winter meeting loves to spotlight charitable and nonprofit groups with new and different approaches to tacking social problems.

  • At unCommon Construction, youth from Louisiana high schools apply to join a team that builds a house each semester. They earn hourly pay and school internship credit; with the revenue from each project, apprentices also earn a matching “equity award scholarship” for further education, industry certifications, or the tools needed for long-term employment. Todd Rose, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and co-founder of the think tank Populace, said “the moral isn’t that every kid should spend a semester learning how to build a house,” or that construction should be their fallback profession. It’s that every kid should be able to find a way to realize their full potential, and that right now, too many school systems aren’t providing enough options to do that.
  • In Dallas, Café Momentum is a downtown restaurant where the entire staff has done time in the juvenile-justice system. Each teen or young adult rotates around all the roles in the restaurant, and has access to pre- or after-work hangout for studying, preparing for job interviews at other restaurants, and so on. One of the points I appreciated the organizers acknowledging that the café won’t work miracles for everyone; out of roughly 800 teens and young adults who have worked there, the recidivism rate is about 15 percent. But the statewide rate of recidivism for juveniles who have been through the system is 50 percent. This week, there will be a Café Momentum pop-up restaurant in Miami, for the week of the Super Bowl.
  • The Mobile Loaves and Fishes Program is using those 3-D printed homes mentioned yesterday to create a community for the chronic homeless — people who have been out on the streets for anywhere to five to fifteen years. Expanding from an RV park, the facility will soon have those small but cozy and well-built small homes. The organizers emphasize that the homeless need more than a meal or a roof over their heads; in many cases, they have lost their families, their sense of community, a sense of connection to other people. Those in the program find some role — barbers, repair work, pottery, wood working, organic farming.
  • The Phoenix is a “sober active community” that uses sports and fitness to help people through the process of recovery from addiction. “People come in for the workout, and they end up staying for the new community that they’ve built,” says founder Scott Strode.

As mentioned yesterday, “this country is full of good people who want to make a difference.” And sometimes these corners of America with good people making a difference feel like they’re light years away from what’s going on in Washington.

ADDENDUM: Look, my fellow air travelers. I hate delayed flights and the risk of missed connections as much as the next guy. But the weather is the weather, and if you fly through, say, San Francisco, there’s always going to be the chance of fog delaying things. The poor woman behind the counter at the gate cannot control the weather and, in most circumstances, is doing the best she can. It does not matter to the weather if you have a lot of frequent-flyer miles, and the gate agent’s manager isn’t going to be able to change the weather, either.

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