What If It’s Bernie?

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses supporters at his New Hampshire primary night rally in Manchester, N.H., February 11, 2020. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

It would take a lot to make President Trump seem like the ‘normal’ candidate in a general election. But Sanders might just pull it off.

Senator Bernie Sanders, the professing socialist from Vermont, is not a member of the Democratic Party, but he is at the moment the leading candidate to win that party’s presidential nomination in 2020. He is an ideological outlier who speaks more openly about a particular -ism socialism, in this case — than many of his allies do or would prefer he do. He has a strange and occasionally embarrassing personal history more befitting a gadfly than a serious candidate for the presidency of the United States of America. He is intellectually unserious and develops his policy positions by simply taking one step in the direction of extremism beyond his rivals, though his extremism relative to the other contenders for the party’s nomination is at least as often rhetorical as substantive. The parallels with Donald Trump in 2016 are obvious enough — he even has an interesting real-estate portfolio.

The betting markets currently have Senator Sanders’s chances of winning the nomination at 43.6 percent, well ahead of No. 2 Michael Bloomberg (26.6 percent), Pete Buttigieg (14.6 percent), and Joe Biden (9.1 percent), to say nothing of Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, and the rest of the sub–5 percent gang. Sanders leads in most of the national polls.

So, what if it’s Bernie?

A Sanders nomination would turn the race on its head — and not in the way that Democrats might hope. For one thing, President Trump could reasonably present himself as the moderate in a race against Sanders, who promises “revolution” and seeks to reorganize the U.S. government — we have his own word on this — along Nordic lines. Trump, for all his bombast, proposes nothing comparable. When it comes to the major domestic activity of the U.S. government — entitlement spending — Trump seeks no meaningful change at all, promising only to defend the status quo and current benefits. Sanders seeks to impose a monopoly single-payer health-care system on the United States; Trump has learned that health-care reform is hard (“Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” the president says, overgeneralizing just a little), but with unemployment low, wages rising, and the growth in health-care costs slowing down slightly, his administration is under less pressure than it otherwise might be on the issue. Trump has not been successful in reordering American foreign relations or trade relations, but he has not initiated any new major wars — Tehran declined his invitation to the dance — and his trade war has played into populist passions that are shared in the main by those who support Senator Sanders, who is not exactly a free-trade man himself.

The most obvious lines of criticism that opponents might direct at President Trump — that he is bumptious and unsteady, that he is as a matter of both character and intellect poorly suited to the office, that he has defective judgment — would sound more than a little preposterous emanating from a batty socialist relic with a heaping dose of creepy on his curriculum vitae.

Will Senator Sanders charge Trump with self-enrichment from his lakeside dacha? Will the man who honeymooned in the Soviet Union and who not long ago praised Hugo Chávez’s autocratic Venezuelan regime for having created a place where the “American dream is more apt to be realized” denounce the “extremism” of Donald Trump, who was bosom friends with Bill and Hillary Clinton until the day before yesterday? The Republican Party’s contemporary anti-urbanism is a genuine vulnerability, but the Brooklyn refugee representing the bucolic green hills of Vermont is not especially well-placed to exploit that in a race against a man who is so closely identified with New York City.

President Trump might be faulted for his lack of interest in the deficit and for the general fiscal indiscipline of the GOP under his leadership, but not so much by a man who is proposing $97 trillion in new spending (over ten years) — that’s about five times the GDP of the United States today — with no imaginable plan to pay for it.

What might President Trump say for himself in a race against Senator Sanders? That, despite his long career in politics, Sanders has not a single major legislative achievement to his name. That on foreign policy, Sanders is a vague Blame America Firster. That wages are growing more quickly today than they did under the Obama administration, and are growing at an especially robust clip for lower-income workers. That unemployment is low and that economic growth is steady if not spectacular. (What the president actually has to do with any of that is not very clear, but that’s how we Americans talk about presidents, for whatever reason.) He could boast that his administration backed down Tehran and reminded Beijing that it needs U.S. markets more than the United States needs Chinese imports.

President Trump has a reasonably strong economy to run on, along with what passes for peace in these United States in Anno Domini 2020. Senator Sanders is a quondam Chavista with a shuddersome literary œuvre.

It takes a lot — a hell of a lot — to make Donald J. Trump look like the normal one in the race. But Bernie Sanders may be just the ticket.

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