‘Crazy Bernie’ is back, but he has no chance of being president. Here’s why
Among other things, Americans are less likely to take chances with wildcards as their economy weakens
This was the week Bernie Sanders, who finished runner-up to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democrat presidential nomination, announced his next bid for the White House. Given that Sanders is 77, the 2020 election is, if we’re honest, his last presidential shot.
But the independent Vermont senator begins the long race with considerable strengths.
As well as a huge e-mail list of supporters, Sanders has an impressive track record of local-level fundraising and a volunteer network that helped secure eye-catching primary successes in states such as New Hampshire three years ago.
Sanders is often dismissed as a joke. President Donald Trump responded last week by welcoming “crazy Bernie” back into the political fray. Sanders responded with interest. “What’s crazy,” he tweeted back, “is that we have a president who is racist, sexist, a xenophobe and a fraud.”
With 20 months to go until America votes, the exchanges will get a lot more caustic yet. Sanders’s team announced $5.9m of donations in the first 24 hours following his declaration – far more than he raised at the outset of his 2016 campaign. Most contributions came from small donors, rather than the corporate cash relied upon by other candidates. Last time, Sanders won 12 million primary votes and raised more than $230m, and in 2020 this energetic septuagenarian could do even better.
For Sanders has never really stopped “running”. He’s ever-present on cable television, other Democrat candidates seek his approval, and the Washington press pack hangs on his every word. And with good reason. For, beyond his “magic grandpa” appeal, Sanders has seriously influenced the US policy debate. Many of his flagship policy prescriptions – free college tuition, free government healthcare, a marginal tax rate above 70% – were once dismissed as extreme by mainstream Democrats. Now, within the party at least, they’re very much up for discussion.
Sanders has long campaigned for a major uplift to the US minimum wage, which has been frozen by federal law at $7.25 an hour since 2009. But five states and some of America’s leading cities have recently invoked local regulations to raise this paltry minimum to the $15 Sanders has backed for years. “It’s not a ‘radical’ idea anymore,” he says. “Together, we are going to fight for workers in all 50 states and raise the minimum wage to $15 at the federal level”.
At a time when financial insecurity is spreading from US blue-collar workers to the middle class, Sanders is tapping into the growing outrage felt towards the “1%” ultra-rich. “We should not have grotesque levels of wealth inequality in which three billionaires own more wealth than the bottom half of the country,” he declares.
Ten years after a financial crisis that destroyed thousands of US business and millions of jobs, anger at Wall Street, remains palpable. Sanders places himself firmly in the corner of ordinary people. “If somebody wants to call me a radical, okay,” he says. “I believe people are inherently entitled to healthcare, entitled to get the best education they can, I believe people are entitled to live in a clean environment”.
Appealing to female Democrats, Sanders courts the “pro-choice” lobby, at a time when some fear a reversal in the rights of women to seek legal abortion. “I’m running for president because we must defend a woman’s right to control her own body against massive political attacks taking place at the local, state and federal level.”
It is clear that Sanders’s rhetoric is now heavily influencing other politicians. His thunderous opposition to tax-avoidance strategies pursued by the tech giants paved the way for 29-year-old congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to attack Amazon’s plans to build a huge new facility in her home city of New York. Sanders has long attacked Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos, tabling anti-low-wage legislation dubbed the “Bezos Act”. Ocasio-Cortez just followed suit, launching a broadside so fierce, shared repeatedly over social media, that Amazon announced a stunning reversal of its plans for a New York headquarters.
Yet, this Amazon episode illustrates why Sanders, and those who mimic him, have no chance of winning.
Ocasio-Cortez’s outbursts gleaned wall-to-wall media coverage and acres of “celebrity endorsement”. But the bottom line is that she chased away up to 40,000 well-paid jobs from Long Island City, Queens – a part of New York ripe for development. Ordinary voters want the tech giants to behave, yes, but polls show more than 70% of New Yorkers wanted Amazon’s HQ to be built.
One reason Sanders won’t win the Democrat nomination, let alone the presidency, is that he has a problem with African-American voters. In 2016, he suffered a crushing loss in South Carolina’s Democratic primary, taking just 14% of the African-American vote, compared with 86% for Hillary Clinton. He has since made an effort, going on a number of trips below the Mason-Dixon Line and spending Martin Luther King’s birthday last month in South Carolina, where he met black leaders, elected officials and students. But in today’s America, when Democrat voters want more racial and gender diversity, Sanders has no chance.
The only straight white man who could gain the Democrat nomination is Barack Obama’s vice-president, Joe Biden, because he’d receive a warm Obama endorsement and, as a respected statesman he has a chance of beating Trump.
In general, the US economy is doing quite well. Growth in 2018 outpaced the year before, bucking the global trend. GDP expanded by 3.4% in the third quarter, with official figures for the final three months of the year due out on Thursday. Wall Street is now trimming those fourth-quarter forecasts, with JP Morgan expecting a significant slowdown to 1.4%. That’s another reason Sanders’s presidential bid will fade: because, as the economy turns down, Americans are less likely to take chances with wildcard candidates.
Polls show that while support for “socialism” in America is rising, only about 25% of voters are comfortable with the term, whereas more than 60% still have a “positive view” of capitalism. Sanders has influence and has moved the policy dial. But he has no chance of becoming president.
– © The Sunday Telegraph