Mark Knauer, from Des Moines, Iowa, wears a shirt featuring Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernard Sanders. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
If you are a Democratic member of Congress or care about someone who is, I understand the pit in your stomach. Hillary Clinton had a 69-percent approval rating when you thought she'd boogaloo her way to the nomination in 2016. Now that it actually is 2016, it's Bernard Sanders, the 74-year-old unkempt, professional grump who is filling stadiums with college kids and running ads so good they make you remember why you got into this soul-crushing business in the first place. And did I mention he's a socialist?
It's the socialist tag that has Democrats around the country more than a little spooked about their chances in 2016 if Clinton stumbles or falls. At a Third Way meeting way back in October, former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley warned that a Sanders nomination would send Democrats back to 1972, and not in a good way. Last week, Rep. Steve Israel, the man whose job used to be getting Democrats elected to the House, told The Washington Post the Bernie surge has created "elevated concern expressed in the cloakroom and members-only elevators, and other places, about the impact of a Sanders nomination on congressional candidates," which I assume was putting it politely.
Last week, I counseled calm for Republicans looking at a possible Trump-topped ticket, and today I'll say the same to Democrats about a possible Sanders nomination, based on conversations I had with party veterans who know how to run a campaign.
Here's the best free advice you're going to get all year about what to do if you find yourself running on a Democratic ticket with a socialist at the top of it.
1. Stick to the issues.
There's no way to sugarcoat the reality that Bernie's socialist tag would weigh down the Democratic ticket. Even 31 percent of Democrats say they'd never go for a socialist
. But nearly every Democratic operative I spoke with had confidence that at least some of the populist issues Sanders champions are winners in a general election. Gallup polling shows that 62 percent of Americans say the wealthy pay too little in taxes, 69 percent back a minimum wage that rises with inflation, 86 percent of Americans want universal background checks for gun purchases and 50 percent support free community college (Bernie says make all college tuition-free.). Somewhere in a Bernie platform, most candidates could find something to work with.
2. Be independent. Technically, Sanders is a registered independent, and Democratic members of Congress should get ready to show some independence of their own if a self-described socialist wins their nomination. The National Republican Campaign Committee has already taken to referring to Sanders as if he has four names, "Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders." In response, Democrats should get ready to go it alone if necessary. "They can say, 'I’m there to keep an eye on the president on your behalf no matter who it is. I’m there to represent you," said Carl Chidlow, a principal at Winning Strategies Washington. "Don’t run away from it. Show a backbone in the face of it."
3. Learn from the Bern. He's grumpy. He's a mess. He's never worn a tuxedo, and grass-roots activists love him for it. Democrats I spoke with uniformly said candidates should rip a page out of Sanders coffee-stained playbook and give up on being anyone other than who they are. Liberal in a swing state? Bombastic billionaire? Immigrant in the South? Busy mom without a resume? Whatever. Voters increasingly will go for almost anything, as long as it feels real, authentic and in line with their values. So fly your flags, people. Just make sure they're your real colors.
To summarize: Learn from the Bern. Be independent. Be bold. But let's be honest, Democratic candidates would also have to be careful at the bottom of a Sanders-topped ticket. He may be well known in New Hampshire, Vermont and college campuses around the country, but Sanders' current appeal among independents and moderate Democrats is limited at best.
"The good news about a Sanders candidacy is that it would probably help turn out Democratic base voters. Candidates should run hard at convincing those voters to vote for them too and try to run up the score with progressive turnout," said Jamal Simmons, a veteran of Democratic presidential and Senate campaigns. "But for states with fewer minorities and liberal white voters, I'm not sure there is anything that could help in the end."