CHARLESTON, S.C. — John McCain, who won the New Hampshire primary in 2000 and 2008, jokingly called the reporters who flocked to his rolling press conferences aboard his campaign bus “Communists and Trotskyites.”
Bernie Sanders, who won the New Hampshire primary in 2016 and 2020, signed on in 1980 as a presidential elector in Vermont for the Socialist Workers Party, which was originally founded by disciples of Leon Trotsky.
For a Russian revolutionary who was murdered with an ice pick while in exile in Mexico in 1940, Trotsky has been having a pretty good run in 21st-century American politics.
Of course, Sanders isn’t a Trotskyite or anything like that. But for old-line Democrats, it should be telling that in 1980 Sanders apparently saw no significant differences between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan — so he backed a fringe party.
When I interviewed Sanders in 1985 in his mayoral office in Burlington, I recall the venom in his voice as he bellowed, “I am not now nor have I ever been a liberal Democrat.”
Thirty-five years later, Sanders is the newly anointed front-runner for the presidential nomination of a political party that he has disdained for most of his career. Not bad for a self-proclaimed socialist who was born before Pearl Harbor and suffered a heart attack last October.
A party upended
Following Sanders unequivocal victory in the Nevada caucuses, mainstream Democrats have gone through many of the stages of grief (shock, denial, anger) before ending up at depression. By every traditional measure, Sanders — a divider, not a uniter — is the weakest possible candidate against Donald Trump.
The counterarguments from the Bernie Brigades strike me as weak. Head-to-head polling matchups with Trump are worthless at this stage since voters will know so much more (positive and negative) about the Democratic nominee by November.
Since Sanders has rarely been seriously attacked in the 2020 Democratic race, his high favorability numbers are subject to abrupt change. Florida voters, for example, are apt to hear much more about his supportive comments over the years about Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution.
The other Sanders myth is that Bernie will bring out millions of disaffected first-time voters. That’s an evidence-free argument that ideological candidates have been peddling since 1964, when Barry Goldwater promised “a choice, not an echo.”
After two caucuses and a primary, there is little conclusive data to suggest that Sanders is riding a wave of hidden voters who will transform politics.
Turnout was sharply down in the Iowa caucuses compared to the record-setting Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton race in 2008. The roughly 20 percent jump in the 2020 Democratic vote in New Hampshire can be partly explained by the lack of a competitive GOP primary. And expanded early voting in Nevada, which accounted for three-quarters of caucus turnout, makes comparisons with prior years nearly impossible.
The time is now
There are two easy ways to get rich in politics — work for Michael Bloomberg or bet heavily against the conventional wisdom as expressed on cable TV.
The current myth that the Sanders campaign is an unstoppable juggernaut could come to a crashing halt with Tuesday night’s debate. Or if Joe Biden rebounds to win the South Carolina primary.
Elizabeth Warren — who pummeled Bloomberg in the Las Vegas debate — should turn her fire on Sanders. It would be both a gift to her party, and it would have credibility coming from Warren’s left-wing perspective.
This is the moment when everyone who sees Sanders as a walking electoral disaster should speak up. No more whispers that Nancy Pelosi is concerned about keeping her House majority or rumors that Obama has told friends he is worried about Sanders as the nominee.
If you see something, say something.
University of Maryland political scientist David Karol pointed out on Twitter that other Democratic ex-presidents have freely endorsed in primary races. Harry Truman in 1956 and 1960 supported convention losers Averell Harriman and Stuart Symington; Jimmy Carter endorsed Walter Mondale in 1984, and Bill Clinton backed his vice president, Al Gore, in 2000.
Obama, in particular, has a choice. He can speak out about the threat that Sanders offers for Democratic prospects in November and the 44th president’s own legacy. Or Obama can maintain his cultivated public silence —and take partial responsibility for whatever happens next.
If Obama, Pelosi and other leading Democrats don’t have the gumption to unite around a single stop-Bernie candidate, they can, at least, jointly declare that no one is the presumptive nominee without 50 percent of the convention delegates.
No bending the rules
Democratic Party rules explicitly require a majority at the convention. But the Sanders forces are peddling the myth that whoever has a plurality of delegates when the primaries are over should be the nominee.
What if Sanders ends up with only 35 percent of the delegates? Should he be the nominee even if 65 percent of the Democrats prefer someone else?
According to Elaine Kamarck, a longtime member of the Democratic Party’s rules committee and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, there is a simple way to test this premise: Have the convention vote on whether a plurality or a majority is required for nomination.
This rules fight would come on the opening night of the Milwaukee convention. If the Democrats vote to keep majority rule, then a contested convention and a second ballot would almost be certain. And, by the way, superdelegates (mostly members of Congress and party officials) are entitled to vote on all rules questions.
All we have really learned so far in 2020 is that Bernie Sanders is not going to quietly fade away. What leading Democrats do with this unavoidable reality is a choice that will reverberate for years.
Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.