It’s no secret that Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist. He wears the red rosette proudly. I like that about him—in fact, his policies might be the only thing I like about him. We are, broadly, in agreement on taxing the wealthy, healthcare that is free at the point of access, and universal Pre-K and free tuition at public universities. The problem, as I’ve pointed out before, is that most Americans are not. A Bernie Sanders nomination would be disastrous for Democrats in November.
We got a taste of what’s to come last night. In a 60 Minutes interview with Anderson Cooper, Sanders was unable to answer how he would pay for his expensive programs. As if that wasn’t bad enough, after Cooper showed a clip from the 1980s of Sanders speaking glowingly of the Soviet Union, the Sandinistas, and the Cuban Revolution. In explaining the clip, Sanders did—to his credit—say he condemns the authoritarian nature of the Cuban regime, only to then praise Fidel Castro for the literacy program the deceased Cuban dictator implemented “when he took office”—totally ignoring the fact that Castro didn’t “take office,” but violently stormed his way to power.
Not having fully costed your policy proposals is not going to fly with the electorate. Praising Fidel Castro will go down like a lead balloon, especially in Florida. This is just one clip, too. Sanders has been a public figure for nearly 40 years.
What else is out there? Democratic candidates ought to be looking to find out. If I were the Buttigieg or the Warren campaign, I would have staffers trawling through everything Bernie Sanders has ever said. Pour over his back catalogue and play the greatest hits on repeat. Show Democratic voters exactly who he is.
If this sounds like mudslinging, that’s because it is. I don’t deny it. It’s absolutely politics at its lowest. But have we forgotten who we’re going up against in November? Donald Trump is the most unscrupulous man to hold the White House in living memory—tenfold dirtier than Tricky Dick Nixon ever dared to be. Anyone who doesn’t think that these clips won’t be found and packaged into brutally effective attack ads playing at least once an hour in living rooms across the country is kidding themselves.
The Sanders campaign itself ought to be combing through Bernie’s record and every public utterance in anticipation of these attacks—possibly in the primary, but certainly in the general. And Bernie Sanders needs to get better at answering them. I don’t care if Fidel Castro had a great literacy program or not, you don’t stay that he did. Some things are third rails in American politics, and praise for a Cuban dictator is one of them.
The problem is that Bernie doesn’t want to play the game. He doesn’t know how, nor does he care to learn. I hate to keep bleating on about Jeremy Corbyn, but he was much the same. He blamed the media for taking his crystal clear words out of context and seemed annoyed at being asked about previous comments, as though a journalist doing her or his job was a nuisance. It didn’t work, but Corbyn didn’t care. A disdain for the system was a feature, not a bug, to him and his supporters.
When you’re as self-righteous as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, your correctness is self-evident and so being asked to explain it is a nuisance. That was on full display last night. It’s further complicating the problem; it’s bad enough these clips exist, but the inability to understand why they’re a problem and unwillingness to attempt to control the damage only serves to maximize the inevitable damage they will do.
Part of a rigorous primary contest is to vet the eventual nominee. So far, this hasn’t happened—at least not to Bernie Sanders. Most of the candidates have kept personal attacks to a minimum, but as last week’s debate in Nevada showed, the gloves are coming off. The problem is that while Buttigieg and Klobuchar and Warren are no longer pulling any punches, they’re all punching one another and not Bernie Sanders. Going after Mike Bloomberg, like Warren did, is all well and good, but Bernie is the most likely nominee at this point and so it’s time to start seriously looking at not only what he’s done (or hasn’t done), but what he’s said.
Obviously no Democrat wants to damage the eventual nominee, whoever she or he may turn out to be. That’s why we haven’t seen a more heated and contentious primary. It’s a double-edged sword, I admit. On the one hand, you don’t want to give the Republicans ammunition in the general election. On the other hand, you want to make sure Democratic voters know what ammunition there is so that they can decide whether the man who is most likely to be our party’s nominee is able to withstand it.
As the chances of a Sanders nomination continue to grow—and make no mistake, he’s the frontrunner right now—we will have to continue to square this circle. How much do we show our own hand in hopes of stopping a man who, right now, at least feels unstoppable? How much do we damage our own nominee in trying to stop him from becoming our nominee?
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan