Sometime in the mid-1980s when I was going to college at a large state school in California a friend of mine who was going to school in the east coast mentioned to me that the city of Burlington, Vermont had a socialist mayor. I came from a progressive family and background, so I thought that was an encouraging piece of news. Nonetheless, Burlington was a long way away and I was not sure I’d ever even been to Vermont.
A few years later when I was finishing up my undergraduate degree at UC Santa Cruz, I found myself actively involved as a volunteer for a progressive African American candidate seeking the Democratic nomination for President. Jesse Jackson was given to soaring rhetoric emphasizing racial and economic justice and had brought together a coalition that included people of color, LGBT activists and progressive whites. Jackson also had an unfortunate and troubling history with Jewish Americans, a constituency that is usually an important part of progressive movements. Among other things, he had referred to New York City, the city where I was born and now live, as “Hymietown,” and had refused to condemn outright the vicious anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan.
It was not easy being a Jewish supporter of Jackson. I was troubled deeply by his remarks, but in my heart did not believe he wished any harm on Jews or the Jewish people. Many of my Jewish friends and family were critical of my decision to support him, while my gentile friends in the Jackson camp seemed uninterested in my concerns. As the campaign progressed, the issue did not go away and culminated in the New York State primary where Ed Koch the race-baiting mayor of New York City asserted that any Jew who supported Jackson was “crazy.”
This campaign has been different for Sanders. He sought to build a more diverse coalition, visited communities he had all but ignored in 2016 and seemed better prepared during debates
Sometime during that campaign, I learned that one of Jackson’s few high profile Jewish supporters was that socialist mayor of Burlington, Bernie Sanders. Because of this, during that campaign, I felt a connection to Bernie Sanders even though we had never met.
Jesse Jackson lost that nomination to Michael Dukakis, so I began volunteering for the Dukakis campaign. Dukakis lost the election that fall; and I graduated from college that spring. A year or so later Sanders was elected to the House of Representatives and years after that to the US Senate. I liked Sanders during those years as I thought he was a progressive voice within the Democratic Party who, with a few exceptions, notably regarding guns, generally voted the way I thought was best. However, I did not live in Vermont so did not follow his career all that closely.
When Sanders announced his candidacy in 2015, I was not quite sure what to make of him. I figured he had little chance of winning, but might move Hillary Clinton, the overwhelming favorite to be the Democratic nominee, to the left. I had never been a big fan of the Clintons, so thought that a little competition would be good for the Democratic Party. In the early days of that campaign, I was told several times that Sanders couldn’t win because America didn’t want an old left-wing Jew to be President. I found this offensive as I hope to be an old left-wing Jew someday-for the moment I am a middle-aged left-wing Jew.
As the 2016 campaign progressed, I was impressed by Sanders’ commitment to some progressive causes, but found his campaign too one dimensional and too frequently his supporters both annoying and often ill-informed. I ended up supporting Clinton in that primary, albeit without much enthusiasm as part of my political heart was still with Sanders. After Sanders lost the nomination, I thought his bitterness and anger, rather than a frank assessment of what he had done wrong was destructive and unhelpful.
I had hoped Bernie wouldn’t run in 2020 because I believed a better messenger with a similar message might do better. That hope was naïve on my part as there was no way Sanders, now in his late 70s and coming off a 2016 campaign where he engendered both loyal support and strong opposition within the party, would pass up one more chance to be president. This campaign has been different for Sanders. He sought to build a more diverse coalition, visited communities he had all but ignored in 2016 and seemed better prepared during debates. This helped him to strong showing in the first three states. However, some of the problems from 2016 had still not gone away. His supporters continued to create problems for Sanders with their online vitriol, while Sanders himself still could not break through with African American voters in the south. Nonetheless, had things gone differently in the time between Sanders’s big win in the Nevada caucus and Super Tuesday, he might be in a different situation, but at the moment Sanders is facing an uphill battle against Joe Biden following an extraordinary week for the former vice-president.
Bernie, as somebody who has known and admired you since the Reagan years, please do the right thing for your candidacy and the party you hope to lead
Sanders is now at yet another decision point. While he still has a chance at being the nominee, and therefore any calls for him to get out of the race are way too premature, he must carefully consider his options. 2020 will end in one of three ways for Sanders. Either he will get elected President of the United States, will have moved the party significantly leftward but still be stuck in the US Senate, or will be held responsible by many for helping elect Donald Trump-twice. The only reason this is a difficult choice is that Sanders seems to think that he can only achieve the first option, if he allows the third one to be possible.
This is most evident in Sanders’ ongoing, and by now foolish, battle with what he calls the Democratic establishment. What Super Tuesday showed us is not that voters don’t want Sanders’ progressive policies, but that three years into the stain on decency, democracy and our country that is the Trump administration, most Democratic voters have little rancor towards the Democratic establishment. Nancy Pelosi, the Obamas, Adam Schiff, Jerry Nadler and many other individuals and organizations have helped lead the fight to contain and roll back Trumpism. Had Sanders realized this and stuck to his core message regarding economic justice, rather than his ancillary anger at the establishment, he would be in a better position today and the Democratic Party would have one less major obstacle in bringing about the unity the party so desperately needs regardless of who is nominated..
The good news for Sanders is that it is not too late. He can still turn this race around, but only if he focuses on his strengths which include his substantive policy positions, the extremely impressive progress he has made with Latino voters in the west, his appeal to young voters and his ability to speak simple truths in simple language. If he does that, he will increase his chance of winning while simultaneously helping the Democratic candidate’s chances against Trump whether it is Sanders or Biden. Alternately, Sanders can rachet up his attacks on the establishment, lose the primary, watch too many of his supporters stay home in November and, fairly or not, risk being remembered as the guy who made a lot of noise, but ultimately helped Trump. Bernie, as somebody who has known and admired you since the Reagan years, please do the right thing for your candidacy and the party you hope to lead.
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