Bernie Sanders has been running for president essentially nonstop for almost five years now. For much of that time the question that has been the subtext of his candidacy has been can he win-first the Democratic Party nomination and then the general election. With the Iowa caucus, the first contest of the 2020 nominating season, less than a month away, it may be time to rephrase that question-at least the first half of that question-and ask if Bernie can lose the Democratic Party’s nomination. That is an overstatement, but a confluence of recent events and developments in the race have bolstered Sanders’ chances.
I was critical of Sanders in 2016 largely because I believed that he did not do his work in communities of color and then seemed embittered when he did badly among those voters and lost the nomination, but he has run a very different campaign in 2020. He has broadened his base substantially and, other than Joseph Biden, is the major Democratic candidate who has assembled the most diverse coalition. Sanders’ hard work has paid off as recent polls show him having a good chance to win both Iowa and New Hampshire. If he does that or even comes close, he is all but guaranteed to be one of the leading candidates going into Super Tuesday and the rest of the campaign beginning March 3rd.
foreign policy may figure more into voters’ decisions than may have seemed the case a few weeks ago
With the voting almost about to begin, the political context may also have shifted to favor Sanders. The killing of Qasem Soleimani and the continued escalations between Iran and the US have raised the possibility of a war between Iran and the US, while also reminding Democratic primary voters of the costs of endless wars for endless peace in the Middle East. This means that foreign policy may figure more into voters’ decisions than may have seemed the case a few weeks ago.
One beneficiary of this will be Biden who is the most experienced foreign policy hand in the Democratic field. However, because Sanders has been a consistent opponent of US interventions and of the war in Iraq he stands out from all the other major candidates. Additionally, Sanders’ views on these issues, when compared to those of his opponents, are probably more in line with those of most Democratic primary voters. Sanders’ position is, at least in some respects, in stark contrast to Biden who, while smarter, more cautious and much more skilled at diplomacy than the current president, is still more of a hawk than Sanders and, as Sanders has reminded voters, voted for the war in Iraq. Elizabeth Warren’s very progressive domestic politics do not spill into foreign policy where her views are firmly in line with the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Listening to Pete Buttigieg discuss foreign policy, the other leading candidate for the nomination, one gets the sense that if aliens invaded the planet and threatened the human race, the first thing he would do would be to cite his experience as a mid-level military intelligence officer in Afghanistan.
Sanders also finds himself in an unprecedented position as the first Jewish candidate with a realistic chance of becoming president
Sanders also finds himself in an unprecedented position as the first Jewish candidate with a realistic chance of becoming president, a position he also occupied in 2016. However, with the rise of anti-Semitic violence and an incumbent president that has maintained hawkish support for Israel while almost simultaneously trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes and who has brought people with deeply anti-Semitic backgrouds into his orbit, Jewish issues may play a role in the 2020 election. This is not because of a wellspring of concern about the safety and well-being of American Jews from the 97% or more of Americans who are not Jewish. It is more likely that the Republican Party will, through touting Trump’s Likudnik understanding of the Middle East and the presence of anti-Semites like Ilhan Omar in the Democratic Party, seek to portray the Democratic Party as anti-Semitic. This is an outrageous claim against a party whose defense of genuine religious freedom, minorities of all kinds and even support of Israel runs deeper than that of the Republicans and has earned the Democrats enduring Jewish support for decades. The notion that Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Barack Obama, the Clintons or others are anti-Semitic are divisive lies, but it is not realistic to expect that to be a reason why the Republicans would stop spreading those ideas.
The reality is that anti-Semitism is a problem on further reaches of parts of both the left and the right in the US. That puts Sanders in an intriguing position. He is able to speak out loudly and compellingly about anti-Semitism, something he feels much more comfortable doing this election year than in 2016. Sanders can also advocate a less hawkish views on Israel, because is going to credibly call Sanders given his background, and even, to American ears, accent, an anti-Semite. If Sanders can continue to portray himself as a strong opponent of anti-Semitism, while supporting Israel, but not the far right positions embraced by Trump and the Republicans, he will place himself firmly in line the views held by most American Jews and other Democrats.
The reality is that anti-Semitism is a problem on further reaches of parts of both the left and the right in the US
If Sanders does well in the first four states and is one of the major candidates heading into Super Tuesday, several candidates will drop out as they will have little money and no realistic path to the nomination, but there will be a new candidate competing beginning in March. Ironically, Michael Bloomberg got in the race at least in part because he wanted to prevent a candidate like Sanders or Warren, who he considered too far left, from being the nominee, but it is very possible that Bloomberg will help Sanders. If it is a de facto three candidate race by the end of February with Sanders, Biden and Bloomberg fighting for the nomination, Bloomberg will only pull overs away from Biden who, like Bloomberg, is a moderate with strong support from more conservative and cautious Democrats. That will help Sanders and give the senator from Vermont a real shot at winning what could become a de facto three candidate race beginning in March.
It is easy to see how the stars could align for a Sanders nomination, but there is also much that could go wrong for him. If Biden’s support among African American voters is consistently about 60% or more, he will likely be the nominee. Similarly, if Elizabeth Warren revives her campaign and beats Sanders in one of the early states, Sanders will have a hard time growing his support. Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Bloomberg also have narrower, but real, paths to the nomination as well. It is still too early to predict this race with any certainty, but it is now apparent that a Sanders nomination cannot be dismissed as a socialist pipe dream.
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