There are many, many things wrong with Michael Bloomberg’s billion-dollar vanity exercise. But there is one thing he gets right, and it’s also the thing that gives me pause about Bernie Sanders’s increasingly likely nomination.
The issue isn’t ideology. On that score, I’m mostly in Bernie’s camp. I believe in universal health care and a Green New Deal. I think ICE should be abolished, private prisons should be banned, wealth should be taxed, coal plants should be shut down, public schools should be better funded, public universities should be free, childcare should be publicly supported, and military adventurism should be vastly curtailed.
But I also think Donald Trump poses a singular threat to our institutions, and that if he wins, we’ll spend four more years sliding toward authoritarianism. So defeating him is priority one.
Bloomberg’s campaign isn’t premised on ideas. The whole thing can be summed up in one sentence: Trump is bad, and I can beat him.
Let’s make one thing emphatically clear: Mike Bloomberg is the absolute wrong person to deliver this message. Bloomberg’s history of racist, sexist, transphobic comments is disqualifying. Stop-and-frisk is disqualifying. Trying to literally buy an election is qualifying. Having the plutocrat hubris to suggest that other candidates drop out before his first debate is disqualifying. (Watching Elizabeth Warren disembowel him was fun.)
But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the one thing he accurately intuits: If the election is a referendum on Trump, Trump will lose.
Unseating an incumbent is hard under the best circumstances; only once in the last hundred years has a party lost the White House after one term in power. It’s even more difficult when the economy is growing. Any normal president would be favored this year, when GDP is growing at about 2 percent, we’re adding about 200,000 jobs a month, and unemployment is under 4 percent.
But Trump isn’t a normal president. He’s never had positive approval ratings. He probably never will.
Bloomberg’s theory, then, is to simply let Trump beat himself.
For all of his braggadocio, Trump doesn’t want that kind of referendum. He wants an enemy—an outlet for resentment, someone he can make as despised as he is.
Any Democrat will be attacked, called a commie, a baby killer, the Antichrist, perhaps have Trump’s Department of Justice launch an investigation into one of their family members. But Sanders is leading a self-described political revolution. He also has a history of praising aspects of repressive regimes, including the Soviets and the Sandinistas. (Just this weekend, on 60 Minutes, he threw in some nice words for Fidel Castro’s literacy program.)
So an election that could be a referendum on Trump will instead become a referendum on (democratic) socialism, Sanders, and his revolution.
That’s what Trump wants. In a way, it’s what Bernie wants, too—sweeping reforms shouldn’t be secondary players. It is not what Democratic Party leaders—or Dems in vulnerable congressional districts—want.
I normally don’t find establishment pearl-clutching interesting. For decades, the party has been terrified of its own shadow even as radicalizing Republicans redefined the political center. But I do worry that Sanders might be the wrong person running the right campaign at the wrong moment.
The thing about revolutions—or major legislation—is that they usually follow national trauma. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments followed the Civil War. The New Deal came amid the Great Depression. The Civil Rights Act followed JFK’s assassination. Even the Affordable Care Act followed a global economic collapse.
The economy isn’t as great as Trump claims, and perhaps it will crash in the next eight months—coronavirus fears tanked global stock markets on Monday—but right now, we’re not there.
That’s not to say Sanders is unelectable, or that Democrats vying for the moderate lane would be more electable. Sanders can inspire and mobilize in a way that Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg never will.
But I suspect that a campaign focused more on prosecuting Trump’s malice, incompetence, and corruption than selling an overhaul of the U.S. economy—while explaining the differences between communism, socialism, and democratic socialism/social democracy—is more apt to succeed.
Peter Hamby made a compelling argument for Vanity Fair last month that my concerns are misplaced: “What if Sanders is actually the MOST electable Democrat? In the age of Trump, hyper-partisanship, institutional distrust, and social media, Sanders could be examined as a candidate almost custom-built to go head-to-head with Trump this year.”
Sanders, Hamby continued, has five things going for him: celebrity, media-savvy, a clear message, a fundraising machine, and an army behind him.
The last thing is the most essential.
Bernie’s theory is that he’s going to rewrite the playbook, that his movement will inspire young and disenfranchised voters to turn out in record numbers, while his populist message will peel away segments of Trump’s coalition.
In a close election, which econometric forecasts suggest this will be, a surge of new voters could put Sanders over the top—if they’re in the right states, and if they’re not offset by otherwise-Trump-wary suburbanites scared off by the S-word.
This is Bernie’s high-stakes gamble. It’s also a bet Trump appears eager to take.
Then again, Hillary Clinton was eager to run against Donald Trump.
Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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