Sen. Bernie Sanders is a highly skilled politician, and at Friday night’s debate he showed it.
The Democratic Party is polarized right now between Bernie fans who insist that democratic socialism is the way forward and an establishment that’s terrified Sanders will bring electoral doom. The truth, however, is a bit more boring. Far-left politics isn’t really a winning hand, but Sanders himself is an effective player who consistently outperforms the partisan fundamentals in his races.
Those talents were on display Friday evening at the New Hampshire debate, where he stayed relentlessly on message, emphasized the popular aspects of his agenda, and avoided major pitfalls. As long as he can avoid the trap of believing too much of his own hype, he has the ability to craft a winning message for November.
Bernie avoided pitfalls on health care
Sanders’ most obvious vulnerability by far is that over the course of his two campaigns he’s centered a Medicare-for-all agenda that, while popular as an abstract slogan, tends to become politically dicey when people kick the tires and examine the details.
This has come up time and again at previous debates, but typically with Elizabeth Warren as the subject of scrutiny. Friday night it was Bernie’s time in the barrel as Joe Biden argued that Medicare for All “will cost more than the entire federal budget we spend now” so “the idea middle-class taxes aren’t going to go up is just crazy.”
It’s a tough charge and a fair one, but Sanders simply ducks it.
We are spending twice as much per capita on health care as do the people of any other country. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the health care industry last year made $100 billion in profit. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we are wasting $500 billion a year trying to administer thousands and thousands of different plans.
What Medicare for all will do is save the average American substantial sums of money. Substantial. It would be much less expensive than your plan. And we will expand Medicare to include dental care, eyeglasses, hearing aids, and home health care, as well.
What makes this answer work is that while it’s evasive on the taxes point, it also stands up to fact-checking scrutiny.
If you look at American health care spending in international terms, you’ll think you’re going insane. It’s not just that the Canadian and British governments finance health care that’s free at point of service for all citizens, they do it while spending less than our government does even if you completely ignore America’s enormous private sector health spending.
Warren, who had a brand as the woman with a thousand plans, was expected to draw up a specific plan to make her health care vision work. What’s more, her whole campaign is vulnerable to attacks from the left from Sanders fans so she always had to worry about looking less-than-fully committed. Sanders is free of a wonk reputation or a need to worry about his left flank, so he doesn’t try to offer a specific health care financing vision — which, if he did it, would inevitably end up featuring some unpleasant tradeoffs.
Instead, he just makes the basic compelling point captured by that chart — America’s health care system is bizarrely terrible, providing less coverage at greater cost than what we see in comparable countries. This is not an adequate basis for actually enacting Medicare-for-all, but it’s a good political answer that explains his big picture view of health care without falling into nasty political traps.
Bernie emphasizes unifying economic themes
Another display of Sanders’s political skills came as a followup to a skillful charge from former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who argued that voters will “respond to those who are reaching out in a politics of addition and inclusion and belonging, not one that beats people over the head and says they shouldn’t even be on their side if we don’t agree 100 percent of the time.”
That’s a good point about the political virtues moderation and broad-mindedness. But like a lot of establishment Democrats, Buttigieg seems to be confusing Sanders’ Twitter following — which really does go in for a lot of off-putting sectarian fanaticism – for Bernie himself who is a much more deft politician.
Sanders rebutted by simply saying “Needless to say, I have never said that.” He believes in looking for converts, not excommunicating heretics.
And then he delivered his own version of how you bring people together — with an economic policy message:
The way you bring people together — Republicans, independents, Democrats, progressives, conservatives — you raise the minimum wage to $15 bucks an hour. The way you bring people together is to make it clear that we’re not going to give tax breaks to billionaires and large corporations. They’re going to start paying their fair share of taxes. That’s what the American people want.
And I’ll tell you something else. The way you bring people together is by ending the international disgrace of this country being the only major nation on Earth not to guarantee health care to all people as a human right.
And you bring people together by telling the pharmaceutical industry they’re not going to charge us 10 times more for the same prescription drugs as the people in Canada that borders on New Hampshire. That’s how you bring people together and you defeat Donald Trump.
Now note something here. Sanders doesn’t say that you bring people together by throwing a woman’s right to choose under the bus, or by abandoning the concerns of racial minorities or LGBT Americans. Indeed, later in the debate Sanders will stake out a hard-line pro-choice stance and his voting record as a senator has always been rock solid on civil rights and gay rights issues.
But he does draw an implicit contrast here. The way you bring people together (i.e., be popular and win elections) is by talking about themes that activate class conflict rather than disagreements about race or gender roles.
This is in keeping with research. Economic policy unites rank-and-file Democrats and divides rank-and-file Republicans, whereas cultural issues do the reverse. But Democratic Party politicians often fall into the trap of emphasizing their own elite-level consensus on cultural issues, while fighting about the details of economic policy.
Sanders is aware that as a matter of electoral self-presentation, it makes the most sense to emphasize broadly resonant economic policy themes that address Americans of all races and who might disagree vociferously about the desirability of immigration or who does what while the national anthem is playing.
Sanders knows how to pivot
Last but by no means least, Sanders eloquently gave Democrats the answer they wanted to hear when moderators asked him about Hillary Clinton’s continued habit of needling him in television interview.
“I think quite honestly as we face one of the great political crisis facing America,” he said, “our job is to look forward and not back. I hope that Secretary Clinton and all of us can come together and move in that direction.”
It was simple, it was classy, it is probably not an expression of his full true feelings on the matter, but that's exactly what made it important — under pressure and with the stakes high, he kept his cool and did not get dragged into a counterproductive argument. Instead, he pivoted to account of himself as a bipartisan dealmaker:
And in fact, there were periods that I was in the House of Representatives a number of years, where I passed more amendments on the floor of the house in a bipartisan way than any other member of the house. And that is when you — when you bring people together aren’t an issue. There are many conservative Republicans for example who are concerned about civil liberties. At least they used to be concerned about civil liberties. There is Republicans as you know concerned about the high cost of prescription drugs. There are ways we can work with Republicans on issues where we have a common basis. Let’s do that.
The point here is not necessarily that this line about his bipartisan amendments is general election gold. He’s referring, as he sometimes does, to the fact that over ten years ago he was dubbed “the amendment king” for the fact that in a study that covered the years 1995-2007 he passed more amendments than anyone else in the House. Does anyone really care about Bernie’s work on low-profile amendments in the late-1990s? Probably not.
But nervous Democrats should take two things away from this. One is that Sanders does in fact know how the American legislative process works. He has participated in it extensively for decades, knows how you can get things done and also knows how painfully difficult it is to get things done. It’s true that this is at odds with some of his “political revolution” talk, but the point is he’s been around. This is a veteran and reasonably successful member of congress, not some random guy who joined Democratic Socialists of America 18 months ago.
The other, and in some ways more important, thing is simply that he knows how to do the whole normal politics “pivot to the center” thing. Happy talk about bipartisanship isn’t just for Joe Biden. Bernie Sanders can do it too! He has Republican friends. He knows there are good Republicans out there. He’s worked with them in the past and looks forward to doing so again.
It’s 100 percent true that if Buttigieg or Amy Klobuchar started talking like this, they’d get roasted by Sanders’s Twitter fandom. The hypocrisy is very real. But the fact that Bernie’s fans let Sanders get away with this kind of thing is a strength of his. He is smart and trusted, so he has the running room to reach out the center, and — when appropriate — he does it.
There are no guarantees in politics, and it’s unquestionably true that Sanders would bring some obvious vulnerabilities to the table. But his track record over the years suggests real skill at navigating these problems, and if you watch his first performance as a real frontrunner in the race you can see those skills in action.