Bernie Sanders might become a victim of his own success
Suzanne Lynch: Political danger of moving far left is why some Democrats think centrist is best
Although the first primary contests to select the party’s candidates are still a year away, it is already a crowded Democratic field. Six current members of the US senate have announced a run. Most of them are women, which is a telling symbol of the political times that saw a record number of women elected to Congress in last year’s mid-term elections.
Sanders, a 77-year-old independent senator from Vermont who was runner-up to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2016, has had a strong start. Within 24 hours of his announcement his campaign had raised $6 million (€5.2 million), mostly through small online donations – far outstripping other declared candidates.
Sanders’s difficulty in attracting African-American and women voters last time round may be more acute in 2020
Sanders has several advantages as the race begins. As the only declared candidate to have previously run for the nomination, he benefits from name recognition and has an established database of supporters and donors. As he said himself this week, his leftwing policies are now supported by more Americans.
But he also faces challenges. While Sanders was the only serious opponent to Clinton – the de facto anointed candidate in 2016 – this time he faces a crowded and competitive field. His personal credentials may also be a barrier. The nomination of an old white male candidate may not be the image the Democratic Party wants, at a time when the party has a record number of women and minority members.
Further, Sanders’s difficulty in attracting African-American and women voters last time round may be more acute in 2020. Even though he faced a formidable opponent for the African-American vote in Clinton, this time he will be competing against at least two candidates of colour, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. His record on women’s issues has also come under the spotlight in recent months following accusations from former campaign staff that he did not treat seriously allegations of harassment by male staff members on his campaign team.
Policies once dismissed as fringe are now being politely listened to
But the veteran socialist can take comfort from the fact that the party has embraced many of the policies. In the wake of the shock election of Donald Trump, the Democratic Party has been debating their future direction, and how it might best take on the mercurial president in 2020.
Over the last few months, it appears to have settled on an answer – a shift to the left. The success of liberal candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – who previously worked on Sanders’s campaign – in November’s mid-term elections has given a new dynamism to the socialist wing of the party.
Policies once dismissed as fringe are now being politely listened to.
In one of her first policy statements, Ocasio-Cortez proposed a 70 per cent marginal tax rate on income over $10 million, noting that taxes at this level existed in the US after the second World War. Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman was among those to give the proposal credence, writing that it was “fully in line with serious economic research”.
Ocasio-Cortez’s plan for a “Green New Deal” was launched with much fanfare earlier this month on the steps of the US Capitol. The young New Yorker outlined a plan for a massive programme of government investment to address climate change and create jobs, flanked by dozens of members of Congress.
Progressive politics may help Democrats to select a presidential candidate to run in 2020, but it might alienate moderate voters in the general election
But it is perhaps in the nascent Democratic primary campaign that the move leftwards is most significant. California senator Kamala Harris surprised many by declaring her support for “Medicare for All”, which would extend health care to all citizens and eventually abolish health insurance. Other candidates such as Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren, a longtime campaigner on social issues, have also tacked to the left in the early days of the campaign.
But many political observers see danger ahead. While a commitment to progressive politics may help Democrats in the primary process to select their presidential candidate for 2020, it may serve to alienate moderate and Republican-leaning swing voters when it comes to the general election.
Already Republicans have seized on the issue, branding Democrats a party of socialists. It was no coincidence that Trump cited the scourge of socialism in his State of the Union address.
Many Democrats believe it is time for a centrist candidate such as former vice-president Joe Biden or former Texan congressman Beto O’Rourke
“America will never be a socialist country,” he declared to cheers from Republicans. Indeed, some view his decision to take an uncharacteristic interventionist stance on Venezuela as a way of brandishing his anti-socialist credentials. On Monday he addressed Venezuelan ex-pats in Miami, claiming that “the days of socialism and communism are numbered.”
Notably Nancy Pelosi, one of the shrewdest political minds in Congress, did not publicly back the Green New Deal, though she applauded the “enthusiasm” the proposal generated. Others are particularly concerned about candidates’ commitments on healthcare which go much farther than President Obama’s “Affordable Care Act”. With polls showing that most Americans ultimately value choice and their ability to select health insurance, advocating a single-payer system is seen as politically risky.
The political dangers of moving too far left are one reason many Democrats believe the time is ripe for a centrist candidate such as former vice-president Joe Biden or former Texan congressman Beto O’Rourke. Both men are expected to announce their intentions in the coming months.
As for Sanders, while he may take credit for the current leftward tilt of the party, he may find he becomes a victim of his own success. Democratic voters may like his message, but faced with a choice of younger and more diverse candidates, they may prefer a more electable version of Sanders as they prepare for the election 2020 battle ahead.