Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, has raised much excitement in certain segments of the left. There are no scandals or investigations hovering over his campaign. He has shown no hesitance to embrace the progressive vision. However, no matter how much some voters like Sanders or his ideas, this doesn’t necessarily translate into electoral victory.
For one thing, despite many conservatives complaining about President Obama being a socialist, Obama has never openly identified as one. Not so with Sanders. He has openly embraced both the label and a number of very left-wing positions.
His supporters might not either care about these things or may even regard them as positives, but that doesn’t mean the voters as a whole will. While somewhat flawed, conventional wisdom is that a candidate should move to the center during a general election. This will help him capture supposedly more moderate independent voters.
This could be a major problem for Sanders. Assuming the GOP doesn’t nominate someone who is very right-wing or an otherwise weak candidate, he would be faced with maximizing the progressive vote and historically Democratic constituencies in order to make up for the loss of more moderate voters.
Even within the uber left Sanders might not be able to accomplish this. Obama was able to win in 2008 and 2012 in part because of extremely high turnout among black voters. While it remains to be seen if any Democrat can replicate the high turnout, Sanders in particular has struggled to gain momentum among black voters. Some commentators blame this on him being from Vermont, one of the demographically whitest states in the union. Sanders lacks experience campaigning for the black community.
There’s also a demographic issue. Sanders isn’t just a white male. He’s also very old. If elected, he would be the oldest president in US history. The only current Republican presidential candidates that even come within ten years of his age are George Pataki, Donald Trump and Jim Gilmore.
At this point, Marco Rubio has a decent, but by no means certain, chance of winning the GOP nomination. If he does, a white Sanders would be running against the first Hispanic major-party candidate who is also thirty years his junior and running on the theme of a new American century. I’m not saying, nor do I believe, that a candidate’s age or ethnicity should matter in an election. However, the optics of it could play into a narrative that would make it more difficult for Sanders to win.
Besides questions of electability, Sanders’ positions should also be addressed. My disagreements with him would be too numerous to list here, and some of them are simply a result of different values. However, a few do deserve mention.
One on which I think he’s clearly wrong is trade. Sanders has been a leading opponent of both trade promotion authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. His campaign website also blasts free trade areas like NAFTA. He blames free trade for lowering American wages and costing American jobs.
He specifically mentions China, even though NAFTA is just with Canada and Mexico. But in any case, Sanders isn’t alone in being critical of free trade. It’s just that generally the critics are outside the mainstream. Virtually all mainstream economists support free trade. It is one of the most universally accepted ideas in economics.
Another issue is his opposition to Citizens United. He criticizes it for allowing big money to influence politics; a large part of his platform is against allowing corporate money to influence elections. The Citizens United case, however, looked at whether the government should have been allowed to stop a conservative non-profit from showing a movie critical of Hillary Clinton. The answer to this question along should be an emphatic no.
Thirdly, there should be serious concerns about the costs of his programs. For instance, he supports raising the minimum wage to 15 dollars by 2020 and requiring employers to offer two weeks of paid vacation. No one would argue that these are bad things, but it’s hard to imagine that this wouldn’t increase the cost of doing business and productivity. Depending on how they’re implemented and the businesses involved, they could cause some unemployment.