A Cautionary Look at Biden’s Wins and Sanders’ Losses
By John Judis
March 4, 2020 10:09 a.m.
To state the obvious: Joe Biden now has to be the favorite to win the
Democratic nomination. Once he showed that he could win a primary,
Democratic voters concerned above all about winning in the fall
flocked to him; and Bernie Sanders is basically too radical for most
of the Cold War-era voters over 40 or 45 years old. Of course, nothing
is certain in politics these days, but if Biden’s lead holds up, what
does that mean for the future of the Democratic Party?
On Monday, I wrote an email to Pat Buchanan, whose presidential
campaigns I covered and whom I got to know during the 1996 campaign,
and told him that what was happening with Sanders reminded me of what
happened to him in 1996. After Buchanan won New Hampshire, the GOP
establishment closed ranks around Bob Dole, and after Dole beat
Buchanan in South Carolina, the battle for the nomination was over.
(There was even a self-funded rich guy in the race, Steve Forbes, who
Why that analogy is possibly interesting is that in 1996, Buchanan was
appealing to GOP voters on much the same issues that Trump did 20
years later. Trade, footloose multinational corporations, illegal
immigration (squared), abortion (about which Buchanan was genuinely
more passionate), guns, political correctness, and some version of
affirmative action. (Unlike traditional Republicans, he didn’t
threaten to cut social security or Medicare in order to balance the
budget.) But at the time, there weren’t enough working class and small
business Republican voters who responded to this complex of issues. By
2016 there were, and Donald Trump was very much Buchanan’s successor.
Sanders has attracted young voters who were born after the Cold War,
who don’t have the same compunctions about socialism, who understand
democratic socialism could actually be something good, who in the
absence of union protection on their jobs, and union-negotiated
insurance and pensions, look to the federal government to do something
about these things — and also want the government to do something
about access to higher education, student debt and climate change,
which to them is what nuclear war was to my generation. Biden can
mouth the words, but he doesn’t get it. Bernie does.
Moreover, Bernie appeals to the young across income group, race, sex
and nationality. I’ve looked at the polls, and I have gone to quite a
few rallies. The fabled white working class? He gets the younger
voters many of whose parents have become Republicans. Warren the
Harvard professor didn’t reach them. Pete Buttigieg, to paraphrase
what my former colleague said of Al Gore, is an old person’s idea of a
young person. The electorate that Bernie appealed to could be the
future of the Democratic party the same way — and I am not making
invidious political comparisons here — I am a Bernie Democrat — that
Buchanan’s electorate became the future of the Republican party.
So what I would say to my fellow Democrats about Super Tuesday is
this: be optimistic that you may have a candidate who can beat Donald
Trump in November, and that is super-important. But be worried that if
the Democrats can’t hold onto the Bernie generation of voters, Biden,
if elected, will become the placeholder for a Republican majority led
by the likes of Josh Hawley or Marco Rubio — younger politicians who
are trying to take what is positive in Trump’s economics — in
particular, the economic nationalism that Sanders also promoted —
while ditching his bigoted social policies and adolescent behavior. I
am hopeful that the young Democratic activists who have come to life
over the last five years won’t let that happen, but I fear the dead
hand of the K Street and Wall Street Democrats who have had much too
much influence on the party over the last forty years.
John Judis is editor-at-large at Talking Points Memo. He was a senior
editor of The New Republic and senior writer for The National Journal.