Progressives to Voters Skeptical of Bernie Sanders: This 'Big Tent' Movement Is a Winning and Practical Choice

On the day of the New Hampshire primary, a New Hampshire voter is offered a Bernie Sanders campaign sign after casting her vote at a polling location in Nashua, New Hampshire on Tuesday February 11, 2020. (Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Progressives to Voters Skeptical of Bernie Sanders: This 'Big Tent' Movement Is a Winning and Practical Choice

"Sanders is much more pragmatic and less ideological than his opponents would like to admit."

While Sen. Bernie Sanders is now being declared the new Democratic frontrunner following his victories in both Iowa last week and in New Hampshire on Tuesday, progressives are reaching out to voters that remain skeptical of the self-described democratic socialist who preaches "political revolution" and whose multi-racial, working-class movement is upending what many thought was electorally possible in the United States.

In an op-ed published at MarketWatch on Tuesday, Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), explained to readers that despite how often Sanders is painted by the corporate media as a "scary" socialist who can't possibly win a general election, his politics are in fact quite pragmatic when it comes to addressing the very real needs of everyday people. "In short," he wrote, "Sanders is much more pragmatic and less ideological than his opponents would like to admit."

According to Weisbrot:

Sanders' program is targeted at correcting a very harmful transformation of the U.S. economy that has taken place over the past 40 years.

Unlike the first three decades after World War II, when income gains were broadly shared as the economy grew, most of the increase in income has gone to those who already had much more than their share. Since 1993, for example, the top 1% of families captured an astounding 48% of the growth in this country's income.

No wonder so many Americans feel like the system is rigged against them.

For many voters, however, especially those who gain their political insights from cable news in the evenings--The Week's Ryan Cooper says it's understandable why they remain unsure of Sanders' viability even as his campaign's message is so appealing to those exposed to it. As polling continues to show, Americans across the political spectrum widely support universal healthcare, a higher minimum wage, cancellation of college and medical debt, and the call for urgent action to address the climate crisis.

"It can be hard to see this," Cooper wrote in a column published Wednesday morning, "if you watch too much of the hysterically anti-Sanders coverage on supposedly-liberal MSNBC--Chris Matthews recently spoke of his fear that Sanders is a secret communist who might execute him in Central Park--but the fact is most rank-and-file Democrats like Sanders just fine. Indeed, the Morning Consult poll found that his favorability rating among that group is 74 percent--the highest of any of the candidates, even better than Biden."

Put in a historical context, Cooper argues that Sanders' brand of politics and his economic vision is not unique in the American tradition--it just hasn't been seen in over four decades, back before the Reagan revolution that decimated the nation's working class and ushered in an era of corporate dominance of both major parties alongside soaring economic inequality, steady wage stagnation, and an erosion of working-class power.

Like Weisbrot, Cooper says Sanders is not "some loopy extremist," but rather a pragmatic policymaker who has successfully navigated government office at the local, state, and federal level for decades while remaining true to his progressive values.

"While he has always held uncompromising egalitarian views," Cooper argues, Sanders "is a savvy legislative tactician who has negotiated dozens of compromises through Congress over the years, from community health center funding in ObamaCare to a bipartisan bill to end support for the Saudi war in Yemen. Sanders has been widely covered by the media since 2016, and most Democrats plainly like what he is saying."

And as Weisbrot wrote:

He has a 40-year track record as a politician. The things he is saying now are mostly what he has shouted from the mountain tops for pretty much the whole time. The main difference is that now, other Democratic politicians have joined him: on a $15 minimum wage, student-debt relief, free tuition at public universities, expanding Social Security, reducing income inequality, and some even on Medicare for All.

His actions speak even more consistently than his words: he understands that politics is about compromise. He fights hard for what he has promised to voters, but then takes the best deal he can win if it will advance the ball down the field, and prepares to fight again the next day.

That's why he supported Obamacare when it was the best deal on the table--expanding insurance coverage to 20 million Americans, without the life-threatening exclusions for "pre-existing conditions." This despite the fact that Obamacare was still quite a distance from Medicare for All--"health care as a human right"--that had been his passion and signature issue for decades.

Of course, even as Sanders is positioned nicely in the primaries and continues to poll well in hypothetical head-to-head contests with Trump, there's no guarantee he will win in November. According to Cooper:

A Sanders nomination would be a risk to be sure, but so would nominating anybody else. Trump really might win no matter who is nominated. Biden has tons of baggage and is plainly terrible at campaigning. Mike Bloomberg has even more baggage. Buttigieg has no experience. Klobuchar is infamous for abusing her staff. And even while both the corporate media and the right-wing agitprop machine attack Sanders as a deranged socialist, he still polls well ahead of Trump in general election match-ups -- within 1 point of Biden and ahead of everyone else. And let's not forget that in the most recent election, the moderate candidate lost to the biggest buffoon in the history of presidential politics.

That inherent risk aside, Cooper judges that the energized movement Sanders is building is the most powerful weapon to march into the general election battle against Trump. "In a crisis, gritty determination and commitment are surely more useful than timid hesitation," wrote Cooper.

"Who knows what dirty tricks the Trump campaign might try, or how inscrutable swing voters might react?" concluded Cooper. "Best to just go with a clearly good candidate and gear up for an all-out general election effort."

On Tuesday, just ahead of the victory in New Hampshire, Sanders' national press secretary Briahna Joy Gray put out a new video explaining why the campaign's vision for a "big tent" coalition in this year's election is not about sacrificing shared values in order to accomodate the "lowest common denominator," but is instead focused on bringing a coalition together by "backing policies that are so helpful to such huge numbers of struggling people that folks from across the political divide see their differences as less important than the values which unite us."

The ethos of the campaign, concluded Gray, is "about understanding how many of our needs are overlapping, and using those commonalities as the basis of a movement that can be powerful enough to defeat the strongest enemy."

Political correspondent John Nichols, in his latest campaign trail dispatch for The Nation, wrote Wednesday morning that with victories in Iowa and New Hampshire under their belt, the Sanders campaign must now "go beyond 'Bernie Beats Trump' sloganeering and deliver a comprehensive and convincing argument that the senator is the most electable contender." According to Nichols, the campaign and its supporters are quite capable of delivering on that challenge. He writes:

Instead of building his campaign around appeals to a dwindling universe of "swing" voters, Sanders is talking about building the electorate out to include new voters--many of them young, many of them from low-income and historically disenfranchised communities. In Iowa and New Hampshire, he has been successful in attracting young voters. He also had notable success mobilizing Latino voters and diverse immigrant communities in Iowa. In the upcoming Nevada caucuses and the South Carolina primary, he'll have to keep proving himself.

Actor and author John Cusack, who campaigned for Sanders in New Hampshire, argues that the candidate and his supporters must now amplify the message that his ideas represent the new mainstream. "The 'center' has moved to Bernie on policy," says Cusack, who notes that all the candidates are discussing ideas that were popularized by Sanders in 2016.

That doesn't involve abandoning positions or principles, as presidential contenders frequently do when they gain traction. Rather, Sanders must define his campaign as a new center where Democrats, independents, and millions of new voters have a place--in much the way that Franklin Delano Roosevelt did as he crafted a sprawling "New Deal Coalition" that reached across what had been lines of division to welcome the great mass of Americans who wanted a new politics.

Despite the familiar consternation and hand-wringing by corporate media pundits, Nichols points out that "while almost half of voters [in exit polls] said Sanders was 'too liberal,' overwhelming majorities of those same voters embraced the issues most closely identified with his campaign." What can't be denied, according to Nichols, is that Sanders is looking extremely good coming out of the Granite State and looking forward to Nevada, South Carolina, and Super Tuesday in the coming weeks:

With the corporate media not likely to do Sanders any favors, opined Nichols, the campaign is going to have to do most of that messaging to voters itself. "Clearly, Sanders can make a credible argument for himself as an electable candidate," added Nichols. "But he will have to sharpen that message going forward."

While the challenge of winning over increasing numbers of voters is the essence of any campaign, it was David Plouffe, former chief strategist for former President Barack Obama, who made it clear during comments on MSNBC following the New Hampshire results Tuesday night that out of all the 2020 Democrats still in the running, "you'd still rather be Bernie Sanders than anybody else."

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