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Sign for U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally at the Paul R. Knapp Learning Center in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr/cc)

Maybe Bernie Can Win

Bob Burnett

I’m beginning to believe Bernie Sanders can win the Democratic nomination and then the presidency.

Sunday night, January 17th, I watched the Democratic presidential debates with my wife, a Hillary Clinton supporter, and stepson, an Edward Snowden fan. After two hours – of a real debate – they concluded Bernie Sanders had won. (That was the critical consensus.)

Since Bernie announced his candidacy, I’ve been torn. On the one hand, I’ve long admired Sanders. It’s hard not to respect someone who was born the same year that I was and has paid his dues as a liberal activist and politician. On the other hand, I feel it’s time for a woman to be President and I like Hillary. And, given the slate of truly dreadful candidates, any Democrat is preferable to whomever the GOP eventually nominates.

For the past eight months I’ve told anyone who asked me, “I believe Hillary will win the Democratic nomination. But, Bernie’s candidacy serves a useful purpose: it will push Hillary to the left.” Meanwhile, the contest exposed Clinton’s weaknesses and demonstrated Sanders can harness the energy of the “activist” part of the Democratic base.

On issues such as economic justice, environmental sanity, and racial equality, there’s no doubt Hillary has a liberal perspective and is miles apart from any Republican presidential candidate. And, of course, on gender equity and reproductive justice, Clinton is on a different planet than are Trump, Cruz, et al.

Nonetheless, my decision whom to support for the Democratic nomination does not come down to policies or gender or age (although in an ideal campaign I would prefer to support a younger progressive woman); it’s refusing to be satisfied with the Democratic Party “business as usual” process.

There’s two wings of the Democracy Party: an activist wing filled with “do gooders” who, each day, slog through the peace and justice trenches taking on issue after issue. And an establishment wing composed of “people of privilege,” the Democratic portion of “the one percent.”

The two wings co-exist, but they have different access to the leaders of the Democratic Party. When Obama was in San Francisco more than a year ago, Dems demonstrated against approval of the Keystone XL pipeline; but wealthy activist Tom Steyer got to the President when Steyer hosted a democratic fundraiser.

In 2016, Bernie represents the activists and Hillary the establishment. On May 6th, when I saw Hillary in San Francisco, she talked about the role of money in American politics, “fixing our dysfunctional political system and getting unaccountable money out of it even if that takes a constitutional amendment.” However, since then Hillary has run as an establishment Democrat. Bernie Sanders has made money in politics his central issue.

In the January 17th debate, Sanders pounded on this theme: “we have a corrupt campaign finance system where millionaires and billionaires are spending extraordinary amounts of money to buy elections.” When each candidate was asked what she or he would do to bring the country together, Bernie replied, “The real issue is that Congress is owned by big money and refuses to do what the American people want them to do.”

When asked about his Wall Street policy, Bernie Sanders responded:

The first difference [between him and Clinton] is I don’t take money from big banks. I don’t get personal speaking fees from Goldman Sachs… But here is the issue, Secretary [Clinton] touched on it, can you really reform Wall Street when they are spending millions and millions of dollars on campaign contributions and when they are providing speaker fees to individuals? [$600,00 to Clinton in one year.]

In 2016, Hillary Clinton is running the same campaign as Barack Obama in 2008. Obama was an establishment Democrat, a person of privilege, running on progressive policies but not addressing the issue of money in politics.

Clinton has three weaknesses: First, she does not have a central campaign theme, a core message. (On Sunday night she offered, “I want to be a president who takes care of the big problems and the problems that are affecting the people of our country everyday.”)

Second, she’s identified as a Washington insider. Likely Republican nominee, Donald Trump, has surged to the lead of the Republican pack by running as an outsider. He’s effectively channeled voters’ anger at Washington by positioning himself as a maverick who doesn’t need to accept contributions from big money. If Clinton were the Democratic nominee, Trump could attack her as part of the Washington establishment and as someone beholden to big money.

Finally, a lot of voters don’t like Hillary Clinton. The latest national poll shows Sanders up 15 points in a head-to-head contest with Trump. Clinton is up only 10 points.

Sanders does better against Trump because he has better favorability ratings. (Trump and Clinton are negative.)

Don’t misunderstand me. If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee then I will support her. But now that I think Bernie Sanders has a chance to win the nomination, I’m going to push him (even if he is an old white guy) because he’s got a winning message, strong progressive values; and is most likely to ignite the Democratic activist base.


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Bob Burnett

Bob Burnett

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley Quaker, activist, and writer. In another life he was a Silicon Valley executive — co-founder of Cisco Systems.

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