If Bernie Is Unelectable, So Is Joe Biden

A whole lot of centrist pundits are freaking out about Bernie Sanders winning the nomination. They should relax.
January 28, 2020, 9:30pm
A split image of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders
Left: Photo of Joe Biden by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Right: Photo of Bernie Sanders by Drew Angerer/Getty

An average Democratic voter with a vague sense of what's going on in "the news" and a functioning internet connection might think that both Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden have a pretty good chance of becoming president. Both have long political résumés, firm bases of support among the electorate, and do well in head-to-head polls against Donald Trump, who remains unpopular despite the fairly healthy state of the economy. The two old white Democrats have different temperaments and policy positions, but broadly speaking they would have similar objectives as president: roll back Trump's executive actions, expand health insurance coverage, and do something about climate change.

But Democratic insiders and anti-Trump pundits are apparently gripped by a raw terror that Sanders could win the Democratic nomination and flame out spectacularly against Trump, who would portray him as a crazy leftist with ideas too extreme for America. The centrist think tank Third Way has been sounding the alarm to outlets like Politico and NBC News, with Matt Bennett, the group's vice president, claiming that a Sanders's nomination would provide "nuclear-level ammunition to the Trump campaign." At New York, Jonathan Chait rattled off Sanders's weaknesses in a column headlined, "Running Bernie Sanders Against Trump Would Be an Act of Insanity," while at the Atlantic, former George W. Bush adviser David Frum decried Sanders's unelectability beneath a sure-to-be-screenshotted title: "Bernie Can't Win."

The assumption being made here is that Biden can win, which is also the central argument behind Biden's campaign: He's the best candidate because he's the best candidate, capisce?


Sure, Biden could beat Trump. But he'd also be vulnerable to almost exactly the same set of attacks that some pundits have declared would ether Sanders. Let's count the similarities:

Both Sanders and Biden have controversial policy positions that Trump could highlight:

  • Sanders has many "intensely unpopular" ideas, noted Chait, including "replacing all private health insurance with a government plan, banning fracking, letting prisoners vote, decriminalizing the border, giving free health care to undocumented immigrants, and eliminating ICE."
  • Biden, meanwhile, supported the Iraq War, which a plurality of Americans—and the vast majority of Democrats—say was a mistake.
  • "Trump will terrorize the suburban moderates with the threat that Sanders will confiscate their health insurance and stock holdings, if not their homes," wrote Frum.
  • Those very same moderates will hate that Biden, a longtime deficit hawk, has a long record of supporting cuts to Social Security in the name of balancing the budget.

Both could be dishonestly attacked by Trump in a way they so far haven't been:

  • Sanders, Chait writes, embraces the "socialist" label, making attack ads comically easy to script: "Vintage video of Bernie palling around with Soviet communists will make for an almost insultingly easy way for Republicans to communicate the idea that his plans to expand government are radical." Democrats haven't really tried to smear Sanders as a leftist, and as a result he hasn't ever been subject to the kinds of slings and arrows he would have to endure in a general election.
  • But if Sanders's raging leftism hasn't really been weaponized by his Democratic opponents, neither has Biden's whole Ukraine thing. In 2016, Trump and his allies successfully convinced the public that Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server was a major scandal that proved she was fundamentally corrupt. They'll surely build on the progress they've already made in framing Hunter Biden's place on the board of a Ukrainian energy company as disqualifying his dad from the presidency.

Both could be accused of sexism:

Both are pretty old:

Both could have bad reactions to being attacked dishonestly:

  • "If there is one thing that the political world has learned about [Sanders] by now, it is this: He does not cope well with criticism. He does not cope well with interruption," wrote Frum.
  • Last month, Biden caused a minor media tiff when he called a man a "damn liar" and "fat" and challenged him to a push-up contest after the man asked an ill-informed question about Ukraine. (The Biden campaign claimed the candidate said "fact," not "fat.")

One lesson of the 2016 election was that if political pundits could actually predict the future they would be down at the track instead of filling up the internet with takes. No one thought Sanders would do as well as he did against Clinton, and nearly everyone, including the Clinton campaign, thought Trump would get smoked. And yet some op-ed writers are still doing the thing where they invent a bunch of voters in their head, imagine those voters getting pissed off by some hypothetical attack ads, and insist that they don't hate Sanders on a gut level, no no no, it's just that voters will. Seems like good work if you can get it.

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