The 2020 elections are a mere 23 months away, so it's time for speculation about who will run for president to ramp up to the point of absurdity. Talk of potential candidates was once a whisper, now it's a steady hum, and soon it will become a shrill, skull-piercing whine that somehow continues to get louder until the actual 2020 primaries. And as Democratic politicians make decisions to run and start building up fundraising and campaign operations, the public will be treated to several Hamlet acts during which could-be contenders make a big show of mulling over the pros and cons of presidential runs. Sometimes this is because they actually aren't sure about running—Joe Biden faced that choice in 2016, and in his telling stayed out of the race in part because of the death of his son—but often public indecision is merely a posture intended to delay an official announcement.
That's where Bernie Sanders comes in.
The US senator from Vermont attended a conference held by the Sanders Institute (co-founded by his wife) over the weekend, and unsurprisingly it was chock full of Sanders backers and advisers drumming up enthusiasm for a run. Meanwhile, a recent New York magazine feature about his possible campaign saw Sanders stop just short of declaring his candidacy: "If there’s somebody else who appears who can, for whatever reason, do a better job than me, I’ll work my ass off to elect him or her," he told writer Gabriel Debenedetti. "[But] if it turns out that I am the best candidate to beat Donald Trump, then I will probably run.”
The argument that he is the best candidate is pretty obvious. Polls have found him to be among the most popular politicians in the country and the most popular senator in his own state. In an extremely early Democratic primary poll last month, Sanders finished second to Biden, and has a built-in passionate fan base. He's been a leading voice on Medicare for all—sure to be a major campaign issue—for decades, he's more focused on climate change than many prominent Democrats, and has recently been laying out a progressive foreign policy vision, a weakness of his 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton. But more important than the issues, arguably, is his personalty, or persona. Like Biden, he seems rougher around the edges than most politicians. And his years on the leftward fringe of the Democratic Party (famously, he's not technically a Democrat) gives him some outsider credibility that could potentially win back some of those disaffected Midwestern Trump voters who swung the 2016 election to the Republican.
Not that Sanders is a perfect candidate. One potential liability is his age—he'd be 79 in November 2020, making him the oldest elected president ever—though he dismissed those concerns to New York, saying that he was healthy and "I can’t remember the last day—honestly—when I missed work." There's also his tendency to say things that might offend a lot of Democrats, like when he told the Daily Beast last month, referring to the midterms, "There are a lot of white folks out there who are not necessarily racist who felt uncomfortable for the first time in their lives about whether or not they wanted to vote for an African-American."
Sanders later claimed those comments were taken out of context and clarified that he thought racism hurt the gubernatorial campaigns of Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum in Georgia and Florida. But the miniature controversy underscored that even if Sanders might be able to flip some Trump voters, he is probably not the choice of Democratic primary voters who want a woman or a person of color to be the party's standard-bearer against Trump. After all, would it really be a triumph against Trumpism if the Democrat in the White House were another old white guy? To which a Sanders backer might reply: Well, he's Jewish!
The 2020 primary will be a chaotic and crowded one, and it may well be that those weaknesses doom Sanders's candidacy. But this is his only chance to become president, and he'll have at least as good a shot as anyone else, thanks to the name recognition and goodwill he built up last time around. Those decades in the political wildness now burnish his progressive credentials—he can claim to be the Democrat most committed to Medicare for all, and he can also point to his recent campaign against Amazon as helping push the company's minimum wage to $15, an example of him flexing his political muscle to help downtrodden workers in the real world. Sanders has never been closer to the White House than he is today. He did surprisingly well against Clinton in 2016, but that was a campaign he started without even intending to win. It stands to reason he could do at least as well if he goes into it as one of several frontrunners, not a lefty spoiler.
His frontrunner status would come with increased scrutiny, of course, and the 2020 primary could be far more negative than the 2016 contest. Perhaps some candidates will be inclined to avoid targeting Sanders directly because of his status as dean of the American left. Or maybe some will use an attack on him to frame themselves as responsible moderates. Maybe Elizabeth Warren—who has a similarly economic progressive message—will split Sanders's base. Or maybe the vote will be so fractured among candidates with similar messages and profiles that Sanders's combination of fame and lefty cred will give him an edge over everyone, even Warren, whose recent botched handling of a debate over her ancestry revealed she's far from a shoo-in.
Speculating about a primary that hasn't even begun probably isn't a good use of time at the moment. But we can infer a lot from Sanders's recent behavior: He's been touring the country like a 2020 candidate, making big speeches like a 2020 candidate, and giving interviews like a 2020 candidate. His former advisers are already preparing for his run. Something tells me that pretty soon, Sanders is going to "decide" that he's the best choice to beat Trump. Then the question becomes, is anyone going to be able to stop him?
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