No, Bernie Sanders Would Not Have Won

There’s a lot of chatter among progressives that Bernie Sanders could have beaten Donald Trump, but that ignores a lot, starting with a third-party Bloomberg candidacy.

11.11.16 6:13 PM ET

Bernie Sanders gave his first post-election interview Thursday, to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, and when Blitzer asked him if he’d have won, here’s what he had to say: “I don’t think it makes a whole lot of sense to do Monday morning quarterbacking right now. The election is over. Donald Trump won. Between you and me, Wolf, I would have loved to have had the opportunity to run against him, but that did not end up being the case.”

Many of his backers are being less diplomatic. And one can’t help suspect that deep down Bernie thinks he would have won, because well, who in his position wouldn’t? So one last time, into this particular abyss—not just to reargue the past, but because the lessons learned from all this have application to the futures of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement.

I’ve written two post-election columns, and in both, I admitted I got this election wrong. I understood there was rage out there, but I didn’t think there was quite enough to actually elect Donald Trump president. Wrong. Two, I knew a lot of people just didn’t like Hillary Clinton, but I thought that on balance a few million more people would decide that Trump was the more unacceptable choice. That is what all the evidence told us. When is the last time that the candidate with higher unfavorable ratings—and I mean considerably higher unfavorable ratings—won the election? Probably never. But this time, he did. So I was wrong on that, too.

Now, to Bernie. I argued last spring, as I’ve been reminded lately on Twitter (thanks!), that I wrote some columns arguing that Sanders wasn’t electable. I remember making three main points. One, that he wasn’t a Democrat, and therefore many Democrats would bail on him if things got really tough; two, that his foreign policy experience was too thin and too pacifist, and conservative attacks would exploit that; three, that he was polling well against Republicans back in the spring because conservative PACs hadn’t yet spent a dime attacking him, and as nominee, he’d be in for hundreds of millions of dollars of ads savaging every aspect of his and his wife’s lives.

Those may be true, but none of them were the main point. The main point is that if Sanders and Trump had secured their respective nominations, Mike Bloomberg vowed that he would have gotten in the race, and that would have split the center-left vote.

Bloomberg, first of all, would have spent the money to ensure that he qualified for most state ballots. He also would have had the money to campaign nonstop and buy ads and set up field operations. The mainstream media would have loved him, hailed him as the sensible choice. A number of Democrats, not bound to Sanders due to his lack of party affiliation, would have endorsed Bloomberg if they felt doing so wouldn’t hurt them in their districts or states. Turnout among blacks and Latinos, whom Sanders never caught on with beyond the youngest voters, would have been lower.

Given all this, Bloomberg would almost surely have hit the 15 percent threshold that would have landed him on the stage of the three debates. And while he’d have won some Republican votes, his positions on guns, climate change, and abortion rights would have ensured that he’d have taken far more votes from Sanders than Trump. It’s not hard to imagine Bloomberg getting around 12 to 15 percent overall, with more in some key states (Florida, notably). If you assume that vast majority of that vote came from Sanders, it would likely have given us the same result: Trump.

I’m really not doing this to pick another fight with Sanders people, aware as I am that they’ll pick it with me as soon as they read this. You’ll note I’ve written this column in very non-bombastic language. I’m doing this to make a broader point, a point that is all too rarely made and one I’d love to debate with people who are willing to debate in decent faith, that bears directly on the choices the broad left needs to make now. That point is about the differences between left-populism and right-populism. In sum, I thought in the spring and think now that left-populism is a much harder sell to the broader apolitical public than right-populism.

Right-populism has two targets: the elites and the scapegoats. In right-populism, the elites kind of include big banks and corporations. But they are mostly liberals, like Hillary Clinton, who as Trump liked to say have been around for 30 years, why haven’t they changed anything? (A charge he could have lobbed at Bernie, too, by the way.) The scapegoats, of course, are the black and brown people who are taking the white people’s jobs, mooching off their hard-earned tax dollars and so on, and who are protected and coddled by the white liberals. So there’s a class element and a culture element. Put them together, they combust, like Francium and water.

In left-populism, there is just one target: the elites. They are the ones Sanders identified, the people above—Wall Street, the big banks, the piggy billionaires. There are no scapegoats below. This speaks well of left-populism. It doesn’t traffic in race-baiting. In fact, it does much the opposite—it demands of white working-class people that they see what they have in common with their brown and black brothers and sisters and think and act in solidarity with them. That is noble. But it is impossible. A critical mass of working-class white people will just never do that.

Another thing about left-populism: It implies taxes. Lots of them. I support most of the things Bernie put forward. I’d much rather that we have cradle-to-grave universal health care paid for by taxes, and Sanders is right that many people would pay less in those taxes than they pay in premiums and deductibles (although not everybody, which is a big catch). But it would be an awfully hard sell, to put it mildly.

Clintonism is over now, as my friend Ed Kilgore observed in an eloquent piece yesterday. I was often a critic of Clintonism—on public investment, on Keynesian grounds, over the death penalty, on other things. But at the same time I saw that Bill Clinton did rescue the Democratic Party in his day. Life is complicated. And I saw that Hillary Clinton moved away from many of her old New Democrat positions. Some judged this movement inauthentic. I thought it merely expedient, which is within the normal realm of what politicians do. I didn’t particularly care why she came around to wanting to end mass incarceration, I’m just glad she did. But all that’s moot now.

So the Democratic Party will move to the left, and it should, to catch the energy of younger people and to win back some of the lost white voters. But as it does, people should bear in mind the differences between the two populisms. Those people so eager to drink from Trump’s cup, the majority of them won’t drink from the left’s. Let’s be clear-eyed about that.