U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vermont) insurgent run for the Democratic presidential nomination could be as big a challenge to Republicans as to establishment Democrats like Hillary Clinton.
The dilemma Sanders presents to mainstream Democrats is an obvious one: He threatens to split the party by turning large segments of its base against the leadership and its agenda. The self-described “democratic socialist” also threatens to drag the party to the left by publicizing potentially popular but highly controversial notions such as his free college tuition scheme and the Robin Hood tax.
The challenge Sanders presents to Republicans is a little less obvious, but a successful Sanders campaign that attracts a lot of media could do a lot of damage to the GOP. Sanders’ campaign is a direct threat to Republicans because it is a very loud and very public critique of their party and its agenda. That criticism is made all the more potent and effective by the all too obvious fact that much of it is grounded in truth.
How Sanders Threatens the Republicans
Here is how and why a successful Sanders campaign would hurt the Grand Old Party:
- Sanders is the first Democrat in a long time to make an explicit point by point attack upon the basic economic policies the Republicans have promoted for two generations. Those policies being free trade, small government, limited regulations, welfare cuts, opposition to Keynesian stimulus and aggressive tax cuts.
- Sanders’ attack could be very effective because those policies have failed to achieve the results promised. Part of the reason why we have heard few Republican responses to Sanders is that some of the facts are on his side. The United States now has a federal deficit of $18.2 trillion, the median income in 81% of the counties in the United States is now lower than it was in 1999 according to The Washington Post, and around 46.2 million Americans were on food stamps in May 2015, The Wall Street Journal reported.
- When Sanders attacks moderate Democrats like Hillary, he is really attacking the Republicans because the moderate Democratic agenda is the GOP’s free market agenda. That agenda has failed and in some cases failed miserably.
- Income inequality, Sanders’ core issue, will be a difficult one for Republicans to respond to, largely because of all the statistical evidence showing it is a real issue and getting worse. The Economic Policy Institute reported that the salaries of average workers grew by 10.2% between 1978 and 2013. In contrast, the salaries of CEOs increased by 93% in the same period. The institute estimated that the average CEO now makes 237.2% more than the average worker. The average salary in the United States was around $52,000 a year in 2013, while the average CEO made around $15 million a year. Any Republican response to this, no matter how valid, is likely to sound like the GOP is favoring the rich over the middle class.
- Sanders is running a campaign based on “meat and potatoes economic issues”—what William McKinley would have called the Full Dinner Pail—not cultural issues. Part of the reason why Republicans were so successful for the past 40 years was that they talked about the economy while Democrats ignored it. That meant they could frame the debate on the issue. That is no longer the case.
- Americans are no longer interested in many of the cultural issues that drove voters to the GOP, such as gay rights, abortion, crime, school prayer, etc. Sanders has made a point of ignoring cultural issues because he understands that it is the economy driving his popularity. One reason for this lack of interest is that many people are too busy struggling to stay afloat economically to think about cultural issues.
- There are some strong conservative elements to Sanders’ platform that many Republicans would agree with. Sanders’ criticism of free trade and his opposition to a Wilsonian foreign policy put him on the same side of those issues as paleocons like Pat Buchanan. That means he could take some GOP votes even in Red States.
- Some of the standard weapons of modern political warfare, such as personal attacks, smear campaigns and assaults on reputation, may not work on Sanders. These methods could fail because Sanders is running a campaign of ideas (much like Barry Goldwater’s in 1964) that is designed to force his agenda on the party and get his ideas into the mainstream. If such attacks focus media attention on Sanders, he wins because he gets what he wants: publicity. One result of such attacks is that it is likely to make Sanders more popular because many people will view him as a victim of the plutocrats who own the media rather than a politician getting smeared.
- Sanders does not need to win to succeed. Sanders has little to lose and everything to gain by running an aggressive, hard left campaign. All Sanders needs to become a major public figure and give himself a national audience for his ideas is to do well in a few primaries. If Sanders starts winning primaries, expect other potentially more popular Democrats to follow his lead. Even if he loses, Sanders still has his safe Senate seat and national media attention. He’ll get all the perks that come with that, including book contracts and TV appearances.
- Sanders’ success proves that centrism is dead in the U.S., much as in Britain. A large segment of the left is willing to adopt the successful tactics of the Tea Party and turn them on the right and moderate Democrats, those tactics being no compromise on ideological issues and doing whatever it takes to get our agenda enacted. This makes Sanders the harbinger of a new, aggressive Democratic Party dedicated to waging all-out war on Republicans much as the Tea Party wages all-out war on Democrats.
In Bernie Sanders Republicans face a tough, aggressive, and very sophisticated opponent who is totally opposed to much of their agenda. Worse, he is an opponent who is offering an alternative vision to the GOP agenda that will have wide appeal. Republicans need to take a close look at Bernie and figure out how to deal with him.
Perhaps Sanders’ greatest challenge to the GOP is that he exposes the moral and practical bankruptcy of the party’s current agenda. If Republicans try to run a traditional campaign extolling the virtues of free enterprise, they’re going to have a very hard time dealing with the likes of Bernie Sanders. New ideas and a new agenda will be needed if the Republicans want to counter Sanders and his ilk.