Bernie Sanders: The only guarantee in 2020 is there's no guarantee

Bernie Sanders: The only guarantee in 2020 is there’s no guarantee

The alarm bells are now sounding in the Democratic party – especially as Democrats try to hold control of the House, win the Senate and topple President Trump this fall as Benie Sanders seem shaky

Some quarters of the Democratic party don’t think Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is viable enough to defeat Trump. And, they fret what that means down-ballot if vulnerable Democrats or those facing tight races have to run with the socialist senator from Vermont at the top of the ticket.

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Think about what this means for House Democrats in swing districts in Michigan, Virginia, Pennsylvania, California and Florida. And suddenly the likes of Sens. Gary Peters (D-MI) and Tina Smith (D-MN) may have more concern than before about their own reelection bids.

These reservations are well-placed. But perhaps Democrats shouldn’t worry as much as they would under normal circumstances. The reason is because politics today is anything but normal circumstances.

Few saw a path to the Republican nomination for Trump not that long ago – let alone a defeat of Hillary Clinton. Some Democrats are still shocked at the inside straight the President managed to pull off in the electoral college – winning Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania by slightly less than 80,000 votes. “Normal” circumstances would dictate that Democrats would have a massive advantage heading into 2020, capturing the popular vote by a margin of nearly 3 million last round. But we are not in normal circumstances. And that’s why maybe some of this hand wringing is misplaced.

If President Trump could win in 2016, why couldn’t Sanders prevail in 2020?

To be clear, it isn’t that simple at all. One can’t just throw up their hands and declare “anything is possible.”


All of the rules have changed. There are no rules. Republicans, who once stood for anti-communism, the defeat of the Soviet Union, free trade, small deficits and, in some cases, even certain immigration policies and inclusiveness seem to have thrown many of those touchstones out the window. If Sanders wins the nomination, Republicans will try to frighten the electorate with arguments about socialism, “left-wing” extreme ideas and liberalism run amuck. Democrats will contest some of those accusations. But truthfully, the party has tilted to the left for a while now. There’s a reason Sanders captured the core of the Democratic party. There’s a reason why voters elected Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).  There’s a reason why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) had to hustle to lock down the votes to claim the gavel last year.

President Trump’s Achilles Heel was that, well, he was Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton’s asset was that she was Hillary Clinton. How did that work out?

There are consequences to Democrats becoming an urban-centric, left-wing party: it’s hard to capture voters in middle America and in older, industrialized cores. Sure, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) hung on the past two cycles – even as President Trump carried his district by a staggering 35 points. There’s a reason why Democrats flipped districts with Reps. Conor Lamb (D-PA), Sharice Davids (D-KS), Kendra Horn (D-OK) and Jason Crow (D-CO). Those districts are “middle America” in the sense that they aren’t located on the coasts. But many of those seats are suburban districts where Democrats have made marked inroads in the past few cycles. Republicans don’t play well in the suburbs any more with their pro-gun, anti-abortion messages – especially among independent female voters. The President’s conduct, Access Hollywood tape, language and general aggressiveness don’t work, either. But nor does “socialism” And so the issue becomes how do Democrats define Sanders if he is indeed the nominee? Or, has Sanders long been defined by serving in Congress for nearly three decades and there’s little Democrats can do about it.

Moreover, does it really matter?

Democrats thought they could play President Trump’s behavior as a wedge in 2016. They ran ads showing Mr. Trump cursing at rallies, upbraiding Gold Star families and making fun of those with physical disabilities. But it didn’t work. The public appeared to already know Mr. Trump – and was apparently fine with it.

Republicans will certainly take a similar tact if they try to acquaint the public with Sanders. But perhaps the public already “knows” Sanders. That naturally cuts two ways. If the lesson of 2016 is that what the other side says about you doesn’t matter, then maybe Sanders has a chance. Even President Trump had to wrestle with what fellow Republicans were saying about him in 2016. Certainly Sanders has scored a dose of that from many Democrats (to say nothing of some Democrats who point out that Sanders isn’t a Democrat). But what we’re getting at here is that if no one thought President Trump could emerge victorious in 2016, why couldn’t something as strange happen as Sanders defeating the President in 2020?

Naysayers will say that history doesn’t repeat itself. You can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice. No two snowflakes look alike. They’ll point out that each election is different. Perhaps that’s all true.

But over the centuries, one of the most enduring premises in politics comes from Nicolo Machiavelli and “The Prince,” the first “book” written about political science.

We’re not talking about Machiavelli’s most-noted argument: the ends justify the means. We’re exploring a more obscure tenet of Machiavelli’s work. The concept is simple: whatever is a leader’s Achilles Heel is often revealed as their greatest asset – and vice versa.

President Trump’s Achilles Heel was that, well, he was Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton’s asset was that she was Hillary Clinton. How did that work out?

Opponents of President Reagan viewed him as an outsider. An actor. Someone who lacked the intellectual firepower to master the details. Much of those alleged handicaps turned out to be Reagan’s greatest assets. President Clinton had an affair with Monica Lewinsky. The House of Representatives impeached Mr. Clinton. The President emerged stronger than ever.  As a byproduct, Republicans in turn lost two House Speakers over impeaching Mr. Clinton: House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-LA) – the GOP’s Speaker-designee.

A lack of foreign policy experience and acumen was supposed to be what dogged President George W. Bush in the 2000 election against former Vice President Al Gore. Voters found Gore too stuffy and rehearsed. They appreciated the folksiness of Bush compared to the stiff Gore. They elected Bush. Then 9/11 happened. Foreign policy and the “war on terrorism” emerged as Mr. Bush’s asset – at least through 2006.

This is not to say that we should reduce the 2020 elections to something as simplistic as “anything can happen.” But we now reside in an ill-defined political paradigm where things happen which are almost impossible to anticipate and explain. No one really envisioned a path to electing President Trump four years ago. Some observers believe a Sanders nomination will guarantee the President’s re-election and produce a Democratic bloodletting down the ballot.

Maybe that’s what happens under “normal circumstances.” But we haven’t operated under “normal circumstances” in American politics in quite some time.