Bernie Sanders is now at the stage in which a lot of people are offering him advice about how he should run his campaign, given that he has a lot of ground to make up in the delegate count and a difficult climb to draw even with Hillary. To be fair, Sanders is catching up to her in the polls, but unfortunately for him, the nomination won’t be decided by who is more popular by the time we reach the convention. Things are not hopeless, but they aren’t looking good, either.
Predictably, some Clinton supporters are saying that it’s time for Sanders step aside. Others are saying that while it’s OK for him to stay in, he should avoid harsh critiques of Clinton that might further damage the presumptive nominee’s favorability ratings or make it difficult for her to unite the party after the convention. They’d like Sanders to respectfully play out the string.
I do not believe that this is what Sanders should do. I believe he should try to win the election. And for those Democrats who care about winning in November but don’t care too much which candidate does it (they’re out there, I swear; just log off of Twitter and Facebook for a second), the strategy that would give Sanders his best shot at winning is also the best thing he could do for the party if he’s doomed to lose anyway.
I think Sanders has got to worry less about inspiring, and worry more about explaining.
I can already see Sanderistas beginning to get very mad (although Actually They’re Not Mad, They’re Just Laughing), but stay with me here. Sanders’s platform is inherently inspiring. For those Democrats tired of nearly a quarter-century of calculated centrism and moderation, hearing a candidate with a full-throated, unapologetic defense of old school liberalism is refreshing. For voters too young to remember all that, it’s exhilarating to hear someone espouse policies that seem both intuitive and correct to them. And for a country fed up with the establishment, the fact that Sanders is so far out of the mainstream that he only signed up with the Democrats for the publicity makes him even more attractive.
Still, many voters are evidently convinced that for all of Sanders’s positive qualities, his ideas are impractical — that it’s unclear how the mechanisms in his policies would actually work, and that those policies would be nonstarters in a polarized political environment in which the Republicans control Congress.
This latter concern is basically baked into Sanders’s candidacy. It’s hard enough to convince gun-shy Democrats, accustomed to bloodless, middle-of-the-road post-Reagan liberalism, that an unabashedly leftist agenda can work in 2016. Convincing them that other people will be convinced is probably a task too tall, and moderating his policies to make them more accessible to everyone would destroy the appeal of his candidacy.
The first concern, on the other hand — that his ideas lack specifics when it comes to execution — can be fixed. For example, take this exchange in his New York Daily News interview about what would give Sanders the authority to break up banks, the kind so big the government would have no choice but to bail them out if they failed:
Daily News: But do you think that the Fed, now, has that authority?
Sanders: Well, I don't know if the Fed has it. But I think the administration can have it.
Daily News: How? How does a President turn to JPMorgan Chase, or have the Treasury turn to any of those banks and say, "Now you must do X, Y and Z?"
Sanders: Well, you do have authority under the Dodd-Frank legislation to do that, make that determination.
Daily News: You do, just by Federal Reserve fiat, you do?
Sanders: Yeah. Well, I believe you do.
Note the hesitant language and the qualifications Sanders uses here, which are so unlike the sure-footed and strident anti-Wall Street rhetoric that he’s been using to great effect in speeches and in his debates. Here’s another exchange from a bit later:
Daily News: Well, it does depend on how you do it, I believe. And, I'm a little bit confused because just a few minutes ago you said the U.S. President would have authority to order ...
Sanders: No, I did not say we would order. I did not say that we would order. The President is not a dictator.
Daily News: OK. You would then leave it to JPMorgan Chase or the others to figure out how to break it, themselves up. I'm not quite ...
Sanders: You would determine is that, if a bank is too big to fail, it is too big to exist. And then you have the secretary of treasury and some people who know a lot about this, making that determination. If the determination is that Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan Chase is too big to fail, yes, they will be broken up.
Wall Street regulation and breaking up the banks has been one of the central themes of his candidacy, and he comes across as surprisingly tentative and a bit vague. Predictably, Sanders’s detractors and the media pounced on this, calling him unprepared and uncertain. Sanders supporters defend him by pointing out that if you’ve studied bank regulation and understand the issue, you’ll realize that Sanders’s answers here are not only reasonable, but also perfectly consistent with the approach that economists and policymakers recommend.
This is true, and it’s exactly the problem. Most voters aren’t experts, and haven’t studied bank regulation. They are laypeople, and to them, Sanders comes across as someone with a weak grasp of policy details. The impression of being "serious" and "wonky" is more important than actually having plausible answers (one need only look at Paul Ryan’s career to see that). But political campaigns are about more than just ideas and positions. They’re about selling your candidacy. They’re about marketing, and while that doesn’t mean Sanders has to elevate style above substance, it does mean he’s got to pay attention to how style gives the impression of substance.
For all her clumsiness as a politician, Clinton has been masterful with a basic political tactic: turning her own weaknesses into strengths, and framing her opponent’s strengths as weaknesses. She casts her familiarity as continuity, her incrementalism as pragmatism, her moderateness as realism. And instead of trying to cut Sanders’s dreams down to size by mocking them (as she attempted to do with Obama in 2008), she instead points out that it all sounds very nice, but also a bit impractical and that perhaps "he hadn’t done his homework." This neatly plays to her reputation as a wonk who is interested in Getting Things Done, while using Sanders’s appeal against him. Thus far, she’s largely succeeded at framing him as the charming, good-hearted wacky uncle who is fun at parties — but whom you wouldn’t trust with anything important.
It’s this strategy that leads Clinton to give a quote like this to Newsday, explaining why young people are voting for Sanders: "I guess the final thing I would say is that, and again the research I've seen, some of it public, some of it not, they like me. They actually are quite admiring of me, but they're excited by something new and something that is a little different and a little revolutionary and promises free college. [Laughter.] And so I have a job, which is a little bit of a downer job in saying, you know, my dad taught me that, if anybody tells you something is free, look at the fine print."
The interviewer never brought up the fact that young voters are voting for Sanders, much less asked her to account for it; she volunteered it on her own. And although this might sound like some kind of gaffe, it’s not. It’s clever positioning. It’s less about defining Sanders’s supporters, and more about defining Sanders himself as the candidate for naive people who don’t read the fine print. Sanders’s supporters can argue until they’re blue in the face that Clinton’s reputation as a wonk who loves the nitty-gritty and knows how to work the levers to get things accomplished is overblown, or that the details of her legislative agenda are as vague as Sanders’s, or that her agenda is just as unlikely to become law. But the truth is that, again, this is about impressions, and the boat has sailed on defining Hillary Clinton. She’s been a national figure for more than 25 years, and she’s been a national politician for more than 15. For better or for worse, everyone has already decided who she is.
That’s also why, while I don’t see anything wrong with harshly attacking Clinton (or "drawing contrasts," or whatever the cool pundits are calling it these days), I also think it’s unlikely to be very productive. Her favorability ratings are already at historic lows, and it’s hard to imagine Sanders getting much more juice at the ballot boxes from trying to drive them lower.
Fortunately for Sanders, he doesn’t have to sell out or compromise to fix this image problem. All he’s got to do is explain. If you’re selling lofty, ambitious ideas that sound infeasible, then your primary task is to convince people that these ideas are practical. In other words, Sanders doesn’t need to convince Democrats that they want what he’s selling, but that they can actually have it. Get into the nitty-gritty. Show your work. Bore us with the details. Doing so is good for the health of the party, good for discourse, and good for liberalism. And it’s good for his chances of pulling off a comeback in the primary.