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Opinion

Column: There’s a shark in the water, people! Why aren’t Democrats sounding the Sanders alert?

Shark from the Jaws movies
In “Jaws II,” when the local lawman tried to sound the shark alarm, no one heeded the warning. That’s how some of us feel now watching Bernie Sanders’ rise.
(The Bettmann Archive)

In Jaws 2, Roy Scheider reprises his role as Police Chief Brody, the landlubber lawman forced to battle a great white shark. He’s convinced there’s another beast out there, but he can’t persuade anyone who matters. “Jesus, it’s right there in front of you,” he says, holding a grainy underwater photo. “I know what a goddamn shark looks like, I’ve been through it, don’t you understand?”

A bit later he shouts: “I’ve been there — and I don’t want to go through that horror again. Ever!”

That’s how some of us on the right feel watching Sen. Bernie Sanders’ rise through the primaries. A rabble-rouser with at most a transactional relationship to the Democratic Party is sweeping through the early contests by pandering to populist discontent. He’s toxic to the suburban moderates who tend to tip one party or the other toward a majority (the candidates who won enough swing districts to flip the House of Representatives in 2018 were almost entirely from this column, not Sandernistas).

The Democratic presidential field this year suffers from a similar problem to the one that crippled the GOP in 2016 and saddled us with Donald Trump. It’s in all the candidates’ interest to see Sanders destroyed, but it’s in no one’s individual interest to play the role of destroyer. So Sen. Elizabeth Warren spends her time attacking Michael R. Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg focuses his rhetorical artillery on Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Klobuchar returns fire. Even Bloomberg seems too scared to nuke Sanders from orbit.

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When Trump launched his hostile takeover of the GOP, there was ammo of almost every kind to fire at him. He was a lifelong Democrat, who’d been pro-abortion rights and pro-gun control. He didn’t have even a rudimentary understanding of the issues a president has to deal with, domestic or foreign. And the stories about his personal shortcomings — affairs, bankruptcies, sexual improprieties, etc. — were an opposition researcher’s dream. Conservatives had decades of experience arguing on this turf — and they still failed to stop him. So intense was the populist ire against “the establishment” he could claim every attack was proof that the old guard was scared of him.

Sanders is playing that same card effectively with his base, but he has other advantages as well. First, he may be quirky, but there’s comparatively little personal baggage to dredge up. Also, he may be a left-wing ideologue, but he’s a sophisticated and experienced one who sounds like he knows what he’s talking about.

Even more problematic, Democrats have no institutional memory when it comes to arguing with socialists. It’s been 73 years since the centrist liberals of Americans for Democratic Action waged their war against Communists inside the Democratic Party in 1947. Those arguments were against the backdrop of the Cold War. Sanders descends ideologically from the losers in that battle, but none of the descendants of the winners seem to know how to make the right arguments anymore.

Instead, they’ve spent much of the last couple decades coming around to Sanders’ point of view, both on policy and politics. They’ve mostly bought into single-payer healthcare being the ideal goal, even if some counsel pragmatism in achieving it. Democrats have also become besotted with the “coalition of the ascendant” — young people, minorities and immigrants who will demographically and righteously overpower the old guard. If the anointed masses say they like socialism, who are Democrats to tell them they’re wrong?

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In 2016, the head of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was asked countless times to explain the difference between socialists and liberals or Democrats, and she either dodged or failed every time. Pete Buttigieg said this week, “I respect my friend Sen. Sanders. I believe the ideals he talks about are ideals we all share.”

This is not exactly drawing a bright line.

Like Brody in “Jaws II,” James Carville, the Democratic guru who managed Bill Clinton’s successful campaign in 1992, has tried to sound the alarm. But unlike Brody’s, Carville’s warning sounds awfully anemic. “If you want to vote for Bernie Sanders because you feel good about his program, you don’t like the banks on Wall Street or you don’t like pharmaceuticals, that’s legitimate, I understand that,” he recently said on MSNBC. “If you’re voting for him because you think he’ll win the election, politically, you’re a fool.”

Carville may be right politically, and that will matter to some voters who care most about giving Trump the boot. But, right or wrong, as Sanders racks up wins, the electability argument loses its oomph, just as it did in 2016 with Trump. And, very soon, attacks on the clear front-runner with the most votes will be denounced by those who insist the party unify around the people’s choice, as we barrel toward an election where each party nominates the one candidate with a good chance of losing to the other. Again.

@JonahDispatch


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