Things aren’t going so well these days for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). First, he opened himself up to charges of hypocrisy when the candidate who has excoriated millionaires turned out to be one, as his tax returns revealed. Then on Monday, he made the unforced, glaring error of supporting voting rights for dangerous, incarcerated felons. Most worrisome for a candidate who never established a strong rapport with nonwhite voters in the 2016 race, he got a chilly reception at a women’s forum in Houston on Wednesday.
The groans erupted halfway through Bernie Sanders’s appearance Wednesday at a presidential candidates’ forum sponsored by She the People, a group that aims to drive up voter participation among women of color.
Before an audience of about 1,700, many of them African American and Hispanic women, the moderator asked Sanders (I-Vt.) how he would handle the rise in white supremacy. Sanders spoke of fighting discrimination and running a campaign “to bring our people together around an agenda that speaks to all people” — then returned to a familiar message on universal health care.
For many in the audience, that was insufficient. “Come on!” a woman shouted from the back, as others began to jeer and boo.
The reception reflected Sanders’s struggle to win support from minority voters, a problem that dogged his 2016 primary campaign against Hillary Clinton.
Several things are surprising about this episode.
First, did he not prepare for a patently obvious question? You’d think a candidate so conscious of his need to overcome skepticism among nonwhite voters, who are a critical constituency in the Democratic primaries (especially African American women, who turn out in strong numbers), would be more conscientious about speaking to their concerns. Perhaps he still doesn’t understand that the same socialist wish list he runs through at every big rally isn’t what voters aggrieved by racism in the criminal-justice system, the glaring wealth gap between whites and blacks, and a two-tiered health-care system want to hear. (On the last item, it is noteworthy that “compared with their own mothers, American women today are 50% more likely to die in childbirth. And the risk is consistently three to four times higher for black women than white women, irrespective of income or education.”) This reflects a well-known Sanders trait — lack of introspection.
Second, Sanders’s tone-deafness really makes Monday’s proposal to let felons still behind bars vote seem like crass pandering. Rather than make an extreme proposal, which if anything undercuts legitimate proposals to re-enfranchise felons who have served their time, on an issue virtually no one is clamoring to hear, he might consider a bold move similar to a plan put forward at the same summit by Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). That plan would wield the pardon power widely for the benefit of those (disproportionately African American) convicted of nonviolent drug crimes and give former nonviolent drug offenders job opportunities in the new, legalized pot industry. Sanders might show some willingness to study “reparations” (which do not necessarily entail cash payments but can take the form of extensive investment in high-quality housing and education for disadvantaged nonwhites who have lacked access to both for decades). At times, it really seems as though Sanders isn’t even trying to meet these voters halfway.
Finally, Sanders is getting shown up regularly on race issues not only by African American candidates but also by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has included in virtually all her policy proposals specific measures to address racial inequality (e.g., an education plan that includes generous funding for historically black colleges and universities, a housing plan that includes “down-payment assistance to first-time homebuyers in communities that were once subject to redlining”).
With former vice president Joe Biden’s entry into the race, Sanders’s race problem will only get worse. Biden has extraordinarily warm relations with the African American community (one important bonus from being President Barack Obama’s right-hand man).
Sanders seems to have written off moderate voters who have qualms about his self-described socialist agenda. If he also has problems with nonwhite voters, it’s hard to see how he puts together a coalition big enough to win. If he’s counting on a 20-person field to splinter votes and allow him to win with 20 percent or so of the vote, he might have badly miscalculated. After a couple of contests, the field in all likelihood will shrink dramatically (if it hasn’t already done so before the voting starts). When he’s up against a few candidates all with more ideological reach and diverse supporters, he might come to regret trying to rerun his unsuccessful 2016 campaign, which was hobbled by the very same limitations that curtail his appeal in his 2020 run.