The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Bernie Sanders is a risk we can’t run at this moment of national peril

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) gives a victory speech in Manchester, N.H., after winning the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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When you’re on a ship that’s sinking, it’s not time to rhapsodize about how someday you’ll build a super-yacht with all the amenities. Nor is it time to debate who will command that imaginary vessel. It’s time to grab a bucket and start bailing water — pronto. That’s where we are today. The ship of state is taking on water at an alarming rate. It’s Mayday time as President Trump continues to poke holes in the hull — the rule of law — that has kept U.S. democracy afloat for almost 244 years.

Last week, Trump was acquitted of two articles of impeachment by a partisan Senate after a sham trial even though he was clearly guilty. He immediately vowed revenge and got it by firing not only two witnesses against him — Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Ambassador Gordon Sondland — but also, in a touch of pure thuggishness, Vindman’s brother, who also worked for the National Security Council. On Tuesday, Trump demanded that the military open disciplinary proceedings against Vindman, even though this Iraq War veteran did nothing wrong.

At the same time, Trump publicly lashed out at federal prosecutors for following sentencing guidelines in asking for a seven-to-nine-year prison term for his confidant Roger Stone, who was found guilty of witness tampering and lying to Congress in order to stymie an investigation about Trump’s links to Russia. The Justice Department then recommended a lesser sentence. Four prosecutors quit the case — and one quit the Justice Department — in protest. As usual, Trump confessed on Twitter, writing: “Congratulations to Attorney General Bill Barr for taking charge of a case that was totally out of control and perhaps should not have even been brought.”

The president is politicizing the legal system to protect a crony who refused to testify against him while punishing those who did testify. This is what happens in banana republics. I never thought it could happen here. But it just did.

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I’m sending out an SOS — Save Our System! If a Democrat doesn’t win the White House in November, our democracy will be endangered. I will vote for any Democratic nominee — even Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is now the front-runner after a narrow victory in New Hampshire. But I devoutly hope Democrats do not nominate Sanders. He is a risk we cannot run at this moment of peril.

The polls make clear that most Americans are very happy with the economy. In a recent Gallup survey, 59 percent said their personal financial situation has improved over the past year, an even higher number than in 1999 at the height of the dot-com boom. Under those circumstances, a normal president would have 60 percent support. But Trump’s approval rating is only 43.6 percent in the FiveThirtyEight polling average, because he has alienated so many people with his unconscionable words and deeds.

So there is an opening to beat Trump with a candidate who will be seen as a pair of safe hands at the tiller — someone who will not alienate much of the country or imperil our economy. Sanders is not that candidate.

Gallup just released a poll showing that most Americans would be willing to vote for a presidential candidate who is black, Catholic, Hispanic, Jewish, a woman, gay or younger than 40 — but not for a socialist. Sanders is a self-proclaimed socialist. His signature issue is Medicare-for-all. That slogan tests positively. But in a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 58 percent are opposed to eliminating private health insurance and 60 percent are opposed to paying higher taxes for health care. Sanders’s plan calls for eliminating private health-insurance and paying more taxes. It’s an electoral loser — it’s the super-yacht we can’t afford and don’t need right now — whereas promising to defend and expand the Affordable Care Act is a proven winner that helped Democrats retake the House in 2018.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Sanders carries decades of ideological baggage, having in the past praised Communist regimes and joined a socialist party that took Iran’s side during the Iranian hostage crisis. Sanders’ Democratic opponents haven’t exploited this record because they are terrified of offending Sanders’s supporters. You can bet that Trump won’t have any such reticence. He is champing at the bit to run against “Crazy Bernie.” His supporters in South Carolina are even helping Sanders in that state’s Democratic primary. Perhaps Trump’s confidence is unjustified, as Matt Lewis argues in the Daily Beast. But given the terrible track record of far-left candidates in the 2018 midterm election and in the recent British election (Jeremy Corbyn lost in a landslide), it’s a risk we cannot afford to run.

Please, Democrats, do the smart thing and coalesce quickly around one of the three moderates — Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar or Mike Bloomberg — who are still standing after the first two contests. (Joe Biden is down for the count.) The future of our democracy might depend on it.

In the Feb. 11 New Hampshire presidential primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) emerged as the winner, while two candidates ended their campaigns. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Bonnie Jo Mount, Salwan Georges, Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: What next for the pragmatists?

Jennifer Rubin: Bernie Sanders has some problems

Jennifer Rubin: Sanders won, but he’s not the big story coming out of New Hampshire

E.J. Dionne Jr.: The Democrats are still searching

Stephen Stromberg: Iowa and New Hampshire voters have bad taste in candidates

Megan McArdle: This Amy Klobuchar could beat Trump. Where has she been all year?