Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) campaign sees a path to the White House fueled by his call for a revolution. Former vice president Joe Biden, by contrast, wants to build on the successes of previous progressive administrations. Here’s what I recommend: For the time being, set aside your position on any given policy issue. Hold your assessments of either man’s personality in abeyance. The choice we each face now should be centered on politics, and politics alone.
Sanders and Biden would attract very different political coalitions. Sanders would abandon our party’s pursuit of swing-district moderates in favor of seeking to inspire legions of young progressives — something, it’s worth noting, he has failed to do since the primaries began. (Which raises the question: Why would they suddenly materialize in a general election?) Biden promises to reinspire the Obama coalition, weaving moderates and liberals, suburban and urban voters into what I call the Metropolitan Majority. Which political strategy do you think is more apt to achieve our goals? Look at the history, data and facts to make your decision.
First, the history. We’ve seen the arc of this political moment several times. A president wins an election. That president’s party is trounced in the subsequent midterms. The other party then has to choose a strategy in the following presidential contest. What do winning campaigns tend to do? More often than not, they embrace the strategy that helped their party prevail two years earlier.
In 1980, after the GOP picked up Senate seats on the promise of cutting taxes and getting tough on Moscow in 1978, Ronald Reagan championed the same themes. After Democrats used a “Six for ’06” agenda (raising the minimum wage, expanding access to health care, etc.) to take back control of the House 14 years ago, Barack Obama made those themes the centerpiece of his campaign against John McCain in 2008. After seeing how successful demagoguing the immigration debate was for GOP House candidates in 2014, Donald Trump used the same message to win in 2016.
That brings us to the facts. Two years ago, Democrats routed the GOP not by marching angrily to the left but by backing candidates with profiles that matched their districts. Democratic challengers promised to meet Trump’s chaos with legislative competence. The Democrat running for governor of Michigan was propelled to victory on a simple slogan: “Fix the damn roads!” Our path to the White House cuts through the same urban and suburban real estate that handed Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) the speaker’s gavel.
That assessment is borne out by the data. Candidates supported by Our Revolution, a group banking on the theory that more radical policy ideas will turn out legions of uninspired voters, failed to flip a single seat in 2018 — zero, zilch. And yet Sanders promises to employ that same strategy as the Democratic nominee. How big a boost would the “revolutionary” candidate need to win? According to at least one academic study, he would need a surge in progressive voters larger than the surge Obama got from African American voters in 2008. Ask yourself: Does that seem plausible — or even possible?
As our nominee, Sanders would rip up and throw away the playbook that’s been responsible for every recent Democratic victory in such places as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. President Bill Clinton. The 2006 midterms. Obama. The 2018 midterms. Given that so much is on the line, is the risk really worth the reward?
I’ll vote for the Democratic nominee this November, bar none. But every primary voter should understand the stakes — they should be explicitly political with their vote. As you enter your polling booth, know that your choice is really between radically different theories of how Democrats win. The stakes are high, and we can’t afford to get the politics wrong. If we lose, we not only hand the White House to Trump for four more years. We will have been defeated up and down the ballot, and we’ll face the prospect of enduring an unrestrained executive branch and a submissive Congress for at least the next two years, and a conservative Supreme Court for the better part of a generation.