Bernie’s Brand

I’m going to tell you what doomed the Bernie Sanders campaign. It wasn’t policy. More than 50% of voters want Medicare for All.

It wasn’t his age. He’s sharp and energetic.

It wasn’t because he isn’t a Democrat. That’s not widely understood.

And, finally, it wasn’t the Bernie Bros. Most voters aren’t on Twitter.

So what doomed Bernie’s campaign? Branding.

Bernie Sanders has had the corner on young voters since 2016. Democratic voters forty and fifty years younger than the guy follow and adore him. Almost worship him. But the young are not enough when it comes to Presidential elections. One, they’re remarkably undependable. They go to rallies but not to polls. Two, there just aren’t enough of them. Their numbers and behavior are overshadowed by older, more reliable voters. And it’s those voters, Boomers and their parents, whom political candidates need in order to win.

But older voters are suspicious of, and even fearful of, terms like “Revolution” and “Socialism,” and have been for as far back as the Cold War. It’s a red scare concern that was burned-into them when Boomers were the age Bernie’s youthful supporters are today. Still, Bernie could have overcome this.

Bernie Sanders wants to be a socialist far more than he is a socialist. At heart he’s just a good old fashioned liberal, the boring old school vanilla kind of liberal that Boomers grew up hearing lauded by their Democratic parents and grandparents and that Boomers themselves once supported.

What Bernie ignored as he clung to his revolutionary brand was that if you’re over fifty, like Boomers are, it was drilled into you as a child that Roosevelt saved America from the (Republican-caused) Great Depression. FDR is a god to older Democrats. And if Bernie’s connection to FDR had been highlighted, his policies would have been revealed to be extraordinarily familiar, even comforting, to the silver-haired set. And two generations of older Democratic voters could have been added to his youthful base. And that could have brought him close to the 50% of delegates he needed to win the nomination. Yet that, too, would not have been enough…

Bernie Sanders also needed the African-American vote. But that’s a hard nut to crack. Black voters are intensely loyal and pragmatic voters. And Joe Biden was Obama’s wingman. But Bernie could have cut into Biden’s numbers by pitching himself as the Second Coming of LBJ.

Lyndon Baines Johnson began Medicare. That alone demolishes the argument that MfA is pie-in-the-sky madness and bridges the divide between an iconic and historic President and left-of-center Bernie. But even more than Medicare, LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act. That was back in 1965 when Bernie was still getting himself arrested for protesting in the streets for civil rights — arrested as in there are police records, newspaper photos, even newspaper interviews! What other Democratic nominee could carry that kind of bonafides with older black voters? Hell, not even Harris or Booker have been arrested championing civil rights, and they’re African-American! And, yes, Biden stood respectfully at Obama’s side for eight years, but he first fought like hell opposing school busing, then wiped the floor with Anita Hill, and next championed the Clinton crime bill that unnecessarily incarcerated thousands of young African-American men. Joe was vulnerable on racial issues. Kamala Harris made that evident when she attacked him in the debates and raced to the top of the polls. But Bernie rarely touted his own civil rights history, at least not to the degree a politician needs to.

And so here we are.

Most of us of a certain age want to be James Dean. We want to be rebels. So, apparently, does Bernie Sanders. But Bernie held onto “socialist” and “revolution” a little too long and failed to pursue older African-American voters in terms they would have readily related to. And that sucks for America far more than it sucks for him. Because we need Bernie. The man not the brand.