I watched Judy Woodruff interview Bernie Sanders on the PBS Newshour last night and saw something different in his demeanor. His speech was just as direct as ever, just as ardent, but he was unusually composed and calm. Maybe it was the heart attack that changed him, or maybe it has occurred to him, “I can win this thing.”
New public opinion polling shows Sanders’ popularity among likely Democratic voters beginning to exceed that of moderate front-runner Joe Biden. In addition, Sanders is an unmatched powerhouse among Dems when it comes to fund-raising. He is estimated to have raised $100 million in 2019, roughly forty million dollars more than Biden, and far surpassing even the enthusiastically backed Pete Buttigieg, who reportedly raised about $75 million last year.
After years of being a long-shot candidate, Bernie suddenly seems a lot more viable—even more mainstream. His talking points haven’t changed, but the political atmosphere and the wishes of the American people have. To a citizenry weary of the bizarre outbursts and imbroglios President Trump is so fond of, Sanders’ consistency and plain speech are almost soothing. He comes across as an aging hippy uncle who has mellowed and acquired good manners over the decades by rubbing elbows with people of wildly different persuasions on Capitol Hill. His views are reassuringly humane and, from his having repeated them over and over, no longer sound as crazy as they did at first. He is a peacenik who believes that the US can figure out how to be fairer and deliver national health care and education more affordably.
His remarks on the Newshour zeroed in on the issue of voter turnout and political energy. Sanders argues that he is the Democratic candidate best suited to oppose Trump because he’s most capable of energizing voters, especially young voters, and getting them to turn out. “To beat Trump,” he was saying, “you’re going to need a massive voter turnout. And the only way you do that is through a campaign of energy, of excitement. You have got to bring working people. You have got to bring young people into the political process.” In short, the nominee must inspire voters to get involved.
A crucial point. Candidates’ varying ability to galvanize voters in the general election is a factor completely left to the side in primary polling. A positive excitement, a charismatic appeal: precisely the ingredients missing in the Hillary debacle. This time around, I hope to God Democrats will refrain from choosing a “meh” candidate who can’t rouse the electorate to go to the polls. If the Dems make this mistake again—a mistake they have made innumerable times, as they did with Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, and Hillary—Trump and the Republicans will almost certainly prevail. Then a disappointed nation will be feeling the burn.