Editorial: Is Bernie the liberal we want, or the populist?

No surprise that former Vice-President Joe Biden got his expected bounce out of the South Carolina primary, but Sen. Bernie Sanders placed a strong second and is well-poised to win major contests on Super Tuesday. Criticize the primary process all you want, but the political reality is that Sanders is likely to have such a substantial lead after this coming Tuesday that he’ll be hard to catch. That’s particulary true because the moderate vote continues to be split between Biden, Mike Bloomberg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Peter Buttigieg.

Sanders’s early advantage is sparking near panic among establishment Democrats, some of whom are already predicting an electoral catastrophe. They should take a deep breath, reconsider this new reality (to the disbelievers who somehow imagined Bernie didn’t have a chance the second time around), and embrace strategies to beat Trump.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote a much-talked-about piece on Feb. 27 in which he proposed that whomever the Democratic nominee might be (Sanders or Bloomberg) they could beat Trump by forging a “national unity ticket.” By that he meant taking many of the Democratic nominees for president and combining them into one incredibly strong ticket representing the Democrats’ big-tent appeal.

Friedman explained: “What would this super ticket look like? Well, I suggest Sanders — and Michael Bloomberg, who seems to be his most viable long-term challenger — lay it out this way: ‘I want people to know that if I am the Democratic nominee these will be my cabinet choices — my team of rivals. I want Amy Klobuchar as my vice president. Her decency, experience and moderation will be greatly appreciated across America and particularly in the Midwest. I want Mike Bloomberg (or Bernie Sanders) as my secretary of the Treasury. Our plans for addressing income inequality are actually not that far apart, and if we can blend them together it will be great for the country and reassure markets. I want Joe Biden as my secretary of state. No one in our party knows the world better or has more credibility with our allies than Joe. I will ask Elizabeth Warren to serve as health and human services secretary. No one could bring more energy and intellect to the task of expanding health care for more Americans than Senator Warren.

“I want Kamala Harris for attorney general. She has the toughness and integrity needed to clean up the corrupt mess Donald Trump has created in our Justice Department. I would like Mayor Pete as homeland security secretary; his intelligence and military background would make him a quick study in that job. I would like Tom Steyer to head a new cabinet position: secretary of national infrastructure. We’re going to rebuild America, not just build a wall on the border with Mexico. And I am asking Cory Booker, the former mayor of Newark, to become secretary of housing and urban development. Who would bring more passion to the task of revitalizing our inner cities than Cory?

“I am asking Mitt Romney to be my commerce secretary. He is the best person to promote American business and technology abroad — and it is vital that the public understands that my government will be representing all Americans, including Republicans. I would like Andrew Yang to be energy secretary, overseeing our nuclear stockpile and renewable energy innovation. He’d be awesome.”

He goes on to include others with similar zeal. As political fantasy, it’s a brilliant idea and one that echoes a comment we recently made: if any Democrat is to beat Trump it will take the support of every political rival in these primaries working together toward this common cause.

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But that scenario supposes Sanders will make amends with his fellow Democrats; something he has yet to do. It’s Sanders’s rejection of working within the current system that remains our biggest concern with his candidacy. If Sanders were to take Friedman’s advice and create a strong coalition of Democratic leaders, we think he would win the political support of the Democratic base and, coupled with his own movement, be able to defeat Trump.

But if he continues to push them aside to create is own brand of populism, he might be as divisive as Trump has been these past three years. New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an impassioned column this past Friday titled “No, Not Sanders, Not Ever.” His point was that Sanders, like Trump, doesn’t believe in the current system of government and wants to blow it up, not improve it. Populists, like Sanders, he wrote, “speak as if the whole system is irredeemably corrupt… He believes in revolutionary mass mobilization and, once an election has been won, rule by majoritarian domination.”

“Liberalism,” Brooks continues, “celebrates certain values: reasonableness, conversation, compassion, tolerance, intellectual humility and optimism. Liberalism is horrified by cruelty. Sanders’s leadership style embodies the populist values, which are different: rage, bitter and relentless polarization, a demand for ideological purity among your friends and incessant hatred for your supposed foes.

“A liberal leader confronts new facts and changes his or her mind. A populist leader cannot because the omniscience of the charismatic headman can never be doubted. A liberal sees shards of gray. For a populist reality is white or black, friend or enemy. Facts that don’t fit the dogma are ignored.”

Brooks is emphatic that he is no supporter of Trump, and ends with this straddle: “I’ll cast my lot with democratic liberalism. The system needs reform. But I just can’t pull the lever for either of the two populists threatening to tear it down.”

Brooks is not alone. Millions of political moderates are in his camp.

It’s an important essay for Sanders’s followers to read, to understand a fundamental weakness of their candidate and to demand that he be the progressive liberal they want him to be, not the populist ruler that mirrors Trump on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Angelo S. Lynn

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