Presidential Election

Why Bernie Sanders is the only candidate going directly after Trump

Bernie Sanders didn’t hold back on what he really thought about Donald Trump.

The Democratic presidential candidate, speaking before an audience of a few thousand die-hard supporters gathered in a conference center here, called Trump “the most dangerous president in American history.” Sanders said Trump “simply does not know the difference between truth and lies.” And Sanders called Trump’s criticism of the media “beyond disgraceful.”

“This is what demagogues always do,” Sanders said, near the end of a six-minute attack last week focused exclusively on Trump. “Rather than accept responsibility for what they do, they claim what anyone is saying about them is a lie.”

This blunt criticism of the man he hopes to unseat has become a staple of Sanders’ message in the opening weeks of his 2020 campaign. The Vermont senator has embraced taking the president on directly, frequently mentioning him by name on the trail, contrasting their mutual upbringings in a campaign video, and even having his advisers explicitly detail how he’d beat Trump in a general election.

It’s made Sanders a unique figure in the crowded Democratic primary, where other candidates rarely, if ever, mention the president, instead focusing almost entirely on their own biography and policy agenda. And it has allowed this avowed democratic socialist to immediately address one of Democratic primary voters’ biggest concerns: finding the most electable candidate.

“He’s showing that he can take the fight to Trump, and that he’s not just some socialist gadfly sideshow. He’s a serious candidate,” said Grant Woodard, a seasoned Iowa Democrat who’s unaligned in the primary. “He’s auditioning to show the Democratic Party that he can beat Trump.”

As he did in 2016, Sanders’ stump speech still emphasizes big problems he says are plaguing the country, such as income inequality and a corrupt political system.

But the inclusion of Trump-centric attacks reflects how his campaign starts this primary in a different place than that of many of his rivals, most of whom must still spend the next few months introducing themselves to voters.

“The last campaign, we had to spend a tremendous amount of time and resources actually introducing the senator to America and to establishing his name ID across the country, “ Jeff Weaver, a senior adviser to the Sanders campaign, said in a recent conference call with reporters. “The campaign starts now in a position where the senator is almost universally known. … It’s an opportunity for him to speak much more in-depth on a number of important issues.”

Aside from his stump speech, the Sanders campaign is also actively pitching the senator as the strongest candidate to defeat Trump.

To back it up, the Sanders campaigns points to recent public polls that show Sanders beating Trump in a hypothetical head-to-head-matchup, as well as his performance in the 2016 primary with important voting blocks. Ben Tulchin, Sanders’ pollster, specifically pointed to Wisconsin and Michigan, traditionally Democratic states that Trump flipped, as states where Sanders would have an advantage.

“The combination of Bernie doing well with working-class voters and well with independents puts him in a very strong position to defeat Trump in a general election, especially in those essential blue wall states,” Tulchin said on the conference call with reporters.

Certainly, many Democrats are skeptical that the 77 year old would be even a top-tier general-election candidate, and worry that he would squander the party’s chance to take down an incumbent who’s approval rating sits in the low 40s.

Still, Sanders’ rivals have not gone to nearly the same lengths to attack Trump or lay out their path to victory against him. The latest candidate to enter the race, Beto O’Rourke, didn’t mention the president at all in his campaign launch video.

“This is going to be a positive campaign that seeks to bring out the very best from every single one of us, that seeks to unite a very divided country,” O’Rourke said.

Kamala Harris and other Democratic candidates don’t shy entirely away from Trump; the senator from California, for example, has begun tweeting recently that “we need a new president.”

But asked for her plan to defeat Trump during a recent campaign stop in North Charleston, S.C., Harris offered a more general response, saying she planned to start by traveling the country.

“We are going to work hard,” Harris said. “We are going to be in the rural communities, as well as the communities where there is a dense population, and talking with folks about the things that matter, including health care, including public education, including gun violence and the need for smart gun safety laws. And that’s how I plan on winning.”

And at her campaign’s official launch last month in Lawrence, Mass., Elizabeth Warren made clear her campaign’s emphasis is on other, policy-focused concerns.

“Because the man in the White House is not the cause of what’s broken, he’s just the latest – and most extreme – symptom of what’s gone wrong in America,” she said.

Sanders advisers say their candidate’s message is still mostly about pocketbook issues, and, indeed, last week in New Hampshire most of his stump speech covered income inequality and reducing the influence of money in politics.

But they say the campaign is intent on using Trump himself as a part of that message, as an example of a system that’s faltering for reasons that go beyond one election.

“We are not basing the campaign exclusively on Trump, but Trump is certainly an exhibit in the trial,” said Josh Orton, a Sanders senior adviser. “He’s a proof point.”

Alex Roarty reported from Concord, N.H., while Adam Wollner reported from Washington. Katie Glueck contributed reporting from North Charleston, S.C.

Alex Roarty has written about the Democratic Party since joining McClatchy in 2017. He’s been a campaigns reporter in Washington since 2010, after covering politics and state government in Pennsylvania during former Gov. Ed Rendell’s second term.
Adam Wollner is a political editor for McClatchy’s Washington, D.C. bureau, where he covers the 2020 presidential campaign. Previously, he covered elections and Capitol Hill for National Journal. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.