Why did Bernie Sanders fail?
Sanders continues his campaign after his Super Tuesday losses, but he has no real chance of wresting the Democratic presidential nomination from Hillary Clinton. The socialist insurgent went further than most thought possible, drawing huge crowds, amassing vast sums and forcing Clinton to adopt more populist positions.
But the Sanders challenge was doomed by a fatal flaw: Democrats aren’t as unhappy as he needed them to be.
It is an article of faith this year that voters are angry. But this shorthand misleads. Certainly, there is real economic anxiety in the United States, but Americans are, overall, quite content: 87 percent of Democrats and 87 percent of Republicans alike said in a Gallup poll in January that they are satisfied in their personal lives. The anger that’s out there is directed at the malfunctioning government in Washington – and this anger is mostly on the Republican side.
Americans overall have a dim view of where the country is headed. In the January Washington Post-ABC News poll, 36 percent think we’re on the right track, and 60 percent say we’re headed in the wrong direction, But break that down further and you find that 89 percent of Republicans think we’re on the wrong track. With Democrats, it’s reversed: Only 34 percent say we’re heading the wrong way.
Compare that with the same time in the 2008 election cycle, when a two-term Republican president was in office. Back then, Democrats were the most unhappy: only 6 percent said the country was heading in the right direction, while 47 percent of Republicans thought so.
The difference is political, not economic. Republicans are more hostile when Democrats are in power, and vice versa.
On the Republican side this year, anger at the Obama administration makes Donald Trump’s insurgency possible – just as in 2008, anger at the Bush administration’s Iraq blunder made possible Barack Obama’s challenge to Clinton. Sanders would likely have fared better this year if there were an incumbent Republican administration. But as a protest candidate, he’s campaigning against the existing order – and much of that order is a two-term Democratic president who is very popular among the Democrats Sanders needed to win.
If there were more restlessness among Democrats, the Sanders message of economic injustice might have overridden the traditional identity politics that defines the Democratic Party – satisfying diverse factions based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation. But the usual constituency politics, at which Clinton excels, prevailed because Democrats weren’t particularly restless, as demonstrated by their low turnout in primaries.
In Gallup’s January survey, 56 percent of Democrats said they were satisfied with the power and size of the federal government vs. only 18 percent of Republicans.
This left Sanders in the position of sparking a “revolution,” as he put it, among a group that isn’t nearly as negative about the government as the overall electorate. And to campaign against the status quo he inevitably had to be critical of Obama – who enjoys the support of more than 85 percent of Democrats and more than 90 percent of African Americans.
Sanders called Obama “dead wrong” on trade and “not strong enough” on other issues. The Sanders campaign posted a piece by a Sanders adviser arguing that Clinton’s policies were “more of the same” Obama policies, part of a Democratic establishment “addicted to the political contributions from financial high rollers.” Another Sanders surrogate, Cornel West, had famously called Obama a “black puppet of corporate plutocrats.”
“You know Hillary Clinton now is trying to embrace the president as closely as she possibly can,” a frustrated Sanders told BET in February. “Everything the president does is wonderful. … And we know what that’s about. That’s trying to win support from the African American community where the president is enormously popular.”
But Obama isn’t just popular among black Democrats. He’s popular among all Democrats – and contentment with the guy in charge is a weak basis for a revolution.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.