Foon Rhee

President Bernie Sanders? It’s wishful thinking

A supporter holds a sign as he listens to Sen. Bernie Sanders at a rally for mayoral candidate Heath Mello in Omaha, Neb., on April 20.
A supporter holds a sign as he listens to Sen. Bernie Sanders at a rally for mayoral candidate Heath Mello in Omaha, Neb., on April 20. Associated Press

Would Bernie Sanders be president right now if Democrats had nominated him instead of Hillary Clinton?

You can hear that alternate political universe question getting louder again, with Sanders helping lead the resistance to President Donald Trump and with several recent developments:

▪ A new book on Clinton, “Shattered,” is a withering dissection of a doomed campaign that had lots of money and smart people, but didn’t have a candidate with a core reason for running, other than it was her turn. Whatever his shortcomings, at least Sanders had a clear message – that the economy is rigged against working people – and a platform to go along with it.

▪ Sanders and Tom Perez, the new head of the Democratic National Committee who came out of the party’s Clinton wing, went on a “unity” tour this month. Instead, it exposed divisions, and it wasn’t Perez who people came to see. Sanders is one of the few national Democrats who can draw big crowds. The curmudgeonly senator from Vermont is the most popular politician on the national stage, with an approval rating of 61 percent, according to a March Fox News poll.

▪ Trump’s 100-day milestone on Saturday is another reason for Democrats to be bitter about losing the White House and being in the minority in Congress. It isn’t nearly as much fun to be playing defense – trying to block Trump from wiping out Barack Obama’s legacy – as proposing new programs and angling for high-profile jobs in a new administration.

Polls show that Trump has the lowest approval rating of any president since World War II at 100 days. Despite his unpopularity, one April survey found that Trump would still beat Clinton, 43 percent to 40 percent, if the election were held now. He was only too happy to tweet about that result, which must drive Clinton supporters crazy.

There are many, many reasons why she lost the real election. One is FBI Director James Comey’s October surprise announcement on the email investigation, which stopped her momentum. Another is that Sanders did not more enthusiastically push his backers to vote for her. She had a lot of baggage from a long career in the public eye. And there are still voters who will not support any woman for president.

Yet, it’s also true that Clinton failed to connect with white working-class voters, including those in three normally Democratic Rust Belt states – Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – that she lost by a total of 78,000 votes, costing her the Electoral College.

And yes, Sanders would have appealed more to the financially struggling voters who were angry at the Wall Street and Washington establishment and who went for Trump. Sanders talked about that on the April 23 edition of “The Circus,” Showtime’s weekly documentary on the campaign and now Trump’s presidency. It’s must-see TV for political junkies like me.

Asked whether he would have beaten Trump, Sanders replied: “It’s likely, but you never know.”

My view: It’s wishful thinking that ignores what would have happened in a real Sanders versus Trump face-off in 2016.

While Sanders has a long history in politics, it would have been his first general election national campaign, and the intense scrutiny that comes with it. Just one example: He once traveled to Cuba and praised dictator Fidel Castro, and also said nice things about the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. While those remarks were 30 years ago, he stood by them when they came up during a debate.

While Clinton didn’t aggressively go after Sanders for his leftist sympathies, you know Trump would have run outrageous ads and pulled no punches during the debates.

And just think of what the Russian internet troll army would have done with that kind of ammunition. They would have had a field day painting Sanders as a communist, though that would have been deliciously ironic. In a small preview, Breitbart and the alt-right accused Sanders of spending his honeymoon in the Soviet Union, when it was an innocent Sister City visit.

On the campaign trail, there would have been more uncomfortable episodes like the one this month, when Sanders endorsed a candidate for mayor in Omaha, Neb., who isn’t as supportive of abortion rights as some Democrats would like. NARAL Pro-Choice America called the decision by Sanders “politically stupid,” but he didn’t back down.

It’s a reminder that Sanders is an independent by voter registration and democratic socialist by philosophy, not a card-carrying Democrat.

And even if Sanders had been elected on Nov. 8, would he have pulled enough progressive Democrats into Congress on his coattails to pass his agenda?

Imagining a different election outcome is always speculative. That’s why movies with such plots are labeled science fiction.

Spending too much time on what might have been is also a distraction from the hard work that needs to be done right now. Democrats must be united to stop Trump’s terrible policies. The defeated Democratic Party has to find its identity and figure out its new national leaders.

For the party to survive, Sanders says it must become a class-based party that fights for working people and against billionaires. He’s crusading for higher wages, and his California backers are pushing single-payer health care in the Legislature.

During all the Democratic soul-searching and hand-wringing, it’s grassroots groups such as the Indivisible movement that are marching and showing up at town halls to resist Trump. One big question heading into the 2018 mid-term election, then on to the 2020 presidential race, is whether the party can harness all that activism and get protesters to the polls.

In a way-too-early survey on the 2020 election, Sanders led Democrats with 14 percent, former First Lady Michelle Obama (who has repeatedly ruled out running for any office) was second at 11 percent, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was third at 9 percent and Clinton fourth at 8 percent.

But I wonder how many of his fervent backers will still #FeelTheBern in 2020, when Sanders will be 79.

Seriously, if Democrats can’t come up with someone better and newer than Sanders, they deserve to lose again.

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee