A Primary Is a Competition. Bernie Should Play To Win.

There’s no need to hedge our bets.

Carl Beijer

When it comes to Bernie 2020, accept no substitutes. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have something in common: Both believe they are unique candidates with different politics and agendas—a point both have made clear in countless interviews and policy proposals. And both believe these differences are worth fighting for, which is why both are running for president.

Historically, such calls for unity and cooperation have required the Left to surrender to the status quo.

I agree. Specifically, I support Bernie Sanders and his call for a political revolution, which has inspired millions of Americans to fight for his unique vision. I back Sanders because his signature healthcare plan, Medicare for All, would do what Warren’s would not: bring single-payer to America in a single bill. I back Sanders because his Green New Deal pledges twice the funds Warren pledges for international adaptation and mitigation. I back Sanders because his housing plan calls for national rent control and three times as much affordable housing as Warren’s. I back Sanders because on issue after issue — from foreign policy to labor policy to a more aggressive wealth tax — he is fighting for an agenda in a completely different league from any of his Democratic rivals. With a movement at his back, I believe Sanders can win.

But throughout the primary season, Sanders supporters have encountered calls for unity” and cooperation” with his rivals, particularly with Warren. For two reasons, Sanders supporters should view these calls with skepticism.

First, calls for the Sanders campaign to cooperate begin with the premise that Sanders cannot win a majority of delegates—which may feel true, as Sanders has only briefly placed first in national polling. Historically, however, such pessimism is unfounded. At this point in 2004, John Kerry was polling nationally at 5%, trailing Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman. In January 2008, Barack Obama was polling in the mid-twenties — 20 points behind Hillary Clinton. In both cases, the eventual nominee overcame heavily favored rivals by winning early state victories and building enough momentum to capture a majority of delegates. 

Here is the position that Sanders finds himself in today: polling well ahead of where Kerry was in 2004, better positioned against Biden than Obama was against Clinton in 2008, and currently fighting for first in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. That’s why the New York Times, Politico and Vanity Fair recently conceded: Bernie Sanders could win the nomination. So why should his campaign hedge its bets or pull its punches? Sanders has a winning message and he should work to expand his relatively poor, diverse and youthful base by mobilizing even more uncommitted voters — and by making inroads into other coalitions.

Which raises the question: Why would so many pundits, often professing sympathy for Sanders, argue he cannot win and should not compete with his rivals — specifically, with Warren? No doubt many of these calls are made in good faith, if only because the liberal-left is often reflexively pessimistic and deeply suspicious of sectarianism.

Still, there is a second reason why Sanders supporters should be skeptical: Historically, such calls for unity and cooperation have required the Left to surrender to the status quo. When advocates for unity in the Democratic Party say we want the same thing,” what they often mean is that they don’t consider our particular causes worth fighting for. When they call for cooperation,” what they want is for us to stop telling hard truths and making unrealistic” demands.

There may come a time during the primaries when it makes sense for Sanders to bargain with his rivals, as he did in 2016. Until then, the winning strategy is the most straightforward: Sanders should try to win as many delegates as possible, which will maximize his negotiating leverage if it doesn’t win him the nomination. This means competing with Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and, yes, Elizabeth Warren. 

The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own. As a 501©3 nonprofit, In These Times does not oppose or endorse candidates for political office.

For another perspective, read We Need Sanders and Warren To Cooperate In the Primary by Julian Brave Noisecat.

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