Sanders leads Democratic pack despite Biden’s efforts to rebound
Although it is still early in the Democratic primaries, US Senator Bernie Sanders has gained front-runner status with his victories in early voting states.
The reason for Sanders’s rise is multifaceted. He generated considerable attention in 2016 when he ran — and came in a close second — in the Democratic primaries against former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and his followers have stuck with him since that time.
He comes across as genuine and passionate about the issues that he cares about. Unlike many politicians who change positions according to prevailing political winds, Sanders has been remarkably consistent.
His messages to Democratic voters resonate with their sense that, despite good economic numbers coming out of the Trump White House, all is not well in the United States.
For example, even though the unemployment rate has been reduced to low percentages, most American workers have only seen a very modest (1%) uptick in their wages in real terms (that is, adjusted for inflation) in the past 30 years. Meanwhile, health-care costs keep rising, in particular insurance premium rates and co-payments, while tens of millions of Americans are either uninsured or underinsured.
This means that his calls for a federal $15-an-hour minimum wage and universal health care administered by the government, which he called “Medicare for all,” is attractive to a large part of the party base.
Sanders has special appeal to young Americans by saying climate change is an “existential threat” that must be tackled, that public colleges and universities should be tuition free and that all student debt should be cancelled. For young people, he is the dishevelled but beloved grandfather type who has their best interests at heart because he speaks about their future.
Young people, in particular, are not bothered by his self-declaration of being a democratic socialist. Because this generation was born after the end of the Cold War, the term “socialist” does not have the same, negative connotation that it has for many older Americans. Sanders does not shy away from this label or retreat from his principles.
For example, in a recent televised interview, when asked about his views towards the Castro regime in Cuba, Sanders said, while he viewed Fidel Castro as an authoritarian figure, he admired the regime’s efforts to expand literacy and improve health care. Even though these comments were attacked by many Democrats and Republicans, Sanders did not retreat. He essentially said the same thing a few days later at a Democratic debate February 25.
On other foreign policy issues, Sanders is equally outspoken. He refused to attend the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference, citing what he said was his concern that AIPAC provides “a platform for leaders who express bigotry and oppose Palestinian rights.”
Although these comments sparked outrage from some quarters in the Jewish community, Sanders went further at the Democratic debate. He said that, while he is proud of his Jewish heritage and would, as president, protect the security of Israel, he called Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu a “reactionary racist” and said the suffering of the Palestinians should not be ignored. He said he would “take into consideration” the moving of the US Embassy in Israel back to Tel Aviv.
While all the Democratic candidates have called for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, none has been as vocal in criticising Netanyahu and supporting the Palestinians as has Sanders.
This stance, however, may be less radical with the Democratic base than one might suppose. Last May, a poll commissioned by the J Street organisation, a liberal Jewish alternative to AIPAC, said Democrats have a highly negative view of Netanyahu and that 74% of respondents said they want the United States to act as a fair and impartial broker rather than side solely with Israel.
Sander’s rise has made the Democratic Party establishment very nervous, however. Establishment figures say his promises on health care and free college tuition are unrealistic, and his foreign policies are likely to be attacked even more vociferously by Republicans. Commentators on Trump-friendly Fox News have called Sanders “comrade Bernie” and a “Bolshevik.” Trump has tried to paint the Democratic Party as a whole as “socialist” and has referred to Sanders as “crazy Bernie.”
If former US Vice-President Joe Biden, who has done poorly in the early Democratic contests, wins the South Carolina primary as expected and comes in a respectful second overall in the Super Tuesday primaries (involving 14 constituencies) March 3, it is likely that the establishment Democrats will do all they can to rally around him to stop Sanders.
However, what counts in the end are the numbers. If Sanders keeps his momentum and continues to win delegates, establishment Democrats will be forced to accept Sanders as the nominee, even though they say his views are too far left for the general electorate come November.
Only time will tell but, for now, Sanders has excited the party base.