Bret Stephens Jumps On Horseback, Warns Villagers That The Socialists Are Coming

2020 presidential election
Bret Stephens Jumps On Horseback, Warns Villagers That The Socialists Are Coming
photo by Dominc Gwinn

Yesterday, a new Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom poll showed Bernie Sanders in the lead for the first time in Iowa, just a few weeks before the election.

Today, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens came out with a brand new op-ed titled Of Course Bernie Can Win. What? Was Stephens so shook by the criticism of his embrace of scientific racism that he's suddenly decided everything he believes is wrong and decided to embrace socialism? Of course not. It is not an essay in favor of Sanders, but a dire warning for all to heed.

I write all this as someone who thinks a Sanders presidency would be ruinous on many levels: by turning the Democratic Party into a socialist one; by turning the American economy into a statist one; and by turning America's position in the world into a feeble one. I'd hate to see him win the nomination, just as I hated seeing Trump win it in 2016. But wishes aren't facts. To say Sanders is unelectable is indefensible.

Oh no! And things have been working out so well with capitalism and endless wars! Imagine a world where people don't die because they can't afford insulin or aren't sent off to die for pretty much no reason! That sure would be terrible. Who could respect us then?

And yet, some of the points he makes are not entirely wrong.

When it comes to pundits and politics this year, I'd revise the great physicist's admonition as follows: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself that Bernie Sanders can't win — not just the Democratic nomination, but also the presidency itself."

The warning applies to me as much as to anyone else who has spent the past months, or years, insisting that the senator from Vermont doesn't have a chance. What it comes down to is this: We don't want Sanders to be elected, so we tell ourselves he can't.

Yeah, he's not wrong. I mean, not for me, I would be totally fine with either Sanders or Warren or a Medicare For All-loving piece of dryer lint, but he's right about the people who hate Sanders vastly underestimating his chances of winning this election. And the reason they underestimate him is largely because, as with Trump, they do not want to imagine that they live in a world where such a thing can happen.

According to the theory, Sanders's support has a hard ceiling: It may be intense, but it's also cultlike and off-putting. Too many Americans know enough about socialism to want a president who wears the term proudly (even if he insists it's of a more benign variety). He embraces nearly all of the same policies, like Medicare for all, that raised Elizabeth Warren high in the polls but are now dragging her down.

OOH. And he was so, so close. Those policies are not dragging Warren down. I can see that people want to believe that but — and I say this as someone who absolutely loves Elizabeth Warren — her drop in the polls directly coincided with her backing off a little on Medicare For All. If it was due to, as many have said, Pete Buttigieg dragging Medicare For All, I would imagine his poll numbers would have gone up. And yet, it seems like his poll numbers are going down and Sanders' are going up. It's math.

I will tell you, I know several people who switched to Sanders after that. I have not heard of a single person, anywhere, going from Warren to Biden or Buttigieg upon deciding that, actually, health insurance companies are great and we should keep them around. People want it to be a thing, it's not a thing.

It all sounds superficially convincing — and eerily familiar. It's what many conservatives kept saying about Donald Trump around this time four years ago.

Well, yeah. I wouldn't compare him to Trump in any other way, but I think that centrists in general are absolute shit at predicting "what people want," and they were wrong about Trump and they are probably wrong about Bernie as well.

I've said this for a long time, mostly privately, but moderates are actually far more idealistic than I am in many ways. They really are. Moderates want to believe they live in a world with "principled Republicans" and "gracious Democrats who always receive thank you notes from the principled Republicans whenever they vote for a war" and where people will all come together to maturely vote for a statesman-like president, a benign third-way sort who will function mostly as a polite and occasionally inspiring figurehead. They want to believe that people are rallying behind Sanders because they're immature brats who want to ruin things and just don't understand the way the world works, not because they actually just really want to have health care and not drown in student debt for the rest of their lives. They want to believe in a world where Republicans will graciously vote for an imitation Republican over the real thing and just give up on getting to ban abortion or deport refugees in order to restore sanity. They want to believe that Joe Biden is Schrödinger's Candidate: conservative enough to appeal to Republicans, but "actually" more progressive than Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

Maybe that's a different kind of idealistic than I am, but it's idealism nonetheless.

Stephens' other point, which I actually hadn't even thought of, is that in the general election, Sanders would have an edge because it's unlikely that a third party candidate would siphon off votes from the left. This would also, I believe, be the case for Warren.

Intensity among Democratic-leaning voters will never be greater. There will likely be no third-party challenger like Ralph Nader to shave his margin, or an influential "NeverSanders" wing among liberal pundits. He will find crossover support from former Trump voters in places like Ohio and Michigan, just as Trump found it from former Obama voters. To energize African-American support, he could choose Eric Holder or Stacey Abrams as his running mate.

Nor will scare tactics work any better against Sanders than they did against Trump. Overwrought comparisons with Hugo Chávez will wear thin, just as comparisons between Trump and Benito Mussolini did. The easiest move in American politics is to show yourself to be less scary than your caricature. Ronald Reagan's devastating "There you go again" line against Jimmy Carter can be a Sanders quip, too.

It's true. There's a threshold at which someone gets criticized so much that they become Teflon and the people going after them end up sounding like petty assholes. This is why I tell people to stop it with the "LOL he spelled a thing wrong!" shit with Trump. The second you outwardly go bitch eating crackers on someone, you lose and people will stop taking your concerns seriously.

It feels satisfying to you, and maybe to people who agree with you, but it makes others automatically get defensive of the person you are going bitch eating crackers on. The more you make people defend someone on insignificant things, the more loyal they become. I promise you I am right about this.

What feels satisfying to me, however, is the idea of Brett Stephens sitting at home biting his nails and freaking out about socialists in his glove compartment and worrying that the Democratic Party won't become a benign GOP in hopes of winning his approval. I hope he's a little scared, frankly. The last thing any of us want, even those of you who hate Sanders, is Bret Stephens thinking he can push Democrats around.

Anyway, don't worry, THIS IS NOT YOUR OPEN THREAD.

[The New York Times]

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Robyn Pennacchia

Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse


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