This Is What a Republican Attack on Bernie Sanders Would Look Like

Sanders’ “superior electability” is still a myth.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally at the Century Center on May 1, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.
Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally on Sunday in South Bend, Indiana.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Over the past year, Bernie Sanders’ supporters have repeatedly criticized the undemocratic role of superdelegates in choosing the Democratic presidential nominee. In February, for example, MoveOn, which had endorsed Sanders the month before, started a petition saying, “Democracy only works when the votes of the people—not the decision of a small number of elites—are what determines the outcome of elections.” The fear, then, was that Sanders would win the most pledged delegates but that Hillary Clinton would use her pull with insiders to trump the popular will.

It is more than a little ironic, then, that Sanders is now urging those same insiders to ignore the intention of the primary electorate—which has given Clinton an edge in both pledged delegates and raw votes—and bequeath the nomination to him instead. In a Washington press conference on Sunday, Sanders, who has no discernible path to a delegate majority, outlined a plan to force a contested convention, where he apparently believes some superdelegates will flip to his side on the basis of electability. “The evidence is extremely clear that I would be the stronger candidate to defeat Trump or any other Republican,” he said. Sanders reiterated this on Monday at a rally in Evansville, Indiana, saying, “We appeal to virtually all the Democrats, but we do a lot better with independents than Secretary Clinton. And I hope the Democrats at the national convention understand that while independents may not be able to vote in certain Democratic primaries, they do vote in the general election.”

I have no idea if Sanders is serious about this superdelegate plan. It might just be a rationale for him to keep fighting until the end of the primaries, garnering delegates that he could leverage to push Clinton and the party leftward at the convention. But if he is serious, then what he is proposing is a presumption based on a falsehood.

The presumption is that there is anything progressive about a plan that asks powerful figures to cast aside an electoral majority built on the choices of women and people of color. The falsehood is that Sanders’ superior electability is, as he asserted on Sunday, “extremely clear.”

It is true, as Sanders pointed out, that polls show him doing better than Clinton against Republicans in November. But it is also true that Clinton has not hit Sanders with a single negative ad. Not one. Initially, her campaign didn’t take him seriously. Later, it couldn’t figure out a way to go after him where he’s weakest—on the flakier parts of his far-left past—without alienating his supporters. A source close to the Clinton campaign tells me that because Sanders has high favorability numbers with Democrats, Clinton would have damaged herself by attacking him, especially since she didn’t have to in order to win. The source points to the New York primary as confirmation of this view, arguing that Sanders hurt himself by going negative on his opponent.

The right, meanwhile, had no incentive to rough up Sanders, a candidate who, by all accounts, Republicans would love to run against in the fall. And the mainstream media often failed to treat Sanders as a plausible contender, which would have entailed a much greater degree of scrutiny than he received. As a result, issues that, fairly or not, would be obsessively scrutinized in a general election have gone almost entirely unexamined.

At this point in 2008, Barack Obama already had to account for his relationship with Jeremiah Wright, who sparked a nationwide epidemic of pearl-clutching over a 2003 sermon in which he excoriated the U.S. for its legacy of racism: “Not God bless America, God damn America.” Hard as it is to remember now, there was a moment when some thought this would doom Obama’s presidential bid, until he delivered his famous speech on race and demonstrated anew his political virtuosity.

Perhaps Sanders is capable of this sort of virtuosity as well. Right now there’s no way of knowing, because there’s been only scattered excavation of Sanders’ radical connections. He has never been asked to account for his relationship with the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, for which he served as a presidential elector in 1980. At the time, the party’s platform called for abolishing the U.S. military budget and proclaimed “solidarity” with revolutionary Iran. (This was in the middle of the Iranian hostage crisis.) There’s been little cable news chatter about Sanders’ 1985 trip to Nicaragua, where he reportedly joined a Sandinista rally with a crowd chanting, “Here, there, everywhere/ The Yankee will die.” It would be nice if this were due to a national consensus on the criminal nature of America’s support for the Contras. More likely, the media’s attention has simply been elsewhere.

The Clinton campaign has also ignored Sanders’ youthful sex writings. Republicans are unlikely to be so decorous. Imagine an ad drawing from the old Sanders essay “The Revolution Is Life Versus Death.” First it might quote the candidate mocking taboos on child nudity: “Now, if children go around naked, they are liable to see each others [sic] sexual organs, and maybe even touch them. Terrible thing!” Then it would quote him celebrating girls who defy their mothers and have sex with their boyfriends: “The revolution comes … when a girl pushes aside all that her mother has ‘taught’ her and accepts her boyfriends [sic] love.” Finally, it would remind viewers that Sanders was one of 14 congressmen to vote against the law establishing the Amber Alert system and one of 15 to vote against an amendment criminalizing computer-generated child pornography. The fact that these votes were cast for entirely principled civil libertarian reasons is, in the context of a general-election attack, beside the point. (It’s also beside the point that lots of people, myself included, have no problem with either child nudity or teenage sex.) It takes no special political insight to see that Republicans will try to make Sanders seem like a sexual weirdo. Will it work? I have no idea, but there’s no shorter route to the frightened lizard brain of the American electorate than dark talk about children and sex.

One could go on and on in this vein. My colleague William Saletan has already written about how support for Sanders’ positions tends to fall apart when people hear the details—particularly if they learn their own taxes would go up. As the nominee, Sanders would have to address his former opposition to public schools and praise for parents who believe that it is “better for their children not to go to school at all than for them to attend a normal type of establishment.” He’d have to explain whether he still feels that sexual repression causes cancer, whether he still opposes the concept of private charity, and whether he still supports the public takeover of the television industry.

One also assumes Republicans would, in keeping with Karl Rove’s playbook, try to hit Sanders where he’s strongest—on issues of financial integrity. They’d probably do it by going after Jane Sanders, who has been accused of trying to defraud the Catholic Church on a land deal she undertook as president of Burlington College. (After being forced out of that job, she received a $200,000 golden parachute.) If you think this can’t blow up, remember that Hillary Clinton never personally profited off of Whitewater, the land deal that became a pretext for endless investigations of her and her husband.

The Sanderistas appear to believe they were treated unfairly, even viciously, in this primary. In fact, they’ve been handled incredibly gingerly. That might end up being to Sanders’ detriment: If we’d spent the past few months chewing over his glaring electoral weaknesses and he was still leading Clinton in head-to-head matchups against the GOP, he might have a case for a contested convention. It would be a cynical, anti-democratic case that contradicts the people-powered rationale of his candidacy, but it wouldn’t be as nonsensical as the argument he’s making now.

It’s understandable that Sanders, like anyone, would be carried away by the experience of hearing tens of thousands of people deliriously chanting his name. Perhaps it seems like the revolution might really be at hand, and thus any means are justified. But it’s not. He’s just losing.

Read more Slate coverage of the Democratic primary.