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Can Bernie Sanders Defeat Trump? Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara & The Atlantic’s David Frum Debate

StoryFebruary 04, 2020
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After a chaotic night in Iowa, the focus of the Democratic race has now shifted to New Hampshire. Senator Bernie Sanders is leading in most New Hampshire polls a week ahead of the state’s primary. While Sanders has been surging in popularity across parts of the country, the Democratic Party establishment is openly expressing concern that the self-described democratic socialist could win the nomination. While Bernie Sanders faces attacks from the corporate wing of the Democratic Party, many of his supporters say he is the candidate best suited to beat Trump in November. We host a debate with two guests who have different views on Sanders’s electability. David Frum is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of “Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic.” In 2001 and 2002, he served as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush and was credited with helping write Bush’s famous “axis of evil” line. Frum’s recent article is titled “Bernie Can’t Win.” Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor and publisher of Jacobin and the author of “The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality.” Sunkara’s recent piece in The Guardian is titled “Sanders is leading the pack in Iowa — and that’s good news for Democrats.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, after a chaotic night in Iowa, the focus of the Democratic race has now shifted to New Hampshire. Senator Bernie Sanders is leading in most New Hampshire polls a week ahead of the state’s primary. While Sanders has been surging in popularity across the country, the Democratic Party establishment is openly expressing concern that the self-described democratic socialist could win the nomination. Politico reports some members of the Democratic National Committee have privately discussed rewriting the party’s rules about superdelegates in an attempt to stop Sanders. The Democratic National Committee has already overhauled requirements for the next debate to allow Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York, to participate. Up until now, the DNC required candidates to obtain a significant number of small donations, but Bloomberg is self-funding his campaign. Bernie Sanders’ senior adviser Jeff Weaver described the rule change as, quote, “the definition of a rigged system.”

AMY GOODMAN: While Bernie Sanders faces attacks from the corporate wing of the Democratic Party, many of his supporters say he is the candidate best suited to beat President Trump in November. But Sanders’ critics say it’s unrealistic to think a self-described socialist could win the general election and that it would be a mistake for the Democratic Party to nominate him.

To talk more about this, we’re joined by two guests. David Frum is joining us, staff writer for The Atlantic, author of Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic. In 2001 and '02, he served as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, credited with coming up with the famous term “axis of evil” in the 2002 State of the Union address, referring to Iraq, Iran and North Korea, well known for years a supporter of the Iraq War. Frum's recent article is headlined “Bernie Can’t Win.” He’s joining us from Toronto, Canada.

Here in New York, Bhaskar Sunkara is with us, founding editor and publisher of Jacobin, the author of The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality. Sunkara’s recent piece in The Guardian is headlined “Sanders is leading the pack in Iowa — and that’s good news for Democrats.”

Well, let’s start with you, Bhaskar, as you sit here in the New York studio. Why do you feel Senator Sanders, who has looked like he may well have won the Iowa caucus and could go on to win New Hampshire and is very prominent in major polls in the United States right now nationally, could win the election?

BHASKAR SUNKARA: Well, I think we should remember that even though Bernie Sanders is an outsider and has a set of politics that’s pretty unique in American politics — you know, he’s a self-described democratic socialist, he’s been on the left for much of his political career, his entire political career — he’s not a unknown. He’s not a stranger. He’s an outsider but not a stranger. So he’s someone who has run consistently in statewide elections in Vermont and has outpaced Democratic presidential candidates in Vermont. He’s someone who’s had a track record of success for 30, 40 years. And also, he’s someone who’s familiar with both voters of the Democratic Party and with independents and moderates. So he’s had to deal with five years of sustained scrutiny, and he’s been able to weather all sorts of storms. So, I think that this idea that Sanders is this outsider or radical is something that both people like me on the left and also his opponents have pushed. But the truth is, he’s not that scary, and he’s not that unusual, to a lot of people. They know who Bernie is.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: David Frum, as a Republican opponent of Donald Trump, your advice to the Democrat Party is they’re crazy. Talk about that.

DAVID FRUM: I don’t use the word “crazy,” because I understand what they do and where they feel. I come at this, as you say, from a conservative and Republican point of view. I think Donald Trump is a tremendous danger to American institutions. And those who feel as I do, and we’re not a decisive group, but we represent an important group: many of the people who voted Democrat in the 2018 elections to stop Donald Trump, to give Congress a House of Representatives that could check him. From our point of view, this is a moment of tremendous danger, and it calls on all of us to make sacrifices of some of our preferences — it wasn’t easy for me to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 — for the common good.

I think one of the places I start with thinking about this is to remember, if you ask Americans the question, “How are you feeling about your finances? How are you feeling about your healthcare?” you get in 2020 the most positive responses of any year since 1998. While Bernie Sanders speaks to the disaffected, the people who are content with the status quo are stronger than they have been at any time since the late 1990s. Donald Trump will be a tough president to beat. And flipping the Senate and imposing some costs on the Republicans there for protecting Donald Trump, that’s going to be even more difficult. If almost anybody else were the incoming president of the United States right now — Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton — that person would be cruising to an easy re-election. So, in the face of the extraordinary difficulty of defeating a dangerous president at a time of prosperity, you have to choose very wisely. And Bernie Sanders, appealing as he is to people who listen to this program, for example, has never fought a hard race. And the fact that he’s outperformed the Democratic Party in Vermont is — congratulations, but Vermont is not America. This election will be decided in places like North Carolina. It’ll be decided maybe in places like Michigan, with a 15% black population. It’s going to be decided in places where most people are feeling better about the world than they felt in 2016 and are more pro-incumbent.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there a candidate you prefer, David?

DAVID FRUM: Look, I’m not a Democrat. It’s not my house, and I’m not going to rearrange the furniture. And I think all the candidates have vulnerabilities. But Sanders seems to me the one who is most vulnerable, because there’s something about his campaign. They haven’t — because they’ve never taken a real hard punch in a campaign, they don’t seem to understand what Donald Trump is preparing for them. And they don’t seem to have a strategy, for example, for winning the Senate, as well, which is going to be so important to putting a punishment on the Republican Party and a penalty for Donald Trump.

And it’s not just that Bernie Sanders can be represented as wanting to take away healthcare from people, the existing plans from people, who are more likely to say, “I’m happy with my healthcare,” than at any time since the 1990s. It’s not just his plans to rearrange stock ownership so people can feel, “Hey, he’s taking away my stocks.” It’s that he’s got a long history of association with causes that most Americans think are pretty radical and that they have never heard about, because his Democratic opponents have never challenged him on those issues.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bhaskar Sunkara, I wanted to ask you about this whole issue of the Senate and if — even if Bernie Sanders were to win the nomination and to win the presidency, he’d still have to deal with Congress to get most of his agenda done. And there are some who say not only will there be a possibility the Democrats will not control the Senate, but that even the Democrats in the House majority and in the Senate may not support — some of the Democrats may not support Bernie Sanders’s platform.

BHASKAR SUNKARA: Well, this is one of the dilemmas of our political system and the fact that we’re going to have divided government for much of our lives probably, and presidents are not going to be able to do a lot in most conditions. I think the Obama — first couple years of the Obama administration was such a missed opportunity for that reason. But through executive order and through the bully pulpit of the presidency, Sanders will be able to do a lot.

And I think he has shown an ability to work with others that he doesn’t agree with. Again, this framing of Sanders as this wild radical who can’t work within institutions belies the fact that he’s had a quite successful time in the Congress. He has managed to be the chair of the Veteran Affairs Committee. He has managed to deliver benefits for veterans and for their families, through working with the Republicans even. He supported things like the public option and voted for Obamacare, even though he’s been a strong advocate for single payer during that period. This isn’t a figure that’s a complete unknown. And he’s very keen to play this up. So, if you notice his interactions, say, with Joe Biden during the presidential debates, I’m sure they get along, maybe they’re friends, but I certainly never heard of them being friends before 2016. I think it’s much more likely that he’s showing Democratic Party voters and he’s showing the American people that he knows these people, he’s not an unknown, he’s known Joe Biden for decades, and so on.

So, again, I think that what Mr. Frum is missing is that 46% of Americans are going to vote for their partisan affiliation regardless, whatever not. The Democratic Party, in addition, that needs around, because the Electoral College, 5 to 6%. Particularly, they need to do well in states in the Upper Midwest and elsewhere. No, actually, you’re right that Vermont is not representative of America, but neither is Ohio and Michigan and these other states. And in some parts of Vermont, like the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, which really resembles some of these Rust Belt areas, really resembles some of these rural parts of America, as well, Sanders has overperformed consistently. He does well. He’s a person who has a D-minus rating from the NRA but has positive approval ratings for his pro-gun-control agenda from rural Vermont gun owners. And I think that combination might lead him to be able to be competitive with independents and moderates in the Upper Midwest. There are other pathways to victory. He’s probably going to fare a bit more poorly with $100,000-plus families, middle-class families in Florida, for instance. Maybe Florida is more in play with Biden. I think there’s multiple pathways for different Democratic candidates, but I think Sanders has a very clear one.

AMY GOODMAN: David Frum, your response?

DAVID FRUM: Look, I would say there are — the Sanders message is he’s going to do a great job, he says, of mobilizing the last remains of the old, white industrial working class in the areas where the old, white industrial working class was strong. Maybe that’s true, maybe that’s not true. I personally doubt it, but maybe it’s true. He might take a point or two away, possibly. It’s imaginable.

Meanwhile, he will fail at the two most urgent jobs that a Democratic nominee for president has. The first is to mobilize black American voters. Black American turnout reached an all-time historic peak in 2012, the only election in American history where black people were more likely to go to the polls than white people were. Black turnout dropped considerably between 2012 and 2016. Michigan depends on getting black turnout more to where it was in 2012. North Carolina depends on black turnout. And Bernie Sanders has had real trouble connecting with black voters.

The second job — and, I say, politics is very hard. The second job is hard to do at the same time as you do the first. And that is to reassure the kind of women, the educated women, who are from many different ethnic backgrounds, in suburbs, who delivered the House to the Democrats in 2018. You know, people say about Republicans like me, the “never” Republicans, we’re a dinner party, not a political party. But I point out, George H.W. Bush’s former congressional district, that was Republican from '66 to 2018, went Democrat in 2018. Newt Gingrich's former congressional district went Democrat in 2018. Eric Cantor’s former district went Democrat in 2018. The district just south of the Potomac, that has been Republican for 60 of the past 66 years, one of the wealthiest districts in America, went Democrat in 2018. And that was all done by women candidates appealing to women voters. Sanders is going to have real trouble connecting with those women, especially after Donald Trump represents Sanders’ own personal history in the way that he is going to do.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And when you say “in the way that he is going to do,” what’s your sense of what that attack will look like? Because you’ve said that the Sanders people have no idea what’s coming at them, if they become — if their candidate becomes the nominee.

DAVID FRUM: Look, Bernie Sanders was a creature in the '60s and ’70s, a time of sexual liberation. And he wrote on that subject in ways that are very much not the style now. And the Bernie Sanders operation has been a very male-dominated operation. You saw Bernie Sanders's apology to women after — in his operation after 2016. And especially Bernie Sanders has gotten himself at dagger’s point with Hillary Clinton. There is a video clip of Hillary Clinton denouncing Bernie Sanders, not from 2016, but from just a couple of weeks ago. Donald Trump is going to play that clip over and over again. By the time this election is over, you’re going to think Hillary Clinton is Donald Trump’s running mate. And if you think that’s amoral and unprincipled, you don’t know Donald Trump. He is absolutely capable of doing that. I mean, he’s running an anti-nepotism campaign against Joe Biden — the most nepotistic administration in American history.

AMY GOODMAN: Republican Congressman Mark Meadows of North Carolina said, “Bernie Sanders’ followers are more of a concern to me than anybody else. They have a passion and, in a way, they tap into what Donald Trump tapped into, but they do it on the left. It’s an antiestablishment, 'we want to mix things up' kind of environment. … So if I had to pick one person I’m most concerned about, it would be Bernie Sanders,” Mark Meadows said. Let me put that to Bhaskar Sunkara.

BHASKAR SUNKARA: Well, I certainly agree, just because if the race comes out to turnout, it’s going to come down to enthusiasm. And first of all, I would dispute some of those numbers about Sanders and black voters. In fact, black voters tend to like — judging by polling, tend to like the Democratic field as a whole. Older black voters are most familiar with Biden, so they’re going to vote for Biden, most likely. Younger black voters are most familiar or most like Sanders, so they’re going to vote for Sanders. But there’s no doubt there’s going to be some turnout. The problem with turnout in 2016 wasn’t black voters. Black voter turnout dropped from historic highs in 2008 and 2012, with support for the Barack Obama presidency and the historic nature of it, to more normal levels, what you would expect, whereas the problem was Latino turnout, a group that Sanders is particularly strong at, has actually spent a lot of effort, millions of dollars into bilingual outreach, even in states like Iowa, in which the Latino vote was only 5, 6% of the voter or less. And I think this will translate very well.

And with the women question, I mean, I think it’s just absolutely absurd to think that Donald Trump, given his record, given his intense misogyny, would be able to credibly run a campaign accusing Bernie Sanders of sexism. That, to me, was the weakest part of Mr. Frum’s piece in The Atlantic, and it just makes no sense to me.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this debate. David, just one sec. You can respond right on the other side of this break. We’re speaking with David Frum, staff writer for The Atlantic, author of Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, and Bhaskar Sunkara, founding editor and publisher of Jacobin. He wrote The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality. Back with them in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “Your Heart Is Rock Hard” by Iraqi Salima Murad. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guests in this debate of whether Bernie Sanders can win is David Frum, staff writer with The Atlantic, author of Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, and Bhaskar Sunkara, founding editor and publisher of Jacobin, author of The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: David Frum, before the break, you wanted to chime in, in response to —


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — our guest’s statement. Go ahead.

DAVID FRUM: So, when Mark Meadows and people like that, Hugh Hewitt on MSNBC, people who are in the Trump camp, say that Bernie Sanders is the candidate they fear most, I’m going to give you a couple possibilities. One is they’re fooling with you, not true, that they are trying to — that they’re trying to build up somebody who they think is the most vulnerable. But the second possibility is maybe the are fooling themselves and don’t understand how Donald Trump won in 2016.

There’s a myth in the Donald Trump world that he rode this massive wave of disaffection, this tidal wave of enthusiasm, into the Oval Office with a big mandate for change. And none of that is true. Between 2000 and 2016, there were five presidential elections. Ten people ran for president. Of those 10, Donald Trump ran second worst in terms of the popular vote. The only person to do worse than Donald Trump between 2000 and 2016 was John McCain, who represented the incumbent party after a war that had gone badly and in the throes of the worst financial downturn since the 1930s. And he lost to Donald Trump by only a fraction of a point. Donald Trump got less than John Kerry, less than Al Gore and less than Mitt Romney. So he was a very weak candidate. He fluked into the White House because of the arrangement of the Electoral College, because of voter suppression of black voters, help from James Comey, help from the Russians. Because Trump was so weak, he then came up with a story about how he won. But it’s not the truth. And maybe some of his supporters believe it, and maybe they don’t, but the advice they’re giving is really wrong.

The advice — the idea that you’re going to win a presidency in the face of — in a time of extraordinary prosperity by mobilizing people who are weakly attached to the political process and kind of offending the people who are regularly attached to the political process, that’s dangerous. You know, when you look at black voters, black women vote more predictably than black men, and older black people vote more predictably than younger black people. So, older black women, that’s the group you have to get to the polls first. You worry about everybody, of course, but you focus first on the people most likely to show up. The Sanders campaign represents a giant bet on the proposition that they can bring to the polls a whole new type of voter. And that’s generally in America not a good bet, and it’s especially not a good bet when times are pretty good.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to a New York Times piece that talks about Bernie Sanders and communities of color around the United States. It says, in a CNN survey, nonwhite voters were in fact more likely to say they would be enthusiastic or at least satisfied with Mr. Sanders as their nominee, 82%, than to say the same of Biden, 74%. Steve Phillips, the founder of Democracy in Color, an advocacy group focused on race and politics, said Mr. Sanders had room to grow with voters of color, whose votes are habitually taken for granted by Democratic candidates. But Phillips emphasized he will need to earn it. He said he’s closer to the mark than others are in terms of expanding the electorate and bringing new voters in. He said, referring to Sanders’ efforts to engage first-time voters, a cornerstone of his campaign — he said, “He could still do more.” Bhaskar Sunkara, if you could respond to that and more?

BHASKAR SUNKARA: Well, I would say that, unfortunately, people of color have been voting for even bad Democrats and will stay voting for bad Democrats, when the alternative is essentially white nationalism in the White House. The real question is: Who are the irregular voters, the people who are maybe not first-time voters, but rarely come out and need to be excited by a candidate? Who can we make outreach to? And I think this is where Sanders can really increase turnout around younger voters.

But I think we underestimate the extent to which Mr. Frum or myself could be the Democratic Party nominee, and we will get 45, 46% of the vote. The question is: How do you get these other 5%? And there’s many pathways to get this 5%. I think Sanders has one. I think Joe Biden probably has one, as well. I’m not saying Sanders is the only candidate, but I am saying that he’s not uniquely unelectable. And if anything, he has certain demographic examples, judging by his history.

And I think Americans are less hung up on these ideological facts of Sanders’ description of himself as a democratic socialist, because he’s been able to successfully define it as just FDR, welfare state, Europe, and he’s been establishing this line for five years. He’s known how to just put it out there and leave it be. If anything, I would argue that certain Democrats, like Elizabeth Warren, might be more prone to redbaiting, if only because Trump will call just about anyone a socialist. Trump called Barack Obama and Obamacare a socialist plot. You know, he would do this for any Democratic candidate. And if anything, I don’t think that the actual democratic socialist, who can define it in terms that doesn’t scare people, is worse off at fending off this attack compared to Democrats that might say, “Yeah, I’m a capitalist, I’m not a socialist,” and act very defensively.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Bhaskar, you’ve also made the observation in some of your writings, in terms of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, that Sanders is more of a structuralist. He seeks structural change, whereas Elizabeth Warren only seeks reforms in the existing inequities and abuses of the capitalist system. But what about the structural question that Elizabeth Warren represents of being potentially the first woman president, in the same way that Barack Obama, who was a centrist Democrat, for the most part, represented the aspirations, finally, of the African-American community to have full democracy in America and equal representation? What’s your sense of the issue of motivating more and more women to participate in the election, if she were the candidate?

BHASKAR SUNKARA: Yeah, I mean, I think if Elizabeth Warren was the candidate, I certainly would support her and would vote for her, and I think that would be one tactic, one way to get to the White House, because I think we often, on the left, describe black and brown people and women as some sort of unified category that resists this minoritarian Republican Party, and we forget the fact that a slim polarity or majority of white women voted for Donald Trump in 2016. So, obviously there’s a lot of work to be done.

On the question of the structural change that Sanders offers, I think it’s worth noting that Sanders doesn’t even support some things I support, like court packing, for instance, which is kind of one of — supported by many Democratic candidates. He doesn’t support even abolishing the filibuster. So I think he’s been very careful to frame his arguments and to focus on his key issues. I think that Medicare for All, jobs — there’s a certain repetition to Sanders, and that repetition, I think, will serve him well.

AMY GOODMAN: David Frum, you’re saying there should be a more centrist candidate, that you hate Trump and you want to see him beaten. Well, haven’t the Democrats brought us a string of centrist candidates? You have Al Gore. You have John Kerry. You have Hillary Clinton. They all lost.

DAVID FRUM: They all got a bigger share of the popular vote than Donald Trump did, so they were pretty successful candidates.

And one of the things that is a challenge for me is I need to remember at all times that most Democrats don’t see the world the way I do, but I think that’s also a challenge for Bernie Sanders voters. Most Democrats, most Americans don’t see the the world the way you do. And when you’re talking to them, you have to bear that in mind. And let me give you one example that’s going to be important if Bernie Sanders is the nominee. In 1980, Bernie Sanders quit the fringe party that he then belonged to, to join another one, the Socialist Workers Party. Now, I don’t know why he joined. At the time that he joined, the Socialist Worker Party’s main issue was opposing American military action to rescue the American hostages held in Iran. In fact, they denounced the American hostages as CIA spies. Now, Bernie Sanders didn’t do that. But how is that going to look at a time when the United States and Iran are heading, apparently, toward greater confrontation, when President Trump uses that issue?

You know, if it comes down, for me, to a choice between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, I will — I’ll make the gesture of protest. I’ll vote for anybody, just about, certainly anybody who’s on the field. But I understand that I’ll be making a gesture. Meanwhile, there are millions of Americans for whom the choice is not Trump or Sanders, but show up or no show up. And you only get them to show up when you talk to them in meaningful ways, with a person who is relevant to them. And you just always have to remember in politics, most people are different from you, and what moves you is not necessarily what moves your fellow citizens.


BHASKAR SUNKARA: Well, first of all, that’s just patently untrue. Sanders was never a member of the Socialist Workers Party. He was a member of the Liberty Union Party. And in the early '60s, he was a member of the Socialist Party of America, the party of Debs and Thomas, a party with deep, very American roots. I think maybe what's being distorted here and what’s being referenced is the fact that Sanders served as an elector for different minor-party candidates in the state of Vermont to allow them to get on the ballot. And he offered that to different parties, and it was more a statement of democracy that I think we should all applaud, even if it opened him to this kind of attack. And also, just on the question of Sanders being portrayed as being anti-American, I think if you actually look at what the American people think about foreign wars, about the blood and treasure that’s been spent on these endless foreign wars, I think you’ll find that Sanders is in the American mainstream, far more than the D.C. policy establishment is.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there, but I thank you both for being with us, David Frum, staff writer with The Atlantic, author of Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, and Bhaskar Sunkara, founding editor and publisher of Jacobin, author of The Socialist Manifesto: The Case for Radical Politics in an Era of Extreme Inequality.

Tomorrow, we hope to be bringing you the results of the Iowa caucus, but it’s not clear what will be happening.

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