Bernie Sanders had an interesting debate Tuesday night. His most memorable line — “the American people are sick of hearing about your damn e-mails” — was actually about the frontrunner’s circumstances, not his own policies. And, for a significant stretch, fellow Democrats pummeled him on guns. Hillary Clinton, for one, argued that Sanders had fought to exempt gun owners from lawsuits, evidence that he isn’t actually as progressive as he claims to be.
She pushed him from the left, in other words. Not where you’d expect her to be.
It’s worth noting that Sanders responded from the right — not where you’d expect him to be: “I come from a rural state,” Sanders said, “and the views on gun control in rural states are different than in urban states, whether we like it or not.”
That’s the argument that’ll make Sanders president.
To be a plausible president, every candidate must, at some point, pivot from party base to national electorate. To stop running to appeal the loyalists and reach the centrists. The candidate must of course remain appealing enough to the base to win the nomination, but also be acceptable enough to the nation at large to be seen as a true leader.
For months now, the knock on Sanders has been that he can’t do this. He’s too partisan, too left, not only unappealing but even downright threatening to centrist voters, never mind conservatives. That’s the knock on his policies, too. He talks a good game, but more grounded analysts are sure much of his talk is just pie-in-the-sky rhetoric. Maybe in the Democratic primary we can talk about free college, a higher minimum wage or sensible gun control policies, but how would any of this pass muster in a right-leaning Congress?
Bernie Sanders is never going to win over the mainstream, in other words, and he doesn’t even acknowledge that he has to.
Until Tuesday night. Gun control is Bernie Sanders’ pivot point. On this issue, Sanders shows he has what it takes to satisfy a rural state, with a long hunting tradition and a fiercely independent, even libertarian and secessionist streak, while still taking seriously many Democratic voters’ concerns and priorities. He compromised. He did what people say he can’t do, or won’t do. He should be talking about this. A lot.
Listen to what he said last night about gun control: “Our job is to bring people together around strong, commonsense gun legislation. I think there is a vast majority in this country who want to do the right thing, and I intend to lead the country in bringing our people together.”
The Republican base is largely white, and skews rural and exurban. Kind of like Vermont. I’d think Bernie Sanders would want to stress this similarity, and why this translates into electability. We’ve been told Sanders can’t win over enough minority voters to challenge Hillary Clinton’s potential stranglehold on the nomination, but the real test for any Democratic candidate is whether he or she can win over enough so-called Reagan Democrats, centrists, moderates and independents to secure the nationwide vote.
You do this by not seeming too partisan.
Sure, Sanders had a collision with Black Lives Matter. Recently, as The Intercept reported, a campaign staffer took down a sign from Students for Justice in Palestine. But the campaign responded to both positively. With his “insurrectionist” sentiment, Sanders should have no trouble designing a campaign that transcends identity politics for a more thoroughgoing economic reform, one that focuses on class, not color. He might have had trouble building up name recognition among blacks and Muslims, Latinos and Asians, but I don’t think these are long-term challenges.
His real problem will be crossing over. At Tuesday night’s debate, when he pled for an exemption from a party consensus on gun control given his state’s unique character, I thought to myself: Maybe reaching out just got a little easier.