What appears to be separating Bernie Sanders from the other candidates in the Democratic primary among voters is that he’s the one, like Donald Trump in 2016, with the biggest and boldest ideas. No grey zones. No Hillary Clinton-style middle-of-the-road pablum.
“The minimum wage is the big issue for me,” says Rakeem Black. He’s a young African-American hotel-service worker in this mid-sized city in South Carolina, where the Democratic primary will be held Saturday.
He likes Pete Buttigieg and he likes Mr. Sanders, who wants the minimum wage raised to $15. He needs the extra bucks because he’s had it tough, as have his friends. I asked him who they would be voting for. “Don’t know,” he said. “They’re all in jail.”
In the Palmetto State, Joe Biden was expected to secure the black vote, but Mr. Sanders has cut into his dominance with promises on wages, on relief of student debt, on free college tuition and notably on health care, the quality of which is atrocious here.
There is that and there is the dedication, almost Trump-like, of his legions of followers. The Sandernistas are everywhere, swarming the state. They’ve knocked on 80,000 doors in the past few days. The Sanders campaign has 70 paid staffers in this state alone.
The Biden campaign is less apparent. When I stopped by his Florence headquarters on Monday, no one was there. But though his once huge lead has disappeared, polls still put him as the favourite to win the primary. If he doesn’t, Mr. Sanders will have so much momentum going into Super Tuesday on March 3, where one-third of the delegates are up for grabs, that the race could be all but over.
It’s a startling turn of events. At the start of the month, the fight looked so fluid that it might go all the way to a brokered convention. But what’s been underestimated is the degree to which Mr. Sanders, who has been moving the party leftward for years, has captured its soul.
His ascendancy has alarmed the party establishment, so much so that he was bracing for dirt by the truckload to be thrown at him by fellow Democrats beginning with the Tuesday night debate in Charleston, S.C., and continuing the rest of the week.
They’re picking up on the Republican line, saying Americans will never vote for a socialist. He’s also being pounded for being Trump-like in his seeming fondness for dictators; he said some positive things about the Cuban revolution under Fidel Castro in a 60 Minutes interview Sunday, driving Florida Democrats to near apoplexy, while his friendly words toward the Soviet-backed Sandinista regime of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua in the 1980s have been unearthed.
Trump Republicans say Mr. Sanders was so enamoured of communism he even went to the Soviet Union to celebrate his honeymoon. That’s true enough. I was there as a Globe correspondent in 1988 when, as mayor of Burlington, Vt., he visited and began an exchange program between his city and Yaroslavl. What’s missing from the critique is that these were the days when Mikhail Gorbachev was tearing down the totalitarian system and Ronald Reagan was joining hands with him to end the Cold War.
The socialist tag doesn’t carry the baggage it did in the Cold War era. To many in Florence, it suggests more government help, a levelling of the playing field. To counter the notion he can’t win as a socialist, Mr. Sanders points to hypothetical polls showing that he fares better against Mr. Trump than does Mr. Biden.
But the anxiety of the Democratic establishment is well-founded. Mr. Sanders could not be expected to win Florida, especially given his softness on Cuba. His stripping away of private health care for more than 100 million Americans would be incendiary. His tax policies would have Wall Street up in arms.
The country needs a unifier, but by nominating Mr. Sanders, the Democrats would be making the most divisive choice possible. If Mr. Trump divides the country along racial lines, the Democratic front-runner divides it along class ones.
But to suggest he can’t defeat Mr. Trump is to be in the grip of old thinking. Few thought Americans would elect a black president. Few thought, given his assaults on norms, they’d elect a Donald Trump. They were outliers both. The outlying Mr. Sanders is thus in keeping with the trendline: He fits the mood and the mould.
PUBLIC AFFAIRS COLUMNIST
The Globe and Mail, February 25, 2020