‘Downright stupid’: Trump’s perfect weapon

It is, at last, time to take Bernie Sanders seriously.

After years of being written off as unelectable and too extreme, Mr Sanders is now the undisputed frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, having won the New Hampshire primary this week.

That position comes with a certain level of respect - one Mr Sanders' supporters feel he has always deserved, but never received from a party establishment forever determined to thwart him.

You know what else it comes with? Scrutiny. Lots and lots of scrutiny.

 

You see, there's a reason Mr Sanders was written off as unelectable and too extreme for all those years. It wasn't just out of spite.

His views are way, way outside the American mainstream, and nominating him to take on Donald Trump in November's general election would be a humungous risk.

Look at his signature policy.

Mr Sanders wants to implement universal health care, which is obviously a worthy goal. Unlike most of the other Democratic candidates, however, he intends to do it by eliminating all private health insurance and forcing everyone onto a government plan.

That will cost the federal budget tens of trillions of dollars, which he will (partially) pay for by jacking up taxes.

I cannot imagine a policy so obviously tailor-made for a potent, election-winning Trump scare campaign.

If Mr Sanders is the Democratic nominee, the President will bombard voters with the message that 160 million of them will be kicked off their current health insurance plan. He'll talk non-stop about the trillions of dollars in taxes heading their way.

We saw a pretty effective scare campaign from Scott Morrison in our own election last year. Multiply the scale, intensity and shamelessness of that campaign by several gazillion, and you have some idea of what we're talking about here. It will be dirty, dishonest and devastating.

And it's all for nothing. Because even if Mr Sanders were to somehow win the election, there is absolutely no way he would ever pass his version of Medicare for All.

Just to be clear, I'm not saying it's unlikely. I'm saying it's impossible.

Cast your mind back to 2010. Remember how hard it was for Barack Obama, with all his personal popularity and goodwill, and with the White House and both chambers of Congress under his party's control, to pass the Affordable Care Act, which was much more modest than Mr Sanders' policy.

He barely convinced his own party to support the thing, let alone the Republicans. It took some ugly backroom dealing, too many distasteful compromises, and even then it almost didn't get through.

Mr Sanders' plan is the dictionary definition of a pipe dream. He has welded himself to a policy that will never pass, and in the process given Mr Trump the perfect weapon to use against him. Whatever the merits of the policy, that is downright stupid politics.

 

The scariest part, from the Democrats' perspective, it how unnecessary Mr Sanders' rigidity is.

A more reasonable, incremental version of Medicare for All could actually win popular support and neuter Mr Trump's ability to scare voters.

Several of Mr Sanders' rivals, for example, propose a version which would let anyone go onto a government health care plan if they wished, but not kick them off their private insurance against their will.

At the moment, before any Trumpian scare campaign, Mr Sanders' policy is supported by about 51 per cent of Americans and opposed by 47 per cent. The more incremental version is supported by 73 per cent and opposed by 24 per cent.

One of those options is deeply divisive; the other is a political slam dunk. He's picked the divisive one, because ideological purity is apparently more important than winning.

That approach pops up in Mr Sanders' stance on many policies.

He wants to cancel all student debt for 45 million people, at a cost of $1.6 trillion, and make university free for everyone.

The young voters who come to Mr Sanders' rallies obviously think that's a great idea.

The millions of Americans who never went to college, and whose taxes will be used to give this glorious, free education to the sons and daughters of billionaires? Yeah, not so much.

A simple means test could make the policy far more palatable. If a kid's parents are loaded, then yes, make them pay some tuition.

Again though, Mr Sanders just is not willing to compromise. It's all or nothing.

Democratic voters have consistently said their highest priority in choosing a nominee is to ensure it's someone who will beat Mr Trump. They need to remember that the primary electorate of, say, New Hampshire is not reflective of the United States in general.

According to the exit polls this week, 61 per cent of voters in the New Hampshire primary described themselves as either "very" or "somewhat" liberal (left-wing).

The first point to make is that Mr Sanders only won the primary by a measly 2 per cent, despite being on extremely favourable ground. Tens of thousands of people who supported him against Hillary Clinton four years ago chose somebody else this time.

Not a great sign.

The second, more important point? Those exit poll numbers are nowhere near being representative of the full American electorate. Forget the same ballpark, they're not even on the same continent.

The last time Gallup measured Americans' political ideology, about a year ago, a quarter of voters identified as liberal, 35 per cent as moderate and another 35 per cent as conservative.

How about all those young voters Mr Sanders loves to talk about?

The youngest group, from age 18-29, is 30 per cent liberal, 40 per cent moderate and 26 per cent conservative.

There is no hidden groundswell of support for radical left-wing policies in those numbers.

And mathematically, there is no way for any Democrat to win a majority in a general election without bringing along a huge number of the people who call themselves moderates.

Are those people ready to join the Sanders revolution? Or do they just want to have a reasonable, functioning adult in the White House again?

Dude can’t even remember to get his eyes with the spray tan, and he might STILL win. Picture: Evan Vucci/AP
Dude can’t even remember to get his eyes with the spray tan, and he might STILL win. Picture: Evan Vucci/AP

We saw something remarkably similar to this play out mere months ago in the United Kingdom.

Labour Party activists were convinced the "movement" behind their ideologue leader, Jeremy Corbyn, would win them last year's election.

Well, the movement turned out for Mr Corbyn in all its strength and enthusiasm. And the result was Labour's worst election performance since the 1930s.

I can't tell you how many Brits I have spoken to since who said they hated Mr Corbyn's opponent, Boris Johnson. They thought him a boorish, dishonest, self-centered buffoon.

But they voted for him anyway, because they were terrified of the upheaval Mr Corbyn promised.

Democrats in the United States should be equally terrified of the same thing happening to them.

Mr Sanders' victory speech in New Hampshire could have been delivered by Mr Corbyn. He spoke about putting together an "unprecedented movement" and "transforming" the American economy. It was the same language with a slightly more appealing face.

This at a time when 61 per cent of Americans say they're better off now than they were three years ago, when Mr Trump became President.

For context, when Mr Obama ran for re-election in 2012, that number was just 45 per cent, compared to 52 per cent who said they were no better off. He was underwater, and he won anyway. Easily.

Given those figures, it is frankly remarkable that the Democrats are even competitive this year. It says a heck of a lot about Mr Trump's inability to stop sabotaging himself with petty crap, instead of focusing on his strengths.

His deficiencies are not an excuse for the Democrats to sabotage themselves as well.

They would be foolish to make voters choose between a President they can't stand and a policy agenda they think will hurt them.

No matter how much people despise Mr Trump, no matter how sick they are of the rubbish he serves up every day, they cannot be expected to vote against their own perceived self-interest.

We haven't even discussed the colossal file of opposition research waiting for Mr Sanders in the general election - decades of zany policy positions, quotes defending the Soviet Union, praise for dictators like Fidel Castro, and whatever else is lurking in his past.

He has never faced anything like that before. Hillary Clinton never pulled the trigger on him four years ago. Mr Trump won't hesitate.

And years of running for office in Vermont, a deeply liberal Democratic stronghold, simply have not prepared Mr Sanders to fight a general election in a philosophically conservative country.

Could he win? Sure, why not. Last time we did this, a pathologically dishonest reality TV host who could barely string a coherent sentence together managed to convince 63 million people he was sane enough to have the nuclear codes.

Clearly, anything is possible.

But nominating Mr Sanders would be one hell of a gamble. And now that he is the frontrunner, with all the respect and scrutiny that brings, it is up to him to explain why that gamble won't blow up in the Democratic Party's face.


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