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bernie sanders campaign strategy

Bernie Sanders addresses a rally in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN)

There is much to like about Bernie Sanders:

  • Of all the Democratic candidates who have a serious chance of being nominated to oppose Donald Trump, he is the most passionate, committed, and honed in on our most significant present crisis—dealing with climate change.
  • He’s genuine, no phony. With Bernie, what you see is what you get, rumpled hair, disheveled attire and all. (One of the pleasures of a Sanders presidency might be frequent appearances by Larry David on Saturday Night Live doing a Sanders’ rant.)
  • His personal story meshes well with the American Dream of many. He grew up the son of an immigrant (Polish Jewish) paint salesman father who struggled economically, and in the 1960s Bernie became involved in movements for civil rights, unions, and peace. In many ways, his life and political views resemble that of Carl Sandburg, about whom Adlai Stevenson once said, he “is the one living man whose work and whose life epitomize the American dream.”
  • Sanders genuinely cares about racism, the plight of poor people, and growing USA inequality, and would do all he could to address these problems. He told one journalist (Benjamin Wallace-Wells), “Twenty-six of the wealthiest people on earth own more wealth than the bottom half of the world’s population. . . . How grotesque is that?”
  • He proposes a sound and sensible foreign policy. He believes that we need to cut back on military spending. As he asked Wallace-Wells, “Do we really need to spend more than the next ten nations combined on the military, when our infrastructure is collapsing and kids can’t afford to go to college?” He also believes we have overdone interfering in other countries internal affairs and in supporting authoritarian rulers. In 2019, he co-sponsored a Congressional bill to invoke the War Powers Resolution of 1973 and to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. Although it passed both houses of Congress, President Trump vetoed it. Regarding such tricky situations as those in Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Venezuela, Sanders takes an even-handed approach. Influencing his overall foreign-policy viewpoint is the need he sees for international cooperation on the two issues he seems most passionate about--climate change and economic inequality. The only reservation Wallace-Wells expressed about Sanders’ foreign-policy thinking was that it was possibly overly optimistic about the amount of international cooperation that could be forthcoming. But while realism is necessary regarding any solid foreign policy, so too is hope and at least some degree of optimism.

O.K. many progressive readers might now say. “What’s the catch?” As my title suggests, “What’s missing?” “What does Bernie need to do that he is not doing already?”

Demonstrate more pragmatism. Show voters that he is not only a good, passionate, caring human being, but one who can work with others, including Republicans, to get things done.

Answer: Demonstrate more pragmatism. Show voters that he is not only a good, passionate, caring human being, but one who can work with others, including Republicans, to get things done.

I seldom agree with conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, but I do when he writes “The revolutionary [Sanders] needs to make a case that he can be a pragmatist.” Frequently in the past, I have written on the need for political compromise (see, e.g. here and here) and pragmatism (see here and here), and mentioned that Senator Ted Kennedy was a wonderful example of someone who could hold passionate progressive political views and still work with conservative legislators in order to further the common good. There is no reason Bernie Sanders cannot do the same.

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After all, in the Senate he is officially an Independent who has demonstrated that he can work effectively with Democrats. And, as mentioned above, he was a co-sponsor of the Congressional bill to invoke the War Powers Resolution of 1973, and it won enough bipartisan support to pass both houses of Congress. Douthat mentions other examples of Sanders’ pragmatism. “As mayor of Burlington he . . . was also a pragmatic mayor who worked well with Republicans on everyday city governance. . . . And as a sitting senator, as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias pointed out, he ‘talked about his blue-sky political ideals as something he believed in passionately, but he separated that idealism from his practical legislative work, which was grounded in vote counts.’”

Douthat also makes some good points as to why emphasizing his pragmatic abilities might be a good strategy in helping him gain the Democratic nomination and eventually the presidency.

Bernie Sanders Campaign Strategy

Too often we progressives, in our zeal to promote noble causes and not sully our ideals, forget that we can (and must) work with conservatives to further the common good. Sanders understands this. He just needs to reiterate it more to voters.


More than anything else many voters, including many Democrats, just want to elect a decent, capable human being who can beat Trump. If Sanders becomes the Democratic nominee, Trump will try to picture him as a dangerous socialist who threatens the American way of life. To assure voters, including all those who will vote in Democratic primaries and caucuses, Bernie needs to stress just a few things:

  • And like Franklin Roosevelt and Ted Kennedy he can combine progressive passion with a pragmatic political sense. That he can get things done.

If he does not reassure Democratic voters, they may desert him and support another candidate, fearing that Trump’s socialism scare tactics could work in the general election. Although the 2020 Democratic Convention in Milwaukee is still a year away, the clock is ticking. In a recent essay, I suggested that candidates should avoid the trap of saying whether they favor capitalism or socialism more, and simply say, “I’m for a fair and moral economy, call it what you will. Politics is too full of labeling.”

walter moss

Walter Moss

Similarly, I think Sanders should get away from capitalist-socialist discussions and instead stress that he is someone who cares for all Americans, cares for their economic and environmental conditions, and, if elected, will pull his sleeves up (as he often does) and work with others to improve the common good.

Walter G. Moss