The most extraordinary of these arguments comes from the Baghdad Bob of Sanderistas, the spectacularly deranged H. A. Goodman1:
Bernie Sanders, unlike Clinton, defeats Donald Trump in a landslide of “epic proportions” in a general election and is the antithesis of a Republican. If you don’t believe me, then watch my friend Brian Hanley’s animated rap videos about Bernie Sanders demolishing Donald Trump.Well if an animated rap video says so, it must be true.
More commonly, we see the electability argument made by Christopher Cook in a piece purporting to be The Pragmatic Case for Bernie Sanders. There's lots wrong with the rest of this piece (he elides the difference between change within electoral politics and change from social movements--and I'm not sure he really understands the dynamic of the latter), but for now let's focus on the electability argument:
On the pragmatics of electability, nearly every major national poll consistently shows Sanders equaling or bettering Clinton against all Republicans. Polls show Sanders nearly tied with Clinton nationally and rising. On electability, if anything, Sanders has the edge right now. There is nothing empirical to suggest Clinton’s superior electability—quite the contrary given her loss to Barack Obama in 2008 and her flagging campaign this year. While Clinton might gain more moderate Independents (particularly against a polarizing Republican nominee), Sanders can inspire massive Democratic and liberal Independent turnout and likely win over many white working-class swing voters.This has the two basic elements: 1) current polling, and 2) expanding the electorate.
On the former point, obviously general-election polling at this stage is a pretty reliable guide to what happens on Election Day; just ask Presidents Dukakis and Kerry. (Remember Jimmy Carter's second term? Good times!)
But hey, he'll bring out a massive and unprecedented number of millennial voters, right? Well, maybe. Or maybe not. Democratic turnout was lower than 2008 in Iowa--171,000, down from 240,000--and New Hampshire--250,000 vs. 280,000 in 2008. The electability argument for Sanders assumes young voters turn out at Obama levels. So far, we haven't seen it.
But there's another, unstated, assumption the Sanders campaign is making: that besides bringing out record numbers of millennials, they'll maintain Obama's share/turnout among African-American and Latino voters. They don't say it, but it's built into their numbers. And that's a questionable assumption, given the palpable lack of enthusiasm for Sanders among African-American voters. He's been trying to win over African-Americans at least since July, and the numbers haven't really moved--due in part, maybe, to hilarious pratfalls like using Cornel West as a surrogate and saying Clinton's embrace of Obama is pandering to African-American voters. It's not a given that African-Americans would turn out in the same numbers for Sanders, especially if he wins the nomination without ever winning a majority of their votes--that is, if the Democratic nominee is effectively chosen by white voters.
Now that's all big picture stuff; Cook just sort of waves away the actual campaign. But it's a pretty crucial electability question: how would Sanders do when faced with the full fury of the GOP slime machine?
Here, too, Sanderistas have an answer:
I'm astounded that anyone who has been paying any attention to our toxic partisan politics in the last decade would think that the Republican attacks would be somehow less vehement for one candidate over the other. Eight years ago, I remember how Obama partisans would point out how "divisive" and "polarizing" Hillary Clinton would be as POTUS. Even then, the perpetual rage machine from right-wing talk radio and Fox News was completely disconnected from facts and logic, and I predicted pretty much what happened: If Obama was elected, the narrative and outrage from the right would be just as vigorous.Well, okay, sure--up to a point. But the question isn't whether those attacks will be made; the question is whether they'll stick. Hey, they didn't hurt Obama--but Obama is the most talented politician of our time, and he had what may have been the most effective campaign apparatus in American history. Sanders isn't Obama, and his campaign isn't Obama's campaign.
So, from their perspective, we've already had a Marxist/Leninist/Maoist/Islamic/Fascist Kenyan in the White House these last 7 years. Sanders breaks no new ground there.
And Americans hate socialists, so yeah, the Republicans will use that against any candidate. But there's a huge difference between an attack (Obama is a socialist!) that's at odds with observable reality, and an attack (Bernie is a socialist!) the veracity of which the candidate himself confirms.
Of course as Steve points out, "socialist" may not even be the most effective anti-Sanders attack. To pay for his single-payer plan, Sanders is proposing a 6.2% payroll tax (plus a 2.2% income-based premium)--in other words, a tax hike on middle-class families. In theory the tax is more than offset by reduced premiums, but that's nuance, and we all know how that plays.
And in fact Sanders is even more vulnerable on taxes than Steve suggests, because his single-payer plan is based on all kinds of magical assumptions that underestimate likely costs by a trillion dollars per year. So on that payroll tax,
Thorpe...estimates that you'd need a 14.3 percent payroll tax on employers for a national single-payer plan, and a 5.7 percent income-based premium, for a combined 20 percent tax — about what Vermont estimated.In other words, the Republicans could eviscerate Sanders on his healthcare plan without even being particularly dishonest.
But I'm not sure taxes are even the most damaging attack on Sanders' plan. The other big (maybe bigger) factor is loss aversion. Loss aversion is the reason President Obama promised we could keep our insurance if we liked it, and it's the reason that became an effective attack when it turned out not to be true in every case. Sanders is promising voters that if his plan passes you are absolutely guaranteed to lose your health insurance whether you like it or not. That includes Medicare, by the way, and old people get very angry at even imaginary threats to Medicare, and it doesn't much matter if it's likely to be replaced by something better because loss aversion doesn't work that way.
And this reader email to Josh Marshall gives us a glimpse of how it would play out in the general:
I've seen results of a poll (and heard about another) done by a group here in DC that tested Sanders's support before and after likely lines of attack against him. The results are bad, real bad.Obviously there's no way to verify the details of this, so take it with a grain of salt if you like. But as a scenario it is terrifyingly plausible.
The attacks are pretty obvious (and it's telling that no one in the GOP is making them right now), and the effects are dramatic. Sanders does well at the beginning of the poll (like he does now in face-to-face polling), but by the end is significantly behind *every* GOP contender. Basically, in the words of one highly-placed, data-driven Democratic friend of mine, "the numbers are brutal in many demographics. There's just no math that gets Sanders to a victory."
And I say this as a mild Sanders supporter, or at least I was before seeing these numbers. I've known Bernie for years and like him a lot, but the prospect of a Bernie-Cruz race is terrifying to me now.
One last point: in evaluating any other electability arguments for Sanders, the essential question is whether the author, like Mulder, wants to believe. When someone's argument is perfectly aligned with what they want to be true, it creates a rebuttable presumption that the argument is wishful thinking. I haven't seen any of these arguments where the presumption can be rebutted. I would love to believe we live in a country where someone with Sanders' politics (not Sanders himself, because he's temperamentally and intellectually unsuited to the job, but someone better with similar policies) could be elected President. But I believe wishful thinking is morally indefensible, and given the stakes here I'm not prepared either to indulge in it myself or tolerate it in others. Nor should you.
1Who, a little over a year ago, was proclaiming his intention to vote for Rand Paul