Why Bernie Sanders' Early "Missteps" Represent Everything Wrong With Politics

Politics Features Bernie Sanders
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Why Bernie Sanders' Early "Missteps" Represent Everything Wrong With Politics

At this point in the race, it’s hard to believe that people ever thought that the 2016 Democratic nomination was going to be a simple coronation for Hillary – it’s been much more competitive than anyone could have expected a year ago. But if Bernie Sanders eventually loses the nomination to Hillary Clinton, the likely narrative of his defeat will be that his campaign amounted to “too little, too late.” Although Bernie has been racking up bigger wins in recent contests and amassing more delegates (like he did on Tuesday night in Wisconsin), Clinton still has such a big lead in overall delegates that it will be hard for Sanders to overcome – and Hillary built up most of that lead during the early stages of the race, when Sanders was seemingly caught flatfooted in a few strategically significant areas.

There was a big article in the New York Times the other day about the Sanders campaign re-evaluating its early “missteps” that they wish they could do over. If just a few things had gone differently for the Sanders campaign – in Iowa, Nevada and a few other early-voting states – he might have become the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination today.

The New York Times goes into detail about a few of the strategic decisions that the Sanders campaign made in the early days – even during 2015 – and how they believe those decisions caused the campaign to fall behind in early voting states. This is a must-read article for political junkies and for anyone who wants to understand the strategic nuances of presidential campaigns – but the article also illustrates so many things that are wrong with American politics on the whole.

Here are a few of Sanders’ “missteps” described in the article, and why it’s too bad that these decisions were considered mistakes:

Bernie Kept His Day Job

The article describes how from the first days after announcing his candidacy, Bernie Sanders decided that he would keep showing up for work in the Senate while also campaigning for president, instead of resigning from his Senate seat, like Bob Dole did in 1996, to campaign for president full-time. Unlike Hillary, who left the State Department four years ago and was able to devote her full time and focus to the presidential campaign, Bernie was a part-time presidential candidate.

But isn’t it too bad that this is seen as a strategic mistake? Why is it so crazy to think that a presidential candidate should also have a day job – and actually show up for it? American presidential campaigns have become so all-consuming that the candidates are expected to be on the road 24/7 for a year (or more) before the election, pressing the flesh and raising money. Wouldn’t it be better if the presidential campaign season were an actual “season” instead of “multiple years long?”

Bernie was Reluctant to Attack

In the early days of the campaign, Bernie repeatedly said that he wanted to run a positive campaign that focused on the big issues facing the country, not small-minded personal attacks. As part of this strategy, he was reluctant to personally attack Hillary Clinton for issues like the $675,000 she made from giving speeches to Goldman Sachs, or her usage of private email as Secretary of State (a memorable moment from a debate last fall had Bernie telling Hillary, supportively, that the American people are sick of hearing about the “damn emails.”) As is so often the case with “outsider” insurgent candidates, Bernie talked about wanting to run a different kind of campaign that would elevate the public discourse.

The problem is, politics ain’t beanbag. The negative attack ads that so many voters claim to hate and vow to ignore actually work really well. It’s likely that Bernie’s campaign would be in much better position today if he had gone negative and criticized Hillary more aggressively during the early days of the campaign. This strategy would not have been as high-minded, but it probably would have won him more delegates.

And isn’t that too bad? It seems like every time a candidate comes along who actually tries to play nice and do the right thing and raise the tone of debate in American politics, they end up getting dragged down into the muck like all the others.

Bernie Did Not Relish Retail Politics

I live in Des Moines, Iowa, central hub of activity for Iowa’s first in the nation presidential caucuses. Iowa prides itself on being home to a special kind of old-fashioned “retail politics,” where the candidates get to meet with people and talk to voters up close and personal in backyards and at county fairs and small town restaurants.

However, Bernie was reluctant to do this kind of face-to-face retail politicking, because he felt like he would be bothering people – he was quoted as saying in the New York Times, “If I’m at a diner having a cup of coffee, I don’t want candidates coming up talking to me.”

That is such a poignant, human quote – because by God, he’s right! Most normal people DON’T want candidates coming up to bother them in restaurants. Especially me – I live in Iowa, and I’m so sick of seeing presidential candidates! And we have to see ALL of them – even the most delusional, poorly funded no-hopers like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum hang around in Iowa and run TV ads for MONTHS. It’s EXHAUSTING. And I’m sick of seeing presidential candidates wearing jeans to the Iowa State Fair, as if that’s supposed to make them seem fun and folksy and relatable – just once, I want to see presidential candidates wearing shorts and sleeveless T-shirts and a horrible mullet haircut, like a real fairgoer.

By the time the Iowa Caucuses are over every four years, Iowans breathe a huge sign of relief and are grateful to see the campaigns leave, so we can go about our lives and enjoy eating at restaurants without being accosted by a bunch of emotionally needy, vote-grubbing narcissists.

But the fact is, just like negative TV ads, retail politics really works! Iowa caucus goers have gotten so spoiled from all this national attention that many of them won’t make a decision about which candidate to support until they’ve actually met multiple political candidates in real life. And despite its creepy aspects, retail politics isn’t all bad – it’s a great test of candidates’ mettle, because they have to think on their feet, listen to voters, and show that they can relate to people in an unscripted setting, instead of just going on TV or giving big speeches.

However, the problem is: what kind of sane person would want to do retail politics? How exhausting would it be to have to be “on” all the time in public, and be constantly selling yourself to people you don’t know? That sounds like a nightmare. The fact that Bernie was standoffish about retail politics is now being depicted as a strategic failure – but it also shows how wrong it is that American politics requires candidates to defy all of the usual rules of human behavior – “don’t bother people in restaurants, don’t go around thinking that you’re so special and important that everyone needs to hear what you think, don’t wear jeans to the Iowa State Fair,” etc.

If anything, most of Bernie’s early missteps show that he had a high-minded, idealistic naivety about the nature of running for president. If he loses, it won’t be because he was a bad candidate – but because he was trying too hard to be good. The fact that Sanders tried to run a different kind of polite, decent campaign – and the fact that the early delegate deficit he faced as a result of his more hands-off approach might now cause him to lose the nomination – is a sign of everything that’s wrong with politics. Because the electoral process is so harsh and punishing that it tends to self-select for exactly the kinds of people who Americans say they don’t want running for office.

People say that they hate negativity in politics and that they want “real” honest people to run for office, but then the process continues to reward exactly the same behaviors and personalities that Americans claim to oppose. American voters claim that we want political debate to be about hope and idealism and “issues,” but deep down, we really want filth and verbal fistfights. I’m so disappointed in us.