Bernie Sanders is not seen as a leader. His 2020 campaign can change this.
Sanders’ greatest challenge isn’t his policy. It’s that too many voters see him as a campaigner, not a leader.
Bernie Sanders has been the de factor leader of the Democrats for years. His campaign need to frame him as such or he will lose, again.
One of the key messages that Democrats tried to push in 2016 was that their candidate was presidential. She had the experience, the qualifications, and the temperament to sit in the Oval Office. Basically, she had everything her opponent didn’t. If she wanted to be the President, she had to fight hard to look like the President.
This framing is very important, not just in 2016, but in every election. Arguably, it’s an issue that women have to battle with even more. When you close your eyes and think of a leader what do you think? Inevitably, I would suggest, you think of a smart suit and tie with a nice lapel pin and slicked hair. That perception is changing, but it is still very much there and Clinton had to work hard to overcome those biases.
The irony is, is that she achieved her aim. Three million more people thought she would be a better President than Donald Trump and in the lead up to the election she dominated in the polls until the very end. It has been something that has concerned her entire political career. During her 2008 campaign, she produced the infamous ‘3AM phone call’ ad designed to portray her as a leader.
The crux of that advert — now over ten years old — remains the same. Part of being the President is being able to respond to those ‘3 AM situations’, to guide and to lead the nation in critical times, often before the population even realises just how critical those times are.
So what does all this mean for Bernie Sanders. How does a white guy suffer from issues of framing?
There are tonnes of reasons why you might not want to vote for Bernie; some fair and reasonable, others abstract and fairly unreasonable. Despite being old, much of his support comes from younger voters, so he has a strong base there. Despite being an independent, he has nearly thirty years of national experience and two presidential campaigns to his name. Despite losing in 2016 — he has raised $18 million in the second quarter of 2019 — averaging a mere $18 per donation.
Forgive me, because when I close my eyes and think of a leader I do not think of Bernie Sanders. A campaigner, yes, a social organiser, yes, a champion of movements, yes. But a leader? In the Oval Office, in the Situation Room? I’m afraid not. And that’s the problem he has with framing.
It is not too late in his campaign for him to try and address this perception weakness.
Consider the current state of the Democrat party’s policy board. There is broad, near universal agreement that radical reform is needed across American society.
Where has this consensus come from and who has driven it? How have we got to a point where nearly 20 candidates representing all ideological corners of the party, Governors, Senators, business people, former Vice Presidents, and authors alike all agree on a broad policy base that hitherto would have been considered too extreme to murmur in private conversations let alone put your name to on stage?
The answer is Bernie Sanders.
There has been nobody in national politics over the last three-five years who has championed and driven an agenda as radical as Sanders’. On its own that is commendable, but not enough. The difference is, nor has there been anyone who has moved mainstream opinion more either.
One of the strategic problems is that Sanders has relished the position as the party outsider, and indeed benefited from it. There is a point though where this serves as a disadvantage. He’s not even technically a Democrat, yet has done more for the Democratic policy development than almost anyone else. Sanders needs to own that power and use it as a demonstration of his leadership skills.
An example came last week, when the ten candidates on the stage were asked to raise their hands if their healthcare plans would include immigrants who entered the USA illegally. Needless to say all raised their hands. Without Bernie, would Biden have done that? Would Harris, or Gillibrand? Similarly, nearly every candidate seeking the Democratic nomination supports some kind of government health-care solution, including Medicare-for-all and universal coverage plans. Harris even got herself into some hot-water when she appeared to back track on a debate answer relating to her own private health cover.
Bernie hasn’t just led from the front in terms of policy either. He has taken the campaigning strengths on previous winners, owned them, improved them, and once again inspired others to follow.
His team have the excellent Armand Aviram in charge of media content, producing output that was in a different league to Hilary in 2016, but on top of that, they have a crucial army of high-skilled volunteers willing to put in the leg-work for little or no financial cost to the campaign. Sanders has also made the small-dollar donation a currency against which major candidates are valued. He leads here, yet again.
A further strength to this approach would be that Sanders, clearly a man of principle and deeply held convictions, doesn’t even have to change his policy on any issue at all. In fact, he can stand steadfastly by what he has believed and championed for decades. All he needs to do is show how, through championing these beliefs he has effectively led the party to change. If he can do that with the Democrats in less than five years, imagine what he could do with the county in eight.
It is all well and good to say this. I am sure that Sanders’ millions of supports already know it. They have been trying to spread that message for years. But on its own it is not enough because too few people are willing to see him as the nation’s leader.
In many ways Sanders in 2019/20 is a victim of his own success. There are questions about how far his support can reach this time around, whether his message has been too diluted by other candidates, or whether he is simply exhausted as a brand. More importantly, there looms the eternal question of whether he is genuinely the next leader of the free of the world.
By any conceivable metric, Sanders has played the role of the Democrat party leader. He has embedded his policies across the party’s ideological spectrum with near consensus and he has moved the expectations of what it means to run a campaign. His team need to remember who drove that success. He did.
And they need to shout loudly about it.