Hi, folks – Today we revive the In Box as a regular feature at NCPR.org, a place for discussing politics, policy, and the campaigns that will shape all of our thinking between now and Election Day. Welcome back. Remember that we at the In Box love a good conversation but we reject absolutely the conventional wisdom that American democracy has to be a blood sport. Keep it civil, keep it smart. Talk about the ideas, not other people who are leaving comments.
Why Trump is winning and Sanders is losing
In this ferocious political year, it’s open season on the Establishment. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are basically dining out on the idea that the GOP’s party bosses are corrupt thugs who’ve betrayed the conservative movement. Cruz draws big applause whenever he jabs at the Republican “cartel” in Washington DC.
Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, fired off a Facebook salvo after his close second-place finish in Nevada, arguing that his voters had “sent a message that will stun the political and financial establishment of this country.” Sanders and many of his core supporters have embraced the idea that the Democratic Party is a venal, corrupt organization.
My in-box is filled with messages from Bernie boosters arguing that Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schulz is a lying cheat who should be fired. Writing in Salon, Camille Paglia argued that Hillary Clinton is a candidate who symbolizes “the corrupt marriage of big money and machine politics, practiced by the Clintons with the zest of Boss Tweed.”
The problem for Sanders and his supporters, as primary voters go to the polls on this Super Tuesday, is that this kind of agitas against the Democratic Party just doesn’t resonate in the same way that attacks on the GOP have done. In fact, it’s mostly fallen flat.
In 2016, Republicans really are different
Hard-core conservatives are a breed apart in this political cycle. They’re seriously furious, and in some cases openly militant, about what they perceive as the Republican Party’s failure to derail the Obama presidency. They’ve spent half a decade rallying around banners — the Tea Party, Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, Glenn Beck and on and on — hoisted by political operatives who think the GOP can’t be trusted.
Which means the Republican Party limped into this election cycle with a target already on its back, with approval ratings of 33 percent and disapproval ratings at 53 percent. Think about that for a second. One of our two major political parties entering a presidential election year twenty points underwater. To sink that low, a lot of your own people have to be stampeding toward the exit.
But the Democratic Party is in a very different place, and here’s where Sanders’ message — and the rage of pundits like Paglia — hits a brick wall. The Democratic Party has approval ratings of 40 percent and disapproval ratings of 48 percent. Still underwater, to be sure, but the vast majority of that loathing comes from the other side of the aisle, from conservatives and not from within the Democratic Party’s base.
Liberals, generally speaking, think their party is pretty okay. After all, it’s the institution that gave them Barack Obama. It’s the party who gave America Bill Clinton, who despite years of late-night comedy routines about his libido still boasts a favorability rating of 53 percent and who is consistently counted by Americans among the top-10 presidents of all time. (He’s currently ranked number eight, one slot behind Eisenhower and three slots ahead of Reagan.)
The Democratic establishment still has a meaningful brand
It gets worse for Sanders. While the center-right GOP establishment has struggled since the Reagan years to explain its role in America’s increasingly polarized debate, the center-left Democratic Party faces no comparable identity crisis. On the contrary, for generations of African American and Latino voters, in particular, the Democratic Party has been the single most essential institution, elevating their political leaders to positions of serious power and advocating for causes seen as vital by those slices of the American demographic.
Granted, all of these groups and leaders regularly express frustration and impatience with the Democratic leadership and its frequent blunders. But when Sanders blasts “the establishment,” he’s blasting an institution that has deep roots in black churches, in union halls, and among Hispanics activists. There simply isn’t any evidence that any of these constituencies see 2016 as the moment when they’re willing to reject the Democratic Party in the way that conservatives are rejecting the Republican Party.
It’s not only blacks and Hispanics who are sticking with the establishment. It’s also many LGBT activists and women’s rights groups and organizations that fight for legal abortion services and environmental organizations like the League of Conservation Voters. By overwhelming margins, they’re siding with Hillary Clinton. So too are some of the left’s biggest names, iconic figures like Al Franken and Howard Dean.
What’s clear, of course, is that Sanders has tapped into the one constituency on the left that is willing to draw a line in the sand, that thinks it’s time to cut the Democratic establishment loose. That’s the group of mostly white, mostly liberal voters who see economic inequality, campaign finance reform, and Wall Street crookedness as the defining issues of our times.
The “Big Short” crowd won’t carry the primary
For these folks — call them the “Big Short” crowd — the Democratic leadership, including President Obama, has failed. They’re a bunch of collaborators and appeasers who keep taking bankers’ campaign cash, inviting Wall Streeters to serve in their cabinets, while refusing to indict traders who break the law. These are valid concerns. And for voters who see these as the top issues, Sanders’ message is pitch-perfect.
But for African Americans fighting for voting rights in the South? For gay people fighting for marriage equality? For women trying to keep Planned Parenthood clinics open in red states or Hispanics and Latinos fighting for immigration reform? For these groups, questions about dirty money and shady political influence don’t count among the top tier issues.
So for now at least, Donald Trump will continue to build big wins around his followers’ gut-level loathing of the country-club Republican Party. But to catch Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sanders task is more complex, more challenging, and maybe flat-out impossible. He has to promise a revolution to his feisty base, while also showing at least some affection and respect for a Democratic Party that a clear majority of left-leaning voters still see as their natural political home.