Why Democrats are worried Sanders will win nomination

Carl P. Leubsdorf

DALLAS (Tribune News Service) — As the Iowa caucuses campaign enters its final two weeks, Sen. Bernie Sanders’s combative nature is coming to the fore. It could pose a problem for him when Iowans vote.

Over the weekend [Jan. 18 and 19], the Vermont senator reiterated that gender was a handicap for female candidates, though he continues to reject Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s charge that he told her a woman can’t beat President Donald Trump. He said he hopes voters “would look at the totality of a candidate.”

Sanders also said Joe Biden has repeatedly “talked about the need to cut Social Security,” referring to the former vice president’s past calls for curbing entitlements to get a handle on the federal budget deficit.

The issue flared after Biden accused the Sanders campaign of a misleading video about his Social Security position.

And the Sanders campaign circulated an op-ed by supporter Zephyr Teachout accusing Biden of “a big corruption problem” for accepting big donors’ contributions, though the senator later disavowed it.

Meanwhile, 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton poured unnecessary fuel on the fire by taking a shot at Sanders, declaring in a new documentary that “Nobody likes him; nobody wants to work with him.”

But Sanders is the 2020 candidate who risks damaging his chances by criticizing two leading rivals amid renewed signs that Iowa Democrats want unity rather than division from the candidates.

A recent poll showed the candidates’ ability to unite the country was more significant for Iowa voters in making their choice than who best could beat Trump or whose positions they most favored.

It’s an area where the more moderate hopefuls — Biden, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg — may have an advantage over the two outspoken progressives, Sanders and Warren.

More than two-thirds responding to the latest Des Moines Register-CNN Iowa Poll said the candidate’s “ability to unite the country” was “extremely important” and most others said it was “very important.”

That was significantly higher than those who said it was extremely important which candidate had the best chance of winning, held positions on issues important to them or was most likely to inspire a turnout of new voters.

To be sure, there is no precise way to judge who could best unite the country, but most candidates have illustrative track records.

Biden has a history of seeking compromise during his 36 years in the Senate and his eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president.

Indeed, rivals have criticized his statements he expected to work with some Republicans in a post-Trump era.

Klobuchar, meanwhile, scored best of the 2020 candidates in last year’s study of congressional bipartisanship by the Lugar Center, started by the late Indiana Republican senator, Richard Lugar, and Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.

The Minnesota senator ranked 23rd among the 100 senators in the study, which rated senators according to the degree they reached out in the last Congress to opposition party members to co-sponsor legislation.

The only other Democratic presidential hopefuls with positive scores were Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland.

Delaney is campaigning in Iowa, while Bennett and Gabbard are concentrating on New Hampshire, whose primary comes eight days after the Iowa caucuses.

By contrast, Sanders, who has often decried compromises, ranked 100th with the lowest record of bipartisanship.

Though he helped craft a bipartisan veterans care bill some years back, his rating underscored his reputation as an ideologue who has difficulty working with others.

Warren, who has touted her ability to unite the Democratic Party, ranked 68th in bipartisanship, higher than Sanders but still with an overall negative rating.

Buttigieg, the former South Bend, Ind., mayor, does not have a legislative track record but has sought to separate himself from the acrimony among his rivals.

The Iowa Poll showed another potential handicap for Sanders:

Fewer Iowa Democrats described themselves as socialists compared with 2016, when the Vermont senator narrowly lost the caucuses to Hillary Clinton.

When asked to describe themselves according to an array of characteristics, 28 percent described themselves as socialists, a sharp decline from the 43 percent in a similar survey four years ago.

The proportion describing themselves as capitalists was down slightly.

The issue of Sanders’ss socialism arose in the last Democratic debate, when CNN’s Abby Phillip asked Sanders if his description of himself as a democratic socialist would handicap him against Trump, since, she noted, “more than two-thirds of voters say they are not enthusiastic about voting for a socialist.”

“Nope, not at all,” Sanders replied. “My democratic socialism says health care is a human right. We’re going to raise the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour. We’re going to make public colleges and universities tuition-free. We’re going to have a Green New Deal.

“That is what democratic socialism is about and that will win this election,” he said.

Presumably, Sanders’ss socialism is a lesser handicap among Democrats than general election voters.

But the Iowa numbers suggest it’s less of an asset in 2020 than in 2016.

Any success Sanders has in portraying Biden as eager to cut Social Security might have appeal in Iowa, which has the 12th highest proportion of seniors.

But it could also fly in the face of Iowans’ desire for a candidate who can unite the country.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may send emails to carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com. Visit Dallas Morning News at www.dallasnews.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency. © 2020 Dallas Morning News.

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