As Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders gains momentum in the Democratic primary, he confronts a sort of paradox that can best be summed up in the title of Bill Scher’s latest piece for Politico Magazine: To Win, Bernie Can’t Be Bernie. The problem is that Bernie got to this point by being Bernie. We wouldn’t be talking about Bernie were it not for his incredible Bernie-ness. And now — to get to the next level — Bernie has to change???
I called it a paradox, but it’s almost a catch-22. Bernie’s entire brand is based on being an unpolished, disheveled, lovable, socialist. Now Scher wants him to show ideological restraint and focus on raising money? One of Bernie’s major selling points is that he (unlike Hillary Clinton and the other “politicians”) is authentic. And so now he should sell out?
The fundamental problem with this is that the world isn’t static. Sometimes you take one step forward and two steps back. I’m reminded of the scene in The Godfather where Don Corleone explains why he won’t get involved in the narcotics business. “It’s true I have a lot of friends in politics,” he says, “but they wouldn’t be so friendly if they knew my business was drugs instead of gambling which they consider a harmless vice.” Likewise, Bernie begins with an energized base of friends, but they might not be so friendly (or energized) were he to begin tinkering around with his message.
Still, Scher argues it can be done. “In the spring of 2003, Howard Dean’s pollsters learned that, while his opposition to the Iraq War got him off the ground, he needed to talk up his more moderate gubernatorial record of balancing budgets if he wanted to attract new supporters,” he writes. “He did, and became the frontrunner for much of the race, despite flaming out in the Iowa caucuses.”
It’s impossible to know if this transition really worked, since (as Scher notes) Dean flamed out. Perhaps the flame out had something to do with the mainstreaming of a cool niche brand? Isn’t it at least possible that Al Gore’s endorsement of Dean — which was seen, at the time, as a big deal — actually undercut the very essence of Dean’s appeal?
I’m not suggesting Scher’s idea is absurd; it’s not. He’s essentially recommending what any political strategist would. But here’s my advice to Bernie: Instead of trying to mount a conventional war against Hillary, embrace your insurgent status. There’s always a chance you’ll wear her down — or that she will simply implode on her own. And this way, even if Hillary wins the nomination, you keep dignity. And frankly, that’s about as much as you can hope for in politics these days.
Let Bernie be Bernie.