Opinion - As the state convention convenes, many reasons why Sanders is the wrong choice for California Democrats

By Tom Epstein |
Special to CALmatters |

A large and diverse field of presidential candidates will greet Democrats gathering for their convention in San Francisco this weekend.

This reflects the state’s newfound importance in the presidential nominating process. With the most delegates and an early primary in March 2020, California is poised to have a significant impact on who wins.

I’ve worked for Democratic presidents and presidential campaigns since 1978 and look forward to checking out the candidates this weekend. But as Democrats, we should cast a particularly critical eye on Sen. Bernie Sanders.

To his credit, Sanders presents a cogent analysis of problems facing our country. The system is rigged to benefit the wealthy and powerful, and a grassroots effort to organize all Americans is needed to combat the influence of special interests.

His extraordinary 2016 campaign proved that progressive policies motivate voters and that small donations can eliminate the need for corporate contributions. But given the current occupant of the White House, Democrats must nominate the strongest candidate for president and one who has allegiance to the party.

Support for Sanders’ policies will decline under more intense scrutiny, especially his signature Medicare for All plan. While I support a transition to universal coverage based on Medicare, Sanders’ version is vulnerable when the details are exposed.

  • Huge tax increases would be required to finance the system. Even with administrative savings and no premiums or deductibles, voters will perceive they are paying much more for coverage.
  • Polls show that elimination of private insurance is unpopular with a solid majority of Americans, especially the 160 million people with employer-sponsored coverage. “If you like what you have, you can keep it” is still a powerful message.
  • Sanders plan covers every medical treatment with no cost-sharing, which is far more generous than any other country’s universal coverage system. That would encourage overuse of medical services and increased costs, and it would not improve health.

Then there is Sanders’ recently adopted idea of giving imprisoned felons the right to vote. In recent polls, 69-percent of Americans and 61-percent of Democrats opposed this notion.

And that’s not all. Consider these facts:
  • Sanders is not a Democrat. A lifelong Democratic Socialist, Sanders trashed the Democratic establishment in 2016 and has continued his attacks this year. His campaign leadership includes several Green Party acolytes and other long-time critics of the party. While Sanders energized thousands of young people to get involved in politics for the first time in 2016, he consistently told them that the Democratic Party was the enemy.
  • Socialism is unpopular. In several recent polls, fewer than half of Americans said they are willing to vote for a socialist for president, including about a quarter of Democrats - by far the lowest score of any characteristic tested.
  • Sanders has never faced serious political attacks. The Clinton campaign was careful not to criticize Sanders because it didn’t want to alienate his supporters for the general election. The Republicans gave him a pass since he wasn’t the nominee. This time around, he would face the full force of the Republican opposition research machine, with decades of material to mine.
  • He will be 79 on inauguration day, five years older than Donald Trump, and would be thrust into the hardest job in the world when his faculties are inevitably declining. Numerous surveys show voter concern about electing a president in his late 70’s, a reality that spells trouble for Vice President Joe Biden, as well.
  • A Sanders nomination would encourage Howard Schultz to run. While I despise the Starbucks founder’s self-absorbed and delusional flirtation with an independent campaign for president, Sanders as the Democratic nominee would provide his strongest rationale for running. If Schultz gets in the race, Trump is all but certain to be re-elected.

As the candidates audition for California’s Democratic leaders this weekend, delegates deciding whom to support frequently lead with their hearts. Given the stakes this time, we also must rely on our heads. Choose someone who inspires you, can win, and has earned the backing of the party to which you belong.

Tom Epstein of Orinda has been involved in politics for more than 40 years as a senior staffer for Democratic officeholders, campaign manager, and public affairs executive, epsteintom@yahoo.com. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California's Capitol works and why it matters. Please see his previous CALmatters commentary by clicking here.

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