You know, I do love me some Bernie Sanders. But he should stand down and fully support the strongest Democratic candidate with an agenda closest to his: Elizabeth Warren.
A heart attack at age 78? Not disqualifying for him. But as soon as a middle-aged woman has so much as the flu, she’s swept aside by the bigwigs from any plum office assignment.
After spending three days in a Las Vegas hospital recuperating from a heart attack, with two stents inserted into an artery, Sanders says he is returning to the campaign full steam. “We are going to have an active campaign,” his campaign manager confirmed on Oct. 8. “Instead of a breakneck series of events that lap the field, we are going to keep a marathoner’s pace that still manages to outrun everyone else.”
Despite his medical setback, which could be a symptom of his age, Sanders and his campaign say he’s fit for a grueling national campaign and, if he succeeds, the most taxing job in the world when the occupant actually respects it.
Sanders’ medical optimism may or may not be borne out. But any perception of fatigue and frailty can undercut his effectiveness in competing for the nomination and in the dogfight against President Trump if he does beat the rest of the Democratic field.
I admire the Green Mountain Yoda for who he is and how he’s led. He has been a tough, principled critic of poverty and economic insecurity. He has led trailblazing rallies and online fundraising for progressive economic aims that defied the expectations of party leaders. Sanders helped steer many in the Democratic Party to embrace positions like “Medicare for All” and tuition-free public colleges.
Sanders and Warren are not interchangeable doppelgangers, by any means. The two have different assumptions driving their political outlooks and policy stances. In the main, Sanders believes that democratic socialism is the best lever to confront poverty and to lessen socioeconomic inequality. He would push for public ownership of utilities, for example. Warren, for her part, believes that rule-based capitalism is the best lever, when it is run with intelligent oversight encouraging fair competition.
I have yet to choose my preferred candidate in the crowded Democratic field. But I have heard Warren talk about her values in private settings when the cameras weren’t rolling, well before she declared her candidacy. She thoroughly unmasked the roots of bankruptcy and passionately understands the middle-class squeeze and has offered ways to alleviate that distress. Warren’s integrity in promoting Bernie’s issues is real and impressive.
For the sake of those issues, it would make sense for Sanders to unite forces with Warren. While other candidates like Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro or Kamala Harris have staked out bold center-left positions, Warren is consistently the strongest candidate with a career-long track record of fighting the grip of powerful interests on economic policy and representative democracy.
Many Bernie bros, however, like to spread falsehoods against Warren, claiming she’s carrying water for the centrist establishment and she’s an unrepentant Republican. Meanwhile, some Warrenistas paint Sanders as a quixotic zealot. The truth is they both deserve credit for pushing the national conversation and policy proposals to a leftward place that was unthinkable even 10 years ago. Both have been frustrated by Mitch McConnell’s Senate.
So far, pollsters say that it is too early to measure accurately how Sanders’ health and age will affect voter attitudes. But common sense and precedent say that Trump, Fox News and a ruthless GOP would use both issues to kneecap Sanders and attack all that he and progressives stand for.
The message against the faltering Trump economy is just as important as which messenger delivers it.
Beneath the ambiguous economic numbers lurks so much distress: U.S. income inequality levels are far higher than those in most European countries. The U.S. ranks 35th out of 39 advanced economies in terms of poverty. Americans can expect to live shorter and sicker lives compared to people living in any other rich democracy, according to a United Nations special monitor’s report. America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. And what about the roughly 30 million blue-collar jobs that may be lost to automation in the next 20 years?
Bernie can still be influential without being in the race. He could, for instance, be a strong Cabinet member in a Democratic administration.
Rather than obsess over small differences in policy direction among large personalities, it would be more effective to join forces to ignite the millions of donors, volunteers and candidates in communities across the country to build on the progressive wave that took the House in 2018.
Sanders likes to shout “Not me, us!” as a campaign rally call. He should stay true to that principle and think about how better to serve that bigger cause.
Rich Benjamin, the Puffin Foundation-Economic Hardship Reporting Project Fellow, is a contributing writer to the Los Angeles Times’ Opinion section.