Late this summer, as Bernie Sanders overtook Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire and pulled closer in Iowa, the Vermont senator embarked on a new phase of his improbable presidential campaign. Having demonstrated the ability to attract large crowds and make progressives swoon with his rhetoric denouncing “the billionaire class,” Sanders and his team pivoted toward crafting a delegate strategy and building the campaign infrastructure required to win the nomination.
That effort entailed assembling a grassroots-powered financial machine -- during the third quarter, he nearly matched Clinton’s cash collection, and he now has $27 million in cash on hand to her $33 million -- and convincing Democrats that, were he to win the nomination, Sanders would be a viable general election candidate. Accordingly, Sanders plans to tackle head-on the big question hovering over his candidacy: How can a self-proclaimed democratic socialist win the presidency when 50 percent of Americans say they wouldn’t even consider voting for a socialist?
This week, Sanders signaled that “fairly soon,” he’ll be delivering a “major speech” articulating his vision of democratic socialism. Sanders’s announcement instantly inspired comparison’s to then-Sen. Barack Obama’s 2008 address on race, and John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech on his Roman Catholicism.
It’s quite possible -- even probable -- that the more Americans hear about Sanders’s Scandinavian-style brand of socialism (and how it’s not incompatible with a market economy), the more they’ll become receptive to the idea of a socialist president. If Sanders lurches closer to the nomination and wants to assure Democrats that he'll beat a Republican in the general, this is a speech he needs to give.
But it’s not the speech he should be giving now.
If Sanders wants to have a prayer of making it to the general -- and while Joe Biden’s absence from the race substantially narrows his path to victory, it doesn’t close that path entirely -- he’d be far better advised to deliver a major address atoning for his most glaring vulnerability in the Democratic primary: his spotty record on gun safety reform.
Consider the Bloomberg/Des Moines Register poll of likely Iowa caucusgoers released Thursday morning. The survey contained plenty of good news for Sanders’s campaign: Even without Biden in the race, he’s within striking distance of Clinton, winning 41 percent support to her 48 percent. Moreover, Iowa Democrats are unfazed by Sanders’s use of the “democratic socialist” label, with 80 percent indicating they have no problem with it. Meanwhile, a national YouGov survey finds that 49 percent of Democratic voters hold a favorable view of socialism, while just 37 percent look favorably upon capitalism.
But Sanders’s pro-gun votes -- including his opposition to the 1993 Brady Bill and his support for allowing gun manufacturers to enjoy immunity from lawsuits by gun violence victims -- pose a major hurdle to his candidacy. Though Sanders has also endorsed background checks and an assault weapons ban, 60 percent of likely caucusgoers said that his mixed record on guns makes them less likely to support him.
And let’s not forget that for all the enthusiasm white progressives share for Sanders, he’s struggled to win over African American and Latino voters, both crucial segments of the Democratic electorate. If Sanders wants to gain traction among these voters, he can’t afford to keep dismissing impassioned calls for gun reform as unhelpful “shouting.”
In no small measure because their communities are disproportionately affected by gun violence, blacks and Latinos are the biggest supporters of gun safety reform. According to a recent Pew poll, African Americans believe by a 72 percent to 20 percent margin that pursuing gun control is more important than preserving gun rights; among Latinos, the figures at 75 percent and 24 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, whites favor preserving gun rights over controlling gun ownership by a 57 percent to 40 percent margin, although support for basic gun safety reforms, like universal background checks, is much broader than those numbers suggest.
Sanders is no longer running to represent an overwhelmingly white and rural state in the Senate; he now seeks to lead a racially diverse, largely urban and suburban party to national victory. For starters, that requires articulating to primary voters, far more clearly than he has done so far, precisely where he stands on guns. Ultimately, it necessitates recalibrating his rhetorical and substantive approach to the issue.
So what should Sanders say? He’s already hinted that he’s open to re-examining immunity for gun manufacturers; it’s time for him to complete his evolution on that issue. (For what it’s worth, in case the presidency doesn’t materialize, Vermonters aren’t likely to punish Sanders for flip-flopping here: Since 2004, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy has voted twice against manufacturer immunity, and still gone on to win his 2004 and 2010 re-election campaigns with 71 percent and 64 percent of the vote, respectively.) And just as they’ve joined him on issues like trade and inequality, Sanders would be well-advised to join Clinton and Martin O’Malley in backing robust new reforms, like a nationwide gun registry and mandatory fingerprinting and licensing.
It’s also high time Sanders discarded his bizarre rhetoric on the issue. In the wake of the massacre at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College, Sanders told Chris Hayes, “[W]e have to start talking to each other. … Stop the shouting and let’s work together to do something that’s realistic.”
It’s not entirely clear what those trite words meant, but Sanders echoed them in last week’s Democratic debate, when Sanders evoked NRA talking talking points and declaimed, “All the shouting in the world is not going to do what all of us want and that is keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have those guns.” Smartly, Clinton has seized on Sanders’s words and vowed never to stop “shouting” about the gun violence epidemic ravaging America’s communities.
Not only is such talk insulting to families who have every reason to scream and holler about the tolls guns take, it’s also not a good look in the context of his primary battle with a candidate seeking to become the first woman president. To be sure, Sanders has sterling feminist credentials, but his inveighing against “shouting” on the issue grates; the more he employs that language, the more he opens himself up to charges that he’s depicting Clinton as a shrill harpy. At any rate, Sanders seems to have no problem shouting about income inequality and the “billionayuh class." Why shouldn’t gun massacres also trigger a fiery response?
As Sanders plots a path forward on gun safety, he must also account for his past shortcomings, including his vote against the Brady Bill, which required background checks and a five-day waiting period. In the Democratic debate, Clinton defended her U-turns on issues like free trade by framing them as the result of taking in new information; there’s no reason Sanders shouldn’t similarly reevaluate his stance on guns in light of the ever-mounting number of gun massacres.
For Sanders, addressing gun violence in a big way is a matter of both moral and political urgency. In the wake of a series of high-profile mass-shootings, the nation can ill afford stale platitudes about “talking to each other.” Nor can Sanders hope to broaden his electoral appeal with such weak rhetoric.
So while his impulse to discuss his democratic socialism at length is understandable, that’s a discussion he should hope to lead as the primary season winds down and the general election draws closer. If he doesn’t assuage reasonable concerns about his views on guns, there’s no way Sanders will ever make it that far.