Is Bernie electable? Not with the S-word

    U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has endorsed Rich Lazer in Tuesday's crowded 5th District Democratic primary. (AP file photo)

    U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has endorsed Rich Lazer in Tuesday's crowded 5th District Democratic primary. (AP file photo)

    Bernie Sanders wants us to “Feel the Bern.” But if he’s the nominee this fall, Democrats will Feel the Bummer. Because that guy is not electable.

    I carry no torch for Hillary Clinton; I’m just talking reality. Americans will never elect a self-described socialist.

    Yeah, I know. He’s not really a socialist, not in the Soviet-bloc sense. In a speech last November, he said: “I don’t believe the government should take over the grocery store down the street or own the means of production.” He’s actually a social Democrat in the western European tradition, someone who lauds the welfare-state progressivism of FDR and LBJ.

    But if he wins the nomination, rest assured that the Republicans would erase that distinction and twist the minds of millions. After three decades of sustained attacks, they’ve successfully demonized the word “liberal.” Imagine what they’d do with “socialist” — a word that’s already pre-demonized.

    And yeah, I know, Bernie currently looks very electable in the polls — more electable than Hillary when match against GOP rivals. But the current polls are worthless; they have no predictive value. It’s no surprise that Hillary’s negatives are higher than Bernie’s. She has been tarred with Republican slime since 1992, whereas Bernie has barely been touched. Republicans are pleased that he’s squeezing Hillary in Iowa and New Hampshire; the last thing they want to do, right now, is rock his boat. But if he winds up on top, watch out.

    They’d go viral with the newspaper column that Sanders wrote back in 1976, when he ran for governor of Vermont and declared that the “U.S. Congress must institute public ownership, with worker control, of the major means of production.” They’d mass-market the remark he made as mayor of Burlington, in 1988, when he yearned for a society “where human beings can own the means of production and work together rather than having to work as semi-slaves.” They’d recycle Anderson Cooper’s remark, in an early Democratic debate, that Bernie “honeymooned in the Soviet Union.” (Which made Bernie sound like a commie; in truth, he and his new wife participated in a sister cities program first launched in the ’50s by President Eisenhower.)

    Such attacks would not be fair. But they would tap into this nation’s antipathy toward the S-word.

    Actually, it’s hilarious that the S-word is so detested, given the fact that everyone drives on socialist interstate highways (Eisenhower again), that everyone eventually avails themselves of socialist Social Security, that everyone enjoys our socialist national parks, that everyone who reaches senior status gets help from socialist Medicare, that everyone who’s breathing air far cleaner than 45 years ago does so thanks to the socialist Environmental Protection Agency, and on and on.

    Doesn’t matter. Fairly or not, the cognitive disconnect is reality.

    If or when the Republicans finally train their weapons on Bernie, they’ll be treading on fertile turf. Granted, there was a time – not long ago – when we didn’t think a black guy could get himself elected; back in JFK’s day, we didn’t think a Catholic could get elected. But still, I can’t ignore what the stats are saying. According to a national poll last May, conducted by YouGov.com, only 26 percent of Americans said they have a favorable view of socialism. Among young people (Bernie’s strongest constituency), only 36 percent signaled thumbs-up. Most tellingly, only 22 percent of swing-voting independents spoke favorably — and only 15 percent of voters aged 65 and older spoke favorably.

    Lest we forget, young people (unlike seniors) have never voted in overwhelming numbers. Bernie fans dream of youth revolution this November, but even on Barack Obama’s triumphant ’08 election night, voters aged 18 to 24 comprised only 10 percent of the electorate.

    And last June, Gallup assessed the “socialist” issue from a different angle. When it asked Americans whether they’d vote for “a generally well-qualified person who happened to be a socialist,” only 47 percent said yes. At first glance, that might seem like a respectable number — until you look at the rest of the poll. When Americans were asked whether they’d vote for a well-qualified atheist, 58 percent said yes. A well-qualified gay, 74 percent. A well-qualified Hispanic, 91 percent. All told, Gallup gave the voters 11 options, and “socialist” fared the worst. Even a well-qualified Muslim drew 60 percent.

    The Republicans would buttress their “socialist” attacks by cherry-picking Bernie’s policy proposals — for instance, his stated willingness to raise middle-class taxes to help pay for a government health insurance program. Never mind the fact (as I referenced yesterday) that no such program will ever see the light of day in Paul Ryan’s House; nor will we see the expansion of any social programs.

    But this fall, what we’d surely see with Bernie as nominee, is a GOP message that boils down to “socialist = higher taxes.” That’s a potent weapon, no matter how damaged the GOP may be, because voters who have only recently reconciled themselves to Obamacare won’t abide another pitched battle that could see their insurance change again.

    All told, the S-word — so ripe for Republican exploitation — is the lead weight in Bernie’s baggage. This is political reality, unjust as it may be. As the ancient Greek historian Thucydides wrote, “In a democracy, someone who fails to get elected to office can always console himself with the thought that there was something not quite fair about it.”

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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