By Tim Donner
Editors’ note: This is the second of a two-part series based on an interview with Jeff Weaver, Campaign Manager for Bernie Sanders, on LN’s podcast, The Uprising. In the first part, Weaver discussed how Bernie’s revolutionary presidential campaign was deep-sixed by the Democratic establishment.
Sitting with my wife at an airport lounge during the 2016 presidential campaign, a long-haired free spirit – he looked like a biker – wandered by us. Leesa and I looked at each other and asked the same question: was the guy a Trumpist, or Bernie Bro? Honestly, you could have tossed a coin.
Such were the often-overlooked similarities between the people who supported the man who would become president and the challenger who could possibly have given Trump more trouble than Hillary in the general election.
If you inspect the national map, and where the two candidates thrived, the similarities become even more striking. Both Bernie and the Donald triumphed by huge margins in rural America. Both did so by appealing directly to disenfranchised voters. Both attacked the rigged system in DC. Both ran on populist agendas.
That begs the question of whether Bernie, unlike Hillary, could have defeated Donald Trump in a year defined by populist revolt. We asked Jeff Weaver, Bernie’s Campaign Manager and author of How Bernie Won, on LN’s The Uprising.
Tim Donner: Trump said he wanted to take on Hillary all along. But how do you speculate that Bernie would have done in a head-to-head matchup with Trump?
Jeff Weaver: Oh, I think it’s pretty undeniable that Bernie would have beaten Trump. All the polling in the 2015 and 2016 timeframe consistently showed that Bernie Sanders was the stronger general election candidate, not only against Trump but almost all the other Republicans as well. In fact one of Trump’s pollsters in the last couple of months publicly said that Bernie would have beaten Trump in the general election. I think it’s clear that that would have been the outcome. Bernie would not have lost Michigan and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in the general election, that’s for sure.
Tim Donner: Okay. Let’s turn to the groundswell of support for the progressive policies of Bernie Sanders. Many on the right will define socialism on the model of Venezuela where everything is unraveling, while the left will largely point to the softer form of socialism which we see throughout Europe. Bernie has called himself a democratic socialist. How do you define that?
Jeff Weaver: Well Bernie’s politics are one where he wants to create an economy and a government that works for everyone. When we talk about freedom, obviously you don’t want a government that overreaches in terms of being authoritarian, but on the other hand, you also don’t want economic elites who overreach and use their economic power to dominate the lives of people as well. If we want to really liberate people, you have to free people from powerful forces that are going to hold them back. You don’t want authoritarianism, and you also don’t want some kind of laissez-faire system where those with money can treat people however they want and deny other people the opportunity to succeed.
The truth is if you look at healthcare, for example, and the number of people in this country who are stuck in jobs where they’re there just because they have to have health insurance or get health insurance for their family, think about the entrepreneurial energy that could be released in this country if people were unshackled from their jobs because they’re there just because they have to have health insurance.
Tim Donner: Well Jeff, I think it’s almost indisputable at this point that the heart of the Democratic Party is now with progressives, but it appears that moderates like Connor Lamb, who won a special election as a Democrat in a district in Pennsylvania that Trump won by 20 points, are more electable in a year when the Democrats have high hopes for taking control of the House, that these moderates are more broadly appealing to the mass of Democratic voters. Am I wrong?
Jeff Weaver: Yeah, I think you are wrong. We get into this binary frame of moderate versus progressive. Connor Lamb went head-on against the Republican tax cut plan in his election. He didn’t sort of sidestep it. He went straight on into it. His campaign had a lot of themes of economic populism in it. I would also say this. I’ll give you a couple other examples. Bernie Sanders, in the primary, did extremely well in the rural areas of this country. Granted, it’s a Democratic primary, but rural Democrats tend to be on average more moderate than Democrats who live in more urban areas. Bernie Sanders universally won those districts. If you look at a map, a color-coded map of the 2016 Democratic primary, Bernie certainly won the geography primary. He won every rural area in this country, virtually every rural area.
If you look at the results of 2016 among independent voters who participated in the Democratic primary process and in most states independents can participate, Bernie won those voters three to one, four to one against Hillary Clinton. That was one of the reasons why he did so well in general election polling against Republicans. It’s because of his overwhelming support among independent voters.
Tim Donner: All right. Before I let you go, Jeff, I’m going to give you a chance to make some news. Is Bernie going to run for president again in 2020?
Jeff Weaver: Well look, I have to say you’re not the first person to ask that, which you probably guessed. He is actively considering it. He has not decided whether he is going to or not. It is something he is looking at. At the appropriate time, he’ll make some announcement about 2020 one way or the other, but it is certainly under active consideration.
Could Bernie have beaten Trump? On one hand, you might dismiss the possibility by arguing that America would never elect a self-proclaimed socialist. But on the other hand, based on the 2016 populist uprising and Bernie’s overwhelming success in the heartland during the Democratic primary, Jeff Weaver’s claim that Bernie would have triumphed in those decisive states behind the “blue wall” which Trump carried – Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – is worthy of scrutiny.
Either way, it is a debate for the ages – and one which might well be renewed in two years, when Trump seeks a second term and Bernie likely steps up for one more turn at the plate. And this time, with the Democrats heading ever-more leftward, Bernie might just get that head-to-head matchup with the president after all.