Susan J. Demas: Sanders’ biggest mistake was not backing Warren in 2019

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (R) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) greet each other at the start of the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 30, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

It’s a despondent time for many inspired by Bernie Sanders’ progressive vision, as he lost Michigan big Tuesday night — four years after his surprise victory here gave birth to his theory of electability.

Former Vice President Joe Biden took a buzzsaw to that idea, notching a 15-point victory and pulling what we like to call in Michigan “The Full Whitmer” — winning 83 of 83 counties, as our governor did in the 2018 Democratic primary (notably, Gretchen did endorse Biden and helped reinvigorate his Michigan campaign.)

Two keys to his victory were his strength in Wayne County, buoyed by African-American voters in Detroit and beyond, and Oakland County — which Biden took by 22 points. That was fueled by fed-up suburban women, who I tried to warn powered Whitmer’s strong ’18 showing — but were largely ignored by the national media yet again obsessed with Macomb County dudes in diners.

Sanders had an organized volunteer army and clearly had the energy at his eight — yes, eight — events in the four days before our primary, especially raucous rallies in Grand Rapids, Detroit and Ann Arbor. But U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) drew the most impassioned reaction, which, turns out to be a fine metaphor for Sanders’ original mistake this cycle.

The Vermont U.S. senator’s 2016 run was improbable, exciting and pushed the Democratic agenda leftward in a desperately needed way. U.S. House Democrats have now voted for a $15 minimum wage, massive voting rights and campaign finance reform, and sweeping measures to fight climate change. It was never controversial to call for universal health care (the late John Dingell made a career of introducing Medicare for All), but Sanders brought the issue to the forefront.

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But I always though that rather than run in 2020, Sanders should have passed the torch to someone who could lead the next stage in the progressive movement: coalition-building to achieve real power. In other words, what Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who hails from that wing of the party, has managed to do.

Nessel works hand-and-glove with Whitmer and the so-called “Democratic establishment” on issues she can and is currently a one-woman wrecking crew for right-wing dreams, suing oil company Enbridge and the Trump administration for, well, everything.

Now telling a politician to leave the stage is a hard thing for anyone to hear, especially as those running for office tend to have massive egos (although everyone had zero problem telling Hillary Clinton to go away, even though she won 3 million more votes than Trump in ’16.) I suspect more than a few people did tell Sanders exactly that, which is why his 2020 campaign is populated by loyalists like Jeff Weaver, David Sirota and Nina Turner, who never would.

But Sanders would be in a far more powerful position today if he would have thrown his weight behind a chosen candidate last year. The sheen of “Bernie woulda won” would have remained untarnished. He could be guiding policy behind the scenes and nurturing a new generation of progressive leadership who could make his dreams a reality. Maybe not right away, because progress can be maddeningly slow — but the goal should always be to help as many people as possible with wins on immigration, civil rights, economic justice, health care and climate.

Susan J. Demas: The sister act between Whitmer and Nessel bucks stereotypes about powerful women

The logical heir for the 2020 Sanders mantle was Elizabeth Warren (who is at least a little younger.) She has long been an economic justice warrior and has a compelling story as a working-class kid from Oklahoma who ditched conservatism when she saw the havoc its policies were wreaking on people’s lives. Given the bad blood between Warren and Sanders stans right now, that, of course, seems wildly implausible, but primaries have a way of distorting basic reality (and rendering everyone stupid.)

No, Warren isn’t a perfect fit for Sanders’ democratic socialism (yes, she does call herself a capitalist) — but movements can’t be successful without growth and, in the parlance of the revolutionary left, embracing some fellow travelers.

Even with Sanders running, Warren was able to bring over some non-Millennial and Gen Z women (many were Clinton voters), although she was never able to make inroads with voters of color. But without the message competition with Sanders — which often devolved into a purity contest long-time Dems quickly tired of — she may have been able to be the bridge candidate between strong progressivism and the traditional Dem base and win the nomination.

It’s not clear that would have been enough. As 2020 showed with Biden’s victories, Warren would have had to win over African American voters by showing she understood their priorities and proving how her agenda was feasible.

Susan J. Demas: Nobody likes a smarty pants: Why Warren and Obama irk pundits so much

So Sanders endorsing another candidate who could better do that may have been the best plan, but unfortunately, former President Barack Obama is constitutionally barred from running again. This really isn’t a joke. He was a bridge candidate in 2008 — at a time when the party was far less progressive — and no one has been able to replicate his success.

Given the rigidity of Sanders and his supporters, it’s pretty unthinkable that he would ever have thrown in with someone like U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), whose support for the Green New Deal and a version of Medicare for All was quickly deemed insufficient because of her criminal justice record (aka the “Kamala is a cop” smear.) One day, we should probably assess why Sanders’ awful record on guns and the NRA was never considered a purity dealbreaker (which has been a body blow for many women voters over 30.)

So what about Sanders having endorsed a member of the Squad in ’20? The four freshmen women of color all won deep blue districts only in 2018 — and have been untested on the national stage. (AOC was even too young to be on the ticket!) They may represent the future of the party, but a few more statewide wins, like with Nessel, are critical. And clearly, the message and the coalition need to broaden, as three cycles have produced precious few victories across the country.

Former Vice President Joe Biden links arms with Sen. Kamala Harris and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Detroit, March 9, 2020 | Andrew Roth

The bottom line is if you can’t envision anyone but Bernie at the top of the ticket, you may be more drawn to his personality than his politics. That’s fine, but cults of personality don’t build broad movements, which is what’s needed to win in a factionalized party.

It’s natural for Bernie supporters to be angry and confused right now (it’s not OK to pump up conspiracy theories or not vote for Biden in November, sorry.) But after the wounds start to heal, it’s worth really looking at how to build a bench by linking arms with people who agree with you on 90 or 95% of issues.

That’s how progress is won. That’s how everyone wins.

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Susan J. Demas is a 19-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.