If this election season is causing you heartburn, you are not alone. On Wednesday, the Bernie Sanders campaign announced that the Vermont Senator had checked into a Las Vegas hospital with “chest discomfort.” An artery blockage required the insertion of two stents and the cancellation of upcoming appearances, though the campaign reported Sanders was “in good spirits.” The news was met with level heads online, as every debt-ridden college student in America began googling “can you donate your own heart.”
Predictable responses followed from his competitors in the Democratic Primary. Elizabeth Warren had dinner delivered to the Sanders campaign headquarters. Marianne Williamson announced she would be administering her customary medical regimen of prayer and good vibes. Even aspiring debate nemesis John Delaney offered a boilerplate statement of good will.
To be fair to the 78-year-old candidate, running for President seems exhausting. Participation in elections has been known to cause a whole array of symptoms, ranging from terrifying bloodshot eyes to speaking in tongues. Sanders has consistently challenged doubters of his physical or mental acuity to “follow me around the campaign trail,” but the scrutiny directed at his fitness for the Presidency has not been limited to his health — it’s part of a larger political context. If there has been any benefit to his brief health scare, it was that it served as a reminder to the press of the Senator’s existence. “We have figured out what it takes Bernie to get media coverage,” Intercept editor Ryan Grim tweeted.
Sanders himself complained not long ago that the political media, particularly the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post ignored or disfavored his campaign, a charge that was met with widespread protesting-too-much from defensive journalists. But when you look at the record, it’s hard to conclude that the claim is wrong. The paper’s house “fact-checker” has gone through circus-worthy contortions to debunk the Senator’s statements, while, as FAIR has documented extensively, its reporting has often taken care to editorialize. On Friday, a viral video detailed the numerous ways in which corporate media has treated his campaign with condescension. It’s nothing new — in 2016, according to an analysis from the Tyndall Report, Donald Trump’s campaign got nearly ten times as much coverage on network television as Sanders, not to mention more than twice as much as Hillary Clinton.
The so-called adults in the room seem to have adopted a strategy: Don’t talk about him, and maybe he’ll go away. “Harris, Warren tie for third place in new 2020 Dem poll, but Biden still leads,” read a Politico headline in July. Take a guess who was in second. CNN’s Harry Enten tweeted a poll, asking “Where do you stand on who you think is the candidate most likely to be the Dem nominee?” The choices were Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and “Someone else.” After 44,127 votes, “someone else” won. Enten’s CNN colleague Chris Cilizza recently tweeted, “Aside from Biden and Warren, who do you see as the 3rd person with a real chance to be the nominee? I say Buttigieg as of right now.” Politico’s most recent poll, conducted by Morning Consult, has Sanders leading Buttigieg by 14 points.
At the second Democratic debate, CNN moderator Jake Tapper posed a question to erstwhile Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, echoed on the channel’s chyron: “Do you believe Senator Sanders is too extreme to beat President Trump?” This question becomes particularly interesting in light of the widely stated — if sometimes reluctant — support for Medicare for All among most Democratic candidates this season. In 2016, Hillary Clinton proclaimed that single-payer healthcare would “never, ever come to pass.” The assumptions underlying Tapper’s question may show why there has been reluctance in some quarters to bring Bernie Sanders up at all.
Among the three frontrunners, Joe Biden has required the least argument in his favor, with his name recognition and record as Vice President carrying him to the top of the polls in spite of his almost total lack of coherence and sense. But let’s talk about why Warren, who consistently polls about the same as Sanders, has been almost universally embraced by the mainstream media as the sole alternative.
He is either not “electable,” or too “extreme,” even though he has held a political office within the US government for decades.
While Biden is the establishment candidate, in many ways Warren inherits the mantle of the previous Democratic nominee, a self-proclaimed “progressive who gets things done.” (Not to mention that, were she to win the election, she would finally be America’s first woman president.) Without question, her progressive bona fides are far more convincing than those of Hillary Clinton — in fact, they once put her at odds with the then-New York Senator, regarding a bankruptcy bill that favored banks over borrowers. Today, her mantra, “I have a plan for that,” is a convenient shorthand for her credentials.
It’s one that has endeared her to some unlikely supporters, too. “I clearly don’t agree with everything she says, but I do give her credit for getting things done,” said Tom Nides, a Morgan Stanley vice chairman, to the Los Angeles Times. As it turns out, some of her supposed enemies on Wall Street have warmed to Warren as an alternative to Sanders. As Politico reports:
Several executives who have negative feelings about Warren also said that while it might be hard to ever support Sanders in a general election, for fear that he would try and blow up the entire capitalist system, they could probably come around to backing the Massachusetts senator against Trump.
Venture investor and former Obama adviser Robert Wolfe calls Warren “preferable for many reasons,” citing her support for “fair capitalism.” She provides an outlet for moderates who see Sanders as a mirror image of Trump. “Capitalist Elizabeth Warren has the right antidote to socialism and Trumpism,” says a headline in Business Insider, offering an endorsement for Warren from Josh Barro. At a conference for the centrist Third Way think tank — whose president, Joe Cowan, once called Sanders an “existential threat to the future of the Democratic party” — Warren was cited as a saving grace for the party against the encroaching left.
It’s not insignificant that Warren has declined to rule out the possibility of taking corporate donations, were she to become the eventual nominee. Warren herself has noted the danger in accepting funding from the financial sector, having witnessed its effect on Hillary Clinton. As she wrote in her memoir, on Clinton’s vote for the bankruptcy bill:
Campaigns cost money, and that money wasn’t coming from families in financial trouble. Senator Clinton received $140,000 in campaign contributions from banking industry executives in a single year, making her one of the top two recipients in the Senate. Big banks were now part of Senator Clinton’s constituency. She wanted their support, and they wanted hers
Sanders, meanwhile, persists in making Wall Street his enemy. “I don’t think billionaires should exist,” he recently told the New York Times, while announcing an aggressive wealth tax. “Maybe Bernie Sanders shouldn’t exist,” said Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of private equity firm Blackstone, in response. It’s hard not to conclude that this opposition, from the most powerful people in America outside of Washington, is what puts the Bernie Sanders candidacy beyond the pale for many observers. He is either not “electable,” or too “extreme,” even though he has held a political office within the US government for decades.
Even so, he’s a self-described socialist, who has not taken corporate donations, who has announced his intentions to make Wall Street his enemy and eradicate billionaires, who has allied himself with organized labor and an insurgent left movement, whose support for Palestinian human rights and his opposition to American foreign military adventurism far surpasses any of his competitors. That’s something no living presidential nominee has offered in a single package. It puts him out of the bounds of political acceptability — for Wall Street, the Democratic Party establishment, and the political media.
For Donald Trump’s part, he sees the element represented by Sanders as his biggest threat. The Daily Beast has reported that in private, he made the rare acknowledgment of a viable opponent, telling “friends and donors that running against ‘socialism’ in a general election may not be ‘so easy’ because of its populist draw, according to four Republicans and sources close to Trump who’ve heard him say this over the past several months.”
But when Trump said, in his State of the Union address, “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country,” Elizabeth Warren joined in a standing ovation. Bernie Sanders did not. Warren, for all her progressive credentials, does not represent the threat to the normal order that Sanders does.
As for his health, Bernie Sanders is in recovery, and his campaign has promised his attendance at the next Democratic debate on October 15. He has not missed the opportunity to make the personal political, tweeting about his condition the night after his hospitalization:
Thanks for all the well wishes. I'm feeling good. I'm fortunate to have good health care and great doctors and nurses helping me to recover. None of us know when a medical emergency might affect us. And no one should fear going bankrupt if it occurs. Medicare for All!
The situation could be a mixed blessing. The disproportionate coverage of Trump’s 2016 campaign undoubtedly had something to do with his eventual victory. Even if Bernie Sanders gets his way and his illness leads to a brief burst of coverage for his policy proposals, the media’s attentions are probably too fickle to linger. But what is undeniable at this point is how much his presence has affected the party, with competitors forced to either adopt the same rhetoric previously dismissed as extreme, or render themselves irrelevant.
Some commentators have claimed that were Sanders to win, he would never manage to enact any of his extreme, unrealistic policies — unlike his more moderate opponents. But the thought experiment that imagines Bernie Sanders as an ineffectual President has already granted him an achievement that eluded his predecessor: winning the Presidential election. While media pundits and political operatives want to downplay this possibility, his adversaries, including the wealthiest Americans and the leaders of the Republican party, are preparing themselves for the worst.