Steve Schmidt: Nominating Bernie Sanders would be a death sentence for Democrats

It’s fun to have Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace together again, doling out advice on how to win presidential elections, no? Watch, then read on.

It’s true, Schmidt did once muse that Hillary was trending towards more than 400 electoral votes — but that was 10 days after the “Access Hollywood” tape dropped, when she had opened a sizable seven-point lead in national polls. She was trending towards an easy win at the time. Three weeks later, on the eve of the election, her lead had shrunk to three points. The trend had changed.

I don’t meant to defend Schmidt, though. I actually can’t fathom how anyone can make definitive pronouncements in a post-Trump America about who is and isn’t electable. This goes back to a point in this post from over the weekend: To Trump fans, his shocking victory in 2016 teaches us nothing about the viability of any other politician because Trump is Trump and no one else is Trump. Bernie “McGovern” Sanders is going to get smoked. But to Trump critics, his victory teaches us that most political junkies don’t know half as much as they think about what the average American might vote for. If working-class Americans would vote for a game-show host vowing to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it, might they also vote for a “free sh*t” pinko vowing to give them robust health care and to send the bill for it to rich people?

Not if the economy keeps going the way it’s going, probably. But what if it doesn’t? What if coronavirus spreads and forces a global slowdown? What if there are a half-dozen new Trump scandals between now and the fall and Sanders starts hammering an anti-corruption message? What if Democrats succeed in convincing voters that Sanders isn’t as risky as they fear because Medicare for All won’t pass in the near-term, as they’ve already begun doing? I’d bet heavily on Trump in a race with Bernie but then I bet heavily on Clinton in a race with Trump. Sanders leads Trump head-to-head in the vast majority of polls pitting them against each other and has been competitive with Trump in swing-state polling. It’s true that hard-left candidates in other races have fared badly recently, and not just abroad, but there’s no reason based on the data we have right now to believe that Bernie is a walkover opponent for Trump.

Like me, Jonathan Last expects Trump would defeat Sanders. But also like me, he’s not as sure as Steve Schmidt seems to be that this is a gimme.

Where Biden is proposing restoration and Mayor Pete is saying he’ll turn the page on the Baby Boomers, Bernie Sanders is mounting the same burn-it-all down revolution that he would be pitching no matter who he was running against.

In other words, Bernie is never going to settle into making “Trump So Bad” arguments. His relentless focus is on the future, not the past. He’s a change candidate who will carry the initiative on a daily basis by proposing his own version of “the system is rigged against you and if you vote for me, I’ll punish the people you hate.”

The difference is that when Trump makes this argument, he’s talking about half the country. And when Bernie makes it he’s talking about corporate America and the very rich. In a funny way, Trump is more of an identity politics candidate, while Bernie is much more of an economic populist.

If suburbanites find Trump too personally obnoxious to support and working-class voters decide that Bernie is the truer populist — and he definitely is — then there’s a potential problem here. Someone who wants Trump out of office but President Sanders held in check would simply have to split their ballot for president and Senate.

Part of me sympathizes with Schmidt’s exasperation. He’s a well-known Never Trumper, a guy who renounced his party in protest over the president, who spends his time criticizing Republicans on a pro-Democratic network — and this is how they repay him, by offering him a choice between you-know-who and a DSA crank. A different guest on MSNBC scolded him yesterday by observing that if Schmidt really thought ousting Trump was such an emergency he’d be willing to support Bernie. To which Schmidt might have replied, a la Patrick Ruffini, if you think ousting Trump is such an emergency then you should be willing to support someone besides Bernie in the name of attracting centrist Democrat-curious voters like Schmidt. But part of me also thinks he’s getting what’s coming to him by aligning himself with a left-wing party that’s grown considerably more left-wing over time and then feeling shocked and betrayed that they really do want a leftist as nominee. This is who they are, Steve. Right, right, Bernie’s only a 25 percent candidate at the moment, but even most of the naysayers will be united behind him in six months. In the end, tribalism wins. Always.