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  • Independent Senator Bernie Sanders needs to use Tuesday

    Independent Senator Bernie Sanders needs to use Tuesday's debate to expand his base when he faces off against Hillary Clinton. | Photo: AFP

Published 11 October 2015
Sanders has a far stronger record than Clinton on issues of relevance to working people, but many of these voters are not yet aware of this reality.

Bernie Sanders stays on message and that is key to success in a televised debate. Thus, in Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential candidate debate, Senator Sanders should underscore that he is the candidate for democracy against oligarchy and for the 99 percent. In an age when the public mistrusts traditional politicians, Bernie must emphasize that his campaign is an unscripted call for a political revolution against unrestrained corporate power and to build a movement that lasts well beyond his candidacy.

This appeal will solidify his base among the mostly white, mostly college-educated, self-identified “progressive” thirty percent of the Democratic electorate. Polls show Sanders beating Clinton handily among this segment of likely Democratic primary voters. This is why Sanders can win Iowa and New Hampshire, where the Democratic electorate is whiter and more liberal that of the larger, more diverse states that follow.

But if Sanders is to carry this momentum into the South Carolina primary and Nevada caucuses, and then onto Super Tuesday, he and his supporters must consciously adapt the “1 percent versus 99 percent” message to speak to the needs of Democratic primary voters of color, self-defined feminists, and non-college-educated whites, and particularly women. These key Democratic primary constituencies lean heavily toward Hillary Clinton, and some could shift to Joe Biden, if he enters the race. Sanders cannot win the nomination if he fails to increase significantly his support among these groups.

Thus, a central task for Sanders in the debate is to introduce himself to the Black, Latino and Asian-American voters who constitute 35 percent of the Democratic primary vote. While he polls better than 25 percent among the approximately 30 percent of voters of color familiar with him, his overall support from likely Black and Latino Democratic voters stands just above 10 percent.  The Sanders campaign has to focus like a laser beam on diversifying his core supporters. Sanders needs progressive activists of color to vouch for him in non-white communities. Electoral politics is less about who has the best program and more about who has the strongest network of supporters and endorsers.

The First Task: Nailing Down the Progressive Base  

Sanders can solidify his lead among self-defined progressive Democrats Tuesday night by hammering home his opposition to Citizens United and his support for public financing of campaigns. He should contrast the 600,000 small donors who have contributed US$41 million to his campaign versus Hillary Clinton’s raising US$100 million dollars from Super PACs and big donors. Journalists covering debates always look for one-liners that draw a sharp distinction between the candidates: Sanders should challenge Hillary Clinton to join him in refusing to take any further financial support from Super PACs.  

Sanders does not have to attack Clinton personally in order to draw a sharp line between his economic justice agenda and the policies of the national Democratic party elite the Clintons embody. For nearly 40 years they have supported Republican-lite policies — including right-wing welfare and criminal justice policies — ostensibly in an effort to win over white “swing voters.” These neoliberal policies of weakening government regulation of corporations, of upwardly redistributive tax reforms, of weakening labor rights, and of cutting public provision have been a major cause of the decline in working people’s living standards.

RELATED: Bernie Sanders Can Help Revitalize the US Labor Movement

Sanders should also contrast his aggressive policies to regulate the financial industry with Clinton’s tepid approach. Clinton will shortly announce proposals for cosmetic changes in the already weakened Dodd-Frank Bill. Sanders, in contrast, favors the restoration of the 1930s Glass-Steagall Act’s separation of commercial from investment banks (which prevents investment banks from speculating with the savings of ordinary depositers). The Clinton administration, in which Hillary played a major advisory role, repealed Glass-Steagall.

Emphasizing his Commitment to Racial Justice and Introducing Himself to Voters of Color

Sanders should devote time in the debate to highlighting his detailed racial justice program that proposes solutions to the “Physical Violence,” “Political Violence,” “Legal Violence,” and “Economic Violence” the system visits upon communities of color. Sanders must also remind voters that he has always been a strong supporter of immigrant rights, including a path to citizenship for the undocumented. He needs to show that he doesn’t reduce all forms of racial discrimination to class injustice, as many middle strata people of color face job and housing discrimination and police harassment. Sanders should also highlight his commitment to massive public investment in alternative energy, affordable housing, and mass transit, which would create well-paying jobs in areas ravaged by mass unemployment.

Sanders should call for the building of a new progressive “rainbow coalition” and push his core supporters to dialogue with progressive activists of color as how to best extend the campaign’s base of support. The campaign has moved on these questions by hiring racial justice activist Symone Sanders as the press secretary and the former chief of staff of Presente.org, Arturo Carmona, as the Latino outreach coordinator. But multi-racial coalitions are created by grassroots activists building relationships of trust with people outside their traditional networks. This is hard work – and Bernie should urge his core activists to move outside their comfort zones and get to know the full range of activists in their localities.

Reaching out to Working Class Voters and Feminists

Sanders has a far stronger record than Clinton on issues of relevance to working people, particularly working women – but many of these voters are not aware of this reality. Sanders militantly  backs the right of workers to organize unions, free from employer retaliation. He should contrast his support of raising the national minimum wage to US$15 an hour, indexed to inflation, to Clinton’s lukewarm position that localities should decide whether to enact that standard.

Access to affordable higher education is a key issue for working families; Bernie can contrast his support for free public higher education, funded by a financial transaction tax, with Clinton’s modest proposals to improve student loan conditions. Finally, Bernie should give a shout out to the tens of thousands of trade union activists who are working to pressure their unions to endorse his candidacy.

Most working class Democrats oppose free trade agreements. Sanders should point out that the former Secretary of State’s just announced opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership comes way too late. Various fact checker websites report that Hillary Clinton praised the TPP in over 70 radio and press interviews over the past several years. The Clintons championed the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement that gutted Mexican small agriculture and contributed to the loss of hundreds of thousands of unionized manufacturing jobs in the United States. Sanders, in contrast, has been a consistent opponent of “free trade” agreements, arguing that they serve to “free” corporations from regulations of democratic states and thus weaken the power of working people.

Clinton claims to be the best friend of working women and children; yet she has refused to join Sanders in calling for paid federal medical and family leave programs. Nor has Hillary ever renounced her support for her husband’s punitive “welfare reform” legislation that gravely worsened the economic plight of single women with children. Bernie should also emphasize his support for reproductive justice. Sanders has been one of few vocal Congressional opponents of the Hyde Amendment (which bans Medicaid funding for abortions) and he understands that equitable health and reproductive services for women can only be achieved through a universal, affordable, single-payer health care system.

Sanders should also anticipate that Clinton will highlight his somewhat uneven record on gun control, in an effort to weaken his support among traditional liberal voters. Sanders should concede that his initial opposition to the Brady bill derived from his representing a rural state where many hunters are wary of gun control laws. But as his role on the national stage has grown, Sanders has become a more consistent supporter of background checks, bans on assault rifles, and regulating sales at gun shows – meriting failing grades from the NRA.

Finally, Sanders must prepare for the inevitable, skeptical questions from mainstream journalists: “How can you pay for all these programs?” “Are you electable?” and “How can you build a Congressional majority to support your policies?” Sanders knows how to pay for his programs; he alone filibustered against the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. He has proposed eliminating corporate tax subsidies and both the Reagan and Bush tax cuts for the top 10 percent; together these measures would increase annual federal tax intake by close to 20 percent. He should cite his long-standing support of major cuts in wasteful weapons programs and his early opposition to the Iraq war -- a war that Clinton voted for and strongly backed as Secretary of State.

RELATED: The Sanders Campaign and the Revival of Socialism in the US

As to electability, polls show Sanders outperforming Clinton in key swing states against likely Republican opponents because his economic populism appeals to white working class voters more than does Clinton’s establishment candidacy. As for Bernie’s ability to work with others, he can point to notable legislation that he won through bi-partisan efforts. He worked with Senator John McCain to pass legislation to revitalize a beleaguered Veterans Administration and he worked across the aisle to secure major funding within the Affordable Care Act for community health centers that provide free preventive healthcare in low income communities.

In response to the likely question that how can Sanders hope to get his agenda passed a conservative Congress, Sanders should return to his goal of helping to create a “political revolution”: politicians are inherently opportunists; they yearn to get re-elected. If the public mobilizes in the streets behind an agenda of the 99 percent, as millions did in the 1930s and 1960s, they can force politicians to pass radical reforms.

Ultimately, Sanders’ message must be that only the people can make a democratic revolution.

Joseph M. Schwartz is a National Vice-Chair of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and a professor of Political Science at Temple University. His most recent book is The Future of Democratic Equality.

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