THE BLOG
01/29/2016 05:07 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2017

Does Bernie Sanders Really Want to Win?

Alex Wong via Getty Images

We are in the final days before the Iowa Caucuses, and the Bernie Sanders campaign is not airing any negative ads against Hillary Clinton. This is so far from normal that everybody should be talking about it. For a race to be this close, for both candidates to have plenty of money to spend on ads, and yet have the insurgent candidate not flood the airwaves with every negative anti-Clinton argument or innuendo is extraordinary. And I think I understand why.

It occurs to me that Bernie Sanders may not want to be President. Perhaps he knows in his heart that a self-proclaimed Socialist, even a Democratic Socialist, has no chance of winning in a general election outside of a few states with distinctly liberal tilts and a high percentage of college students. Or perhaps he knows he would not be either effective, or happy trying to be effective, as President of the United States.

There are two parts to my analysis, the first is about domestic politics, the second is about foreign policy. Both point to Bernie Sanders as a protest candidate who does not really want to win the job.

The worst part of the job, for any Democratic President, is dealing with a Republican Congress. However much the Sanders campaign seems to offer vague promises that Bernie's name on the ticket would magically produce victories for Democrats in House districts gerrymandered to produce Republicans, the next President will likely be facing a Republican-led House of Representatives.

Now the Sanders campaign always responds with "Bernie has worked with Republicans in the Senate," but that's really almost comical. If you disregard bipartisan legislation that virtually everybody supports, such as helping the veterans, where is this mythical record of bipartisan achievement? It's not there. What Republican wants to be known back home as the person who is working hand in hand with a self-proclaimed Socialist?

The things that are at the heart of Bernie's domestic politics are completely dead on arrival in Congress. Either they've already been rejected many times (single payer health care) or would be rejected by any Republican-led House of Reps (breaking up the banks, putting special taxes on Wall Street, etc.). So how much fun would it be for a President Sanders to watch while his entire domestic agenda went down in flames? What would he say to all his young, idealistic activist base then? Wouldn't it become a spectacular failure of promises made only to be broken? And who wants to preside over that?

However, leading a protest movement is entirely in Bernie Sander's wheelhouse. He's good at it. In fact, he's great at it. All those years toiling away in the Senate and he couldn't get the media to pay any attention to his views. He was always written of as the odd duck, the only Socialist in the Senate, a bit of a crack pot from a small, atypical state. Only by running for President could Bernie get the chance he's always wanted to grab the national spotlight and shine it on his signature issues, income inequality, campaign finance reform, breaking up the big banks.

This would be a pretty persuasive argument just focusing on domestic politics, but if you add in the issue of foreign policy, it gets even more persuasive.

Here's the evidence. Presidential candidates typically try to establish their bona fides on foreign policy at some point, with either position papers or foreign travel. They trot out foreign policy experts with Pentagon experience, or State Department experience. But Senator Sanders has done almost nothing in this regard. He's not even made a pro forma nod towards it.

But Bernie has shown almost no interest in foreign policy issues throughout his Senate career. He has not done much foreign travel. It is not in his wheelhouse, and I don't see much evidence that he's made any of the traditional efforts to shore up this hole in his resume. Whenever he's asked a question on a foreign policy issue in debates, he pivots as fast as he can back to domestic policy.

All of this fits the profile of "protest candidate" much more than the profile of a serious contender who wants to become President. For me, the icing on this cake came as word got out there would be no negative ads run against Hillary Clinton in Iowa.

Senator Sanders has done an amazing job of running as a protest candidate. I think he's genuinely surprised himself. He's clearly having the time of his life out on the stump, preaching to huge crowds of progressive activists and young idealists. It is exactly where he wants to be. Why would he want to spoil that by moving in to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?