Bernie Sanders' supporters shouldn't fall for the Republicans' impeachment conspiracy

Conservatives began circulating a theory blaming Nancy Pelosi and impeachment if Sanders loses the Democratic nomination. Yes, really.
Image: Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders walks offstage during a break in the seventh Democratic 2020 presidential debate at Drake University in Des Moines
Bernie Sanders walks offstage during a break in the presidential debate in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 14, 2020.Shannon Stapleton / Reuters
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By Scott Lemieux

Republicans have one fundamental problem in 2020: Despite a growing economy, President Donald Trump is highly unpopular, with his approval ratings permanently mired around 40 percent. If his opposition is mobilized and united in 2020, even the Electoral College won’t be able to save him. To win, Republicans need to split the Democratic coalition — and that’s what Republicans are already trying to do, starting with supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

On Monday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called on former Vice President Joe Biden to suspend his campaign during the Senate impeachment trial of Trump — but not for Trump’s sake. Instead, McCarthy claims, he should do so to avoid taking unfair advantage over Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who will be required to remain in Washington and off the campaign trail in the immediate run-up to the New Hampshire primary. Other Republican leaders have echoed these sentiments.

But let’s be clear: Republicans’ crocodile tears for the two most left-leaning candidates remaining in the Democratic primary have nothing to do with procedural fairness or the political fortunes of the two viable Democratic candidates Republicans would least like to be president. The real implication of McCarthy’s remarks is that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (and other establishment Democrats) are trying to use the timing of impeachment to rig the primaries and damage the Sanders campaign (and, to a lesser degree, Warren’s as well). The point of McCarthy’s message is to try to convince Sanders’ supporters (and Warren’s, if necessary) that if Biden — or, in a much less likely scenario, Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana — wins the nomination, he is an illegitimate candidate.

There is a Nixon-era political term that describes what they’re doing: ratf------. Nobody supporting a Democratic candidate should take this bait.

If the idea that a Sanders’ loss can only happen if someone else rigs the system seems familiar, it should. Throughout 2016, Trump cynically pretended to show solidarity with Sanders, the alleged victim of a “rigged” primary. Trump’s pandering to Sanders supporters was supported on social media by pro-Trump Russian hackers and their allies in WikiLeaks, as seen in the wake of the election. Hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee were released for maximum negative impact right before the Democratic convention in 2016; the contents of John Podesta’s inbox were released less than half an hour after footage of Trump boasting about his propensity for sexually assaulting women on a live mic surfaced and threatened to derail his campaign.

None of the emails actually showed that the DNC took any material action to “rig” the primary, although predictably they showed some members of the party establishment grumbling about Sanders. But the underlying facts didn’t — and still don’t, in many cases — matter to some of Sanders’ supporters.

The efforts to divide Democrats by insinuating that there were machinations against Sanders, and those machinations prevented him from securing the nomination were ultimately successful, demobilizing voters, driving up Hillary Clinton’s disapproval ratings, and allowing Trump to grind out an Electoral College victory.

The claims that Pelosi is using Trump’s impeachment to damage the Sanders campaign are equally baseless. Pelosi was notably reluctant about pursuing impeachment for much of the last few years, doing so only after a whistleblower revealed Trump’s attempt to extort Ukraine into opening a public investigation of Biden, who Trump seemed to think would be his most likely election opponent. That made support for impeachment among Democrats overwhelming.

Her delay in sending articles of impeachment was motivated not by concerns about senators campaigning in New Hampshire, but by wanting to use what leverage she had to ensure that the charges would not be immediately dismissed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had emphasized he was cooperating with the White House, not his Democratic colleagues, in the impeachment trial proceedings.

One easy way to figure out that Pelosi’s impeachment moves aren’t about primary rigging is to remember that Sanders isn’t the only candidate being affected. If anyone’s campaign is being most damaged it’s not that of Sanders, who has near-universal name recognition and a large, highly motivated core of supporters already. It’s the campaign of Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota senator who doesn’t have the dedicated supporters of Sanders or, to a lesser extent, Warren of Massachusetts, and whose only chance of gaining traction in the primary is an unexpectedly strong showing in Iowa.

If Pelosi was really hellbent on denying Sanders the nomination, kneecapping one of his few non-Biden moderate rivals left standing would be a funny way to do it, especially since elected Democratic officials have never warmed to Buttigieg’s candidacy.

Still, there’s no reason for McCarthy to let the facts get in his way here. Divide-and-conquer worked for Trump once, and there’s no reason not to go back to the same playbook in 2020. Democrats should not even debate whether Biden should suspend his campaign to make things more fair for Sanders, but dismiss his suggestion as solely a bad faith tactic designed to help Trump by reprising the propaganda that worked so well in 2016.