Davis: Taking another look at Bernie Sanders

This is the first of five columns for The Hill I will write in the next several weeks with my take on the five main Democratic presidential candidates.

I start with Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump faces backlash after not committing to peaceful transition of power Bernie Sanders: 'This is an election between Donald Trump and democracy' The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump stokes fears over November election outcome MORE (I-Vt.), the apparent front runner, at least by a slight margin.

There are three main concerns about Sanders’ ability to defeat Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSteele Dossier sub-source was subject of FBI counterintelligence probe Pelosi slams Trump executive order on pre-existing conditions: It 'isn't worth the paper it's signed on' Trump 'no longer angry' at Romney because of Supreme Court stance MORE – the only thing I and most Democrats care about.

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First, there is the politically harmful, perhaps fatal, word “socialist” associated with him. I agree with the recent column in the New York Times by Paul Krugman that Sanders is not, by any traditional definition, a “socialist” in his beliefs and that label will hurt him in the general election. Wrote Krugman: “He doesn’t want to nationalize our major industries and replace markets with central planning…. he is basically what Europeans call a social democrat.”

Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager, told me recently in an interview that he agrees that Sanders should be called a “social Democrat.” This means that he is more in line with the traditional progressive program of the Democratic Party from FDR to Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama warns of a 'decade of unfair, partisan gerrymandering' in call to look at down-ballot races Quinnipiac polls show Trump leading Biden in Texas, deadlocked race in Ohio Poll: Trump opens up 6-point lead over Biden in Iowa MORE. Sen. Sanders should do more to explain he is not a “socialist.” He can still do this without compromising his views that a political “revolution” is needed to change the current corrupt, money-dominated political system in Washington, as evidenced by the pro-super-wealth/anti-working family Trump tax cuts.

Second, on Medicare for All, the differences between himself and the other Democratic candidates are arguably less than is perceived. Mr. Sanders has never espoused immediate abolition of private health insurance, such as the Nevada Culinary Workers fear – that is, not until Medicare for All is enacted and fully funded. South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegBillionaire who donated to Trump in 2016 donates to Biden The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - GOP closes ranks to fill SCOTUS vacancy by November Buttigieg stands in as Pence for Harris's debate practice MORE and Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Klobuchar3 reasons why Biden is misreading the politics of court packing Social media platforms put muscle into National Voter Registration Day Battle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight MORE (D-Minn.) also favor Medicare as an option in addition to ObamaCare. But both admit that if most people under ObamaCare or their company’s private insurance plans opt for Medicare because their premiums and deductibles are way too high, as is currently the case for too many people, that could become, over time, Medicare for All.

Sanders’ campaign manager Shakir also pointed out that Medicare is not even close to a socialized medicine system (although Republicans called it that when they opposed it and it passed in 1965). All Medicare recipients are allowed to choose their own private physicians, who then receive reimbursement by the government. And Medicare recipients can purchase private supplemental insurance to cover unreimbursed medical services. That’s somewhat different from the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, which is a genuinely a government-run “socialized medicine” system.

Finally, on the issue of electability, recent polling data, as well as data back to 2016, show that Sanders can defeat Trump in the general election. The recent Quinnipiac poll, following the NBC-WSJ poll, shows Sanders ahead of Trump nationally beyond the margin of error, despite Trump’s claimed credit for a hot economy. Sanders also appears to narrowly lead in key battleground states as well, such as Michigan and Wisconsin. But polling data among political independents suggest he must separate himself from the “socialist” label.

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Perhaps more important are the results of this past weekend’s respected USA Today/Ipsos poll. It shows Sanders running considerably ahead of other Democrats and more so over Trump on the key qualities that research has shown sway independent voters – perceptions of likeability, trust and character. The same independents who worry about the “socialist” label on Sanders also value these traits, along with economic issues, as key to their 2020 vote choices. Another reason for Sanders repeatedly emphasizing from now on that he is not a socialist in the common understanding of that word.

Most of all, Democrats should respect Sanders’ unique ability to generate passionate support among young people. Now he and all Democrats need to convince these young people to turn out in greater numbers than we have seen so far to defeat Trump.

We Democrats also have to keep in mind that if Sanders emerges after the primaries are over with a substantial plurality of elected delegates, we will risk losing these young people and other passionate Sanders supporters, and thus, the general election if a gang-up is perceived that deprives him of the general election. That must be avoided at all costs.

Davis served as special counsel to President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonAnxious Democrats amp up pressure for vote on COVID-19 aid Barr's Russia investigator has put some focus on Clinton Foundation: report Epstein podcast host says he affiliated with elites from 'both sides of the aisle' MORE (1996-98). He is co-founder of the law firm of Davis Goldberg & Galper and the strategic media and crisis management firm Trident DMG.  He authored “Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics and Life (Scribner 2018). Davis can be followed on Twitter @LannyDavis.