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 SandersWith VP pick, Biden can't play small ball in a long ball world Poll: Trump, Biden in dead heat in 2020 matchup Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers, state governors talk coronavirus, stimulus package and resources as pandemic rages on 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 TrumpWith VP pick, Biden can't play small ball in a long ball world Coronavirus hits defense contractor jobs Wake up America, your country doesn't value your life 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 ObamaCivil rights leader Joseph Lowery dies at 98 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Airbnb - House to pass relief bill; Trump moves to get US back to work Obama thanks Fauci, Stephen Curry during Instagram Live session 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 ButtigiegReuters poll finds Sanders cutting Biden national lead to single digits Biden says he'll adopt plans from Sanders, Warren Buttigieg guest-hosts for Jimmy Kimmel: 'I've got nothing else going on' MORE and Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharWith VP pick, Biden can't play small ball in a long ball world Hillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike Democratic Senators urge FTC to prevent coronavirus price gouging 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 ClintonClintons send pizza to NY hospital staff treating coronavirus Budowsky: President Trump, meet with all former living presidents Why Klobuchar should be Biden's vice presidential pick 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.