Juan Williams: Team Trump is wrong to underestimate Sanders

Team Trump better be careful what they wish for — they just might get it.

If the last round of polling is correct, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has a good chance of beating former Vice President Joe Biden and winning tonight’s Iowa caucuses.

The latest polling also shows the Vermont Senator leading in the New Hampshire primary.

And he has a surprising helping hand: Team Trump is cheering him on while dumping on Biden.

Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst (R) gave the GOP’s game away last week during the heat of the Senate impeachment trial based on President Trump’s attempt to get Ukrainian officials to damage Biden.

Here’s Ernst:

“Iowa caucuses are this next Monday evening. And I’m really interested to see how this discussion today informs and influences the Iowa caucus voters, those Democratic caucus-goers. Will they be supporting Vice President Biden at this point?” she mused to reporters.

“She spilled the beans!” Biden later told a crowd in Iowa. Ernst, he added, “just came out and flat said it. The whole impeachment trial for Trump is just a political hit job to try to smear me, because he is scared to death to run against me.”

There’s no question that Trump fears Biden and sees Sanders as what boxers call a “tomato can” opponent – someone who can easily be bloodied.

Last week the New York Times reported on Team Trump’s embrace of Sanders:

“President Trump’s advisers see Senator Bernie Sanders as their ideal Democratic opponent in November and have been doing what they can to elevate his profile and bolster his chances of winning the Iowa caucuses, according to Republicans familiar with the plans.”

The latest Fox News poll has the former vice president beating Trump in a head-to-head match-up by nine points. The same poll shows Sanders defeating Trump by six points.

But keep in mind that Trump has been trashing Biden for months while giving Sanders a free ride.

In a general election, how easy will it be for Team Trump to portray Sanders as a wild-eyed, self-proclaimed socialist radical? Already Trump has branded initiatives from single-payer health care to the Green New Deal as costly exercises in “socialism.”

And that’s just the start.

With Sanders — or “Crazy Bernie” as Trump calls him — as the nominee, Trump will point to his opponent’s honeymoon trip to the former Soviet Union.

Trump can run ads of Sanders praising the regime of Cuba’s Fidel Castro for promoting a “revolution of values.”

Sanders once delighted in calling U.S. policy towards Castro’s Cuba a failure. He said Americans failed to understand that the Cuban people, had no intention of rising up against Castro’s communist ideology.

“Everybody was totally convinced that Castro was the worst guy in the world… They forgot that he educated their kids, gave their kids healthcare, totally transformed the society,” Sanders claimed.

How do you think that will play in Florida?

The irony here is that the democratic socialist from Vermont is the mirror image of the Republican plutocrat from Manhattan.

They both attract big, loud, crowds by appealing to populism and railing against powerful and well-connected business and political insiders — what Trump calls “the swamp.”

Their social media presence dwarfs their opponents and their online supporters belittle, even threaten, opponents.

Also like Trump, many of Sanders’s supporters wear grievances against the political establishment as badges of honor.

In Trump’s case he used his 2016 campaign to belittle every establishment Republican from Sen. John McCain – the party’s 2008 presidential nominee – to Jeb Bush – the son and brother of former Republican presidents.

Now Sanders is at war with the Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.

It is an article of faith among the “Bernie Bros” that Sanders was cheated out of the 2016 nomination by corrupt pro-Clinton forces at the DNC.

They rightly point out that Sanders won the Democratic contests in Wisconsin and Michigan in 2016 — states that Clinton went on to lose to Trump in the general election.

Meanwhile, Clinton, in a new documentary, says of Sanders “nobody likes him.”

The split among Democrats has the potential to weaken anti-Trump turn-out in November.

And as Jonathan Chait pointed out in New York magazine last week, the far-left, Sanders wing of the party lost most of its races in the 2018 midterms while moderate candidates won enough seats to put Democrats back in the majority of the House and open the door to impeaching Trump.

Note that throughout this column, I have made reference to “Team Trump.” Trump’s view is not as clear. 

As the Intercept reported last week: “Trump, according to operatives in his circle, has expanded his reelection worries from his longtime focus on former Vice President Joe Biden to the new twin threat of Sanders and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg…He has also long been concerned that the populism embraced by Sanders…would play out in unpredictable ways in a general election.”

That’s right. If Sanders is the nominee he will have won as a populist insurgent who destroyed his party’s establishment and excites the party’s base.

That’s why Trump’s campaign better be careful about rooting for Sanders.

That same political formula took Trump to the Oval Office.

Juan Williams is an author, and a political analyst for Fox News Channel.

Juan Williams