Why are the Republicans seemingly ignoring Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president?

As an admitted socialist who believes in universal health care, requiring companies to provide maternity leave, sick leave and vacation time; taxing financial transactions, breaking up big banks and expanding Social Security benefits, Sanders seems like the perfect target for the almost-completely-right wing Republican Party.

Bernie Sanders speaks at campaign rally

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It seems logical that given the upsurge in Sanders’ support, the Republicans would view him as a serious threat and act accordingly. In August, Sanders drew a record-breaking 27,000 people in Los Angeles and 28,000 people in Portland, Oregon — the largest turnout for any 2016 presidential candidate up to that time. A Politco poll in July of New Hampshire Democratic voters showed 47 percent favoring Hillary Clinton, but Sanders gaining on her with 34 percent.

Despite all that, Republicans don’t seem particularly interested in taking the bait.

During the Fox News-sponsored GOP candidates’ debates in early August, which featured 17 candidates, I didn’t notice any mention of Sanders at all. It was all Hillary, Hillary, Hillary as the anti-Republican- as the candidate to beat.

If you search for Hillary Clinton on the Republican National Committee site, 577 entries show up. You’ll also find 579 entries for Joe Biden. If you search for Bernie Sanders, you’ll find a mere 10. Some of these mention him only in passing and two repeat criticisms he’s made of Hillary.

Only one, “The 5 Flavors of Bernie Sanders,” by Raffi Williams, gives us the type of attack we’d expect from the Republican Party. Playing on the fact that Sanders and the ice cream entrepreneurs Ben and Jerry both hail from Vermont, Williams, accompanied by drawings of ice cream cones, names these flavors: “Taxes and Cream, “Socialist Swirl” (with a “Taste of Europe”), ” “Nutty Professor,” “Taxpayer Dough” and “Bureaucratic Bonanza.”

Searching the web for statements from state Republican parties, we don’t find much either. When Sanders visited Wisconsin, the local GOP there put up a billboard that didn’t really address Bernie specifically, but just characterized Hillary Clinton and her as “Left and Lefter—Yesterday’s Candidates, Extreme Policies.” Hillary and Bernie’s heads were superimposed on the bodies of the two actors from “Dumb and Dumber.”

The most obvious answer about why the Republicans are virtually ignoring Bernie Sanders is that Hillary is still leading in the polls, and they expect her to be the nominee (and if not her, then Joe Biden). But there may be other answers. I asked the question to two people, one a Republican activist and professor from Brooklyn, the other a respected political consultant, also from New York, who has advised countless political campaigns.

Bob Capano, a former aide to then-Congressman Vito Fossella, political science instructor at the City University of New York, and former Republican City Council candidate, agreed with the conventional wisdom: “Republicans just don’t believe Bernie Sanders will be the Democratic nominee. If Hillary Clinton continues to falter, another Democrat with the real ability to win the general election will jump in the Democratic primary. Specifically, Vice President Joe Biden.” Capano characterized Sanders as a socialist who would only appeal to the “far left” of the Democratic Party. He does seem to be on the mark about Biden, although, as a left-liberal Democrat, I would disagree with most of his interpretation.

George Arzt, president of George Arzt Communications- a public relations firm that has represented a number of high-profile Democrats in their campaigns for office- has an interesting interpretation. “It’s difficult for the Republicans to `run against’ Bernie Sanders,” he says, “since Bernie Sanders is mainly in the race to run against Hillary Clinton. For the Republicans, it’s better to run against Hillary Clinton, especially for fundraising purposes—and they’re looking for money right now.”

In other words, nothing gets the Republican base more agitated and willing to donate than the mention of Hillary, one of their main targets for many years.

There’s a lot of truth to Arzt’s statement, but I believe there’s more to it than that. The Vermont Republican Party may have hit a nerve in its statement in response to Sanders’ entry into the race:

“For many years here in Vermont — the entire time Senator Sanders has been in public life — costs have been rising far faster than incomes.  The gap between the rich and the poor has been expanding faster here than in most places.  The working class has been getting smaller.  And we lose a higher percentage of young, talented residents every year to the appeal of hope and opportunity elsewhere than any other state in the Nation.”

Wait a minute- the “gap between the rich and the poor”? The “working class”? These are phrases that are straight out of Bernie’s playbook. In fact, they were not part of most DEMOCRATIC PARTY candidates’ rhetoric until two or three years ago. It sounds like the Vermont Republicans, in this very atypical statement for the GOP, are trying to “head Bernie off at the pass.”

It seems that as long as GOP leaders attack Hillary, they’re on familiar ground. The issues they associate with her, namely gay marriage, abortion, and Benghazi, are familiar to everyone and can be used to whip up support among their base. Bernie, however, concentrates on economic issues. The Republicans know that’s where they’re most vulnerable.

If, even when responding to some of Sanders’ positions on income inequality, they bring up these issues, Republicans might upset their donors, most of whom favor the unsustainable status quo. In my opinion, that’s one very important reason that the Republican Party can’t afford to focus too much attention on Bernie Sanders, no matter how popular he becomes.

Raanan Geberer is a community journalist who lives in his native New York City. He is active in local politics and is very passionate about Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. He has also written two novels, Song of the Conquerors and Moish and the Mob.


Bookmark and Share