Bernie Sanders: Here’s what he needs to make black voters warm up to him

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders spoke at historically black Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., last September.
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders spoke at historically black Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., last September. The Charleston Post and Courier

Why aren’t African American voters getting behind Bernie Sanders?

That’s the question many are asking about the surprisingly strong presidential run of the democratic socialist senator from Vermont. It’s a critically important point, now that he has fought Hillary Clinton to a draw in the Iowa caucuses and appears poised to win in New Hampshire next week.

Outside of his support for gun rights, he says everything African American voters want to hear in a candidate, from full-throated defense of the Voting Rights Act to tough talk on curbing the nation’s incarceration epidemic. Still, he can’t seem to make a dent in the black vote. A December New York Times/CBS News poll showed 82 percent of black voters who planned to vote in the primaries favor Clinton.

There are lots of explanations, but the most important one is the most obvious. Sanders committed the cardinal sin for any Democratic presidential hopeful in 2016: He framed his candidacy as a critique of Barack Obama’s legacy. As much as conservatives revile the nation’s first African American president, the base of the Democratic Party reveres him -- especially black voters, who can make or break a Democratic primary candidate’s campaign in many states.

What exactly did Sanders do? He suggested in 2011 that Obama needed a primary challenge from the left. He entered the 2016 race suggesting that the progressive agenda hasn’t been adequately advanced under Obama, and that he would do more to fight inequality and to take on the financial elites of Wall Street.

But in the CNN town hall debate Wednesday night, those distinctions came back to bite him when host Anderson Cooper asked why he’d given a “ringing endorsement” to liberal commentator Bill Press’ new book, “Buyers Remorse: How Obama Let Progressives Down.”

The front cover of the book quotes Sanders as saying “Bill Press makes the case…Read this book.” Faced with Cooper’s question, Sanders wisely went into backpedal mode.

“What the blurb said is that I think the next president should be very aggressive in bringing people into the political process.”

It also doesn’t help that Sanders has won the embrace of prominent Obama antagonist Cornel West, the African-American scholar and activist who has repeatedly slammed Obama as insufficiently revolutionary, as little more than “a Rockefeller Republican in blackface.”

Ideological purity’s all well and good when you’re the protest candidate and the protest candidate only. But the Sanders insurgency has shown so much strength that some wonder if he’s on the same kind of trajectory that carried Obama into the White House in 2008. Surely, Sanders and his team are starting to wonder about that, too. And they know black voters, who could comprise as much as 50 percent of the Democratic primary voters in Southern states like South Carolina, are critical.

That’s why Hillary Clinton is bear-hugging Obama as hard as she can. She smartly underscores her role as Obama’s loyal foot soldier, ready to extend his legacy into a third term.

Sanders certainly can’t woo the black vote by Obama-like charisma or sheer force of oratory. His gratingly nasal Brooklyn twang won’t play well from the pulpits of black Baptist churches in Charleston and Columbia. And it is likely too late for him to start trying to kiss Obama’s ring now. That would make him appear no more than the kind of calculating professional politician he casts Clinton as being.

So, what can Sanders do?

The 2008 Obama insurgency is instructive. Recall that Obama didn’t pry the black vote from Hillary Clinton until after white voters carried him to victory in the Iowa caucuses. Suddenly, black voters in South Carolina and other states didn’t just see him as a nice novelty act. They saw that he could win.

Sanders needs a similar moment. We all know he can win white liberals. But can he win over the white moderate Democrats and independent white swing voters necessary to take the White House?

Black voters are pragmatists who want to keep the White House in Democratic hands.

Until Sanders shows strength among white moderates and independents, we won’t be feeling the Bern. Eric Frazier