GOP Campaign Experts Say Sanders’s Castro Praise His First Big Mistake

February 24, 2020 Updated: February 24, 2020
FONT BFONT SText size

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) made his first major goof of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary campaign by praising Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s literacy programs, according to Republican campaign pros interviewed by The Epoch Times.

Sanders said in an interview aired Feb. 23 on CBS News’ “60 Minutes” that “we’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba but, you know, it’s very unfair to say everything was bad. When Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program.”

Castro imposed a totalitarian Soviet-style communist regime on the Caribbean nation in 1959 and killed thousands of political opponents in the decades following. He gave up power in 2011 to his brother, Raul, and died in 2016.

Sanders’s praise of Castro caused an immediate uproar among Republicans, led by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who tweeted that “the likely Dem nominee praised the supposed ‘achievements’ of Castro regime. And he’s wrong about why people didn’t overthrow Castro. It’s not because he ‘educated their kids, gave them health care,’ it’s because his opponents were jailed, murdered or exiled.”

Florida Democrats were similarly outraged, with, for example, Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell writing that Sanders’s comments were “completely unacceptable.”

“The Castro regime murdered and jailed dissidents, and caused unspeakable harm to too many South Florida families. To this day, it remains an authoritarian regime that oppresses its people, subverts the free press, and stifles a free society,” she wrote in a Feb. 24 tweet.

Sanders did only a little better among Democratic campaign strategists interviewed Monday by The Epoch Times.

“It doesn’t matter who the Democrats put up as the nominee. The GOP will paint them as socialists no matter what,” said Jimmy Williams, former senior economic adviser to Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.). “The only problem is Sanders is an actual Socialist, an admitted anti-capitalist and, if he’s the nominee, the ads will be true.”

“At the risk of stating the obvious, this is not going to help him, or other Democrats, in the crucial battleground state of Florida,” acknowledged Jim Manley, former communications director for then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Christy Setzer, founder and president of New Heights Communications, was more optimistic, noting: “There’s no reason to do Republicans’ opposition work for them. That said, you don’t need to do a terribly intense Google search to find all the times [President Donald] Trump praised and continues to praise a variety of dictators. So, I feel pretty confident this is recoverable.”

Others weren’t so sure. Christian Hanley of Defiance Strategies and the “Keep It In Perspective” podcast, warned that Sanders “would do well to explain his comments and put them in context immediately.” “The attack ads write themselves,” he said.

Similarly, Robin Biro, a regional director for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign who frequently appears on Fox News, said he expects to be hearing about this comment throughout the lead-up to the election.

“[I] am bracing myself for the inevitability that GOP pundits will use this against me during our debates. I would do the same if the shoe was on the other foot,” he said.

A former U.S. Army Airborne Ranger, Biro served two tours of duty in Afghanistan.

A Washington, D.C.-based Democratic strategist agreed that Sanders’s comment will especially hurt his prospects in Florida.

“This will no doubt alienate Latino voters in Florida, a state that will be crucial to his election chances. These are the types of comments that will continue to give more moderate Dems anxiety about Bernie winning the nomination,” said strategist and attorney Kevin Chavous.

On the other side of the aisle, District Media Group President Beverly Halberg said Sanders is being closely examined now “not just by Republicans but by Democrats who are terrified that he’ll be the nominee.” “He can either apologize for past comments or embrace them. He’s chosen the latter, which is true to his brand that oozes authenticity,” she said.

Sanders’s comments “will have impact in Florida, where many people know firsthand the brutality of the Castro regime,” she said. “But Bernie is strong with millennials, many who have not researched the extent of the abuses that are still taking place in Cuba.”

Americans for Limited Government President Richard Manning agreed, saying, “Unlike many younger Americans, the people of South Florida do not need to be educated about the horrors of socialism/communism, as either they or their immediate relatives lived and escaped it.”

Brian Darling, former counsel to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and founder of Liberty Government Affairs, predicted that “vetting for Sanders has just begun, and by the end, I can’t imagine middle America, let alone Democrats, voting for an aging, out-of-the-mainstream socialist from liberal Vermont who honeymooned in the old Soviet Union.”

Kevin Sheridan, president of the Sheridan Media Group, doubts the Castro flap will hurt Sanders in the Democratic primary but sees little hope of avoiding continuing damage afterward.

“Bernie’s fondness for Castro will be noxious to suburban swing voters in November. Every member of Congress who holds one of those seats knows it.

“Within the Democratic primary electorate, however, where no single alternative to Bernie has emerged, it won’t register.

“If the current trajectory holds, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a couple dozen House members completely skip the Milwaukee convention and withhold a presidential endorsement.”

Contact Mark Tapscott at Mark.Tapscott@epochtimes.nyc