aNewDomain — What a difference a month makes when you’re Bernie Sanders.
The Senator from Vermont announced his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination a month ago, and the national political press issued its usual collective chuckle-cum-eye roll. Congress’ only (self-described) socialist! From Vermont — is it even a state?
That hair! That accent! That (so Jewish) name! He doesn’t stand a chance.
Bernie’s role — since he, like Hillary, uses the diminutive form of his first name in his campaign material, I feel OK with what would otherwise seem like crass informality — was not to pose an actual challenge to Ms. Inevitable former First Lady/former Senator/former Secretary of State/current speech-fund zillionaire. Eschewing superPACs and thus running on a shoestring budget, Bernie’s campaign would be purely symbolic, a progressive Alamo to represent the long-ostracized Democratic wing of the Democratic Party as another New Yorker-turned-Vermonter, Howard Dean, called it.
Sanders knew he wouldn’t be president. Analysts said, and he affirmed himself, that his ambition was only to “push” center-right Hillary to the left, to pressure her to adopt a few liberal positions on issues like income inequality (a $15 minimum wage bill, for example) and trade (less enthusiastic support for job killers like the Trans Pacific Partnership).
He’d run, he’d lose, then he’d endorse her. That’s what he said.
And that’s what we believed.
Then there was the “Hillary needs a punching bag to bone up for the general election” against the eventual Republican nominee meme.
The same DNC insiders who’d pushed for an unopposed primary “campaign,” who’d arranged exactly that for Obama in 2012 and threatened/cajoled/whatevered scores of potential challengers to sit this one out, were, and many still are, saying that Bernie was good for Hillary. Out on the lecture gravy train for years, she needed to get sharp again by sparring with an opponent. Bernie: sacrificial lamb.
Now Bernie is looking and sounding and polling like a bonafide challenger. Not George McGovern versus Walter Mondale in 1984 — remember that? Of course not. More like Ted Kennedy versus Jimmy Carter in 1980. Kennedy almost took it away from a sitting president. If the DNC hadn’t rather sleazily changed the delegate affiliation rules at last second before the convention (rather than vote their minds, as they had before, they were committed to casting their ballots the same way as the voters in their districts, bringing an end to political conventions as a powerful force and inaugurating their current role as empty pageantry), Kennedy really might have won the nomination — and possibly denied the White House to Reagan.
Not bad for a guy who started out with a campaign fund of a few million bucks … still only has $15 million … while Hillary is poised to raise well over a billion.
A socialist guy.
The mainstream media political class still says Hillary is the front runner. But they’re no longer certain that she’ll win.
“I think we underestimated that Sanders would quickly attract so many Democrats in Iowa who weren’t likely to support Hillary,” an anonymous Clinton adviser told The New York Times. “It’s too early to change strategy because no one knows if Sanders will be able to hold on to these voters in the months ahead. We’re working hard to win them over, but yeah, it’s a real competition there.”
“Certainly she could lose Iowa,” said Joe Trippi, who ran Dean’s 2004 campaign.
Bernie is gaining fast in the first contest, the Iowa Caucuses “pre-primary,” where Hillary led 60-15 in May, now 52-33.
Seizing his regional advantage as a New Englander as well as the region’s hardwired-for-liberalism Democrat, Bernie Sanders began 50 points behind in New Hampshire, the first official primary. Now it’s just 10.
Pundits and statisticians warn that the Democratic Party is more than its liberal and progressive base. This is true, particularly in the later primaries. “The only candidates who could threaten Mrs. Clinton’s path to the nomination would be ones who could break her grip on the party’s moderate wing,” The Times’ Nate Cohn argues in a piece headlined “Why Bernie Sanders’s Momentum Is Not Built to Last.”
He continued: “That’s why John Edwards, a liberal Southerner who appealed to progressive activists and white conservatives, and Mr. Obama, the first black candidate with a serious chance of winning the nomination, posed such serious threats to her in 2008. So far, Mr. Sanders does not.”
Still, it’s a long way between now and the summer convention. The question is: Why is this long-marginalized socialist laughing stock surging so fast against a seasoned political animal like Hillary Clinton?
Why is the Inevitable Woman in trouble? And make no mistake, she is in deep dung.
Remember the old song, popularized by Gary Glitter — “To Know You Is To Love You?”
Hillary is the political opposite of that. Voters like her as a probable future candidate. First woman president — wouldn’t that be exciting? History in the making! Once she starts talking, however, people remember what they always disliked about the Clintons: they’re narcissists and liars. She dodged bullets in Bosnia. She and Bill were “dead broke” (despite being multimillionaires). They’re still not “truly rich” (despite being zillionaires).
It’s all “I, I, I,” and “me, me, me.” In politics, it’s supposed to be about you the people, not me the entitled privileged lady who hasn’t driven a car since Frankie Goes to Hollywood was a thing. To know Hillary is to hate her, and as the campaign goes on, we’re going to get to know her even better.
Bernie has turned his Achilles’ heel — marginalization — into his biggest strength. Progressives have been treated like shit by the Democratic Party establishment at least since the 1990s, that era of Dick Morris, triangulation and the Democratic Leadership Council’s “third way” strategy of militant moderation/centrism and focus on “micro-issues” at the expense of big liberal programs.
Really, this goes back to Jimmy Carter, who people forget was the first conservative Democrat of the modern era — a reaction to the landslide defeat of McGovern in 1972, Carter never proposed a major liberal program (a big change from LBJ!), imposed draft registration and withdrew the U.S. from the 1980 Olympics in Moscow over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, where he authorized the Pentagon to arm the mujahideen.
Lefties have been out in the cold for a long time, and the alleged “inevitability” of Hillary Clinton, who is to the right of Carter and perhaps her husband too, arrived like a stinky poo cherry after decades of insults and feeling taken for granted. In this environment, after seven years of Obama’s center-right policies, with progressives hungrier than ever for a real leftie candidate,
Bernie is perfectly positioned to give the people what they want. Not only is the “socialist” thing not a problem — air quotes because, really, he’s not — it’s a plus.
Bernie derives his credibility precisely because, not despite, his years of marginalization. Who are you going to turn to when you need a standard-bearer? The guy who’s been fighting the good fight for years, and taking abuse from the people you hate. That’s Bernie.
Is America ready for a sort of socialist Democratic nominee, much less president?
Maybe not, but maybe so; polls consistently show that Americans are far more sympathetic to socialism and communism than one would expect. The trick for Sanders would be to get those people, many of whom don’t currently vote and may not even be registered — to make the effort for him.
Image one of Bernie Sanders: Digital.VPR.net, All Rights Reserved; image two: Politico.com, All Rights Reserved; image three: MotherJones.com, All Rights Reserved; cover image of Bernie Sanders: mrctv.org, All Rights Reserved.