For my political experience, it’s the Rainbow Coalition/Jesse Jackson run all over again with a couple of key differences. First, Bernie Sanders is much more careful about what he says (so far no “hymietown” equivalent) and unlike Jackson, whom I voted for twice, I actually think Sanders would make a good President. And he’s already handled a very difficult situation with grace and competence, perhaps even turning it to his advantage as Black Lives Matter turned its attention to another candidate who may not have handled it as well.
Like Jackson, and to some degree Obama, Sanders represents a movement as much as a candidacy. He made that point in a speech in Iowa recently, in which he admitted that he would be limited in his ability to change things as President. And his open embracing of the label “socialist” appears to have transcended much of the stigma, as he is outpolling every Republican candidate at this point, including Trump. And while he remains well behind Clinton in national polls, he has passed her in New Hampshire, where the first primary will take place. Washington based pundits are downplaying that because it was the first CNN poll of NH which excluded Elizabeth Warren and he claims the bulk of his support. Not sure what that mitigates for Clinton – all it says to me is that Sanders was ahead all the time.
Meanwhile, younger pundits are looking at the campaign a bit differently from the usual suspects of Washington pol blab.
He won’t play into media trivialities. Ana Marie Cox is one of my favorite reporters (she was the original Wonkette) and I understand why she asked the question (probably should have worded it differently), but I really love Sanders’s response.
The mainstream pundits may be right. He may benefit early on from enthusiastic support of the disaffected left, and his potential may cap – just as I suspect Trump’s will tap with the right wing counterparts. But Sanders has the respect of just about everybody – he’s likable and focused on policy discussion over theatrics. As we are still “recovering” from a systemic crash 7 years old his real policy discussions may resonate with people beyond the left ghetto. As one businesswoman who supported his first Senate candidacy way back in 2006 responded when asked about his socialism: “I don’t care what his religion is.” He will elevate and focus the debates. He has real proposals long overdue from single payer health care to to free college tuition. He is the first major candidate to raise class issues in a meaningful way in a long time (with the dubious exception of John Edwards in 2008, the last serious candidate to raise class issues was Mondale, and that didn’t go very well in a boom stretch in a country which loves leaders who encourage us to feel comfortable with our prejudices. We rarely appreciate leaders who challenge us. Sanders is one of those leaders.
What concerns me is that the enthusiasm can evolve into cult. And progressive demands can force a candidate to adopt positions, and even language, which alienates everyone outside of the progressive milieu. Progressives can wax on about white privilege and “class reductionism,” but most voters don’t use language like that and much of the left has never learned to talk about imperialism without using the word imperialism – to cite a limiting factor of the New Left in the early 70s leading to the Nixon/McGovern blowout. But Sanders is not McGovern, and the US 2016 is not US 1972 or even 1984. It’s much more liberal, and progressives like Sanders have learned subtleties of language and form – his response to BLM by hiring a young black activist to address civil rights issues, and his hyperlink to his platform pertinent to race were brilliant, and may actually boost him where he needs it most – he has to convince black voters that he is in tune with their concerns, and that he is a serious candidate who can defeat the Republicans.
The prevailing analysis of his campaign is that he can do well in Iowa – enthusiastic grassroots supported candidacies have an advantage in caucuses and he is apparently well organized there. With that momentum, he can take New Hampshire in the first primary. But ironically, if he doesn’t make inroads in to the black vote, he can run into the same wall Clinton ran into against Obama in 08 – South Carolina. Iowa and NH are white states, the latter neighboring his own state with the Democratic Party democratics similar to Vermont where he has won every election since his very exciting win in Burlington to become Mayor in the early 1980s. He does well with white progressives. But he hasn’t made the sale with black voters, who are pragmatic and want the candidate who can win the general. His handling of the BLM incident has helped on both counts – responsiveness to African American political needs and his political competence. And it has earned him a very key endorsement.
Can he win? Honestly, I think it’s an uphill right. But it’s not impossible. I don’t think the email issue is going to stick with Clinton. She’s given half-assed responses, but nobody’s really paying attention. By the time they are paying attention, she’ll be able to say, “I’ve answered those accusations, it’s old news,” and that will probably work. The Clinton machine is the master of damage control, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that her campaign actually leaked the email revelations early to get it out and aired.
But she’s up against a likable candidate with strong grassroots support and universal respect. That’s not insignificant, and in fact it’s dangerous for Clinton. And not just for Clinton. Republican spokespeople like Bill Kristol have sung Sanders’s praises, hoping to generate trouble for Clinton (just as some Democrats have been doing for Trump, until he started to lose it as predicted). But those praises have dried up as Sanders has polled over Republicans as noted above. Conservatives all of the sudden realize that their game playing could result in a President who openly identifies as a socialist, as their clown car of low gravitas candidates has resulted in a nutcase front-runner. That would represent a paradigm shift dwarfing Obama’s election by far, no matter how difficult actual change would be even with a socialist President.
I actually think it would be easier for Sanders to win the general. At this point, I give Clinton a seventy percent chance of being the next President. But so much can happen with her. Sanders is consistent. There are probably no closet skeletons. Any mistakes he makes probably won’t be fatal. It’s a question of voters – where are they? Where will they be?
One last point – I’m not certain that money has the same impact it used to have. The major use of campaign money is television advertisements, and almost nobody under 60 watches much television anymore. I’ll write about this more another time, but I actually think people have developed an immunity to political ads. I do think voters are more sophisticated than they have been in the past – more informed.
He could win. And that would be huge.
Here’s his campaign site.