From the Green Mountains to the Redwood Forest to the White House: Is This Land Made for Bernie Sanders?

In the wake of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ announcement two days ago  that he will challenge Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, I have been repeatedly asked the same question: “Why?”

To which I respond, “Why not?”

Yes, I understand that Bernie’s not going to win the Democratic nomination. Even his fellow Vermonters, who have supported Bernie in increasingly greater numbers through a succession of electoral contests dating back more than three decades, are expressing skepticism regarding his chances for national office.  Part of Bernie’s problem is that the very factors that make him so popular in Vermont – he won reelection to the U.S. Senate with more than 70% of the vote two years ago – may not help him as much nationally. We Vermonters are used to seeing Bernie, shoulders hunched, white hair askew, marching grim-faced through our town in the annual Memorial Day parade, or holding court in the local diner. He is our eccentric relative, the grumpy uncle who bends your ear every holiday picnic railing in his distinctive Brooklyn accent against the corporations and the 1%, oblivious to the mustard smeared on his rumpled shirt. “That’s our Uncle Bernie,” we say, smiling, before reaching for the potato salad. “It wouldn’t be a real holiday without him.”

But it’s not entirely clear that a nationwide audience will find his eccentricities so endearing. Running for the Democratic presidential nomination, with the intense media spotlight and a much more diverse group of primary voters, is not the same as greeting voters at the annual Addison County fair. Through the years Vermonters have adapted to – even come to love – Bernie’s curmudgeonly personality, but it is not entirely clear how well his rumpled but lovable Uncle Bernie schtick will play on the national stage. Nor does Vermont provide much in the way of a political base from which to launch a national campaign.

But his problems run deeper than his prickly personality and small-state base. For starters, Bernie’s trade-mark “democratic socialism” likely does not have a very big constituency within the Democratic party.  The last Vermonter to undertake a similarly long-shot quest for the Democratic nomination was the former Governor Howard Dean in 2004. He also sought to position himself as the progressive alternative to the establishment candidates (notwithstanding a rather moderate record as governor in Vermont). Despite an impressive early fundraising campaign and some initially positive media coverage, fueled by polls that for a time put him ahead of the Democratic field, Dean never attracted much more than 25% of the Democratic vote, and his candidacy was essentially dead after the Iowa caucus. (Contrary to myth, Dean’s celebrated “I have a scream” speech merely confirmed his political death – it did not cause it.) Bernie, with his soak-the-rich explicitly class-based pitch, is not likely to expand Dean’s coalition.

Sanders’ strategists undoubtedly hope that if he does well during the early caucuses in Iowa and Nevada, which typically attract more activist, ideologically-liberal delegates, as well as garnering some favorite-son support in neighboring New Hampshire, the media might anoint him as a viable alternative to Hillary. That, in turn, could enable him to bring in the money he will need to stay in the race for the long haul. It is true that the media loves a horse race, and is not averse to fabricating one if none exists. Still, if Hillary shows signs of faltering, it’s hard to believe the Democratic Party will allow a 73-year old former Socialist mayor of Burlington to be their standard bearer in 2016. Bernie will also be hard-pressed to match the Clinton money machine. Dean gained early attention in 2004 for his ability to bring in money online, and he ended up raising more than $50 million, much of it in small donations, in his presidential bid. Bernie is going to need at least that much just to remain competitive coming out of the February 9th New Hampshire primary. However, although he had a very successful first day of fundraising, it is not clear that relying only on small donors, as he claims he will do, is a viable strategy. He may also need a Sheldon Adelson-type sugardaddy if he hopes to compete past the February 27 South Carolina primary marking the end of the first month of the nominating campaign.

None of this paints a very optimistic picture for Bernie’s chances. So why run? I can think of several reasons. First, as former Governor James Douglas noted when I asked him about the psychology that might drive someone like Bernie to undertake such a quixotic endeavor, “Bernie is a man of strong convictions.” Running for president will give him a very visible platform for airing those convictions. Chief among them is his belief that the growing income inequality between the 1% and the 99% is both immoral and unsustainable. His strategy will be to paint Hillary as in hock to Wall Street and big money, and thus unable to truly fight for the middle class, whereas he has been fighting on their behalf for three decades. At the very least he hopes his candidacy will force Hillary to move the left on economic issues. (It is, of course, also possible that this strategy might instead strengthen Hillary’s appeal by making her appear more moderate.)

Of course, there are more self-interested reasons as well. Bernie already appears for an hour every week on progressive Thom Hartman’s call-in radio show,  and he has likely taken note of how former presidential candidates like Mike Huckabee have parlayed a failed nomination bid into a successful career as a well-paid talking head. Moreover, with more than two years to go before his next Senate election, it’s a low-risk time for Bernie to run for President. If he loses, he can always return to the Senate.

Finally, we shouldn’t discount the ego factor. Douglas likes to recount a story former Vermont Governor Dick Snelling told him regarding how easy it is to succumb to the blandishments of acquaintances urging you to run for higher office. “Twenty of your friends will tell you that you should be governor, that you can do that job as well as anyone else, and you begin to believe it. But these are your friends telling you this!” No doubt Bernie has his supporters who truly believe that he would make a great president, and have told him as much. And he may believe them. So why not run if he believes he could do the job?

More than the general election, presidential nominating contests are difficult to predict, especially this far out. Who really knows what will happen next year? Maybe there’s a smoking email waiting to be uncovered that will drive Hillary from the race! In any case, this isn’t the first time Bernie took a chance on making a fool of himself. In 1987, while serving as Burlington’s mayor, Bernie recorded an album of folk classics. Unfortunately, as Tom Lockwood – the musician who came up with the idea for Bernie to cut a record – recalled, “As talented of a guy as he is, he has absolutely not one musical bone in his body, and that became painfully obvious from the get-go… This is a guy who couldn’t even tap his foot to music coming over the radio. No sense of melody. No sense of rhythm — the rhythm part surprised me, because he has good rhythm when he’s delivering a speech in public.”

Harsh words! But you be the judge. We all know This Land was made for you and me – but was it made for Bernie too?  We are about to find out…in the meantime, sing it Bernie!

 

8 comments

  1. Matt, I think the best news about Bernie running is that we will now have a Democratic primary. All that TV time is probably worth $100 million or more. And while Bernie may not sing, maybe he can get Hillary to sing. There are a lot of questions of policy she needs to be more specific on and I can’t think of anyone better than Bernie to ask her.

    Jack

  2. Jack,

    I fully agree, and I think that’s probably the strongest reason why Bernie running makes some sense. My concern, however, is that Bernie might not press Hillary enough. Right now they both seem intent on playing kissy-kissy with one another. Hillary is not going to pay much attention to Bernie unless he seems to pose something of a credible threat and that requires him to go on the attack.

  3. Jack Goodman has it right. There are major questions to be asked which many in this country yearn to have asked. Bernie will ask them loudly and brusquely, and they will resonate – just not among the nice people. That’s the point.

    Mocking him, belittling him, putting him down as the funny unkempt little outsider who has the presumption to bellow away about the glaring injustices in our fragmented society is the establishment’s response to someone they hate and want to wish away.

    My hunch is that, while Bernie will probably not win, he will make a greater difference than the current punditry expects – even without musical gifts. At the very least he will be more interesting than our so adroit, experienced and shopworn Hilary.

  4. George – You are largely preaching to the choir. See my response below to Jack. As I suggest, the worry is that Bernie won’t be brusque enough.

  5. I’m a big fan of the “since all my friends tell me I’m going to win, I’m going to win!” theory of why many longshots decide to put themselves through the brutal realities of running for president. What It Takes has a great piece on why Gary Hart decided to get back into the race during the 1988 cycle despite the fact that obviously he would wouldn’t win and would be humiliated:

    “He [Hart] wouldn’t bring it up. People called him!…Had he seen the poll about the press? (Two-to-one, people thought the press went overboard on Hart.) Had he seen that southern-states poll from Atlanta? (when Hart’s name was added, he was still the Democratic front-runner.)

    “Really!” Hart would say. (like he hadn’t talked about that poll thirty times.) He’d tell them about the letters-hundreds of letters, came to his house, to the law firm…hundreds he couldn’t even get to yet that came to the campaign address.

    People were writing to tell him he never should have quit-the cause and the country required him. There were letters that offered theories on who’d set Garry up; letters from lifelong Republicans who said they’d vote for Hart; there were senior citizens who sent five dollars from their pensions-all they could afford. There was a hundred dollars from one couple who’d just birthed a baby girl. They had this money to buy a new crib, but they decided it was more important to do something for their baby’s country.”

    That level of social pressure must be intense, and really hard to resist.

  6. I heard Bernie Sanders on NPR a few weeks ago and he actually sounded pretty polished to me. (Of course, I agree with his politics so I’m predisposed to nodding my head approvingly whenever anyone with those views gets national attention). Maybe crazy Uncle Bernie will clean up nicer than you Vermonters think.

    Objectively, all those reasons for running seem possible. I do hope that he can stay in long enough to push the debate to the left–our one-man Tea Party! I respect Hillary Clinton as a politician, but she, like her husband, is pretty much center-right on any political spectrum outside of the U.S.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.