Clinton might be the candidate—but Sanders has won the battle of ideasby Sam Tanenhaus / June 8, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Elections are virtuous as well as necessary, we’re often told, good for the health of the democracy. How, then, can we explain the curiously corrupting effect vote-seeking has on politicians? Some of it is owed to the presidency itself. “We elect a king every four years,” Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State said during the Civil War, when Lincoln did indeed assume despotic powers.
Presidential aspirants are Caesars in training, treated like mini-gods: the dizzy circuit of prime-time television appearances, the magazine covers, the queuing throngs. You try giving it up.
Just don’t ask Bernie Sanders to do it. After a string of surprising victories, “Bernie” has fallen short. Hillary Clinton has won—15.7m votes so far to Sanders’s 12m, including an impressive win in California, the nation’s most populous state. She has amassed all the “pledge” delegates she needs and has a bonus of 500 free-floating “super delegates” in reserve. Sanders’s job is to salve the party’s wounds as it prepares to meet Donald Trump and the Republicans in November.
Democratic bosses are telling him to pack it in—not this minute but, please, before the national convention (in Philadelphia in late July). After a violent clash at the Nevada state convention, Sanders, instead of rebuking his supporters, blamed the party bosses, and the system they’ve rigged.
Too bad, Clinton supporters reply. Clinton has been there, too. She waged a much closer battle against Barack Obama in 2008 than Sanders has done this year. But she also knew when to quit and when to throw all her support to Obama.
Sanders will too, in all likelihood. But it’s true the two cases are very different. For one thing, he is not a party-line Democrat. On the contrary, he is “the longest-serving independent in congressional history,” as his campaign website points out. Add to this the polls showing Sanders, unlike Clinton, trouncing Trump in a head-to-head competition. Of course, Clinton has been under siege for months, while Sanders has had a free pass. Wait till the blizzard of negative ads begin. We’ll hear all about the honeymoon visit Bernie and his wife, Jane, made to the Soviet Union in 1988; about his “freelance” effusions in the “alternative” press; about his days as the Socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont, feted in verse by a besotted Allen Ginsberg:
Socialist talk in the Maverick bookstore
Socialist kids sucking socialist lollipops
Socialist poetry in socialist mouths
—aren’t the birds frozen socialists?
Imagine Trump on the subject of those lollipops. But all the rules have been broken in this strangest of election years. It wasn’t so long ago that New Hampshire polls had Sanders at 6 per cent, almost 50 points behind Clinton and trailing both Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden. In the end he got an unthinkable 60 per cent to Clinton’s 38. He has since won 20 more states, including Michigan, West Virginia and Colorado.
The Sanders campaign has been a genuine movement. Go to Ann Arbor, Michigan; Berkeley, California; Columbus, Ohio; Madison, Wisconsin; Portland, Oregon; Seattle, Washington. Go there and you’ll see a world of millennials—the oldest in their mid-30s and the country’s largest population, an estimated 83m, vexed to nightmare by the Great Recession and the slow crawl toward recovery. Yet they are optimistic, hopeful, expectant—with their science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees, their mounting debt, their jobs at Starbucks and in Apple shops.
They are America’s future, and they have found a tribune in Sanders—stooped-shouldered, wild-haired, humourlessly “on-message,” bracingly ascetic in the manner of the old revolutionaries. He didn’t interpret the moment. It found him. He isn’t really a socialist. He’s a child of the New Deal and its subsequent iterations; the Great Society, the prairie populism of George McGovern, the “rainbow coalition” of Jesse Jackson. It is the old soul of the Democratic party, quietly nursed back to life by Obama. Sanders alone got the truth of “hope and change.” It was no mere slogan, but a promissory note, delivered to a generation that wants it cashed. To them, Sanders’s program of tuition-free college, European-style “single-payer” health care and punishment for Wall Street seems only just.
Hillary knows it’s impractical. The budget numbers don’t work. The votes in Congress aren’t there. But she also knows millennials “feel the Bern” and so has hopped a few steps to the left—exactly what Sanders had intended back at the beginning. He has won the battle of ideas. It should be enough. But it seldom is, not once you’ve tasted your Caesar moment.