Is Bernie Sanders a “Credible” Candidate?

To a certain degree, I sympathize with what Matt Taibbi is saying here about how the press is treating Bernie Sanders’ nascent presidential campaign.

The Washington/national press has trained all of us to worry about these questions of financing on behalf of candidates even at such an early stage of a race as this.

In this manner we’re conditioned to believe that the candidate who has the early assent of a handful of executives on Wall Street and in Hollywood and Silicon Valley is the “serious” politician, while the one who is merely the favorite of large numbers of human beings is an irritating novelty act whose only possible goal could be to cut into the numbers of the real players.

But, ultimately, I can’t really agree with this argument. I’m not trained by the national press to view the ability to raise money as a key component of any “credible” political campaign. I just believe this to be true as a matter of basic, responsible political analysis.

Money is not the only important thing. Prior to the New Hampshire primary in 2000, former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley had managed to raise more money than the sitting vice president, Al Gore, but that didn’t translate into any victories. It did indicate, however, that Bradley would have the money to compete. What killed Bradley was a combination of lack of skill, a hostile press, and all the free press John McCain was getting from fawning reporters. But he could afford to organize, run advertisements, and could have capitalized on his victories if he had had any of them.

In 2012, Rick Santorum was in a different situation. He had several small victories but no money to turn those into a real campaign on the ground. In some states, Santorum couldn’t even get his name on the ballot. In others, he watched his rivals steal the delegates he had won in caucuses at later state conventions.

That last point is important because it highlights that winning the nomination isn’t just a matter of getting ahead in the polls and getting the most votes in some primaries and caucuses. You have to build a political organization of activist citizens who will serve as your proxies at the state level. Ron Paul was really good at this kind of organizing and regularly poached other candidates’ delegates. However, he still needed to win occasionally at the ballot box and this is what he could not do. A candidate that combined Santorum’s ability to win votes with Paul’s organizational prowess might have taken Romney out, and the same thing could theoretically happen to Hillary Clinton (again).

So, the key question then is this: was the press wrong not to take Rick Santorum and Ron Paul very seriously as legitimate threats to win the nomination?

I don’t think so.

And a related question is this: how important are ideas to a campaign if they aren’t offered by someone who has the potential to both raise money and build a proxy army on the state level?

To turn this around a bit, we might say that ideas can be really important in a campaign, but only if they inspire people to give money and work for the candidate who offers those ideas. Barack Obama had some ideas that accomplished this, but he also had personal qualities and political skills that inspired and motivated people. And what won the nomination for him wasn’t so much how he was treated by the press, whether seriously or otherwise. What won him the nomination was the proxy army he built and the money he had to build and fund them.

So, when it comes to Bernie Sanders there are really two questions. The first is to ask whether he’s built this kind of army and the second is whether he has the potential to build one.

The answer to the first question is clearly ‘no.’ The answer to the second is that it is too early to say with any certainty but there are good reasons to be skeptical. Most people look at Bernie Sanders and think that he’s too old, too ethnic, too socialist, too politically isolated, too unknown and too late to replicate what Barack Obama did eight years ago. Can he prove the skeptics wrong?

Well, maybe, but he ought to show some results before he expects people to consider him a “credible” candidate.

At the heart of what Taibbi is saying is the lament that ideas (and, perhaps, character) alone cannot prevail in our political wars. I understand that lament but standing alone it is really a rather unsophisticated and almost churlish kind of analysis. Yes, to some degree life is unfair and the system is rotten down to the studs, but we want political leaders who can prevail over the odds. If you go on with this kind of analysis it is not too long before you are wishing for ponies and leprechauns.

If I were a U.S. Senator, my voting record would look a lot like Bernie Sanders’ voting record. I love the guy and would very much enjoy living in an America where he might legitimately be seen as a prospective president. This does not mean, however, that I am going to suggest that we do live in this hypothetical America.

I think Sanders has a message that will resonate with a lot of people and I hope he gets some traction. If you want to join his proxy army, I won’t dissuade you and wish you every success. If I see successes, I will report them as successes.

But it’s not up to the media to do the hard work that Sanders needs to do for himself. Let’s see him qualify for all the ballots. Let’s see him raise serious money. Let’s see him build an army of engaged true believing citizens who go knocking doors for him.

Until this happens, even movement in the polls won’t be a good reason to treat him as “credible.”

You don’t have to be “credible” as a winner to be worth listening to, but you do have to be “credible” to be treated as credible.

[Cross-posted at Progress Pond]

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.