Bernie and Howard

Martin Longman and I did not talk or coordinate in any way before he wrote his latest Ten Miles Square piece and I wrote my weekly TPMCafe column. But somehow we both wound up comparing Bernie Sanders to Howard Dean. Martin did so with the point of establishing that Sanders truly is what a lot of progressives wanted Dean to be. I did so as part of a fairly comprehensive evaluation of various possible precedents for Sanders’ campaign, assuming it continues its current robust trajectory.

The weird thing is I didn’t really think about the rather obvious fact that Sanders and Dean are from the same state. Here’s what I thought they most had in common:

What Dean and Sanders both represent is a protest against accommodationist policies towards Republicans by Democratic leaders. Dean famously referred to the entire Clinton administration as an exercise in “damage control.” Sanders is the champion of those who regard a significant segment of the Clinton and Obama economic policies as “Republican Lite.”

So I wound up figuring Sanders is more like Dean than many other past “insurgent” candidates in both parties, ranging from Eugene McCarthy in 1968 through Barack Obama himself in 2008–though the McCarthy model could still be prescient if Sanders manages to so dominate Clinton going into Iowa and New Hampshire that her whole Democratic unity enterprise crumbles and/or other formidable candidates are lured into the race.

Martin appears to believe that Dean as a presidential candidate was both created and undone as a projection of lefty aspirations that are very apt and real when it comes to Sanders. And that both excites and depresses him:

I’d be willing to argue that [a Sanders presidential nomination] is precisely the kind of thing that this country needs with a major caveat. Sanders would have to somehow win and become the president. If he lost, it would be a total epic disaster that would throw the left into retreat and put the reactionary right in power at a time when that is the last thing we can afford.

Some people like playing with matches in an armory. I don’t.

That’s the kind of reaction I was thinking of when I suggested Sanders’ current boom is likely to fall well short of Dean’s (who, lest we forget, was not just the front-runner but the presumptive nominee in the weeks before the wheels started falling off in Iowa):

The high stakes Democrats are increasingly perceiving in 2016 could, however, undermine the high spirits Bernie is presently inspiring. At some point, early-state caucus and primary voters may be affected by watching their Republican neighbors snake-dancing to the polls full of excitement at the prospect of demolishing Obama’s and Clinton’s accomplishments before turning their jack-hammers on the broader edifice of the New Deal and Great Society.

So the next big test for the Sanders campaign (other than the already formidable challenge of showing continuing improvement in early-state polls against Clinton) is to look like something other than toast in a general election. The only national general election trial heat involving Sanders I’ve been able to find is a June 11-14 PPP survey (before the Bernie Boom exhibited itself anywhere other than in New Hampshire) showing him running eight points behind Scott Walker (32/40) with a big (28%) “not sure” vote, while HRC was ahead of Walker 46/42. To some extent Sanders benefits from being not very well known, and also from partisan polarization, which places a pretty high floor underneath support levels for any putative major-party nominee. But in any event, he’s going to need some evidence other than non-empirical “hidden majority” or “base enthusiasm” arguments that he could actually win a general election to offset both MSM assumptions about the relative electability of a 75-year-old self-identified socialist, and the fears of admirers like Martin Longman.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.