Is the Country Ready for Bernie?

By now enough time has passed since the Howard Dean boomlet that we can look back and see things a little more clearly. In many ways, Dean was a blank slate that people could adopt without really knowing or much caring about where he stood on many issues. What was important was that he was against the war and he was willing to fight in a way that we simply didn’t see from other candidates, particularly the ones who had actually voted to authorize the fiasco in Iraq. Dean had an ‘A’ rating from the National Rifle Association. That’s hardly unusual for a Vermont Democrat, but no one seemed to particularly mind. A physician, Dean wasn’t a supporter of single-payer healthcare. That didn’t seem to irk anyone. He went around talking about the potential need for a balanced budget amendment, which is “the stupidest, most irresponsible idea to be introduced by the leadership of a party in the history of the country.” Progressives loved him anyway.

Dean wasn’t particularly liberal, but there was a perception that he was way too far to the left to be a viable presidential nominee. Part of that, to be sure, had to do with him being the governor of Vermont. Rightly or wrongly, Vermont is seen as a virtual soviet republic filled with granola eating yoga instructors. On the other hand, Dean was the rarest of things: an actual WASP who was a prominent Democrat. He came from good old-fashioned Yankee congregationalist stock, which was at least not any kind of stumbling block for Klansmen and other anti-Catholic or anti-Semitic religious bigots. He was also about the right age, 54-55, to be a presidential candidate. If he hadn’t allowed himself to get caricatured as a creature of the far left, he might have been seen as a more legitimate contender by the establishment and done better in the primaries.

Bernie Sanders is much more like what Howard Dean was supposed to be like. All the reasons people had for thinking that Dean was too exotic and too far left are actually true about Sanders. Sanders is so far left that he won’t even call himself a Democrat despite seeking the nomination of the party. He’s a self-proclaimed socialist rather than an orthodox Democrat who has been wrongly labeled a socialist by the mighty right-wing media wurlitzer. He’s more representative of the “new” Vermont than the old Yankee establishment. He’s a transplant from Brooklyn, and quite noticeably Jewish, as well. Sanders is a strong proponent of socialized medicine and is unambiguously hostile to the big corporate business community. And he’ll be 74 years old in September. Ronald Reagan was only 70 when he took office in 1981.

Now, if there’s an argument in Sanders’ favor, it’s that unlike Dean he is the real deal. Progressives aren’t projecting their belief system onto him. If they have blinders, the blinders are about the likely appetite of the county at large for electing a 75 year old Brooklyn Jew from Vermont who calls himself a socialist and has made enemies of both the business community and the powers that be within the Democratic party. If the country is seriously in the mood to give someone like Sanders a term in the White House, then things have shifted under our feet so quickly that there’s hardly a political analyst in the country who knows what is going on.

And, I’ll admit, I’m willing to consider the possibility, however remote I might think it is, that the country really is somewhere completely different from where it has been and where the so-called experts think it is possible to be. If nothing else, I don’t think Hillary Clinton is exactly aligned with the zeitgeist of either the party or the nation. She’s most definitely a figure of the past, and highly symbolic of what is clearly a bygone era. I can’t decide if she’s benefiting from being in the right position at the right time or if she’s, fatally, the wrong person at the wrong time, but she is not the right person for this time.

The thing is, her position is so rock-solid within the Democratic Party that if she doesn’t get the nomination it’s going to cause a complete meltdown. The party might recover in time for the general election if she’s beaten by a mainstream alternative like Martin O’Malley, but if she loses to Bernie Sanders the whole worldview of the media and political and business and military establishments will fry like a blown transformer.

I’d be willing to argue that this 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.

When it comes to the modern conservative movement, I am not inclined to mess around. These folks are capable of great evil, and giving them greater control of the Supreme Court, not to mention the Pentagon, is the rough equivalent of pouring gasoline on the world and lighting it on fire.

So, this is basically where I am. I’ve often said that if I served in Congress, my voting record would most closely resemble Bernie Sanders’ voting record. I’d love it if he could somehow be elected the president of the United States. But everything I know about the country and its shortcomings and the powers that really control things around here tells me that Bernie Sanders cannot be elected president.

And, yet, I wouldn’t have predicted such quick shifts on things like gay marriage, marijuana, or even the Confederate flag.

So, I am not going to tell people that they shouldn’t try to get Bernie elected.

Just be aware that you have to be careful what you wish for. Close but no cigar is not an option here.

[Cross-posted at Progress Pond]

Martin Longman

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