The Long and Whining Road

What happens if he gets up there and starts complaining?

The much-maligned “Democratic establishment” is not wrong to be concerned about the potential ramifications of a tone-deaf, high-profile speech by Sen. Bernie Sanders at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. The prospect of Sanders going off-script and taking puerile potshots at members of a party he doesn’t even belong to should make anyone’s hair as white as his:

Mr. Sanders is almost certain to win a prime-time speaking slot at the summer convention, providing one of the biggest audiences yet for his views. Some Democrats said they feared a left-wing equivalent of Pat Buchanan’s searing speech at the 1992 Republican convention, when Mr. Buchanan, who had failed to win his party’s nomination, called for a “cultural war” against “liberals and radicals.”

Matt Bennett, a founder of the center-left think tank Third Way, said Mrs. Clinton had so far avoided tacking too far left to compete effectively in a general election. “They need to be careful not to go so far as to hand the Republicans something to beat them over the head with,” Mr. Bennett said. “Bans on anything tend to be politically problematic.”

The concern should not necessarily be Sanders veering “too far left” on policy grounds; there is an argument, advanced by (among others) progressive radio host Thom Hartmann, that the Democratic Party now has the ability to run on a more explicitly progressive platform than the party could a generation ago. The concern should be that Sanders will not be able to suppress his worst impulses, and that his speech will be filled with obnoxious lecturing and scolding of Democrats who allegedly sold out to millionaires and billionaires.

If Sanders uses his speech to criticize the Obama administration’s alleged genuflection to the one percent, he will be booed right out of the building–with justification. Sanders still doesn’t seem to grasp the reality that millions of Democrats view Obama as someone who did the best damn job he could under enormously difficult circumstances, a man who rescued the economy, brought Osama bin Laden to justice, delivered on the party’s decades-long goal of expanded health-care coverage, nominated three highly qualified judges to the Supreme Court, and fought to ensure that our children and grandchildren have a healthy planet to live on and a stable climate to live in. As the old saying goes, respect is earned, not given–and if Sanders uses his convention platform to disrespect Obama’s tremendous accomplishments, he’ll be given a verbal thumbs-down by the audience.

Remember how scornfully Sen. Ted Kennedy treated President Carter at the 1980 Democratic Convention? We should brace ourselves for a reprise of this sort of behavior 36 years later. I fear that the Bernie Sanders who shows up in Philadelphia this July will be a bitter man, consumed with hostility over his inability to seal the deal in the primary, resentful of the “corporatist” Hillary Clinton. I fear that he will take the stage with temper and attitude, delivering a spiteful speech that will mark the devolution of his “political revolution.” I fear that as soon as he steps off the stage, a majority of attendees and viewers will ask themselves: “What the heck was he thinking?”

30 years ago, former Sex Pistols lead singer John Lydon declared that anger is an energy. Anger over “establishment politics” and “establishment economics” has certainly fueled the energy of the Sanders campaign. However, that energy has become quite negative in recent weeks–and on the convention stage in Philadelphia, it could very well run out.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.