Everybody’s gone but me and you
And I can’t be the last to leave
– Bob Dylan
At this juncture it would take an act of God or the teamsters or something dreamed up by the ghost of Frank Capra for 74-year-old Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to wrest the Democratic nomination away from Hillary Rodham Clinton. The former secretary of state is but a handful of delegates away from wrapping this up and she owns an impressive number of controversial “super delegates”—not to mention the unofficial two and half million more votes she has garnered in this process. It is also not stretching credibility to argue Clinton has dominated the primaries with traditional Democratic voters—women, African Americans, Hispanics, and the core of union support, etc., and has used her campaign to fund-raise for down-ballot Democrats.
The 2016 presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders matters.
The fact that I am writing about Sanders on the cusp of June is one pretty good reason. A year ago he was a completely unknown senator from a tiny northeastern state, whose claim to fame was copping to being a socialist. He was supposed to be this platform-shifting “issues candidate” that before being fodder would maybe force Clinton to edge slightly to the left before she went on to crush whatever loon made it out of the Republican contest. In any other year Sanders would be… say, Dennis Kucinich. But this is the witchy season of 2016, a bizarre year where a TV star mogul gets to play and win. Madam Shoo-In should have made Sanders go away around early March. This is how things are usually done around here. Yet, he has not only failed to go away, he is surging to the finish; making a terrible noise, along with the millions that make up his mostly young, feisty and fed-up constituency.
This would make Sanders a Ted Kennedy circa 1980; chipping at the inevitable nominee from the left to the detriment of the general election. But he is more than that. Sanders represents to Democrats what Donald J. Trump accomplished on the Republican side; he is an insurgence candidate, an anti-Washington, anti-establishment figure that has captured this year’s zeitgeist; a must for any presidential candidates (ask the 16 or so actual GOP politicians that are home wondering what the hell just happened). If anything, Bernie Sanders has been the only real news on the Democratic side since February. His rallies (larger and more raucous than even the Donald’s), his character (parodied brilliantly by Larry David on SNL), his suddenly “man-for-his-times” stature has eclipsed Clinton from every angle.
Turns out that Sanders is the only true issues candidate; leading a progressive charge against a sitting Democratic president. And as much as it is fairly fabricated, Sanders at least appears pure, untainted by the evils of Washington D.C. Of course, he has spent decades in the same quagmire as his opponent, but Clinton, who reeks of establishment and been-there-done-that, gives him rare breathing room on this count. Again, in this climate, he is appealing, which according to most Democratic and national polls matters more to voters now than ever.
But Sanders matters not for hanging in there, staying the course ideologically, and timing; he matters because he is shifting the direction of the coming general election dramatically and has already (as has Trump on the other side) put the system under the microscope—the democratic vagaries of caucuses, strange delegate proportions, antiquated and shady party rules. Both he and Trump like to use the word “rigged”, which of course is nonsense, but indeed the structure of party primaries is such that it promotes scrutiny solely on the general misunderstanding of them by the public. Reminds me of watching a baseball game with a friend, who was unaware of the rule that a catcher must secure a third strike in order for the batter to be out; so when the ball whizzed to the backstop and the batter sped to first, he was incredulous. “The guy’s out! Why is he on first?” Well, you see, according to the rules… “But he struck out!” Okay, it’s weird, but that’s the rules, right?
Beyond the inside baseball aspect of Sanders’ movement, allowing the electorate to see behind the curtains, his candidacy has done a masterful job of revealing the warts of Clinton’s. Without sinking to the level of most political campaigns, the mere presence of Sanders has put the onus on Clinton to stand for something, which beyond the standard liberal talking points, is a flimsy notion at best. Sanders has exposed Clinton’s greatest weaknesses as a stump candidate, an orator, or even a likable, relatable character. Remember what “likable enough” got her in ’08? Her blandness, already baked in, would have seemed less egregious against the standard opponent. Against the flamboyantly disheveled New Yawk ethnicity of Sanders, she appears invisible.
Of course, the biggest complaint of Sandersnistas is the seeming wild popularity of their candidate; his winning so many states, but constantly trailing. This puts the rigged idea into the lap of the “rigger”, which would be Clinton, further enhancing her villain persona, something Trump has already begun to weave into his already incendiary rhetoric. The now official Republican nominee has smartly coalesced his anti-establishment movement on the right with Sanders egalitarian rants, prompting him to run as a true independent, effectively handing the election to Trump by default—not to mention feeding this narrative that has grown in the ensuing months that the young and impressionable newbies rallying to Sanders’ populist message will see a viable revolutionary option in Trump.
Sanders has never really had a chance here. There was a moment in mid-March or immediately after his stirring upset in Michigan when Sanders could have made a move. He did not. He was roundly defeated by Clinton when it mattered most and it has left him as this annoying afterthought for Madam Shoo-In, which she has wrongly ignored or condescended to as if this whole silly primary thing is merely a winding road to her coronation. But by hanging in there until his party’s convention, Sanders has pushed this to the limit. If he wins California in early June and rides into Philly with serious momentum and poll numbers that show him trouncing Trump, while Clinton, with her damaging untrustworthy numbers weighting her down, barely squeaks by, he will have a fairly good argument to sway the aforementioned “super delegates” his way and throw the whole shebang into chaos.
And with more troubling news coming from the state department investigation on Clinton’s private server this week, Sanders may come to matter as much as anyone in American politics in 2016, including Donald J. Trump.
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James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey”, “Fear No Art”, “Trailing Jesus”, “Midnight For Cinderella” and “Y”. and his new book, “Shout It Out Loud—The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon”.