Revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe.
You have to make it fall. ~ CHE GUEVARA
Bernie Sanders has been on the defensive and seems more like the also-ran many pundits predicted that he would be since the first Democratic presidential debate a month ago, and that didn't change in the debate on Saturday night. Overall, his poll numbers are receding, which in other campaigns would mean it was time to light the fireworks and double down. But Sanders is not other candidates, especially in this year of Republican ass hattery, and to his credit he continues to keep his campaign substantially positive and focused on bringing a populist revolution to Washington, which is a compelling contrast to Hillary Clinton, whose populism is skin deep by comparison and whose willingness to sling mud always seems to be a perceived slight away.
The problem is, while insurgent Sanders' populist revolution focus is praiseworthy, it is utterly unrealistic.
This doesn't really matter because there hasn't been anyone as refreshing on the campaign trail since . . . well, Barack Obama, whose brand of populism is more akin to Clinton than Sanders, but unlike the then upstart senator from Illinois, the independent socialist from Vermont has never stood a chance of winning the Democratic nomination. I suspect Sanders knows that, but is still having the time of his political life while trying to move the debate in a worthy direction -- leftward ho! -- while attracting heaps of attention from a fawning press that only recently has begun to look for chinks in his armor.
When asked how he will move the U.S. toward "democratic socialism" as president, Sanders says simply that he will inspire a "political revolution."
"Now, in my view, the only way we can take on the right-wing Republicans who are, by the way, I hope will not continue to control the Senate and the House when one of us [is] elected president," he has said. "But the only way we can get things done is by having millions of people coming together."
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it's a variation on Obama's Hope and Change message in 2008, the big difference being that 2008 is not 2016.
Obama entered office on a Democratic wave and helped Democrats win 255 seats in the House and 56 seats in the Senate. And despite an absence of Republican support and the crippling hangover from the Bush years, including a whopper of a recession, the young president did get Congress to pass an ambitious stimulus package, health-care and financial reform, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, among a host of smaller but still important laws.
But in the end, Obama did not remake Washington so much as Washington remade him, and circumstances would be much worse were Sanders to be elected even if Democrats manage to eke out a Senate majority because it is inconceivable that the House won't remain firmly in Republican control. (Democrats currently have 44 Senate seats, with Sanders voting with their caucus, and a mere 188 House seats.)
There is nothing in Sanders' stump speechifying or recent history to suggest that he will succeed with obdurate, governing-resistant Republicans where Obama has repeatedly failed, and it is important to remember that Obama's first-term accomplishments were because he had the support of every Democrat, including centrists like Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh, who pushed him toward a political middle that sometimes made a mockery of the Hope and Change mantra.
Sanders would have to similarly capitulate if he were to accomplish anything, and so Washington would yet again remake a newly-minted president, as well as one who had to rely heavily on unilateral executive actions, which Mr. Democratic Socialist would be forced to do. As would a President Clinton.
Meanwhile, while Sanders continues to poll well among Democrats even as his overall numbers slip, the "socialist" tag remains an albatross around his neck.
A new Gallup poll finds that nine in 10 Americans say they would vote for a qualified presidential candidate who is Catholic, a woman, black, Hispanic or Jewish. Less than half would vote for a candidate who is a socialist.
The biggest difference between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at this point in the campaign -- and although there are differences on issues they are for the most part not substantial -- is that Clinton seems to be running from her past while Sanders revels in his.BERNIE REVELS IN HIS PAST
"I disagree with Hillary Clinton on virtually everything," said Sanders during a meeting with the Boston Globe editorial board. "What is important is to look at is the record, the track record that Hillary Clinton has had for her long and distinguished career as a public figure." Translation: My record is unambiguous while she has shifted with the political winds.
Sanders said he was "delighted" that Clinton opposed the mammoth trans-pacific trade deal, but noted that she remained silent earlier this year when liberals were trying to find the votes needed to help block legislation that limited Congress’s input to a yes or no vote. Then there is her recent decision to oppose the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, an issue on which she had long remained silent despite repeated efforts to get her to take a stand.
Clinton supported the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act signed into law by her husband, recently claiming that doing so after she became a senator in 2000 merely had been a "defensive action" in some larger, if vague, scheme. She evolved on the issue only when it became acceptable among more Americans, while Sanders the progressive has long supported gay rights across the board.
"Today, some are trying to rewrite history by saying they voted for one anti-gay law to stop something worse," Sanders has countered. "When you look at Clinton's stance on gay marriage not to long ago, it is pretty clear that she wasn't being very honest."
Sanders has said that he would not govern based on polls but on principles, yet that is not quite true. Against his objections, Sanders caved in to the vociferous demands of his advisers and hired former Howard Dean pollster Ben Tulchin to test what aspects of his stump speech were working and which aspects weren't. Just like Clinton.
The high point of Bernie Sanders' campaign was during that first debate when Hillary Clinton said she made a "mistake" using a private email server and defended her judgment. Moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN turned to Sanders, who replied to rapturous applause, "Let me say something that may not be great politics, but I think the secretary is right -- and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails."BERNIE GOES NEGATIVE -- SORT OF
Sanders realizes that he's going to have to go negative if he has any chance of overtaking Clinton, something he did not have to do when she was struggling. But the impression persists and grows that Sanders remains somewhat bemused that he's made it this far and it is one of his two greatest "weaknesses" -- an honest streak, by golly -- that keeps him from going all out against her. The other "weakness" is a reluctance to focus on his opponent more than his own message.
"I can't walk down a hallway in the nation's capitol without [reporters] begging me to beat up on Hillary Clinton, attack Hillary Clinton," he has said. "Tell me why she's the worst person in the world. I resist it and I resist it and I resist it. Because I think -- unlike our Republican friends there who think that politics is about attacking each other in incredibly stupid and destructive ways -- I think what we are trying to do is have a sensible debate on important issues facing America."
A nice if empty sentiment, so I was not the least bit surprised when he did go negative on Clinton over DOMA, although a little disappointed when he put a rather different spin on the email controversy.
"You get 12 seconds to say these things," Sanders said to the Wall Street Journal of his debate remarks. "There's an investigation going on right now. I did not say, 'End the investigation.' That's silly. Let the investigation proceed unimpeded." He added that the American people have the right to know whether or not she sent classified information on her private server, and told the Globe editorial board that "I didn't let her off the hook. There is a process going on in this country. There is an investigation. The FBI is doing what it is doing."
In any event, Bernie Sanders is going to have a tough time getting noticed going head-to-head with Hillary Clinton because of the way Clinton's buddies at the Democratic National Committee have stacked the debate deck. The second of six debates was on Saturday night when most of us were watching football or events in France, while the remaining two debates before the primaries begin also will be competing with football. (There were, by comparison, sixteen televised Democratic debates in 2008.)BERNIE'S DEBATABLE PERFORMANCE
Judging from Sanders' hot-and-cold performance in the CBS-sponsored second debate, having so few debates may not be such a bad thing. (Only 8.5 million viewers tuned in, compared to 15 million for the first Democratic debate and an average of 16.5 million for the four Republican debates to date.)
On an evening when terrorism had a predictably outsized presence, Sanders again was more inclined to push his own message than go with the flow, let alone go after Clinton in saying stuff like climate change is the greatest threat and a contributor to the spread of terrorism. That happens to be true, but saying so only hours after the Paris attacks had a tone deaf quality to it. (While he was on his high horse, he might have added that America also exports its share of violence and has been meddling in the Arab Street for decades. He didn't.)
Sanders is not particularly strong on foreign policy to begin with, and repeatedly saying you opposed the Iraq war while your opponent supported it isn't going to change that. While he is correct that the war destroyed the frail balance in the region and led to the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIS, it is George Bush and not Barack Obama and Clinton who must shoulder the blame. And he did not address -- nor did Clinton or Martin O'Malley -- the big question of the moment: How is ISIS to be defeated?
Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, told Politico that "Bernie Sanders is struggling because he's doing much better than he thought he'd ever be doing. Now he's got to know how to convert that into a successful run for the nomination. He's not made that clear how he's going to try and evolve that plan. I don't think he necessarily has a second chapter of the campaign written because he wasn't sure he'd get there. But he's there now."
Hillary Clinton supporters jumped all over Bernie Sanders when he said that "all the shouting in the world" wouldn't address gun violence. For the hypersensitive self-identified feminists who orbit Planet Hillary, Sanders was being sexist because men, you know, consider women to be shouters, a claim that is about as ridiculous as when Joe Biden was called a racist for saying in 2008 that Barack Obama was "articulate."BERNIE GETS GOTCHAED
That didn't keep Clinton from seizing on what she saw as a gotcha moment: "I've been told to stop, and, I quote, 'shouting about gun violence,' Well, first of all, I'm not shouting. It's just when women talk, some people think we're shouting."
The point of making a big deal about this, according to some woman pundits, is that many liberal men are unable to "think that gender can ever be totally disaggregated from Clinton's efforts to become the first female president," as one of them put it. I agree.
But there's a larger point: Nothing in Sanders' past to indicate he's sexist, let alone opposed to empowering women. Quite the contrary, and he has used shouting metaphors when speaking to gun violence in the past when it pertains to male opponents. That doesn't mean Sanders can't be patronizing. I sometimes am despite myself, and I grew up in a family of feminists.
Perhaps Bernie is merely guilty of microaggressions, my favorite new feminist word meaning all the barely noticeable daily sexist slights that may not mean much individually but add up over a lifetime. Perhaps.
Politix Update is an irregular compendium written by veteran journalist Shaun Mullen, for whom the 2016 presidential campaign is his (gasp!) 12th since 1968. Click here for an index of previous Politix Updates.
IMAGE FROM DONKEYHOTEY/FLICKR. USED WITH PERMISSION.