WASHINGTON – Is Bernie Sanders the political reincarnation of Eugene McCarthy? I doubt it, but let’s hope he makes the Democratic presidential race interesting.
I don’t know if front-runner Hillary Clinton shares my wish, but she ought to. I’m not of the school that believes competition for competition’s sake is always a good thing. But Sanders has an appeal for younger, more liberal, more idealistic Democrats that Clinton presently lacks. If she competes for these voters – and learns to connect with them – she will have a much better chance of winning the White House.
Sanders the Vermont independent and the only self-described socialist in the Senate, drew packed houses during a weekend barnstorming tour of Iowa. The 2,500 people who attended his rally in Council Bluffs were believed to be the largest crowd a candidate from either party has drawn in the state. This followed last week’s triumph in Madison, Wisconsin, where Sanders packed a 10,000-seat arena with cheering supporters – the biggest event anywhere thus far in the campaign.
At the same time, Sanders is rising in the polls. The latest Quinnipiac survey showed Clinton with a 19-point lead in Iowa, 52 percent to 33 percent. As recently as May, Clinton had a 45-point advantage.
Comparisons have been made to McCarthy, the Minnesota senator whose opposition to the Vietnam War galvanized support on college campuses and stunned the Democratic Party establishment. McCarthy’s showing in the 1968 New Hampshire primary – he received 42 percent of the vote – helped lead incumbent Lyndon Johnson to pull out of the race.
But let’s not get carried away. A lead of 19 points is a problem any politician would love to have. Sanders’ numbers had nowhere to go but up, and Clinton’s nowhere but down. What’s safe to say at present is that Sanders – not Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb or Lincoln Chafee – has become the non-Clinton alternative for Democrats who, for whatever reason, are suffering some Clinton fatigue.
One thing Sanders has going for himself is palpable authenticity. He is the antithesis of slick. To say there’s nothing focus-grouped about the man is to understate; one doubts he knows what a focus group is. “Rumpled” is the word most often used to describe him, but that’s not quite right; it’s not as if his suits are unpressed or his shirttails untucked. He’s just all substance and no style – which, to say the least, makes him stand out among politicians.
Clinton, by contrast, has always struggled to let voters see the “authentic” her rather than the carefully curated, every-hair-in-place version her campaigns have sought to project. Part of the problem, I believe, is that women in politics are held to an almost impossible standard; no male candidate’s wardrobe choice or tone of voice receives such microscopic scrutiny. But she also distances herself by campaigning as if she’s protecting a big lead – which she is – and wants to avoid offending anyone. Last, when asked her favorite ice cream flavor, she replied, “I like nearly everything.” What, vanilla lovers were going to abandon her if she had said chocolate?
Sanders’ main appeal, however, is that he speaks unabashedly for the party’s activist left. He is witheringly critical of Wall Street, wants to break up the big banks, proposes single-payer health care and promises to raise taxes. He voted against the 2003 invasion of Iraq; Clinton, then a senator, voted for it but now says that she made a mistake.
Eight years ago, Barack Obama made opposition to the Iraq War his signature issue and rode it to victory in Iowa and beyond. Will lightning strike the Clinton machine twice?
Not the same kind of lightning, surely, and not in the same manner. Obama is a uniquely gifted politician whose appeal went beyond the issues. He was able to make voters believe not just in him but in themselves and their power to reshape the world. And as the first African-American with a legitimate chance to become president, he gave the nation a chance to make history.
This time, Clinton is the candidate with history on her side. The fact that she could be the first woman elected president is not enough, by itself, to win her the nomination. But it does matter. She, like Obama, offers voters the chance to feel a sense of accomplishment.
And nothing about Clinton’s past remotely compares with the millstone of Vietnam that weighed LBJ down and ultimately caused him to give up. I just don’t see a McCarthy scenario brewing – or an Obama scenario, either.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.