WASHINGTON – I feel the Bern. But it doesn’t hurt.
We are told Bernie Sanders, the 74-year-old “democratic socialist” challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, is taking the proverbial gloves off and going after the front-runner more aggressively. But Sanders doesn’t do nasty.
The senator from Vermont loped across the parking lot from the Capitol to a grassy area called the Swamp on Wednesday afternoon to deliver his latest policy position: a ban on new fossil-fuel development on federal land and in most U.S. waters.
“This is a majuh, majuh, majuh planetary crisis,” Sanders said in his famous Brooklyn accent. “We in the United States have got to lead the world.” During the 40-minute event, Sanders spoke about climate-change talks, global-warming science, the Koch brothers, Republican lawmakers and the Obama administration. But he said nothing at all about Clinton.
After the event, reporters chased him down as he walked across the Senate lawn to his office. When one pushed him to talk about Clinton, the senator finally obliged.
“I don’t want to speak for Hillary Clinton, but I would hope that Hillary Clinton will join Jeff Merkley [the Democratic senator from Oregon] and myself on this issue,” he said. “If we are serious about climate change, we can’t just talk the talk. We’ve got to walk the walk.”
Reports of a feisty new Sanders are overblown. Fading in national polls, the man is drawing contrasts with Clinton more sharply. But Sanders, to his credit, seems to be temperamentally incapable of the sort of slashing attacks that might pose a serious threat to Clinton.
Sanders is revolutionary in ideas but not in style. In that sense, he is the opposite of Ted Cruz, who would burn down the Senate or his party’s presidential prospects to elevate himself or to get his way. But the Bern doesn’t burn.
He’s amiable and avuncular – and, to judge from his easy smile at Wednesday’s event, happy. Why shouldn’t he be? He has already succeeded beyond all expectations, even his own. His campaign has elevated his liberal issues, changed the conversation within the Democratic Party and forced the likely nominee to take a populist tack. Sanders’ genteel campaign won’t win him the nomination (it was never going to), but it has been healthy for the Democrats and helpful to Clinton.
After the first Democratic debate, in which Sanders boosted Clinton by dismissing her email scandal, his aides suggested that a more aggressive Sanders was coming. And he has been more aggressive, sort of. At the closely watched Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Iowa, Sanders obliquely criticized Clinton on her Iraq War vote, on her changing views on same-sex marriage, on her delayed opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and on her shift on the Pacific trade deal.
But this sort of aggression (he hesitates even to mention her name) is more Oxford Union than campaign brawl. Sanders seems actually to believe what other politicians say: It’s about issues, not personalities.
His announcement Wednesday was typical of his Marquess of Queensberry campaign style. The proposed legislation is radical and has no chance of being enacted. But Sanders and his sidekick Merkley didn’t talk about threats to bring the Senate to a halt if they don’t get a vote, the way Cruz would do. “We do not anticipate a committee hearing, we do not anticipate a committee vote, we do not anticipate a floor vote,” Merkley acknowledged.
What they anticipated was attention to the cause – and they got it. Fifty journalists showed up, in the same spot where Sanders kicked off his campaign six months ago. Before then, Sanders was a gadfly. Now he, and his issues, command attention.
“I’ve got four kids and I’ve got seven beautiful grandchildren and I believe all of us have a moral responsibility to have the United States work with countries all over the world in making sure the planet we leave our children and grandchildren is a planet that is healthy and a planet that is habitable,” he said.
Reporters scribbled. Cameras rolled.
“The only way that real change takes place,” Sanders said, “is when millions of people come togethuh and stand up and say: ‘You know what? That United States Congress is going to have to work for all of us and not just for the people who run the fossil-fuel industry.”
“Feel the Bern!” one of his supporters shouted.
You could feel the Bern – and he was gentle.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.