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5 Things Bernie Sanders Has Said or Done That Should Have Been Political Suicide, But Weren't

06/11/2015 01:30 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2016
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There has been a lot of talk about Bernie Sanders of late; some rhapsodize about him, others find him to be an endearing but hopeless case. Most in the major media fall into the latter category. But what is it that he's doing wrong? The fact is, Sanders has violated some pretty serious taboos, any one of which, by conventional wisdom, should have ruled him out as a serious contender. That they have not torpedoed his campaign merits investigation. First, here they are:

1) Democratic Socialism
It just can't fly. How can someone in America call themselves a socialist of any variety, and expect to run for elected office? Does this require further clarification?

2) He Won't Run Negative Ads
Politics in America means negative ads. Everyone uses them; you can't escape them. You know your opponent will use them, and you better get them going yourself, or you'll be screwed. No prisoners; if they wanted things to be nice, they never should have gotten into politics. On the contrary, Sanders won't even badmouth Clinton; whenever he is asked about why his position is better than hers on some issue, he reiterates his own, and invites the questioner to ask Clinton herself. It's like he didn't get the memo they were setting her up for him.

3) He Won't Endorse or Fundraise for a Super PAC
Everyone knows you need that sweet, sweet campaign cash. Your opponent will be raking it in by the double-fistful. They'll have Super-PACs galore; and these days, a successful campaign is measured in hundreds of millions of dollars. How can he hope to win without competing on that scale, and in that arena? How can you hope to get elected if you don't attempt to curry favor with the monied elite?

4) His Hair (and all his photos, for that matter)
It's already been noted, that Sanders does not have a strong relationship with combs. He also seems not to bother to practice his smile in the mirror, or in any other way polish his appearance the way politicians always do. They are as bad as musicians, constantly trying to look cool for the camera, pretending to be natural, when everyone in the room knows what contrivances they've made. Sanders has seemingly never bothered. He looks like a crazy person.

5) He Doesn't Tailor the Message
Sanders says what he means, and means what he says. However outlandish it might be on paper, and especially when compared to what sensible people who want to get elected say, he says what he thinks. In this day and age, it is axiomatic that politicians have to wheedle and weasel, to say the unobjectionable, while seeming to take strong stands for or against... whatever. It's all smoke and mirrors; it's all subjunctive, it's all, in other words, hooey. No one expects politicians to keep promises. And everyone accepts that that's the price of politics.

So What Gives?
So how is it possible that Sanders has been getting such extraordinary responses? Why, oh why, does Bernie fly? Simply put: everyone is sick of politics as usual. Everyone knows things have gone off the rails. People know that the rich have been using their influence and access to rig the game in their favor. Sanders is the only candidate who does not represent more of the same. On a deep level, people know the only solution is to elect people who aren't beholden to big money; to elect people who will fight for the poor and the middle-class's piece of the pie. If that's called socialism, then so be it. Everyone knows it's time to get the money out of politics. Everyone is sick of plastic, insincere, politician smiles and hairdos. Sanders doesn't waste time on it, and it's obvious he'd rather be serving his constituency - and it's obvious he's sincere. Everyone is sick of listening to politicians pander, to know that they're being pandered to, and to find themselves forced to choose between the lesser of two panderers - while having no real faith that their choice means anything. That's why only 37% of the people voted in 2014, and only 20% of young people did.

But apart from that, and even more importantly, people overwhelmingly agree with Sanders: from income and wealth inequality, to campaign finance reform, to student debt, to climate change, to war in the middle east - people agree, and they're listening to him, and they're taking him seriously, even if the punditariat are not.

Why Don't The Pols or the Pundits Get It?
Almost everyone in the political establishment as usual, and in the punditariat, has drunk the kool-aid (Rachel Maddow is a notable exception); they have accepted how the game is played. It must be the only way, or else why would everyone always do it? Clearly, anyone who doesn't play by those rules is doomed to fail. (It turns out the thing that truly fails those who play by those rules, the thing they truly don't have, is courage.) None of them are in any cognitive position to adequately assess Sanders, or his chances - or to assess the savvy of the American public in responding to Sanders' message. More and more people are paying attention, though; and the people who have been watching, and voting, and getting progressively sicker and angrier all the time, have had enough. We're all ready for someone who just makes some damned sense; and who has already shown that they have the courage to take a truly significant stand, and that they mean business. And that's Sanders to a T, and with a vengeance.

Why Sanders, and not Warren?
For a long time, a lot of people thought and hoped Elizabeth Warren would run; I know I did, and I was ready to give up everything I had to go out and be a part of her campaign. She's not running. Even "Run Warren Run" has suspended their efforts. But you know what? Sanders has been there the whole time, too. In fact, Sanders has been at this since the 70s. His record is there for all to see. Warren made it possible for Sanders to do what he is doing now; she first captured hearts and minds of the country on both sides of the aisle, with her laser-targeted critiques of a system that stopped working for the average person decades ago, and her razor-keep eye for who to hold accountable. There would be no Sanders for President now without Warren rising to national prominence in recent years. Warren has already had a profound impact; and frankly, with Warren in the Senate, and Sanders in the White House - my God, the possibilities are staggering.

What About Clinton?
Make no mistake, Sanders is the clear heir to Warren's progressive momentum. Clinton does not come close; she would like to persuade us that she does, but compared to Sanders she, too, seems like a plastic politician with a perfect smile and perfect hair, and too many ties to the very financial industry that left us with two wheels hanging over the cliff in the first place. She is already deeply invested in playing the game that way; she's already been compromised. On paper, she is extraordinarily qualified to be president; but she makes me uneasy, and her at times blatant imitation of Sanders does little to reassure of her sincerity (from May 10th, a piece about Sanders' litmus test for Supreme Court judges; from May 14th, a Washington Post piece about Clinton's litmus test, that at least referred to Sanders earlier stance; and, from May 18th, a NY Times piece about Clinton's litmus test, with no mention of Sanders). There have been articles touting the Democratic base's excitement about Clinton; I have not witnessed it, but have met many who express unease. Not all; I had a conversation with someone recently who said "Clinton deserves it; it's her turn. She's worked so hard." But you know what? It's no one's "turn". Ever. And no one deserves it unless they can prove it to when the time comes. No amount or preparation or hard work guarantees you the presidency, and it shouldn't. That's what American Democracy means. Simply put, Clinton is not the candidate we need. It is in comparison to the heart-striking, haplessly earnest, grounded sincerity and passion of Sanders that Clinton's political shrewdness is revealed - and ultimately found wanting. Sanders can lead a revolution - which brings us to:

How Could Sanders Possibly Get Anything Done With Such Dysfunction in Congress?
Most of Congress has been dancing to the tune of big money. Their efforts on behalf of wealthy Americans, in the name of free-market, trickle-down theories, make clear where they stand. Congress writes the laws; and as it stands now, no president could dream of getting the kinds of things done that Sanders talks about. So what is he possibly thinking? The answer is simple: Sanders is not just running for President; he is calling for a political revolution. Because it is quite true: Congress, as it stands now, would not work with Sanders. Only a grassroots effort to hold them accountable to the will of the people can succeed. Sanders can credibly lead that effort - and no other current candidate could. Not coincidentally, Sanders' Presidential campaign rests on the same principle; and in fact, itself simultaneously creates the grassroots effort that can hold Congress to account. His path as newly-elected mayor of Burlington in 1981 was through deeply obstructionist waters; the Democratically controlled city council tried to block him at every turn. For two years, he held on; he won re-election in 1983, and helped elect a more progressive city council, with whom he was able to work. There are of course vast differences of scale; but it is reasonable to suppose that that problem is a scaleable one. It remains to be seen; but Sanders is the only candidate who speaks, credibly, as someone who could accomplish building and inspiring the necessary grassroots effort. His success to date is remarkable - from very little name recognition, to 18% in the polls, and an astonishingly close second in last weekend's Wisconsin straw poll. No, he did not win; but it is tangible, undeniable evidence that he does not represent the fringe candidate many would have us believe. It is very early days, yet; his momentum is building exponentially, and seems quite likely to continue.

But... Seriously - What About All That Koch Money?
For those of you who are still doubtful that Sanders has a chance inasmuch as he won't be raking in nearly as much cash (though according to Sanders, at about 8:15 in his interview with Diane Rehm 180,000 people have donated an average of about $40), here's a little thought experiment: 200,000 people have volunteered to help his campaign. That is a staggering number. I don't know how you calculate the value of that, but let's just say each of their efforts were worth $5,000 of some billionaire's war chest (to tell the truth, I'm sure they're worth a lot more; but just for the sake of making a simple argument, let's stick with $5K). That would amount to a billion* dollars in people power. Is that even a sensible way to calculate it? Who knows? Like I say, it's a gross undervaluation in my book. That's probably much more effective than spending money at affecting people's views. But hopefully it does bring home the power of 200,000 people; and it illustrates that, where Sanders' campaign is concerned, all bets may be off - but my money is, nevertheless and wholeheartedly, squarely on him.

*CORRECTION (6/12): As Dan Goldhaber pointed out (thanks Dan), I incorrectly multiplied 200,000 x 5,000 to get 1 trillion; it should have been 1 billion, and has been corrected. LM.