The obscure is sometimes interesting. There’s an odd little book of poetry from the sixties, reissued in paperback in 1997, called Cool Reflections: Poetry for the Who, What, When, Where and Especially Why of It All – by Eugene McCarthy. Yes, that Gene McCarthy – the antiwar senator from Minnesota who did so well in the 1968 New Hampshire primary that Lyndon Johnson packed it in.
Yes, it was over. Johnson realized his own party was fed up with him. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and setting up Medicare and Medicaid and Head Start, and the War on Poverty and all the Great Society stuff, just weren’t enough to make up for escalating the Vietnam War to the point where we had more than half a million troops over there – and 1968 was the year of the Tet Offensive that showed we were not going to win that thing, ever. Even Walter Cronkite said so, on national television. And now this soft-spoken academic fellow who rose from the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party had the young folks and the core of the Democratic Party rallying to him.
Who was this guy? McCarthy had met with Che Guevara in New York City in 1964 to discuss repairing relations between the United States and Cuba – not that anything came of that. He was a flake – but the writing was on the wall. Johnson was toast. He eventually withdrew.
Bobby Kennedy saw the same writing on the wall, so he jumped in, and he did far better than “Clean Gene” – he was a Washington insider, the brother of the iconic martyred president, a former attorney general who knew how things worked and how to get things done, and he was charismatic as hell. Bobby Kennedy also had passion – he wasn’t an academic – and he wasn’t obscure, and he wasn’t a flake. Democrats realized that they could win the White House with him, so Bobby Kennedy had the 1968 presidential nomination pretty much wrapped up after he won the Democratic Primary out here in California.
McCarthy resented the hell out of him for that. McCarthy had done the hard work. He had changed the game. He had cleared the way – and Bobby Kennedy waltzed right in and took it all over, and made himself the hero. He didn’t even say thank you – and the rest is history. McCarthy eventually gave up, Kennedy was assassinated before he could leave Los Angeles for the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and in Chicago, the Democrats ignored McCarthy. They nominated Hubert Humphrey, another Washington insider – someone everyone actually knew, not some part-time poet – and then Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon. It all played out. Johnson was gone. Nixon was president for eight years. Hubert Humphrey ended up with Eugene McCarthy’s senate seat. It all came to nothing.
As for the poetry, Peter Montgomery has considered that:
It’s difficult to imagine a national political figure today quoting Walt Whitman while campaigning, as McCarthy did, or bringing along a poet, as he did with his close friend Robert Lowell, who called McCarthy a one-man Greek chorus. But McCarthy himself would admit that literary allusions did not always help on the campaign trail, as he noted in a reflection on experiencing defeat. “The most memorable morning after for me was in the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln, Nebraska. I had lost the Nebraska primary of 1968, a defeat I had thought almost certain after two campaign stops. One was at a university and the other in the heart of the land of O Pioneers! My references to Willa Cather stirred no response.”
“If any of you are secret poets,” he once joked, “the best way to break into print is to run for the presidency.”
At least they’ll take the poetry seriously, and this item goes on to discuss that poetry, including this:
Columnist George Will recalled McCarthy as a “talented poet” and suggested that in “The Tamarack,” McCarthy “surely summarized his experience” of having taken the risk to challenge Johnson and then having Kennedy jump into the race.
That poem begins with this:
The tamarack tree is the saddest tree of all;
it is the first tree to invade the swamp,
and when it makes the soil dry enough,
the other trees come and kill it.
George Will may be right about the bitter sadness in those words, but McCarthy never fit in, and Montgomery quotes McCarthy saying this:
I may have been prejudiced against lawyer members of Congress, having run against one or two and having been threatened politically by a few others, and also because my own professional background was academic, principally in the liberal arts. Good lawyers, I asserted in campaigns, can be found in the yellow pages of the telephone books. Good historians, or political and social philosophers, are not so easily found or classified.
He was something special, and he did change things, and then the political process ate him up and spit him out, leaving him more obscure than when he started. Even those of us who were in college in those days, when 1968 was our junior year, those of us who cheered him on, hardly remember him now. We remember Bobby Kennedy – the moving speech on the night Martin King was assassinated, his own assassination, and then the riots at the Chicago convention, and then Nixon winning it all. There’s no space in American politics for political and social philosophers. They’re the tamarack trees.
Now we have another one:
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled his presidential campaign Tuesday, calling for a “political revolution” to take on the moneyed interests and warning that the “grotesque level” of economic inequality in the U.S. is “immoral.”
“Today, with your support and the support of millions of people throughout this country, we begin a political revolution to transform our country economically, politically, socially and environmentally,” he said in his hometown of Burlington.
“Today, we stand here and say loudly and clearly: Enough is enough. This great nation and its government belong to all of the people, and not to a handful of billionaires,” he said.
Yes, this is about political and social philosophy, not him:
“This campaign is not about Bernie Sanders, it’s not about Hillary Clinton, it’s not about Jeb Bush or anyone else,” the gruff Vermont senator said, promising to avoid “political gossip or relentless personal attacks,” though he called out conservative billionaires including the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson in his speech.
“To the billionaire class, I say your greed has got to end,” he declared after calling for higher taxes on the wealthy, a $15 national minimum wage and $1 trillion federal jobs and infrastructure program, free universal college education and universal Medicare, saying his humble upbringing in Brooklyn taught him “what lack of money means to a family.”
Sure, Hillary has the nomination locked up, but to some, that doesn’t matter:
“Some say that voting for Bernie is throwing your vote away. I say that voting for anybody else is flushing our country down the drain,” said Ben & Jerry’s cofounder Ben Cohen as he introduced Sanders at the rally.
David Weigel further documents the mania:
A few hours before the rally where Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders would formally announce his bid for president, a hundred-odd potential supporters gathered in a circle. They took up much of the park outside city hall, where in 1981 Sanders had taken office as the first socialist mayor of Burlington. Charles Lechner, an Occupy Wall Street organizer who had started the new (and unofficial) People for Bernie, asked the crowd to speak freely. Then he gave it a try.
“Everyone who’s afraid of the word ‘socialism,’ please take a step in,” he said.
He waited a moment. A few legs wobbled, a few heads turned, but nobody took a full step.
“He can do what Hillary Clinton can’t do. He can change the composition of the electorate.”
“This is great!” laughed Lechner. “I think we’re gonna take a page from a famous political consultant. We’re gonna turn every perceived weakness of this movement into a goddamn strength.”
Weigel adds this:
Bernie Sanders has that effect on people. If progressives could design a presidential candidate to defeat Hillary Clinton, he would not be 73 years old, white, male, and from a small blue state. Yet every Sanders win has been an impossible-looking triumph. He calls himself a “democratic socialist,” a term that’s supposed to lose you elections. That description is hardly controversial in Europe, and Sanders frequently cites the EU nations as models for how America should reform itself—another idea that’s supposed to lose you elections.
Bernie Sanders does not lose. He won his two Senate terms with 65 and 71 percent of the vote. He won Chittenden County, home of Burlington, by 50 points. In Burlington, as Sanders finalized his announcement speech, some young supporters wore vintage T-shirts declaring how they had helped him win those races. Some older supporters wore “Bernie for Mayor” buttons. One even wore the slogan “As Goes Burlington, So Goes France,” coined by Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau when Francois Mitterrand followed Sanders into power in 1981.
Hillary should worry:
Bernie Sanders inspires legitimate political fandom, something Democrats looked to be done with after two terms of President Barack Obama. Like former Texas Representative Ron Paul, another septuagenarian with defiantly baggy suits, Sanders has watched a political movement build beneath him. Unlike Paul, who cast libertarian votes from a House district, Sanders has an example – Burlington – to cite whenever someone doubts that his politics can govern.
And there’s this:
After 4:30, the music quieted and a series of speakers started introducing Sanders. One of the first was Bill McKibben, the environmental writer and activist, who called the day’s surprising and persistent heat a “great spill of solar energy over this beautiful city.” He told a story about a hike that let him and his family look down on the great mountains of New Hampshire.
“Mount Washington, Mount Jefferson – maybe someday, Mount Sanders,” said McKibben. “He always means what he says, and he says what he believes.”
How could Sanders play outside of Vermont? “My guess is that most ordinary people, exposed to his message, will like him just fine,” McKibben said. “But billionaires have inordinate sway in the influence game, and they can recognize a real enemy when they see one.”
And he was off and running:
In his speech, Sanders ran through a complete social democratic agenda, from Keynesian jobs programs to single payer health care to new banking regulations. He was not trying to rebrand or repackage any of that; instead, he was betting that an electorate that never showed up had been waiting for someone to say all of this.
“He can do what Hillary Clinton can’t do,” said Tad Devine, Sanders’ chief political strategist. “He can change the composition of the electorate.”
When Sanders wrapped his speech, the PA system blasted Pete Seeger’s version of “This Land is Your Land.” Decades earlier, Sanders had talk-sung a cover of the song, and a recording had become an ironic viral hit. On Tuesday, the singing was handled by an audience of thousands, signing along as the senator shook hands and smiled at the people who’d decided to believe in him.
And he is running as a political and social philosopher:
He wants big Wall Street banks broken up. He’s willing to accept slower economic growth in return for what he’d consider a more equitable distribution of income.
“The issue we’re dealing with is actually the struggle to rebuild American democracy,” Sanders said in an interview at a Capitol Hill bistro. “Economically, over the last 40 years, we’ve seen a middle class in this country disappearing.”
“Ninety-nine percent of all new income generated today goes to the top 1 percent. The top one-tenth of 1 percent owns as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. Does anybody think this is the kind of economy we should have. Do we think it’s moral?”
He likes the big questions. He somehow thinks there’s a place in politics for those questions, all evidence to the contrary. But Steve Kornacki says don’t count Bernie Sanders out:
It’s easy to dismiss Sanders as nothing more than a niche candidate, an avowed “democratic socialist” with a diehard following on the far-left. Raising money will be a challenge and Sanders will rely heavily on modest contributions from grassroots donors. His outsider posture and distance from the Democratic establishment also means he won’t be reeling in many high-profile endorsements. (Just last week, Vermont’s Democratic governor, Peter Shumlin, snubbed Sanders and threw his support to Clinton.) Nor does Sanders have much of a campaign infrastructure in place right now.
But write him off completely at your own peril, because Sanders actually has a few things working in his favor. There’s his message, for one thing, a frontal assault on the political system and a pledge to directly combat the “billionaire class.” This is hardly new talk from Sanders, who has been on Capitol Hill for 24 years now, but the climate has shifted since the 2008 economic meltdown and income inequality, wealth concentration and corporate power are unusually prominent in the national debate. And with economic anxiety still high and rampant frustration with Washington’s paralysis, there’s a potentially wide opening for a damn-the-system crusade like Sanders is leading.
It’s more than that, though. There’s also his personality and his image – grumpy demeanor, disheveled appearance, disinterest in discussing anything not related to policy, contempt for personal questions. He is the antithesis of a packaged political candidate and his authenticity is a powerful tool. Look at it this way: Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is poised to join Sanders in the Democratic race later this week, is planning to stress many of the same economic themes as Sanders. But which one of them sounds like he means it more?
And then there’s Hillary Clinton:
All of the attributes that contribute to her strength – her bottomless bankroll, her legion of high-powered endorsers, her extensive connections to the country’s financial elite, her marriage to a former president – mark her as the embodiment of the political establishment against which Sanders defines himself. Plus, her strength has kept the Democratic Party’s brightest non-Hillary White House prospects – like, say, Elizabeth Warren – on the sidelines, making it easier for Sanders and his message to stand out.
There are practical matters that favor him too:
The venues for the lead-off contests are favorable for Sanders: Iowa and New Hampshire, two states with small, rural populations that aren’t too different from Vermont, where Sanders has now won ten statewide elections. The leftward, activist-oriented bent of Iowa’s Democratic caucus electorate is well established; it’s the state where Clinton finished in third place in 2008 the beginning of the end of her first presidential campaign. And right on Iowa’s heels will come New Hampshire, where Democrats already know Sanders as their next-door neighbor.
Realistically, Sanders could fare surprisingly well in these two states, knock the other non-Hillary candidates out of the race, then gobble up 20-to-30% in primaries and caucuses throughout the spring and arrive at the convention with hundreds of delegates – enough to command attention and shape the platform.
This might work:
Of course, you don’t subject yourself to the exhausting and occasionally humiliating rigors of a national campaign without believing on some level that maybe, somehow, you might actually strike gold. So here it is – the scenario that exists somewhere in the minds of everyone in Sanders World: He scores a breakthrough performance or two in televised debates with Clinton (there are six scheduled right now); then he finishes a surprisingly close second in Iowa, resulting in a wave of press coverage about Clinton’s sudden vulnerability, and follows it up with the unthinkable: an outright victory in New Hampshire; with that stunning, Sanders then reaps a Hart ’84/McCain ’00-like windfall of media coverage and campaign donations while party leaders begin revisiting their assumptions about the vitality of Clinton’s candidacy. And once that happens …
You can decide where in that scenario the thinking shifts from hopeful to delusional, but the one-in-a-gazillion shot where it all works out is the fuel that keeps every longshot campaign chugging along. And while it’s true that we’ve never seen a frontrunner like Hillary Clinton before, we haven’t quite seen an underdog like Bernie Sanders either.
Slate’s Jamelle Bouie continues that thought:
Where Hillary is well-known (and to many women, an icon), he is obscure. Where she embodies the establishment, he is on its outskirts, a self-identified “socialist” from the liberal enclave of Burlington, Vermont. Where she gives six-figure speeches, he is among the “poorest” members of the Senate with a net worth of roughly $460,000. She plans to run a $2 billion campaign; he hopes to raise $50 million.
And where Clinton is in the middle of the mainstream, Sanders has been an iconoclast for decades. As a House member, he co-founded the Congressional Progressive Caucus, opposed both wars in Iraq, and voted against the Patriot Act. As a senator for Vermont since 2007, he’s criticized the bank bailouts, voted against Tim Geithner’s nomination for Treasury Secretary, and gave a nearly nine-hour speech against a partial extension of the Bush tax cuts.
Now, as a candidate in the Democratic nomination race, he’s an advocate for the left wing of the party. “I am not running against Hillary Clinton,” he said in a recent interview with the Washington Post. Instead, he’s launching a crusade – against inequality, against Wall Street, and against the “billionaire class” that he claims dominates American politics. “Billionaire families are now able to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to buy the candidates of their choice,” he says on his campaign website. “These people own most of the economy. Now they want to own our government as well.”
This is more than rhetoric. To Sanders, the economy isn’t just unequal – it’s rigged, with the richest Americans using their resources to tilt the board in their direction. “Ninety-nine percent of all new income generated today goes to the top 1 percent,” he said in a recent interview with CNBC’s John Harwood. “Top one-tenth of 1 percent owns as much as wealth as the bottom 90 percent.” To reverse this “massive transfer of wealth” from the middle class to the very top, Sanders wants high tax rates (“If my memory is correct, when radical socialist Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, the highest marginal tax rate was something like 90 percent”) and substantial redistribution.
This agenda, and Sanders’ diagnosis, has real appeal in the Democratic Party. Seventy-one percent of Democrats want high taxes to fund programs for the poor, and 37 percent blame tax and economic policies for the gap between the rich and everyone else. As for the senator himself? Of the non-Clinton candidates in the Democratic primary, he’s the most popular, holding more support than Jim Webb, Martin O’Malley, and Lincoln Chafee combined. Then again, this is a bit like being the best featherweight boxer in a ring with Mike Tyson. You are going to lose, and it will be painful.
Indeed, it’s hard to see how Sanders and his left-wing advocacy can pull Clinton to the left when, outside of debates, she can safely ignore his campaign.
Life is hard, or politics is, so there’s only this:
For liberals, the test of the 2016 Democratic race is whether the left needs a strong candidate to pull the establishment to its side. Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are promising, but there’s no guarantee they can do the job. But then, that’s not the only gauge for success. So far, Clinton has been silent on the economy, focusing on issues like immigration and criminal justice reform where there’s broad consensus in the Democratic Party. For the likely nominee of the party, this is unacceptable.
If they do anything, Sanders and Warren will challenge Clinton to give her full views on inequality and articulate a vision for the shape of the American economy. It will open up the conversation. And compared with a world where Clinton is tight-lipped on her commitments, that’s a win.
Sure, and by that measure Eugene McCarthy won big. In the end, even the hapless Hubert Humphrey was saying many of the things that Eugene McCarthy had been saying all along – and Humphrey lost. We got Richard Nixon. But someone has to drain the swamp. That’s what those sad tamarack trees are for. And then the other trees kill them. Someone wrote a poem about that, by the way.