Presidential Campaign

Is Bernie Sanders the next George McGovern?

Francis Rivera

In 1972, a senator who was from a small state ran for president. Everybody wrote him off as a dreamer, but this very long shot had a big issue. That issue was the Vietnam War.

George McGovern of South Dakota rode that issue all the way to the Democratic Party nomination. I witnessed that journey firsthand. I was working for Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-Maine). Muskie was considered by almost everyone in the know as a shoo-in. I distinctly remember asking the influential columnist Joseph Kraft about Muskie’s chances and he replied, “He’s the only game in town.”

{mosads}Right now, although it is still very early, Hillary Clinton is considered “the only game in town.” But Sanders does distinctly remind me of McGovern in ’72. Before we ruminate about the similarities, let’s list all the negatives and baggage that the Sanders candidacy carries.

First, the man is a socialist. He doesn’t run away from that label; he embraces it. He has never been elected as a Democrat. The last prominent, well-known socialist to run for president was Norman Thomas. The one before him was Eugene Debs. Both ran many, many times and neither won any state or received electoral votes.

To most American voters, being a socialist sounds and feels foreign, or worse, scary. The word conjures up some cerebral left-bank ideologue. To others, it is interchangeable with the word “communist.” Having the moniker “socialist” is in no way a plus. Even a more favorable label, populist, is deemed nice, but unelectable.

Second, the man has no base. Vermont is not a base, with only three electoral votes.

Third, the man is too old. Seventy-three years old. Enough said.

Fourth, he is Jewish. We have never had a Jewish president or even a Jewish vice president. (Former Sen. Joe Lieberman [D-Conn.] couldn’t even bring Florida to then-Vice President Al Gore, notwithstanding the Pat Buchanan Palm Beach County ballot fiasco.) Jews are 2 percent of the population and even though they vote in great numbers in the big states, there are plenty of people who don’t want to see a Jewish president. (It’s not politically correct to say it, but it is definitely a factor.)

Fifth, he’s “too Brooklyn” — which is a euphemism for “too New York.” His accent gives him away and he won’t tone it down.

Sixth, he has no senatorial record. No important or significant legislation bears his name or stamp.

And finally, he doesn’t look presidential. Universally described as scruffy — polite, but not appropriately turned out.

Sanders’s greatest strength is what he has to say. Wages are stagnant, people don’t feel economically secure, and they don’t trust or believe in the big financial institutions. Sanders, by his words and sincerity, and most of all by his angry tone and inflection, clearly demonstrates that he feels their pain and is on their side.

Not one fellow senator has endorsed him. But that’s almost a badge of honor. He is the ultimate anti-establishment candidate. Being the anti-establishment candidate in the Democratic Party has always counted for something when it comes to the nominating process.

Before he even announced his candidacy, I wrote a column in February in which I treated him more as a curiosity or an interesting novelty, but not really as a serious candidate. He has proven me wrong.

Everyone is startled and downright amazed by the huge crowds he has drawn so early in his campaign. Those crowds mean something. There is Clinton fatigue and Clinton doubt. She hasn’t sewn it up; the nomination isn’t a lock.

Sanders has a long way to go. Can he raise the money to last? Can he draw the same enthusiasm when he has to compete in the big states? Has he peaked? Where are the black votes?

All I know is that fear and anger are all too present in the American voter. Sanders is speaking in clear English to that anxiety and uncertainty. He has pointed out the bad guys and says he will take them on. At this point, Democratic presidential candidates Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee are not perceived as the alternative to Clinton. Only Sanders claims that mantle.

All McGovern talked about in ’72 was the war in Vietnam, that he would get us out, and fast. Sanders is on to something that grips the Democratic Party voter. He is their messenger. The issue of economic inequality and economic unfairness, of being left behind and ignored and forgotten, is a powerful message.

Sanders is serious. The issue is serious. He needs to be taken seriously. No longer small potatoes, he is a big deal.

Plotkin is a political analyst, a contributor to the BBC on American politics and a columnist for The Georgetowner.

Tags 2016 Democratic primary 2016 presidential campaign Bernie Sanders Democratic Party democratic socialist Edmund Muskie George McGovern socialist Vietnam war

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