Margolis: Bernie’s bid is no laughing matter (+ video)

Editor’s note: Jon Margolis is VTDigger’s political columnist.

Don’t laugh.

It’s no joke, this Bernie Sanders-for-president business. It is serious politics, serious enough to change the Democratic Party and the national conversation.

If it has not already done so.

Here’s the thing to remember about presidential nominating contests: the process creates its own dynamic. But the process cannot begin until there is a contest, until there are at least two candidates. Until Thursday, there was one – Hillary Rodham Clinton. Now there are two. Now the process begins, and once it begins, it can end anywhere.

End up with Vermont’s independent senator as the next president of the United States, or even as next year’s Democratic nominee?

Oh, probably not. Just look at all the objective evidence. He is so far behind front-running Clinton in national polls that it makes no sense to count the margin. He’s only a bit closer in the early deciding states of Iowa (50 points behind) and New Hampshire (33 points behind Clinton, and running third). Her campaign is talking about raising a billion dollars or more. His can’t come close to matching that.

So the conventional wisdom, as determined by Washington political analysts who pay close attention to polls and to fundraising, is that Sanders is not really running to win. He’s running to pull the Democrats – and especially Clinton – to the left.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., announces his intention to run for president in 2016. C-SPAN screenshot
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., announces his intention to run for president in 2016. C-SPAN screenshot

The conventional wisdom should not be casually dismissed. It is usually correct. Otherwise, it wouldn’t become conventional.

But one area in which it is often wrong is presidential politics, especially when it comes to Democratic nominations. The Washington wise men (they were almost all men then) were sure that George McGovern could not win his party’s nomination in 1972, or Jimmy Carter four years later. Just eight years ago, conventional wisdom knew exactly who would be the Democratic nominee in 2008: Hillary Clinton.

Besides, Sanders doesn’t need to run to pull his party and its eventual nominee to the left (if “left” is even the accurate term here). It has already been pulled. Sanders has been one of the pullers, but hardly the only one. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (she’s the one running second to Clinton in that New Hampshire poll) has been another.

But neither of them has been as persuasive as reality. After decades of wage stagnation and escalating inequality of both wealth and income, many voters – especially but not exclusively Democratic voters – appear receptive to a candidate who makes higher wages and tighter control of campaign spending central to his campaign, and whose still-embryonic website notes that it is “paid for by Bernie 2016, not the billionaires.”

In short, what has become known as “the progressive wing of the Democratic Party,” is now the dominant wing of the Democratic Party. That helps explain why Clinton, in announcing her campaign, proclaimed herself the champion of “everyday Americans.” So a candidate whose motto “A political revolution is coming,” is emblazoned across the top of the Sanders campaign website, may be onto something.

Not surprisingly, Sanders disputes the conventional wisdom. “I am running in this election to win,” he said.

As do they all. And they all mean it. One reason they mean it is that it would be insane to put oneself through the ordeal of a campaign without thinking that victory is at least a slim possibility.

Another reason is that victory is always at least a slim possibility.

Slim indeed in this case, but before confusing “slim” with “none,” consider another weakness of the conventional wisdom, much of it based on poll results — fundraising — and the same people talking to one another at the same few Washington watering holes.

This is not meant as scorn; it comes from someone who was once one of those talkers at those Washington watering holes. But think of what is left out of those factors on which the conventional wisdom is based: voters.

Yes, voters are the people who get polled, and the polls – as a snapshot of public opinion – are generally accurate and useful tools. But right now, the vast majority of voters are not paying much attention. If history has shown anything, it is that when they do start paying attention, millions of them change their minds.

And especially in the early primary and caucus states, they have a habit of switching to the kind of candidate who gets their juices flowing, who inspires them, who appeals to their emotions.

Democratic voters like and admire Hillary Clinton. But as one Vermont Democrat noted, “She does not get their feet stomping.” Sanders does.

As it happens, the political calendar is set up to favor a candidate who can get the voters’ feet stomping. The process begins with Iowa’s precinct caucuses, where turnout is low in general, but high among the most passionate voters. For Democrats, that means union members, social issue liberals and anti-war voters who may remember Clinton’s vote to approve the war in Iraq, which Sanders opposed. Then comes the first primary in New Hampshire, a Sanders’ neighbor and where the senator plans to be this weekend.

But success in a caucus also requires putting together an organization capable of convincing, cajoling and sometimes ferrying voters to the caucus sites. An organization requires money. Clinton will have a lot more of that.

Sanders faces more problems. He is not really the favorite of most liberal Democrats. Warren is. She seems determined not to run, but there are still active Democrats trying to change her mind.

After New Hampshire, the contest moves to South Carolina and other states where much of the Democratic electorate is made up of African-Americans, many of whom retain a fierce commitment to President Bill Clinton, half-jokingly described by the celebrated black author Toni Morrison as “our first black president.”

And while Democratic voters want to stomp their feet, they also want to win. Right now, the polls show Clinton ahead of all the Republican contenders in almost all the swing states. That’s a powerful message.

Still, in the early contests, Sanders will get to stand with Clinton on debate platforms and make his case. As he showed against Republican Rich Tarrant in 2006, Sanders is a skilled debater. But Tarrant, who had never before run for office – and showed it – was not nearly as formidable a debating foe as Clinton.

Then there’s age. Sanders is 73. No one that old has ever been elected for the first time (Ronald Reagan was 73 when he was re-elected). At the end of a long campaign day, a 73-year-old man can get tired enough to say something foolish. Clinton is 67.

The best-case scenario for Sanders is strong showings – perhaps even victories? – in Iowa and New Hampshire.

And then?

And then, anything can happen, including (unlikely as this seems now) an “Anybody but Bernie” movement among Democrats who worry that the rumpled-haired populist with a Brooklyn accent who still refuses to reject the label “socialist” (though he really isn’t) would lose in November.

So a strong Sanders showing could end up benefiting another candidate – Warren, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (if he has not been fatally damaged by this week’s rioting in Baltimore, where he was mayor), former Virginia Sen. James Webb, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, or someone else.

Either way, the process has now begun. It will create its own dynamic, whatever that will be.

That’s why this is no joke.

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Jon Margolis

About Jon

Jon Margolis is VTDigger's columnist. He is the author of The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964, left the Chicago Tribune early in 1995 after 23 years as Washington correspondent, sports writer, correspondent-at-large and general columnist. Margolis spent most of his Tribune years in the Washington Bureau as the newspaper’s chief national political correspondent. In 1988, he was a one of the journalists asking questions of Senators Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle in their televised vice presidential debate. Before joining the Tribune in 1973, Margolis had been the Albany Bureau Chief for Newsday. He was the first reporter on the scene of the Attica prison rebellion in 1971, and spent the entire first night inside the prisoner-held “D” yard. Earlier, Margolis was a reporter for the Bergen Record in Hackensack, N.J.; the Miami Herald and the Concord Monitor (N.H.). In addition to The Last Innocent Year, published by William Morrow in 1999, he is the author of How To Fool Fish With Feathers: An Incompleat Guide to Fly Fishing (Simon and Schuster, 1991) and The Quotable Bob Dole — Witty, Wise and Otherwise, (Avon Books, 1995). He also wrote two chapters of Howard Dean: A citizens Guide to the Man Who Would be President (Steerforth, 2003). A native of New Jersey, Margolis graduated from Oberlin College in 1962. He served in the US Army.

Email: [email protected]

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  • Nick Spencer

    Got to say, not a big Bernie fan, but his five minute press conference today was brilliant, and very hard for either party to ignore. His message has been consistant, and something Americans on either side of the aisle could relate to, he will be a force in the next election. As always. preaches that success and profit is evil, but paints it in a way the success is always built on the backs of others regardless of the risk you took to start your business. Nevertheless, glad he is in, and should make for an interesting election. Sure wouldn’t want to debate him on a National Stage, he will rip most other candidates apart.

  • Kelly Cummings

    I love Bernie’s passion for the ordinary person. He’s not faking it and that showed, bright and true, at his press conference today.

    He is indeed, a people’s candidate.

    Regardless of party affiliation, he has something in common with every common man and woman out there.

    A true man of the people.

    I think I would, very much, like to try that for a change.

    President Sanders.

    Sounds good to me.

  • Walter Carpenter

    “A true man of the people.

    I think I would, very much, like to try that for a change.”

    Me too. It’s about time.

  • Bill Peberdy

    “The conventional wisdom should not be casually dismissed. It is usually correct. Otherwise, it wouldn’t become conventional.”

    Well everybody says so at least-and since the Earth was flat this has been the case.

  • John McClaughry

    VTDigger’s headline – though not Margolis – describes Sanders as a “quasi socialist”. If Bernie is a “quasi socialist”, who’s a real socialist? Eugene V. Debs (whose picture hung on Bernie’s office wall)? Or maybe Clifton deBerry, the Socialist Workers Party presidential candidate of 1980, for whom Bernie was a Presidential elector (and garnered 75 votes)?


    Bernie is in PERFECT position and his move is perfectly timed, his message perfect for the times.

    I think he will be elected.

    2LT Dennis Morrisseau USArmy [armor – Vietnam era] retired. POB 177 W Pawlet, VT 05775 -802 645 9727 [email protected]

  • thomas Karov

    Bernie is for, by, and of the People. I hope to see this man in the “White House”.

  • Ann Raynolds

    Bernie Sanders’ message is the one we need, the one I’ve been shouting myself for decades. Thank you Bernie for being out there running. I’ve already signed up … all of us small donors will count. I urge others to go to his website and pledge your support!

  • Ed Deegan

    I would not be betting on this race. About a year ago I was talking to a good friend in California, he is 61 years old white male and his take on it was that Bernie would take California. There are a lot of independent voters in this country, I’m one of them, that are sick and tired of the status quo and corrupt nature of things. Bernie may not be able to fix things but he certainly can keep the spot light on them. I will be writing a check to him, ALL FOUR of my sons will be supporting him and writing checks to him.The young demographic is likely to support him and a lot of independents including 50+ white males. GO BERNIE!

  • Lyle M. Miller, Sr.

    Bernie is not a friend of the people. He is a socialist but want to try and change his spots in an effort to try and get elected. He belongs in Cuba or China with his form of politics.

  • Chris Blaise

    I find these claims curious that Sanders will “pull Clinton leftward”.

    I think what Sanders has to say is important and vital to our futures. He sincerely stands up to the middle class, the poor, vets, and so on. His message about ever increasing income inequality is critical at this time.

    But what evidence is there that Clinton will do anything about those messages than strongly support them rhetorically in her campaign and ignore them if she is elected President?

    Obama ginned up the base with leftist rhetoric in in both of his campaigns and ended up not following through with any it. Campaign promises such as single payer healthcare and reforming the poisoned banking system were later excused with “Yes we can, but…” once he was elected. He couldn’t even be bothered to put on a show of fighting for these issues. I fail to see how Clinton will do any differently and predict that history will repeat itself.

    Let’s use Sanders to get his important messages out to our friends and neighbors to get them involved in our political process by being informed and voting. But let’s not set ourselves up for crushing disappointment by believing that his presence will actually or effectively pull Clinton leftward to address these issues.

  • Jim Christiansen

    I’m glad he’s in.

    However, career politician aside, I don’t believe that another old white guy, cheered by other old white guys is the solution to our countries difficulties.

  • Kathy Nelson

    Bernie’s comments are not “laughable”, they are ridiculous. Many of the comments here on the Digger prove that people are not looking at this man’s record and are not really listening to what he says. They are just hearing what they want to hear.

    Bernie was booted off the Veterans Committee because the outrageous corruption within the VA was shown to be being ignored…on Bernie’s watch.

    Bernie takes aim at billionaire Koch brothers for financing campaigns but fails to focus on billionaire Tom Steyer, hemorrhaging funds into democrat campaigns. All in the name of increasing his wealth through taxpayer subsides by forcing wind and solar junk renewables based on the politically created theory of anthropogenic global warming.

    Bernie’s climate change rants no longer hold water. Everyone knows the climate changes, and most people now understand how that issue has been used as a political weapon. A weapon Bernie cannot successfully wield as its edge has dulled to insignificance.

    It is time for drastic changes in DC. VT does not need the apathy and foolishness of its present delegation, and neither does the rest of the country.

    • Ron Pulcer


      Regarding: “Bernie was booted off the Veterans Committee because …”

      Perhaps it was because the Senate leadership changed from Sen. Reid to Sen. McConnell?

      Bernie has long supported Veterans. The problems with the VA scandal, in part, started with invasion and occupation of Iraq, without Congress and Bush/Cheney actually paying for wars (just adding it to the Federal Debt via “Continuing Resolutions”, never putting war spending in the budget).

      Congress abdicated role in declaring war to Bush/Cheney in 2002-2003. Congress should have started to plan for veteran’s healthcare spending way back in 2003. Bernie was not in charge of Senate Veteran’s Committee from 2003 – 2012. Sanders was only in charge of Senate Veterans Committee since 2013.

      Congress “as a whole”, both parties are responsible for situation with Veterans Administration. Both parties, Democrats and Republicans are responsible for not planning for ramping up Veterans Healthcare resources, especially once it was known that the Iraq War would not be a “slam dunk”, but a long drawn out quagmire.

      • Tom Brown

        Sen. Sanders lost his chairmanship of Veterans Affairs when the GOP took over the Senate majority this session. Sanders is still a member of the committee.

  • Predictability, the libertarian/right wing pundits will be using the term “socialist” in the most negative connotations to describe Bernie and his politics that would favor the vast majority of Americans. What they won’t say is that we already have ‘so-called “socialism” for the wealthy and large multi-national corporations. “Too big to fail” or “too big for jail, “citizens united,” and tax codes that favor the 1% of the 1% are the 21st Century’s versions of socialism and are only some examples.

    What many of the above pundits really are promoting is a return to 19th century “laissez-faire” capitalism to the detriment of the average citizen.

  • ray giroux

    Be careful what you wish for folks. This could end up like that “Feliciano” moment, getting just enough votes to give the undesired a win.

    Bernie will sound like an “Obama”, promising things and saying things that everyone wants to hear – then, if elected, not being able to deliver.

    What will Bernie do about Os bombing policies and the mess…over there? I hope he has a good long explanation and position on the US Imperialism….World wide. It’s not right!

    NSA spying, open boarders, endless war, the Benghazi scandal, Lois Lerners emails, Hillary’s emails, Fast and Furious – on and on.

    I hope everyone listens carefully to this man when he speaks. Be careful what you wish for.

  • Fred Moss

    Put aside how I feel about his politics for a moment; if he is really, truly, for the “people” he will slam, slam ,slam Hillary Clinton on the scam surrounding the Clinton Foundation and the billions in foreign money ( some from Governments), that they acquired while she was Secretary of State. Remember the private emails server?? Now we know what she was hiding.
    If he does not attack her for this, he is a hot air balloon and nothing more. So far he has failed. He said he respects her and mentions only the Koch brothers. Time will tell.

  • Josh Fitzhugh

    If Bernie gets traction in Iowa or NH, I predict Warren gets into the race. No way he will become President.

    • Fred Woogmaster

      If Bernie gets enough traction in Iowa and New Hampshire all bets are off.

      There is no chart for this course!

  • Peter Yankowski

    The only thing Bernie will accomplish with this stunt is to bring ridicule to Vermont.

    The ridicule started Saturday night at the White House Press Correspondence Dinner when President Obama said:

    “Bernie Sanders might run. I like Bernie. Bernie’s an interesting guy. Apparently some folks want to see a pot-smoking socialist in the White House,” ‘Obama said, referring to the Vermont senator’s interest in a campaign for the White House in 2016.”

    A sad reflection on Vermont and it’s citizens by the President. Meanwhile commentaries in the New York Times and Boston Global in the past couple of days have painted Bernie in unflattering terms. This early commentary will only worsen in time as Bernie tours the country spouting his far left philosophies in true Sanders fashion.

    Vermont is struggling to bring businesses and jobs to Vermont to improve it’s economy and what the state offers as a lure are the antics of Bernie Sanders, Howard Dean appearing on national television continually making outrageous comments and Gov. Shumlin broadcasting the state’s drug problems that garner ugly front page news coverage in the New York Times.

    As long as Vermont has the likes of Sanders, Dean and Shumlin out front as the face of Vermont this state will remain a joke and in trouble. President Obama said as much Saturday night.

    • What do you expect the threatened Obama and the status quo to say?

      The revolution will not be funded,
      at no more than a few bucks a throw.

    • “As long as Vermont has the likes of Sanders, Dean and Shumlin out front as the face of Vermont this state will remain a joke and in trouble. ”

      Many skeptics said the same thing about Obama in “O8” As far as jokes go it will hard to beat some of the line up of Republican candidates in 2012..

    • Fred Woogmaster

      “Remain a joke”, Mr. Yankowski? I disagree with your premise.

      Like him or not, Bernie is a unique political figure. He has carved his own way, in his own way, for many years. He has been consistent in offering his point of view about the widening gap between haves and have-nots.

      Unique, also, is that he has been elected and re-elected by those of all persuasions – including those of the far left and the far right – prioritizing justice and human rights above partisan politics.

      Comparison to Peter Shumlin and/or Howard Dean, Mr. Yankowski? Unique is unique; the “real deal” is rare.

      In my view, Bernie Sanders is the real deal.

    • Ron Pulcer

      Regarding the above-mentioned President / candidate’s use of marijuana, let’s not forget George W. Bush’s use of cocaine.


  • robert bristow-johnson

    Well, Burlington Vermont produces two serious presidential candidates already in the 21st century.

    One was the “presumptive Democratic nominee” and began to crash-and-burn after receiving the endorsements of Al Gore and Tom Harkin (4 years later, I think the Iowan Dems started to figure out their mistake). But this candidate made a big comeback as the national DNC Chair developing a “50-state strategy” that was successfully used by the current President in 2008. And, ironically, the President and his henchman (now the Chicago mayor) didn’t like this Dem leader, despite the fact that he was right about the politics (in 2004) and a winning strategy all along, and drove him from party office. Who woulda thunk it?

    The other candidate beget from Burlington is considered to have “probably” no chance, is scorned by some as being some kinda “nutty pinko”, but if you examine the content of what he has to say, doesn’t sound so off the wall to me.

    It’s a crap shoot. Maybe Dems in the U.S. will tire of another political dynasty. Who’s it gonna be in 16 years? Chelsea Clinton vs. either Jenna or Barbara Bush?

    Maybe that, along with her age (she’ll be 69 at Election Day and will be as old as Ronnie Ray-Gun in office, I think they would be the two oldest fossils in the Oval Office in U.S. history),

    … along with her liabilities (not just Benghazi etc., remember those subpoenaed Whitewater billing records that Hillary just couldn’t seem to find that appeared mysteriously on top of a stack of papers in the private residence two years later? Hillary hasn’t come clean with that.)

    … along with the fact that her message often just does not resonate with common sense (remember in 2008 she jumped on board with the Gas Tax Holiday that candidate Obama rightly dismissed as a “gimmick”?),

    … maybe all these things will add up again in 2015/16 (as they did in 2007/8) and permanently end Hillary’s desperate repeat attempt to make history by becoming the first female President of the United States. That distinction should be left to a more deserving woman (like Elizabeth Warren) who does it on her own merit and not on the coattails of her family. We’re tired of this dynasty crap.

  • Fred Woogmaster

    The modification of our capitalistic system is essential if Democracy is to be preserved and if the voice of the people is to be restored.

    The climate for the advancement of greed must be abridged. Elections must be determined on the basis of merit not on the basis of the power of money.

    Bernie Sanders was the “canary in the goldmine” many years ago. Now he has many followers who hear him; agreement with him on the need to repeal ‘Citizens United’ is growing.

    Who knows? There is no chart for this course. Some of those (certainly not all) who are negatively disposed towards Bernie, may have never listened to him. Listen. You might be quite surprised.

  • Fred Moss

    When Bernie slams Hillary over the Clinton Foundation and her private sever while Secretary of State, then he will become believable. Until then, he is only playing.

    • Fred Woogmaster

      He may not have “slammed” her but he has expressed an unfavorable opinion about the Foundation’s activities, Mr. Moss.

      I heard it on a Sunday political show – probably – not necessarily – Face the Nation.

    • Ron Pulcer

      Bernie doesn’t have to do it. That’s the media’s job.

      Just last week, John Stewart (comedian, not a journalist) did a segment on Bernie’s declaration as a candidate. But much of the segment was about the Clinton Foundation. We also learned that Chelsea Clinton gets $75K in speaking fees. One of her favorite causes was the issue of … (you will just have to watch it yourself).

      Pointing out the Clinton Foundation donations and what affect they might or might not have on our legislative process or foreign policy, is the job of the MEDIA.

  • Fred Moss

    Unfavorable?? When he attacks the Clinton foundation ( most certainly illegal activity) in the same way he attacks citizens ( Koch brother-legal activity) I will be slightly impressed.

    • Fred Woogmaster

      Of course he won’t approach them in the same way. No discerning person would.

      Are you even open to being ‘slightly impressed’, Mr. Moss? It sounds like you have reached a conclusion.

  • Fred Moss

    I’m open minded, are you? No discerning person would expect them to approach it the same way??? Why?? What Clinton has been doing is illegal. What the Koch brothers do, is legal.

    Sounds like you are not open minded.

    • John Baker

      Sometimes an open mind is like a empty trash can just waiting to be filled with garbage that random people drop in it.

      Exactly what law(s) did future President Hillary Clinton break?

  • Paul Lorenzini

    I support Bernie 100%, nothing could be better for VT.