Margolis: Big crowd, big ideas belie Sanders’ tiny national splash

Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders wades into the crowd after announcing his bid for the presidency. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Not a bad opening day for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.

Not a great one, mind you, but not bad at all.

With the sun just starting its descent over Lake Champlain behind him, an occasional sailboat bobbing past, the gray hills of the Adirondacks in the distance, the ambiance could have been no better had Sanders arranged for it.

And even this self-confident (“don’t underestimate me” is a regular refrain) and audacious senator (or he wouldn’t challenge a front-runner who is 50 points ahead in the polls) has never claimed super-natural powers.

Pretty good crowd, too. At least 4,000, said the police, an estimate which seemed on the low side to some experienced crowd-counters. It filled almost all the space between the platform set up near the lake and the eastern fringe of the park.

A park, as Sanders accurately claimed, he helped create when he was Burlington’s mayor in the 1980s.

By all indications, the crowd was spontaneous. No buses hired by the Sanders campaign or local unions to ferry supporters to the event. Aside from a few red-shirted young people from the nearby Vermont Workers’ Center, no organized, identifiable constituencies. These were just several thousand folks who showed up on their own.

And most important of all, the candidate gave a rather good kick-off speech. It was just a little too long (46 minutes), and contained nothing that Sanders has not been saying for weeks, if not years. But it was substantive, it was specific, and it sure wasn’t mealy-mouthed.

“Enough is enough,” Sanders said. “This great nation and its government belong to all of the people, and not to a handful of billionaires, their Super-PACs and their lobbyists.”

No one has to wonder what Bernie Sanders really thinks.

A good campaign kickoff speech lets voters know how the candidate proposes to lead the country. Sanders let them know, putting forth a detailed and unmistakable left-of-center agenda: a $15-an-hour minimum wage, “Medicare for all,” free tuition at public colleges and universities, overturn the “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision which eliminated most campaign finance limits.

Most candidates insist they will not have “litmus tests” on any specific issue when it comes to Supreme Court appointees.

Not Sanders.

“I will not nominate any justice to the Supreme Court who has not made it clear that he or she will move to overturn that disastrous decision which is undermining our democracy,” he said, and the crowd roared its approval.

So all in all, not a bad opening day.

But not without signs of the enormous challenges which confront Vermont’s independent senator as he begins his campaign against front-runner Hillary Clinton (and, any day now, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley).

Start with the crowd. It was big. It was enthusiastic. And it was very Vermont.

Bernie Sanders

Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders cheer. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Not that there weren’t plenty of out-of-staters. Some came from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and one reporter interviewed someone from West Virginia. But it was mostly local, and it was overwhelmingly white. Sanders’ message has the potential to attract disproportionately low-income minority voters. But he is running against someone who has deep and long-lasting connections with leaders of the African-American and Hispanic communities, which Sanders lacks.

In fact, it wasn’t just a Vermont crowd. It was a Chittenden County crowd – young, trendy, and largely affluent. No one appeared ill-fed, ill-clad, or ill-shod, even if many were shod in sandals.

This is an old problem for insurgent Democratic candidates. They may proclaim their devotion to the working class and the poor. But their initial support usually comes from the educated and reasonably affluent. Sanders has the credentials to overcome this problem, and his speech showed that he has a message that could appeal to less affluent voters, but it is a problem.

One he cannot solve if he cannot get his message across, and one reason his kickoff was not a huge success is that outside of Vermont, it made a rather tiny splash.

Of the national networks, only CNN and the reliably leftish MSNBC, covered the event. If their websites are reliable guides, the broadcast networks ignored the Sanders campaign kickoff, and so did most of the big newspapers.

The exception was the New York Times, but its story illustrated another obstacle facing Sanders: It isn’t just whether he gets covered, but how.

“This campaign is not about Bernie Sanders,” he said at one point. “It is not about Hillary Clinton. … This campaign is about the needs of the American people, and the ideas and proposals that effectively address those needs. … Politics in a democratic society should not be treated like a baseball game, a game show or a soap opera.”

And then, deviating slightly from his prepared text, he added, “I hope the media understands that as well.”

Either ignoring or rejecting that advice, the Times story concentrated on the sporting event/soap opera approach.

Sanders “began drawing implicit contrasts with Hillary Rodham Clinton,” the Times story began, before pointing out how far ahead she was in the polls.

John Nichols of the Nation and state Sen. Anthony Pollina talk about Sanders’ chances

She is, and no doubt what Sanders said drew those contrasts. But it’s questionable whether drawing those contrasts – as opposed to simply telling voters what kind of president he would be – was what he had in mind.

This is another problem for Sanders. For much of the national political press corps, obsessed (if hardly fond of) the former first lady, this campaign is about Hillary Clinton. At least on the Democratic side, everyone else is merely a bit player surrounding the long-running (about a quarter of a century now) soap opera of her and her family.

It will not be easy for Sanders or anyone else to make it instead a campaign “about the needs of the American people,” and less easy because he tries to inspire only by talking about the issues.

The late New York Gov. Mario Cuomo used to say that politicians “campaign in poetry but govern in prose.”

Not Sanders. He campaigns in prose. His speech was detailed and forthright, but devoid of the soaring phrase, the uplifting theme.

Somehow, he’s going to have to figure out how to make the issues inspirational.

Jon Margolis

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