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.

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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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  • Bel Salton

    The best thing about a Bernie candidacy is that it more than anything will help keep Hillary from winning. That is a good thing.

    • Andi Rosin

      It will keep Hillary from winning only if he gets the nomination, which I am hoping he will. If he does not, then she will be the nominee and has every bit as good a chance of winning as the Repubs do. As does Bernie as well. The primary will decide who the nominee is, and that person will go one on one with the Repub. nominee for the presidency.

  • Christopher Teel

    He doesn’t need soaring rhetoric to get people behind him because his integrity and the issues he champions speak for themselves. The public is sick of spit-shine, empty-suit company men who pivot and prevaricate their way into office.

    Although the mainstream media, party elites, and big-money donors are all focused on either the horse-race or picking the winning horse, he can turn that to his advantage. The people will know authenticity when they see it, if only because they see it so rarely, and, with apologies to Victor Hugo, there is nothing more powerful than a Bernie whose time has come.

  • Annette Smith

    I was watching network news last night, I think it was NBC that covered Sanders. So it isn’t accurate to say only CNN and MSNBC covered it. Didn’t last long, but it was on the evening news of a major network yesterday.

    It will not be easy for the mainstream media to ignore Bernie. Whatever you think of him, he is going to make this campaign much more interesting and entertaining.

  • Bel Salton

    From Bernie on CNBC: “You don’t necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers when children are hungry in this country.”

    Heady talk when Bernie love-niks Ben & Jerry have HOW many flavors of ice cream? Right. We only need the choices the Bernie wants us to have!

  • Keith Stern

    Only $15 an hour minimum wage? Why stop there? Make it $20 so everyone makes a comfortable living. Of course no jobs will be lost because of it, Bernie wouldn’t allow it.
    Talk is cheap but dealing in reality is tough. That separates the posers from the leaders.

  • Pam Ladds

    What a snide and pointless piece of….prose this was! Damn with faint praise. Is Bernie perfect – No. Does he have some good ideas? Yes. Does he raise issues we should be confronting, talking about head on? Yes! So Mr Margolis, you want a performer, an Evangelical Minister who will uplift us? Get over it! I’ll settle for a dose of reality.

  • Janice Prindle

    I think Bernie’s theme is plenty clear and inspiring, but if he feels the need for a slogan, here’s one that turns an old Vermont conservative whine into a new progressive vision: Take back America! Take back democracy!

    That’s what he’s trying to do. We get it.

  • Wayne Andrews

    400o votes on roller blades, whippee!!!!!
    Are these the same billionaires that brought us the news stations, computers, automobiles, satelite TV, telephones, advanced medicine and entertainment? If so, please bring on more!

    • Keith Stern

      Wayne you’re missing the most important one: JOBS

    • If more of the multi million and billionaires were like Warren Buffet, Vanguard’s Jack Bogle and some others who realize that inequities exist and have a social conscience, half the battle would be won. Instead, to0 many others try to rig the system so they don’t pay their fair share and buy political policy so we end up with Citizens United, off shore accounts and favorable tax codes all of which perpetuate the current system. Their mantra is Gordon Gecko’s “Greed is Good.”

      • Keith Stern

        Blame the legislators from both parties for allowing off shore accounts, a post office box for company headquarters to avoid taxes, and favorable tax codes to avoid taxes. The CEOs and the mega rich didn’t write the tax codes they use it to their advantage. I read Perfectly Legal many years ago now that listed tax loopholes and to my knowledge none of them have been eliminated.

      • Jan van Eck

        Your enthusiasm for Warren Buffet is quite misplaced. Buffett owns Clayton Homes, a grotesque abuser of and predator on the very poor and the most vulnerable in our society. Clayton builds, sells, and finances internally “mobile homes,” which due to a quirk in the legal system are considered personal property, not real property, and thus can be “repossessed” same as an auto. Fall behind on the payment, and you come home to a pit, with the entire home ripped off the foundation, the utility lines hack-sawn through. Your household goods and your equity are vaporized. Just lovely.

        The right-wing and quite conservative magazine “HousingWire” denounces Buffett as a “poser – posing as a friend of the poor but exploiting them.” He is a “vulture capitalist,” a “hypocrite,” and runs a “loan shark operation.” This from a very Republican news outlet.

        Buffet charges inflated interest rates for junk trailers sold at huge markup, making hundreds of millions for himself on the backs of the very poor, the most vulnerable among us. But hey, he goes to Church out there in Nebraska quite faithfully, so he must have made his peace with abusing the poor. http://www.housingwire.com/blogs/1-rewired/post/33777-warren-buffett-and-clayton-homes-the-real-vulture-capitalists

        I am disgusted with Warren Buffett. He gives capitalism a bad name, and he perverts and distorts capitalism in order to hurt others – for money that means nothing to him, but is the world to those he steals from. I loathe Warren Buffett.

        Buffett was once asked why he bought the BNSF railroad. He replied: “Railroads are an unregulated monopoly. I can charge what I want.” Do you seriously want to live next door to this vulture, this disgusting predator, this money-changer in the temple? Buffett has good PR spin; strip that away, and the man is a pig.

        Jan van Eck
        DJ Engineering

        • Neil Johnson

          Monopolies are the problem. Large corporations and wealth are not. When you have several large corporations, with great minds behind them competing for the consumer you have a wonderfully American experience. When you get into monopolies, you create old school kingdoms and the citizens lose.

        • Neil Johnson

          Perhaps he needs to watch it’s a Wonderful Life 500 times. It’s not very becoming building your wealth by taking advantage of people, life is hard enough. He could be making similar money and building people up, they’d become more prosperous and buy bigger properties from him and all would be better off. He might go to church, but what are his actions? Doesn’t absolve the other work he’s done.

  • If Bernie’s message gets real coverage from the mainstream media, he will at the very least wake up the middle class from its complacency. Too many of us feel we have no control over the status quo, which is one of the reasons why the voter turnout is so low.
    However, it’s a big IF when we have billionaires like Sumner Redstone who has controlling interests in Viacom/CBS. And of course there’s Fox News/Rupert Murdoch, another billionaire, that will do its best to destroy Bernie’s chances probably by red baiting.

    • Jim Christiansen

      Bernie is still the junior Senator from a very small state who has historically championed ideas out of the political mainstream. Since Vermont is not the center of the political universe and most Americans have moved into summer mode, I believe he is currently receiving the media attention he deserves.

  • Fred Moss

    Ben Carson for President!!!!!

    I would love to see Ben Carson debate Bernie.

  • Ron Pulcer

    Mr. Margolis,

    Keep in mind the other side of the aisle, with at least two dozen Republican Presidential candidates. Some of them will have an even tougher time than Bernie to get national media attention.

    Just this morning, I heard that Rick Santorum, who actually won Iowa Caucus in 2012 (after recount), might not be allowed to appear in August debate on Fox News. The TV stages can only accommodate around 10 candidates, so Fox is using the last 5 polls as their criteria of who to invite.


    The Democrats will only have a mere handful of candidates, if you include O’Malley, Webb and Chaffee. So in a debate of 5 Democrats versus a debate of 10 or more Republicans, the Democratic candidates will each get more air time then the Republican candidates to answer their questions. Or, the Republicans will have fewer questions to answer, given the number of candidates.

    While nearly every pundit is saying that “Bernie can’t win”, I have not heard a single media mind-reader say “which” Republican candidate has “no chance of winning”. In such a crowded field, on average, a Republican candidate will likely get fewer votes than Bernie. I suspect more reporters will be assigned to cover the Republican candidates, given there are so many of them.


    Take a look at this list of 26 “declared” Republican candidates. Some of them, most people have never even heard of. At least Bernie has “some” name recognition.

    Do you think Skip Andrews will win? What about Michael Bickelmeyer or Kerry Bowers?

  • Pete Novick

    After losing the nomination for the presidency at the 1912 Republican convention to William Howard Taft, whom Theodore Roosevelt had personally selected to follow him to the presidency in the 1908 election, Roosevelt ran as the most successful third party candidate in American electoral history, as the head of the Progressive Party. Here is but one sentence from this very long and important speech which he gave as the keynote address to the Progressive Party convention on August 6, 1912.

    “Our fight is a fundamental fight against both of the old, corrupt party machines, for both are under the dominion of the plunder league of professional politicians who are controlled and sustained by the great beneficiaries of privilege and reaction.”

    Here’s a link to the entire speech:


    If a conventional politician gave a speech like that today he or she would be called a blowhard and put down by big media, which incidentally is also controlled by “the great beneficiaries of privilege and reaction.”

    Go Bernie!

  • David Bresett

    Of all the candidates out there, Bernie is the only one worth listening to and voting for. He talks about the issues, unlike the republicans that only talk negative about the other candidates.

    • Fred Moss

      Not true David. Listen to Ben Carson