Bernie Sanders has been literally my favorite living politician since all the way back in 2005, when I first really learned about him in Matt Taibbi’s excellent and highly recommended “Inside the Horror Show That Is Congress”. When I saw him begin to make the Presidential rounds and drop hints about a 2016 Presidential run in late 2014, I was excited, but skeptical that he would actually make the plunge into a sea of opposition money. When he actually entered the race in late April 2015, I was very pleased, but skeptical that he would actually gain any traction against Hillary Clinton, she who was inexplicably beloved by all Democrats far and wide. And now on the eve of the 2016 Iowa caucuses, Sanders is polling an average of just 4 points behind Clinton in Iowa, and is ahead by an average of a whopping 18 points in New Hampshire, which votes next week. At every turn I have underestimated Sanders, which is probably a product of my own caution: candidates I agree with tend to not do well in Democratic primaries.
Up until now, I haven’t officially supported Sanders for the Presidency. The reason was a third candidate in the race: Martin O’Malley, who was touting a slate of progressive achievements he’d racked up as governor of Maryland. Even though I was already aligned with pretty much everything Sanders thought and said, and his candidacy represented everything I’d been wanting to see in U.S. presidential politics for years, I wanted to keep an open mind and give O’Malley a chance.
(I never remotely considered supporting Clinton in the primaries; she is a serious danger to the future of the Democratic Party and she basically represents a continuation of the ideology and governing style of President Obama, which is not what this country needs. I can write more about her in the future, but for now, you can read my still-relevant opinions about her back during her first Presidential run in 2008.)
O’Malley has been running on liberal rhetoric and detailed policy prescriptions, essentially casting himself as the thinking liberal wonk of the Democratic field. He’s been making the right noises and taking the right positions on issues like trade, wisely staking out a position to Clinton’s left while still staying to the right of Sanders. And as Maryland Governor, he did take his state forward on education, the environment, and a number of social issues, though it should be noted that when you have a House of Delegates and state Senate that’s no less than 69.5 percent and 70.2 percent Democratic, respectively, it’s not just a somewhat empty boast – you almost don’t have the choice of not being a progressive.
But the more I learned about O’Malley, the more I found to dislike. His obsessive focus on policy details and data and results (see here and here) reveals that he’s a technocrat who lacks a sense for the larger ideological battles at stake in this country. He could be a great cabinet secretary; he’s definitely committed to making government work. But to me, if you’re not comfortable thinking about politics in more ideological terms, as a battle between competing worldviews – which it is – you’re not cut out to be the President, the person who’s in one of the best positions to change the way people think about politics and government. That’s what I’m looking for in a President – not someone who’s the best at the nuts and bolts of running a government bureaucracy, but a leader who will inspire people to take the country to where it needs to be. That’s where O’Malley fails – and where Sanders would excel. (Incidentally, the times when he does try to campaign on more ideological terms, it’s been a total turn-off.)
And then it turns out that O’Malley’s liberalism is only of the recent variety – as in, since he started running for President – revealing him to be more a creature of opportunism than anything else. His past is noticeably to the right of his present, he’s worked with business interests to water down the Democratic Party, and he’s had other long-standing ties to big corporations. Most damning of all is this 2007 op-ed he wrote with Harold Ford, Jr. – one of my least favorite Democrats of all time – talking about how the Democratic Party had to work to “capture the center” through a “centrist agenda”. (See also this write-up about it.) Part of the op-ed was as follows:
Contrast the collapse of a conservative president with the success of the last centrist president. Bill Clinton ran on an agenda of sensible ideas that brought America a decade of peace and prosperity. He was the only Democrat to be elected and reelected president in the past seven decades, and he left office more popular than almost any other president in recent memory.
Nearly seven years after Bush succeeded Clinton in the White House, America is facing challenges as great as we’ve ever seen — a war against Islamist radicals who would destroy our way of life; global economic competition that demands we raise our game; and a quest for energy independence and efficiency that Al Gore has shown us could make or break our planet. To conquer such enduring problems, Democrats will need a broad, enduring majority — and a centrist agenda that sustains it by making steady progress.
Most Americans don’t care much about partisan politics; they just want practical answers to the problems they face every day. So far, our leading presidential candidates seem to understand that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. That’s why they have begun putting forward smart, New Democrat plans to cap and trade carbon emissions, give more Americans the chance to earn their way through college, achieve universal health care through shared responsibility, increase national security by rebuilding our embattled military and enable all Americans who work full time to lift themselves out of poverty.
Nope, nuh-uh. O’Malley was out.
Which brings me to Bernie Sanders. It’s not just that there’s practically no issue I can think of where I materially disagree with him. It’s not just that he’s been consistent on the issues and on his worldview his entire political life. It’s not just that he’s an unashamed advocate for an active and responsive government, and a believer in the good such a government can do for people’s lives. It’s not just that he actually understands and appreciates that politics is a constant battle between the haves and the have-nots, the powerful and the powerless. It’s not just that he deeply cares about the common person, the downtrodden, the oppressed, and the out-of-luck in a way no other viable Presidential candidate in my entire goddamn lifetime has.
What sets Bernie Sanders apart from so many other candidates – and hell, people in general – is that he understands how political change happens. Practically everyone else involved in politics these days, whether as a candidate or a pundit or a regular Joe talking out of his ass, thinks of politics in terms of the details of one policy proposal or another, or the latest petty feud between two candidates, or yet another minor remark that’s being blown out of proportion, or the slow grind of the horse race. Bernie Sanders understands that real political change happens from capturing hearts and minds, engaging with people on what’s important in this country, and leading them to do what’s necessary to make meaningful progress a reality. And Sanders is fully ready to do his part as a candidate and as President, but he understands that it’s not just about him or about his proposals or about legislation or about Congress – though all those are very important as well. He understands that what’s been missing in our politics, throughout the Obama years and going all the way back to the great liberal movements of the 1960s and 1970s, is that vital element of public engagement. He understands that, as the late and great Paul Wellstone put it, “electoral politics without grassroots organizing is a politics without a base.” Sanders is ready to step up and do his part to connect electoral politics and public policy back to grassroots organizing, so we can once again produce a broad movement for the progressive change our country so desperately needs – if we, the people, are ready to do our part.
So forget about all the talk about how to win over “swing voters” in a general election (inconvenient fact: a majority of Americans already agree with Sanders on most of the issues).
Forget about all the talk about Republicans chomping at the bit to demonize a “socialist” (campaigns aren’t about how much they can hit you with; they’re about how hard and effectively you can hit back).
Forget about all the skepticism about how Sanders will get his liberal agenda through a Republican Congress (if anyone can convince me that Clinton or O’Malley can get their agenda through a Republican Congress, I’ll make a small donation to that candidate’s campaign).
Forget about how Sanders is too old, or too grumpy-looking, or too crazy-sounding.
The point of the Sanders campaign isn’t just about Sanders. The point, as Sanders will readily tell you himself, is to get people to stand up and take back control of the political system and the government that’s supposed to be serving them. And there is no person better suited to leading that populist movement as our next President than Bernie Sanders.
I decided about two months ago, in early December, that it was time to rule out everyone else and simply embrace the truth that Bernie Sanders is, and always has been, the right candidate for me. True to form, it took me until now, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, to finally get around to writing this post and making it official. Well let’s make it official: I officially endorse Bernie Sanders for President in 2016. He has my full and vociferous support and I’ll be looking into making a small donation to his campaign – which will be my first political contribution ever. I hope fervently that this will be the year when the American people finally take back control of their political destiny, so they can have a government and a society that truly cares about and works for them, and that process begins with electing Bernie Sanders as our next President. Feel the Bern!