Watching Sanders surge to the front of the pack in the race to take on President Trump, many Democrats are doing the same thing. Sanders is turning another presidential nominating contest into a nail-biter.
By coincidence, closing arguments in Trump’s impeachment trial fell on the opening day of the Democratic presidential primary season. I used the occasion to observe a key figure in both: From the first row of the gallery, I spent four hours studying the body language and interactions of the resurgent candidate the left believes is the one to end Trump’s reign.
Sanders was hard to miss: Suffering from a cold through much of the trial, he coughed and sneezed, blew his nose, cleared his throat, breathed heavily, puffed out his cheeks, gulped water and sucked on candies.
But beyond the upper-respiratory symptoms, I could see why Sanders alternately enthralls and alarms Democrats: He’s so unconventional a candidate that he’s downright bizarre.
Other senators hobnobbed. Sanders kept to himself, accepting a primary-day handshake or a pat on the back from a few colleagues but conversing with no one. When his neighbor, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), suffered a coughing fit, he was oblivious, finally noticing her struggle long after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) had attended to her.
Other senators sat at their desks, taking notes, reading or watching. Sanders tilted back in his chair, balanced on two of its legs, his wild white hair nearly in the water glass of Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). Sanders slouched in his seat, with his blue blazer bunched at his shoulders and his gray flannel trousers riding up above his belly button, leading him to tug frequently at lapels and waistband. A wad of crumpled tissues spilled from his hip pocket.
Sanders bounded onto the floor during the middle of the prayer. He spent most of the day as though he were struggling in the coach section: palms together in front of his face; chin pressed into hands; and hands resting on sternum, ears at desktop-level. He brushed his shoulders. He scratched his head, nose, chin, armpit. He grimaced. He pursed his lips.
“The president has done nothing wrong,” proclaimed the White House counsel, Pat Cipollone. Sanders stuck a finger in his ear.
Lead House manager Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) spoke of the “duplicity we saw during this trial” from Trump’s lawyers. Sanders plunged a tissue into his water glass and scrubbed a spot on his lapel.
Watching Sanders, I couldn’t help wondering: Is this really happening? Could Democrats really nominate this guy?
I’m making peace with the possibility. If Democratic primary voters, in their wisdom, decide that a 78-year-old curmudgeon who recently suffered a heart attack is their best candidate, that’s still worlds better than Trump. Maybe the old rules don’t apply in the Trump era; maybe Bernie’s passionate youth army can carry him over the finish line, and the voter in the middle won’t matter. Sanders is nothing if not authentic.
But at a time when so many crave a return to normalcy, Sanders is, other than Trump, about as abnormal a candidate as there is. Hillary Clinton’s claim that “nobody likes” Sanders isn’t far off. He has no endorsements from Senate colleagues other than fellow Vermonter Patrick Leahy. Of the 100 senators on the floor, he is, by conventional standards, the least “presidential” in the room.
During his lofty closing argument Monday afternoon, Schiff gave context to this low moment, when every last, frightened senator from the president’s party prepares to stand with a man who corruptly abused his office.
In the “sweep of history,” Schiff said, there are times when the world is “moved with a seemingly irresistible force in the direction of freedom” — and times such as now, when the pendulum swings "into a dark unknown. How much farther will it travel in its illiberal direction? How many freedoms will be extinguished before it turns back? We cannot say. But what we do here in this moment will affect its course.”
This is doubly true now, as Republicans force Trump’s preordained acquittal, and Democrats decide who will lead them against Trump.
“I hope and pray that we never have a president like Donald Trump in the Democratic Party,” Schiff told the Senate.
And I hope and pray that Democrats don’t blow their only chance to stop him.
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