The young man who answered the phone in the Senate office of Vermont’s Bernie Sanders told the caller, a would-be campaign contributor, that it is illegal for funds to be accepted on federal property. He advised the person to contact Sanders’s political operation, which might become a presidential campaign.
Sanders, 73, does not smile promiscuously, as befits someone who thinks the republic is being ruined by the government’s parsimony regarding social programs, its obsequiousness toward Wall Street and its tolerance of billionaires influencing electoral politics. If, however, he wants to seek the Democratic nomination, he should soften his starchy disapproval of rich donors.
Without them, Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 anti-Vietnam War insurgency in the Democratic primaries would have been impossible. McCarthy (Minn.) was able to precipitate President Lyndon Johnson’s retirement only because of five wealthy liberals’ seed money (e.g., Stewart Mott’s $210,000 would be $1.4 million today).
Sanders calls himself an independent, although he caucuses and reliably votes with Senate Democrats. He also calls himself a socialist, which is naughty without being informative. Time was, socialism meant government ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange — or at least of the economy’s “commanding heights.” Sanders says his idea of socialism exists in Europe’s social democracies, which he considers hugely successful. Never mind the European Union’s 10 percent unemployment rate and 0.3 percent growth rate, Greece’s prostration, etc.
Long ago, some American mayors called themselves socialists, although, writes historian Morton Keller (in “America’s Three Regimes”), “their collectivist impulse did not go much beyond public utilities: ‘gas and water socialism.’ ” In 1912, America’s Socialist Party reached its apogee when its presidential candidate, labor leader Eugene Debs, won 5.99 percent of the vote in a contest with former president Theodore Roosevelt, the incumbent William Howard Taft, and the winner, Woodrow Wilson. In every election from 1928 through 1948, Socialists nominated Norman Thomas (Princeton class of 1905; martinis at the barricades?), whose best showing was a paltry 2.23 percent in the grim year 1932.
Sanders thinks that mounting a third-party campaign might face insuperable barriers to ballot access. If so, the nation is not nearly as unhappy as Sanders thinks it should be. In the annus horribilis 1968, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, with a shoestring budget and negligible staff, ignited a conflagration of grass-roots support that propelled him onto all 50 state ballots.
Impediments were much higher then than they now are: California required collecting 66,000 signatures in 1967 , and signatories had to fill out a two-page legal-size form joining Wallace’s party. More than 100,000 did. His Ohio supporters had to gather an absurd 433,000 signatures in 10 weeks. They exceeded that total by perhaps 100,000.
Sanders, however, insists that he is no Norman Thomas, who ran not to win but to leaven the nation’s political conversation with new ideas. Sanders says he will not run in Democratic primaries unless he thinks he can win. But how can he win the nomination if he cannot rally followers sufficient in numbers and intensity to get him on state ballots as a third-party candidate? On the other hand, he does not want to be in 2016 what Ralph Nader was in 2000. Nader’s 97,488 votes in Florida, where Al Gore lost by 537 votes, cost Gore this state and the presidency.
Sanders, a powerhouse on social media, visited Iowa four times last year and relishes the kind of retail campaigning that Iowans reward. Vermont’s neighbor New Hampshire comes next in the nomination calendar. He represents what another Vermonter, Howard Dean, called “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” but his agenda is not really radical. It is not progressivism on steroids; spinach, maybe.
He thinks college education has become too expensive, but he may not understand Washington’s role in this: Colleges increase tuition to capture increased federal subsidies for students. He passionately favors federal funding for universal preschool and dismisses research, based on 50 years’ experience with Head Start, indicating that its benefits are small and evanescent. He is serenely sure “other research” reaches encouraging conclusions.
Sanders vehemently denounces Supreme Court rulings that limit government’s power to restrict the giving and spending that finance political advocacy. The court says money is indispensable to the dissemination of advocacy, so some limits abridge First Amendment protections.
Sanders’s authentic passion enlivens our often synthetic politics. There is, however, some justice in the fact that his principled rejection of the connection between money and speech might prevent his other principles from being heard.