The campaign that doomed Hillary Clinton
OUR REVOLUTION: A FUTURE TO BELIEVE IN By Bernie Sanders Thomas Dunne Books, $27, 450 pages
The 2016 election year, which dragged itself across our TV screens and dominated political discussion for what seemed a decade, is finally winding down. True, one strange fringe candidate, on the basis of crackpot professorial theorizing, plus support from the still-existing Clinton campaign cartel, with barrels of money still unspent, is financing statewide recounts. And who knows? The 2016 presidential campaign may yet collide with 2020.
But as of now, we think we know how it all came out. As a result, campaign books are dead on arrival, marked for the remainder bin — unless, as with this one, there’s something extra there. That something extra is Sen. Bernie Sanders and the story he tells in the first 182 pages of his life, his career, the unique 2016 campaign, and what it may portend. The second half of the book, a staff-stuffed pastiche of campaign detritus, is highly skippable. But his account of the campaign, which brought out a new generation of voters and doomed Hillary Clinton, is well worth reading.
For starters, it tells us who this man who energized so many young people really is — an enthusiastic young socialist trapped in an old curmudgeon’s body, his ideas basically just as fresh to him today as when he left his native Brooklyn (the dialect of which he still speaks), for the University of Chicago, where he joined a number of leftist groups, among them the Young People’s Socialist League. Off campus, he mingled and demonstrated with the various Chicago protest groups, always in plentiful supply.
He graduated in 1964, married and traveled extensively, and in 1968, when his young comrades lay siege to Chicago, reducing Hubert Humphrey to tear gas-induced tears and helping to elect Richard Nixon, Mr. Sanders decamped to Vermont, where as a third-party candidate, he ran unsuccessfully for governor and U.S. senator, and then, in 1981, was elected mayor of Burlington, a job to which he was re-elected three times. He believes his tenure proved that socialism is possible in an American city. (But perhaps more accurately, it proved that almost any form of government can probably work in a small northern state with a homogeneous, thrifty and hardworking population.)
In 1990 he was elected to the U.S House of Representatives, serving for 16 years, and in 2006 to the U.S. Senate, where he gained national attention by filibustering legislation to extend the Bush tax cuts. The leftist Nation published the entire filibuster as a book. The principles shaping his filibuster, he writes, were inspired by Eugene V. Debs, founder of the American Socialist Party and six-time candidate for president, whose “vision of world peace, justice, Democracy, and brotherhood, has always been an inspiration to me.”
Throughout his political career, Sen. Sanders identified himself as an Independent, but when he announced for the presidency in 2015, he became a Democrat. The problems he faced as a new-born Democratic candidate were formidable.
The campaign message would be no problem. It would be the “the same message I had been delivering all my life.” But through an “incredibly unfair system supported by the Democratic establishment,” Hillary Clinton had already locked up the votes of some 400 superdelegates, and “received tens of millions of dollars from leading financial backers.”
“We were not just running an insurgent campaign … we were taking aim at the nation’s entire political and financial establishment. And we were running against the most powerful political machine in the country … . The Clintons had, by far, the most powerful fund-raising system in the Democratic Party.”
But in the end, he writes, “In a manner unprecedented in American history, we received some 8 million individual campaign contributions. The average contribution was $27.” Along the way, he beat Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire and went on to win 22 primaries and caucuses, like Mr. Trump, drawing huge crowds at his speeches and rallies.
Giant rallies, disillusion with establishment candidates, new voters and alienated non-voters — no armies of consultants, no giant PACs, no major newspaper endorsements — in many ways, both the Sanders and Trump campaigns tapping into something basic — a vast wave of discontent coming from two directions, the idealistic kids and the alienated deplorables.
Could Bernie Sanders have beaten Donald Trump? Could he govern the nation according to the precepts of Eugene V. Debs? Probably not. But he’s succeeded in giving us a well-written and entertaining account of a precedent-setting campaign. And that’s no small achievement.