For all the self-deprecating jokes, the expressions of humility at vast crowds and the lists of supporters to thank on primary night, running for president is an ego-mad enterprise. Forget the rhetorical flourishes about creating a movement. A major presidential campaign is inevitably about the “me, me, me” of the candidate rather than the “we” of the voters.
So it is with Bernie Sanders.
Thirty years ago, as the socialist mayor of Burlington, Vt., he came across as self-righteous, humorless and bristling with grievances. Now after enjoying the greatest ride through the primaries of any backbench senator in his eighth decade, Sanders is even more certain of his beliefs, louder in his advocacy and more resentful of his fate. Small wonder that Bernie never wants the Ferris wheel to stop spinning.
And, in normal times, Sanders would be entitled to continue his delusion that he could somehow prevail at the Philadelphia convention. But this year, the Republican candidate on the November ballot will not be a deal-making senator like Bob Dole or John McCain. He will not be an ideologically malleable former governor like Mitt Romney. Or even George W. Bush in 2000 peddling “compassionate conservatism.”
Donald Trump is probably the most dangerous presidential contender since the insidious Aaron Burr tried to wrest the White House from Thomas Jefferson in 1800. Never has a modern-day candidate displayed such contempt for the norms of democracy — from not caring about issues to refusing to release his tax returns. The bilious billionaire, the winner of enough Pinocchios from fact-checkers to keep woodcarvers in business for a century, has also been known for his “pathological lying” since his days as the 1980s darling of the New York gossip columns.
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In 1943, Franklin Roosevelt announced that “Dr. New Deal” had been replaced by “Dr. Win-the-War.” The same lesson applies to liberal Democrats today. “Dr. War-on-Wall-Street” must immediately hand over his practice to “Dr. Defeat-Donald-Trump.”
Bernie Sanders, alas, refuses to recognize that Democrats won’t be running against the likes of Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or even Ted Cruz. The Vermont socialist instead clings to his belief in the cosmic meaning of his victory in Tuesday’s Oregon primary and his narrow defeat in Kentucky. But 10 million primary voters can be wrong — especially since Hillary Clinton has won the support of 13 million.
The danger in Bernie going on through the June 7 California primary is not that the left-wing flame-thrower will say anything new about Hillary that either will surprise the voters or aid the Republicans. And certainly, the Clinton campaign is capable of planning for November while the candidate goes through the motions in the final primaries against Sanders.
After a chair-throwing brawl at last weekend’s Nevada state Democratic convention, the frightening prospect is that the Bernie Brigades have lost all sense of proportion, all moorings to reality. The only way that the Democratic race was “rigged” was that the party establishment — from the White House on down — preferred a candidate with whom they have worked for nearly a quarter century over a socialist who wouldn’t even deign to call himself a Democrat until he ran for president.
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Another myth fostered by the Sanders campaign is that the Pied Piper of the millennial generation would be a compelling general election candidate. In truth, a major reason why Sanders — unlike Clinton or Trump — boasts positive poll ratings is because Bernie has never in his career faced a barrage of negative ads or been demonized by the Republican Party. The news media, too, has been languid about highlighting the weird aspects of his background (like a post-wedding celebration in the Soviet Union) since no one has ever expected that President Sanders would be choosing a Cabinet.
Suddenly, the fear this week is that the Democrats could be facing their most raucous convention since the street fights of 1968 and their most divisive since Ted Kennedy refused to grasp Jimmy Carter’s hand on stage in New York 1980.
And what higher cause and larger principle motivates the potential protests? Sanders’ ever-shifting set of complaints over super-delegates (except when he’s courting them), closed primaries (except when he’s winning them) and a shortage of debates (except when he’s losing them).
Hillary Clinton is, admittedly, a deeply flawed candidate. It is easy to imagine the prominent GOP figures who would be signing up to join Republicans for Joe Biden if the vice president were the de facto nominee. Instead, too many Republicans who should know better are blessing Trump’s takeover because of their ingrained hatred of Hillary Clinton.
But, as Don Rumsfeld might put it, you go to war against Donald Trump with the candidate you have, not the candidate you’d like.
Maybe Sanders — the child of the working class in Brooklyn — might better understand the stakes in the 2016 campaign if they were expressed in terms that he could appreciate.
So here goes:
“Bernie, Trump is a landlord. The kind of guy who makes you bang on the radiators in winter to get heat. He’s like the landlord who refuses to pay for maintenance — and then laughs at you in housing court.
“So, Bernie here’s the question that you’ve got to answer right now: Whose side are you on? The landlord’s or the people’s?”
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle will be published in June: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.
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