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The Sanders Earthquake

The Sanders Earthquake

Yesterday I wrote a post about my concerns that Bernie Sanders would be taken apart by the rightwing attack machine should he win the Democratic nomination. While the response was mostly positive, many Sanders supporters dismissed my concerns as either the hysterical rants of a Hillary Clinton shill, or at odds with current inter-party polling match-ups that suggest Sanders would defeat GOP frontrunner Donald Trump handily in a national election. Still others argued that Sanders is leading a new political earthquake that will destroy all in his path.

So today I want to speak to that reaction. I base my concern about Sanders viability on my experience of having lived through the presidential elections of 1972, 1984, 1988, and 2004, when liberal candidates got defined by their opponents and ultimately trounced by their GOP opponents. (I don’t count 2000 because Al Gore won the popular vote.) I’ve seen people on Facebook dismiss those examples as being out of step for this year. Their arguments range from “no one could’ve beaten Ronald Reagan in 1984” to “Michael Dukakis was a weak candidate” to “young voters are being energized by Sanders and will turn out in record numbers.” Let’s look at each of those claims.

In 1983-1984, Ronald Reagan was not a sure-bet to be re-elected; his age was an issue and his 1984 debate performances were uneven at best. A lot of young people have bought into the revisionist history of the Reagan era, but back then he wasn’t considered the monolithic conservative demigod he is now. Reagan had a very weak economy and several foreign policy missteps to account for (the Beirut Marine barracks bombing and his undeclared war against Nicaragua among them), and he was considered very beatable. That is, until Democratic nominee Walter Mondale told Americans in his DNC acceptance speech and in a presidential debate that he would definitely raise their taxes. Just as Sanders did in last week’s debate. By all accounts, that admission killed any chance Mondale might have had against the seemingly doddering Reagan. If Sanders tries to use the same “higher taxes” playbook, he is likely to face the same grim reaper.

Similarly in 1988, Michael Dukakis was not a “weak candidate” going into the general election. In fact, he led vice president George H.W. Bush in a springtime head-to-head match-up by 10 points, and came out of the Democratic Convention with a 17 point lead. That was before the GOP attack machine (led by Lee Atwater, who was Karl Rove’s mentor) went to work on Dukakis, another ultra-liberal from New England. By October it was Bush who was ahead by 17 points…and ahead to stay. So don’t buy into those recent Sanders-Trump polling results nine months out from election day. If a week is a lifetime in politics, nine months is an eternity.

As for the “energized young voters” argument, that’s a fallacy, too. The 1972 election was the first time that 18-20 year olds had the right to vote, and everyone thought that meant they’d turn out en masse for anti-war candidate George McGovern. Young voters did have a healthy turnout that first year they could vote, but it still wasn’t nearly enough to offset older voters, who punished McGovern on election day. And ever since then, their rate of voting has been spotty at best, and they are by far the least reliable voting demographic on which to bank an election. Young voters didn’t win it for Eugene McCarthy, they didn’t win it for George McGovern, they didn’t win it for Howard Dean, they didn’t win it for John Kerry. It’s true, they did turn out pretty well for Barack Obama. But to think that 75-year-old Bernie Sanders is going to have the same drawing power as the young, charismatic Obama is quite a long-odds bet to make with the presidency of the United States.

Or, to paraphrase Dukakis’ vice presidential running mate, Lloyd Bensten:

Senator Sanders, I remember Barack Obama. I voted for Barack Obama. Barack Obama was a hero of mine. Senator, you’re no Barack Obama. But you might be a George McGovern or Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis. I’m old enough to remember them, too. And I remember the heartbreaking results of nominating them.

Lastly, I want to share a personal parable about warnings and wisdom. In 1993, I was shopping for a house when I came upon the cutest 3-bedroom bungalow nestled in the Hollywood Hills. My fiancé and I were excited by the quaint, charming house. But when we discovered it was built on stilts, our instincts told us that was too risky a bet to take in earthquake-prone Los Angeles. The realtor told me I was wrong, that the designer was an architectural genius who had built the house to withstand any foreseeable earthquake. We said “no thanks” and left. Two months later the 1994 Northridge earthquake hit. That house crumbled down the mountainside, and one of the residents – a four-year-old girl – lost her life in the tumbling debris. I still mourn for that little girl, but my instincts may have saved my life. Yes, sometimes something may be attractive and exciting on its face, but if the foundation is weak, it can lead to disaster.

I lived to tell that story, and believe I have more wisdom because of it.

I also lived through the disastrous elections of 1972, 1984 and 1988, and have more wisdom for that. So please at least consider my warning (and the warnings of lots of smart political experts) and think first before you vote for a 75-year-old tax-hiking socialist to run against the Karl Rove/GOP attack machine.

Because that political earthquake may end the same way.


(Author’s note: If you are still dubious about my point, I urge you to check out as many of the links above as possible, especially about Mondale, Dukakis and young voters. Those facts and lessons are indisputable.)

"Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it." –George Santayana

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2 comments on The Sanders Earthquake

  1. Daniel Elster says:

    I don’t doubt that you believe what you are writing, but I too, witnessed those very same elections you refer to, and my memory of them is markedly different than your own. Mondale, Dukakis, and Kerry were indeed weak candidates, and were generally considered to be so at the time, especially after they announced their choice of running mates. Eugene McCarthy was stronger among the left wing of the Democrats, but the country was deeply divided about the Vietnam war, as well as roiled by a host of explosive social issues. The youth vote itself was tremendously divided between progressives and a very strong anarchist movement that boycotted the election altogether. Is today similar to those other elections in substantial ways? Possibly. But the fact is we don’t know. The dynamics of each election are different; there is no predictive formula. If there was, every election would be a foregone conclusion as soon as the candidates announced their entry into the race. As such, your pieces, passionately argued and clearly written, amount to nothing more than speculation, pure and simple, your instincts about structural engineering notwithstanding. History may very well prove you correct, but it could just as easily prove otherwise. So I will continue to support Sanders’ nomination, choosing hope for genuine progressive change over the status quo pessimism you advocate based on little more than your personal feelings. again, I don;t doubt your sincerity. It is your certainty I question.

    1. Kevin Kelton says:

      Daniel, we agree on one thing: my opinion, just like everyone else’s (including yours), is just speculation. While we disagree on our interpretation of historical events and today’s electorate, I really appreciate the thoughtful and civil nature of your response. I wish more people could converse about politics that way.

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