Don’t Be Scared of Bernie

In an email exchange with a few of my friends today about Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign to become our next president, one of my friends asked, “Am I crazy in being worried that his presence opens the door for one of these crazy ass Republicans to become president?…Sanders is extreme enough to rally the conservative base and actually push one of these losers to the forefront.”

Another of my friends chimed in, “I’m with you…I could see some fringe Republican wacko beating Sanders. It would be the battle of the extremists and Sanders could lose…I guess the only question is if Sanders can become a mainstream candidate, but that seems unlikely.”

I suspect there are many Democrat-leaning individuals in the electorate who feel the same way as my friends, so as a hard-core liberal living in the great state of Vermont, I’ll do my best to explain why those of you who agree with Bernie on most (if not all) of the issues don’t need to be afraid that his victory in the Democratic primaries might only result in a Republican wacko winning the White House in the general election.

First, as Juan Cole wrote recently for Informed Comment, “Sanders’s positions are quite mainstream from the point of view of the stances of the American public in general.” Cole backs that up with some recent Gallup polling data that shows 63% of Americans say that the distribution of money and wealth in the U.S. is unfair and 52% favor heavy taxes on the rich as a fix for that. Since this will be Bernie’s primary issue in the election, it’s safe to say his stance is mainstream.

Cole continues to go down the list, showing how Bernie’s positions on campaign-finance reform, the student-debt crisis, and climate change line up with the vast majority of Americans.

But we all know that it’s not what a candidate stands for that gets him or her elected. What gets candidates elected is money. And if Bernie is going to take on the millionaires and billionaires with such fervor, then all of that money is going to flow to whomever it is that opposes him.

Thankfully, Bernie has some experience with this. In 2006, Congressman Sanders decided he wanted to become Senator Sanders, and he ran for the open seat. His Republican opponent was a man named Richard Tarrant. Along with being a former fourth-round draft pick of my beloved Boston Celtics (he was cut before the first game of the 1965 season), Tarrant cofounded IDX Systems, a healthcare technology company in South Burlington, Vermont, that he would later sell to GE for $1.2 billion. Though he announced his candidacy a few months before the sale, Tarrant was already one of the wealthiest individuals in the state, contributing $7 million to his own campaign.

The 2006 election would become the most expensive in Vermont history, with the candidates spending over $13 million to become the next Senator to represent our tiny state. In a report that NBC News put together after the election that calculated the cost per vote each candidate received across the country, Tarrant spent, nationally, the most money per vote of any candidate, a whopping $85 per vote; Bernie, on the other hand, spent $34 per vote. And the result? Bernie defeated him by 33 percentage points.

Now, $13 million is nothing compared to the $889 million the Koch Brothers have already budgeted for the 2016 election, so let’s not kid ourselves in thinking that Bernie has any real experience with combatting such a well-funded machine. But it’s important to note the success against Tarrant, and his original success at winning the position of Burlington’s mayor, because what those victories show is Bernie’s fortitude, his unflinching commitment to fighting hard for what he thinks is right.

You also have to realize just how angry people are right now. They’re angry in Kansas. They’re angry in Texas. And they’re angry in Iowa and New Hampshire.

And who are they angry at? They’re angry at the establishment. They’re angry at Congress. They’re angry at Obama (and for those who aren’t angry at him, they’re at least disappointed in him). They’re angry at Wall Street. They’re angry at CNN, FOX, and NBC. They’re angry at Time Warner and Comcast. Angry at AT&T and Verizon. Angry at Chase Bank and Wells Fargo. At Monsanto and Starbucks. At Hollywood and New York. At the Texas State School Board and ExxonMobile. People are friggin’ angry.

You know who else is angry? Sen. Bernie Sanders. And he’s not afraid to express it. Just listen to him tell some anti-Israeli hecklers at a town hall meeting in Vermont last summer to shut up. The guy simply doesn’t care about the spit and polish and general showmanship that everyone expects in their politicians. And that anger and that authenticity are going to resonate with a wide swath of the electorate, Democrat and Republican.

So, to sum up: he’s got mainstream stances, knows how to beat better funded candidates, and has the character and attitude to attract votes from both sides of the aisle. Which means that unless your name is Hillary or you’re one of the 32,000 Republican Wackos running for president next year, there’s simply no reason for you to be scared of Bernie.