Monday, June 01, 2015
Sanders Is The Serious Kucinich
Bernie Sanders is mining much the same rhetorical turf as also-ran Dennis Kucinich did in 2004 and, though it was barely noticed, in 2008. Why then is Sanders seemingly taken more seriously now? I've pondered this in the wake of Sanders' visit to Iowa City and I have some theories.
Personality. Bernie Sanders is an anti-personality candidate. In yesterday's address, he made only one mention of family in a relentless issue heavy assault on concentrated wealth. There were none of the Casey's pizza anecdotes or home team shoutouts, no greetings to the local politicians (the local politician handled that), nothing IOWA about it except location. It could have been given anywhere, and will be.
I've met and watched both men a couple times, briefly. But in his anti-personality way, Sanders seems comfortable in his own skin. He's competent at the hand shaking and meeting and greeting - maybe a little impatient because you can tell he wants to move on quickly to issues, issues, issues - but he's a decent retail politician.
Dennis Kucinich is just... a little off, a little awkward, a little insincere. He seems to have a chip on his shoulder. Sanders is mad, too, but that anger is aimed squarely at "the billionaire class." Kucinich seems resentful at the world for not taking him more seriously. Sanders doesn't care if you don't take him seriously - he's going to give his speech and MAKE you take him seriously.
Hair. Bernie Sanders has a distinctive look with his balding, white, barely combed fringe. A little wild but all natural. Dennis Kucinich has the second worst toupee in the history of Ohio, but only because Jim Traficant's so bad it's good rug set the all time gold standard.
I still can't explain this, though.
Superficial? Sure. But it's a decent metaphor for unruly but being yourself vs. unconvincing artifice.
Political skill at home. Both men are issue outsiders. But Kucinich was always a political outsider, even at home, even as a sitting mayor. Sanders also started as a gadfly outsider, sure. But he built his own organization and his own base to the point where, even with his unique independent status, he's unassailable in Vermont.
Kucinich, in contrast, ended his electoral career with a humiliating 2012 primary loss to another Democratic incumbent, in a district specifically designed to gerrymander him into oblivion. If he had been more popular, he could have negotiated better lines or could have carried a primary.
Self-interest. With Kucinich, it always seemed to be about Dennis. Witness the job he took after his loss: token house liberal at Fox News.
Sanders is not at all about Bernie. It was the third time I saw him before I ever heard him mention family.
The cycle. In 2004 and 2008, Democrats were on the outs, and wanted the White House back. They were more focused on electability. Witness Iowa's last second panic in 2004, as people abandoned Howard Dean for the "safer" John Kerry. "Bush can't attack him- he's a war hero!" (Remember: The Dean Scream was AFTER the much more important Dean Finishing Third In Iowa.)
The times. America as a whole may have lurched right in 2010 and 2014, but the Democratic Party has moved leftward and "progressive" ideas are starting to get mainstreamed. Look at how far marriage equality has come since the 2007 caucus season. Look at campaign finance as a mainstream issue (though in fairness that's an after-effect of Citizens United). Look at how rhetoric on Israel/Palestine has changed.
I don't want to credit Occupy with much; their vague "demands" had no plan of action, and the whole strategy was fatally flawed because it failed to take into account the key environmental issue of seasonal hemispheric climate change, or as the locals call it, "winter." But they did plant the phrase "the 1%" and the related income inequality issues into mainstream consciousness in late 2011, and Sanders has gotten a lot of mileage out of it.
The field. 2004 and 2008 were wide open contests with lead changes. Voters and the media focused on three or four top tier and relatively equal options. Kucinich was lost in the shuffle.
This cycle, however, Hillary Clinton is SO far ahead of everyone else that people, both press and public, need someone, anyone to focus on as an alternative to her, and Sanders is in the right place at the right time.
Maybe Martin O'Malley will catch on and Sanders will end up in the asterisk zone like Dennis The Menace did. But right now, Sanders seems way more significant.
And maybe this time Hillary really IS inevitable, and this campaign serves only to promote progressive issues. If so, at least this time progressives have in Sanders a much more credible and effective advocate.