By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, Americablog, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. This piece first appeared at Down With Tyranny. GP article archive here.
You knew that “the chatterers” — writer Steve Hendricks’ name for corporate-employed pundits and analysts — would try to sink the Sanders campaign. As Hendricks points out below, their bosses want nothing less, and employees live to serve.
Hendricks, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review:
On the eve of the 1948 presidential election, Newsweek asked the 50 reporters on President Truman’s campaign train to forecast the winner. To a man they went the way the Chicago Tribune infamously would on election night: “Dewey defeats Truman.” Lay historians will recall that not only did Truman defeat Dewey; he clobbered him. Sorting out how the media got it so wrong, The New York Times’ James Reston concluded that he and his brethren had been a lot like the aloof Governor Dewey himself, who was said to be the only man who could strut sitting down. Dewey played well with plutocrats and publishers. “[J]ust as he was too isolated with other politicians,” Reston wrote, “so we were too isolated with other reporters; and we, too, were far too impressed by the tidy statistics of the polls.”
This was true, but it fell to A. J. Liebling, the nonpareil of The New Yorker, to pick out the crucial vice that Reston and similarly minded colleagues overlooked. “A great wave of contrition hit the Washington newspaper world in the days immediately following the joyous catastrophe,” Liebling wrote, “and men swore that they would go out and dig for the real truths of politics as they never had dug before. But few publishers encouraged them in their good resolutions, and most of them are back again running errands designed to bolster their bosses’ new illusions.”
As Hendricks points out, Liebling’s most memorable bon mot is also his most eternal — “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”
The “bosses’ illusions” about the Sanders campaign are that it has no chance to succeed, and that it should be given no chance. And they’re doing their best, the chatterers and their bosses, to give it no chance at all. Hendricks on the wave of silence in the press:
“[That this] crank actually could win” is nearer the mark. But having settled on a prophecy, the media went about covering Sanders so as to fulfill it. The Times, for example, buried his announcement on page A21, even though every other candidate who had declared before then had been put on the front page above the fold. Sanders’s straight-news story didn’t even crack 700 words, compared to the 1,100 to 1,500 that Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Hillary Clinton got. As for the content, the Times’ reporters declared high in Sanders’s piece that he was a long shot for the Democratic nomination and that Clinton was all but a lock. None of the Republican entrants got the long-shot treatment, even though Paul, Rubio, and Cruz were generally polling fifth, seventh, and eighth among Republicans before they announced. ..
There’s more about this in the article, including similar coverage by those whom Hendricks calls, not euphemistically, Sanders’ “admirers.”
“But He’s Such a Long-Shot…”
Yet Hendricks firmly believes that Sanders could win, that the Sanders campaign could succeed after all. (I share that belief.) In addition to the “Eugene McCarthy in 1968” argument, which Hendricks doesn’t make, there are several strong arguments which Hendricks does make.
First, about those long odds (my emphasis):
The foregoing would be woeful enough even were it true that Sanders has almost no chance of winning, but it’s not true. I’ll skip lightly over the conspicuous fact that any frontrunner can have a Chappaquiddick, a deceptively amplified “scream,” or a plane crash. Instead, let me dwell on the simple fact that over the last 40 years, out of seven races in which the Democratic nomination was up for grabs—races, that is, when a sitting Democrat president wasn’t seeking reelection—underdogs have won the nomination either three or four times (depending on your definition of an underdog) and have gone on to win the presidency more often than favored candidates.
Some of these seekers were long shots indeed. Jimmy Carter was a lightly accomplished governor from a trifling state beyond whose borders he was little known and less regarded. A few weeks before he entered the presidential race, the Harris Poll asked voters their thoughts on 35 potential candidates. Carter was not on the list. After a year of campaigning, just a couple of months before the first primary, he routinely polled 1 percent among Democratic voters and finished eighth in the narrowed field of eight Democrats. But he won all the same because the other guys were Washington insiders, and after Watergate and Vietnam, Democratic voters (and eventually the wider electorate) didn’t want another insider, no matter how often journalists told them they did. If you don’t see a parallel to the present moment—a discontented time of Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Moral Monday, Fight for $15, the People’s Climate March, Move to Amend, and other anti-establishmentarian agitation—you’re either asleep or a publisher.
Michael Dukakis also polled as little as 1 percent just a few months before he announced (Sanders, by the way, was polling 5 to 8 percent at the equivalent stage), which paled beside the Hillary-esque 40 to 50 percent that Gary Hart was drawing. When Hart’s campaign went down with a boatload of bimbo, Dukakis profited, although even then he was no favorite. Shortly before the first primary, he still polled no better than 10 percent, which was toe to toe with the forgettable Paul Simon and 15 points behind both Jesse Jackson and a resurrected Hart, who mounted a brief comeback because Dukakis and all the rest looked so impotent.
Some observers wouldn’t rate Bill Clinton an underdog, mostly because he wasn’t one for long after he hopped into the race. But so slight was the shadow he cast nationally that nine months before the primaries, pollsters weren’t listing him as a potential contender. Even he thought so little of his chances (Mario Cuomo was supposed to run, and to be invincible once he did) that he didn’t announce until five months out. His odds improved from there.
The quixotic Barack Obama entered the race against a juggernaut whose endorsements were so thunderous and war chest so surpassing that many spectators thought the young senator was only trying to make himself known for a future contest. After campaigning all of 2007, he not only failed to advance on Clinton but found himself a little further back, dropping from 24 to 22 percent, while Clinton advanced from 39 to 45 percent. There were rumblings that he should bow out before the first vote so as not to weaken the ineluctable nominee.
That’s a pretty decent list of precedents. Of the four, three entered the White House as residents.
What About Clinton’s Money?
And then there’s the issue of the money, specifically Clinton’s money relative to Sanders’. I’ll let you read Hendricks’ counter-arguments for yourself — start with the paragraph beginning “Spurious though early polls may be.” But consider that among the points he makes is this:
But the last contested nomination, in 2008, was itself a huge-money affair, and Obama won despite having started from a worse financial position than Sanders is in now (Clinton had $10 million at the start of 2007, Obama virtually nothing) and having been out-fundraised by Clinton throughout 2007.
Just one data point of many.
Is Sanders Too Far from the “Center”?
Which brings Hendricks to the final argument against Sanders’ viability — his distance from the “political center.” Hendricks, pointing to several past elections, notes how valuable that distance can be. I agree. His prime example is Michael Dukakis — distant from the center indeed — and he could easily have added Georgia’s Jimmy Carter as well, or Arkansas’s Bill Clinton.
But consider — what does the “political center” means in modern America? It means the place where the wishes of the One Percenters — of David Koch and Jamie Dimon, for example — overlap each other. The political center of the American people is way to the left of that.
For example, 87% of Republicans want Fast Track and TPP to fail. Republicans want that. And therein lies the real danger of the Sanders campaign — that it does represent the people, a great many of them, and it therefore could easily succeed if it gets any tailwind at all. Hendricks:
Is the day of the IKEA socialist at hand? The chatterers don’t know the answer. What they know is how to do their damnedest to ensure that day doesn’t come too soon.
They can try, the chatterers and their bosses, to sink the campaign beneath a wave of silence, but with impassioned words like these coming from the likes of Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Sanders’ core platform has a huge megaphone:
I’m willing to bet that the Warren megaphone, whatever her eventual endorsement ends up being, isn’t going away. Nor is coverage of her by “the chatterers.” All this bodes well for the Sanders campaign.