BURLINGTON, Vermont — Notwithstanding its somewhat equivocal designation as a Rally for Change, Bernie Sanders’ get-together earlier this week wasn’t about panhandler solidarity or begging for a few nickels and dimes from the local bourgeoisie who apparently have weekday early afternoons free. Yet by the end of the rally the general supposition that it was about something approximating political change seemed equally farfetched.
“Give ‘em hell, Bernie,” a man shouted as Sanders charged into the Burlington City Hall auditorium where at least 300 rapturous Vermont liberals crowded every inch of floor and balcony space to see Barbara Boxer endorse the eight term Congressman and self-styled democratic socialist for retiring Jim Jeffords’ Senate seat.
“They deserve it,” Sanders howled back.
Watching Sanders, brow furrowed, still scribbling notes on his speech as he was introduced, I honestly believed something out of the ordinary — that oh-so-rare unrehearsed, unscripted political moment — was possible. Alas, it was not to be. Part of Sanders’ considerable reputation was borne out — almost from the first he was shouting ferociously, bug eyed and red faced. The crowd, seeming to mistake higher volume and hoarser tones for purity (extremity) of politics, cheered wildly, feeding Sanders’ frenzied stump persona like mischievous teenagers feeding an already rambunctious sibling chocolate at bedtime to even the score with their parents.
Substantively, however, anyone who has watched any cable news these last five years could have easily mouthed the entirety of these well-worn platitudes. Contrary to his let-er-rip reputation, Sanders could not have played it any safer, speaking only in the broadest possible terms without ever getting close to bumping into any actual proposals. Save for the bleating, Sanders’ cribbing of every mainstream Democratic talking point and his insistence that the only moral values that matter are the ones that require tax increases and new EPA regulations would be positively yawn-inducing.
“We have the opportunity to stop right-wing extremism in the United States of America and create a situation where the government of this country begins to work for all the people rather than a handful of billionaires,” Sanders said, for example, in a bit of ho hum class war rhetoric that wasn’t even as radical even as his take-no-prisoners digital video game alter ego, never mind the new-and-improvedJohn Edwards.
This is not to whitewash Sanders. Certainly his issues page showcases a fondness for far left policies. On the stump, however, he is no Barney Frank…or even Tom Tancredo. Sanders seethed with righteous, supposedly independent indignation, but failed to deliver anything revolutionary, controversial or even, most disappointingly, candid. Lord, Mr. Sanders, you’re going to focus on reducing our dependence on foreign oil in some vague, unspecified way? Be still my beating heart. Everything was like that. It was like standing before an erupting volcano, trembling, only to realize instead of deadly lava remaking the earth it was plain watery oatmeal was running down the mountain; a sight to behold, alright, but not of nearly the same consequence.
FITTINGLY ENOUGH, the man seeking Sanders’ congressional seat, Peter Welch, was much more threatening, not only promising his first vote would be to elevate Nancy Pelosi to Speaker of the House — a position he gleefully described as “third in line from the presidency” — but followed it up by sniffing, “We know what Vermont wants. We know what America needs.” Suggesting, presumably, that what America wants and needs are two very different things. Didn’t America sort out this Vermont superiority complex with Howard Dean a couple years back?
For her part, Barbara Boxer railed against the Bush monarchy and the collaborationist “rubber stamp Congress” that refuses to “fulfill its constitutional responsibilities, which are to check and balance an executive.”
“Remember, it was one King George and now we have another one,” Boxer said, adding that any moderate Republican who votes for Republican leadership is “not independent.”
“You are with them,” she said, shades of the Bush Doctrine sans any trace of ironic pretense. Sanders can be a true “independent,” so long as he votes with Democrats. Don’t vote with the Democrats, you’re not independent. That’s an interesting way of defining the word, definitely.
That Sanders seemed to be running not against Rich Tarrant, but George W. Bush wasn’t lost on Boxer.
“You never heard Bernie mention his opponent,” she said. “I’m not going to, either, except to say, go ahead, spend your millions, rejuvenate the Vermont economy, but Bernie is going to beat you on Election Day. I don’t care how nasty the ads get.”
Oh, and are they ever nasty. Here’s one Tarrant ad I heard several times en route to the rally, set to solemn piano music:
“Bernie Sanders takes his wild crusades too far. I don’t know, maybe it’s his zeal for privacy, but Congressman Sanders voted that a women who’s been raped doesn’t even have the right to know if the rapist has AIDS or not. Bernie, whose rights are more important: The rapist’s or mine?”
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