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?"
And another: "Bernie Sanders says he's for the little guy. But, you check his voting record. One time, he voted to allow foreign drug dealers to get visas to live here. We're nice people in Vermont, but not nice enough to invite the drug dealers to move in next door!"
This is mind-bogglingly silly. There has to be enough footage of Sanders shouting incoherently to run from now until Election Day without using any shot twice. Just as Democrats erred in 2004 by trying to convince voters Bush was Satan personified rather than simply a bad president, so too do ads attempting to cast Sanders as a HIV-infected drug dealing rapist's best friend rather than a socialist crank seem, even beyond being gaudy and tasteless, unlikely to be helpful politically. Then again, would anything have been? Sanders is like a matinee idol up here.
In truth, if the Senate campaign in Vermont is to be judged by the flailing banality of its two candidates, then it is safe to say there is a lack of seriousness to the whole affair that would render it completely meaningless were control of the chamber not somewhat in question. Nonetheless, the candidates present could not disagree more. "This election," Sanders declared, "is the most important election in our lifetimes." Welch only slightly downgraded it to "one of the most important elections of our lifetime." Boxer struck out for the middle ground, calling it "most important election in my lifetime."
Fair enough. I suspect we'll not likely see an unimportant election until Democrats have regained some semblance of power, just as voter fraud will run rampant in every election a Republican candidate wins for perpetuity. Each election that passes without the sky falling despite the mind-numbingly similar rhetoric employed every two years, the harder it becomes to energize people to work to hold it up. Sanders is a good Chicken Little, but that's unlikely to translate his worldview into legislative victories.
Indeed, Boxer seemed to have a better sense of Sanders' potential usefulness than he himself does.
"In the Senate you can add amendments, filibuster, cause all sorts of problems." Boxer enthused from the podium. "Bernie, you're going to love it."
No doubt he will.
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