1. Our sitting President and Bernie Sanders each has up to one hour to talk about what he sees happening, what are the major challenges our country and our world are facing, and what are the kinds of measures he would try early in his next, or first, term as President, if elected. They speak in turn before a randomly selected audience of, say, 500 or 1000 young people, ages, say, 18-30.
After the time is up, the audience is polled as to which description of the current situation and directions for change is more accurate, and more appealing to them.
Care to bet which individual's "presentation" would win majority support?
I would bet that Bernie Sanders, age 69, white hair, enjoying his golden years if he had decided not to opt for public life, would win a majority of that audience.
Sanders would give an abbreviated version of what he said in his 8 1/2 hour December Senate floor speech opposing the proposal the President had negotiated with the Republicans. He would talk about how we really do need to break up too big to fail banks and enlist the support of the American people in that fight that cannot possibly be won inside the Beltway. He would talk about how we need to enlist the American people in a campaign to repeal a bad budget deal the President reached with the Republicans late last year, and that we need to use some of the money we could recapture doing that to create infrastructure-rebuilding green jobs for some of those without jobs in this economy. He would say we need to try something on campaign finance to deal with the pernicious effects of Citizens United, maybe Lawrence Lessig's latest ideas on how to fix Congress first, to make it the peoples' Congress, or something a lot closer to it. He would respectfully request the Senate to change its rules so that majority rule becomes what the American public undoubtedly assumed it was, the norm, that the Senate might become an institution capable of making decisions with 51 instead of 60 votes, that it would cease to be an institution that could be used, repeatedly, 200 times over the preceding 2 years, to prevent up or down votes on substantive bills from even occurring. And he would ask the American public to write their Senators, be they Republicans, Democrats, or Independents, and support his request.
Sanders would be the first to say he doesn't have all the answers. That alone should get him candor points but offering versions of what he's been saying would give a sense of his values and ways of thinking for people to go by. His approach would be non-doctrinaire and pragmatic in the good sense. He would say that he would try things to deal with the central challenges (I'd trust Paul Volcker to know how to break up the big financial institutions without doing more harm than good--would you?), and if they don't work, we'll discard them and try other things. Like FDR. Bold (emphasis added), persistent experimentation. (BTW, FDR's 1932 campaign was not won on the basis of one or two or a lot of specific "new ideas". In fact, he even sounded budget-balancing themes. What he was very clear about was that he would try things to address the real problems, discard what didn't work, and stay with what did work. But that he would try things. And he asked the American public to contact their members of Congress to support his efforts. Which they did.)
The President would offer his WTF vision as laid out in his SOTU.
And then there would be a vote. And a majority of the young people, the people who presumably would never, ever, not in a million years ever choose what old Bernie Sanders had to say over what suave Barack Obama had to say, would do just that.
2. If key pieces of legislation passed by Nancy Pelosi's House, Blue Dogs and all, had been able to get up-or-down votes in the Senate--cap-and-trade (inadequate, but an important start had it passed) and the $200 billion green-tinted infrastructure jobs bill (possibly all we could administratively handle in the near-term but a very worthy and important, I would say crucial, measure nonetheless)--neither would have passed.
But at least there would have been transparency and accountability. We'd know where our Senators truly stand on these matters. That those measures did in fact pass the House suggests that progressives really were not very far away from making what many more of us would have considered a satisfactory start on a progressive agenda.
The conversation right now, not just in progressive blogosphere but among progressive activists around the country, would be different. It would be nowhere near as critical of Obama. There would be nowhere near the sense of despair or anger among many who supported this President's campaign with enthusiasm and a real sense of hope.
Yes, I know. Coulda woulda shoulda. It didn't happen. But to those who have already given up on the Democratic party or are thinking of doing that I'd say that we were not that far away from getting a decent start on getting some important things done. Which is pretty remarkable when you consider the forces we are up against.
With Pelosi sworn in as the next House Speaker in January 2013, following a bigger Democratic rout than the Republican rout we saw in November, a Democratic Senate that has, or quickly proceeds to, change its rules so majority vote on substantive bills becomes the norm, and a re-elected President who has made some mid-course corrections and gotten majority public opinion squarely on his side on the economic issues in particular...well, there is your most doable possibility for moving farther forward, more publicly, more aggressively, and with greater success, some of the progressive policy agenda that was advanced tentatively and with some positive, but for many of us disappointing and inadequate overall, results in 2009-2010. (end of thought experiment #2)
Sanders in the Democratic primaries could strengthen the Democratic party and its ability to advance a progressive agenda. There are never any guarantees--indeed, one must acknowledge the risks--but that would be my hope at this point. How is it possible that our President could come to see possibilities in enlisting the public on the side of a progressive economic agenda, along some of the lines Sanders advocates, unless someone willing to try to make that apparent seizes the opportunity to provide that demonstration?
Most politicians, incumbent politicians especially, are, understandably, risk averse. However: sometimes they are too risk averse. Skeptical as to whether opportunities so far blocked can be created, confident that by seeming safer and more "centrist" (in the case of presidential elections in particular) and less scary than the opposition, they decline to do so. We end up with safe, "centrist" incumbents defeating opponents who are more flawed or easier to marginalize. In particular elections that might be a good or at least less unhelpful outcome. But for a country facing the kinds of problems we are facing, "safe" simply will not do.
Bernie Sanders is a centered, mature, pragmatic adult. He is an Independent, but, unlike Lieberman, he doesn't preen in front of the cameras while threatening to bolt to the GOP side if his particular desires are not accommodated. In the imperfect, but worthwhile-as-a-start financial reform bill, he was able to get a number of transparency and accountability-enhancing provisions into that legislation, which he voted for believing it was not adequate by itself. I believe he is fully aware of the dangers of primary challenges, of how they can, potentially and often in fact have, weaken incumbents who are far preferable to the opposition party's candidate. I would trust his judgments on what to say and not say--if he decides to register as a Democrat and challenge Obama in the primaries.
His would of necessity be a very low-budget campaign, almost entirely dependent on how much free media he could attract. If he surprised in Iowa and early primaries that could be a lot, at least for a time. If not, if he bombed early and dropped out, I don't see much of a case that he would have harmed Obama for the general. In fact, Obama might welcome a challenge he vanquishes so as to enable him to make a case that his course of action is strongly preferred (even if that conclusion would not necessarily follow) and look like the "centrist" he clearly wants to look like heading into next year. If Sanders did surprisingly well, well, wouldn't it be important, in a country that likes to talk as though the people are the ultimate rulers, for there to be some national conversation about what that would mean?
My guess is that the more people hear Bernie Sanders, the more sense he makes to them, that a lot of Americans will resonate to what he has to say, if they hear it. Some who are not now Democrats might even conclude that if Bernie Sanders has decided that the place for him is the Democratic party, maybe it could be the place for them, too.
Unless I had evidence that the state Democratic parties were going below the belt trying to keep him off the ballot, I would be inclined not to sign a petition to put Sanders on the ballot as a 3rd party candidate, if that is the route he chose. I would not support his candidacy as a 3rd party candidacy. I find it hard to imagine any circumstances under which I will not vote for the Democratic nominee for President.
The above said, such time and energies and available money as I have available to me I expect to devote to supporting a progressive, Amy Dean-style, social movement, grassroots, pro-growth and pro-equity, coalition-oriented, collaborate-wherever-possible but confront-wherever-neccessary, labor movement resurgence, and to efforts to recruit and support viable economically progressive Democratic party House and Senate candidates for the 2012 elections.
If Obama looks to be in trouble having moved in a progressive direction on economic issues as I am hoping he will, I will be as vocal and active in support of him as I can. I believe many who supported him in 2008 but have become disillusioned and may not otherwise exert on his behalf, would do likewise. If he wants to run an uninspiring, audacity-challenged, less-scary-than-my-opponent, hug-the-center campaign, which it very much looks to me as though he's going to do, I don't believe he's going to need my attention or help in support of that kind of campaign. My efforts, such as they are, will be focused elsewhere.
But...we'll see. Now is the time to be talking about this stuff and making decisions and commitments. Not September 2012.