Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has shown himself to be a much stronger candidate in the Democratic primary for president than many people expected.
Sanders, after 25 years as U.S. congressman and U.S. senator, joined the Democratic Party only recently. For most of his political career, he was a small “i” independent and self-identified democratic socialist.
“Socialist” has become a loaded term in American political rhetoric and has long been aimed at Democrats and other progressives to cast them as “other,” “foreign” or even “dangerous.”
In politics, to call someone a “socialist” has been to call them the enemy.
Sanders, for his long career in public service, wore the tag as a badge of honor and the people of Vermont certainly didn’t seem to mind, re-electing him to the U.S. Senate in 2012 with 71 percent of the vote.
As his notoriety has grown, Sanders has tapped into a vein of populist anger that has put him in contention in Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire’s First in the Nation primary. Whether his strength can hold is an open question, but he’s certainly running strong in the first two election contests of 2016.
Among his supporters, Sanders is thought to be the leader of a brand new political movement, a revolution in the making.
I’m not sure that a career politician and two-term U.S. senator can play the part of revolutionary, but any objective political observer can see that Sanders has inspired great enthusiasm among his base supporters — so much so that many of them spend more time attacking former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sander’s biggest opponent and the frontrunner in the Democratic primary, than they do hitting Republicans and the policies that they really despise.
So far, the old rulebooks of political primaries have been thrown in the garbage. But I’m not convinced that the old attacks won’t still work.
Sanders hasn’t faced the full-on weight of GOP attacks, and though Clinton has begun to throw sharper elbows in the primary, the Democratic campaign has been largely a genteel affair — especially compared to the clown car derailment of the Republican primary.
But there is no question in my mind that if Sanders becomes the Democratic nominee — or even if he starts to gain strength in primaries outside of Iowa and New Hampshire — we’re going to find out how resilient an attack being called a “socialist” really is.
Already, in Maine we’re seeing the tag applied as part of the partisan battles in Augusta.
“Lawmakers need to quit the political theater and go to work for the Maine people. To me, Riverview is a hospital in need of support, but to socialist lawmakers, it’s just another way to attack my administration in the media,” read his statement in a Friday news release.
LePage says provocative, nasty, racist — even crazy — things all the time. (Bring back the guillotine? I know it’s a joke, but come on? Chopping off people’s heads?)
But he is also the canary in the coal mine for GOP attacks. His re-election showed the effectiveness of attacks focused on things such as Ebola and ISIS. He turned these national issues into attacks that worked.
It’s no mistake and it’s no coincidence that LePage has found a new affection with using “socialist” as a slur against Democrats and his political opponents.
In a Gallup poll from last year, only 47 percent of respondents said that they would consider voting for a “socialist.” Fifty percent said they wouldn’t even consider it.
If Sanders is the nominee, the GOP will not hesitate to try to make the election about socialism and whether a socialist can keep our country safe. And the attacks won’t be limited to Sanders. Democrats will see them up and down the ticket.
The energy and enthusiasm of Sanders’ supporters might be able to overcome this early voter bias. He’s defied expectations so far.
But if you want a preview of what Democrats can expect in terms of attacks this year, it makes sense to listen LePage.