Chris Graff: Bernie is undoing politics as we know it

by Chris Graff Bernie Sanders is the Uncola of national politics. Remember 7-Up’s masterful marketing strategy to separate it from Coke and Pepsi? The lemon-lime soft drink became the “Uncola: tart, crisp, clear” and was branded as the exact opposite of the two sweet, brown colas.

Call central casting for a presidential candidate and the last person they would send you is a rumpled, mad-as-hell, impatient Brooklyn native with the air of an absent-minded professor.

But today the Bernie brand is hot.

Last year, supporters had a feeling. Vermont Business Magazine photo.

His issues resonate, his anger matches the nation’s mood, his no-nonsense approach to politics is seen as a breath of fresh air.

In a time when politicians are on the outs, the unpolitician is in.

Since the beginning of time Bernie has railed against the “unfair distribution of wealth, the decline of decent-paying jobs, the erosion of our democracy, and the unchecked power of the corporate media.”

That list is lifted from Sanders’ 1997 book, “Outsider in the House,” but it could have been plucked from any point in the 45 years of his political career.

That consistency of message is a key to Sanders’ success. Others are now speaking to the inequities; Bernie has been preaching about it since the early 1970s.

In 1997 he proclaimed that “our democratic institutions are so endangered that a clear-eyed observer might well conclude that we live not in a democracy but an oligarchy.”

Today his message hits home. Many Americans feel powerless, that the deck is stacked against them and that our government reflects the wishes of Wall Street.

It is akin to that moment in February 2003 when another Vermont politician stood up at the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee and declared, “I’m Howard Dean and I am here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

Dean’s sharp questioning – “What I want to know is why in the world the Democratic party leadership is supporting the president's unilateral attack on Iraq?” – gave new hope to those who felt the Democratic Party had lost its way and lost its spine. Dean, powered by those who felt powerless, spent most of that year atop the polls for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Like Dean, Sanders is also tapping into a non-traditional network that is outside of the established political organizations.

In 2003 Dean revolutionized political fundraising by using the Internet to raise money and organize. Sanders is doing the same, hiring some of the tech gurus who helped Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in 2008.

Sanders himself is a huge hit in social media.

Bernie Sanders as Mr Mayor. Vermont Business Magazine photo.

Much has been made of the fact that few members of the Senate or Congress or political establishment have endorsed Sanders. But endorsements by political figures rarely transform into votes. An endorsement by someone like Bill McKibben, however, could. McKibben’s climate change activists number in the hundreds of thousands and they care deeply enough about their cause to mobilize and be arrested.

Sanders’ big-name supporters have followers.

On the other side of the ledger, though, are big negatives that weigh down the Sanders campaign.

The biggest negative is that Sanders is not a Democrat. It is hard to imagine the Democratic Party nominating as its presidential candidate someone who doesn’t belong to the Democratic Party. It is simply inconceivable.

And it is not just that Sanders doesn’t have a membership card stuck in his wallet. This is a guy who got where he is today by bashing the Democrats. He once called the Democratic Party “ideologically bankrupt.”

A senior Democratic National Committee aide told CBS News that the party only requires a candidate to demonstrate "a commitment to the goals and objectives of the Democratic Party."

"If you're good with us, we're good with you," the aide told CBS.

Sanders’ whole persona is keyed to his independence. Yes, he has aligned with the Democrats in the House and Senate but he has never been comfortable there. There is a reason his 1997 book was called “Outsider in the House.”

You can imagine the Clinton campaign has files full of Bernie quotes bashing the Democratic Party.

Like this one from 1988: “The nomination of Lloyd Bentsen is just another indication of the pathetic political nature of the Democratic Party.” Bentsen, a US senator from Texas, was the Democratic Party’s 1988 vice presidential nominee and went on to serve as Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration.

The fascinating thing about the Sanders’ campaign is that he says whatever he wants. He is running this campaign on his terms. He lectures. He does not pamper. He won’t take corporate PAC donations. He won’t run negative ads.

He simply wants to debate the issues.

"I think we would have a debate about how you rebuild the crumbling middle class," Sanders said in one recent interview. "A debate about how you reverse climate change. A debate about the foreign policy and the wisdom of the war in Iraq. A debate about trade policy. A debate about Wall Street. And that would be, I think, good for the American people, to be honest with you."

Bernie Sanders. The Uncola of 2016. Tart. Crisp. Clear.

Chris Graff, a former Vermont bureau chief of The Associated Press and host of VPT's Vermont This Week, is now vice president for communications at National Life Group. He is author of, Dateline Vermont: Covering and uncovering the newsworthy stories that shaped a state - and influenced a nation. This article first appeared in the June issue of Vermont Business Magazine.