Richard J. Cross, III: The Bernie Experience

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When it comes to Maryland’s primary election on April 26th, the good news and the bad news is that both presidential nominations will likely be settled before the madness gets here. This will spare Marylanders much of the drama and partisan pathos we have witnessed in Iowa and New Hampshire.  In that respect, Maryland is kind of like the skipped venue on a WWE national tour.

But it also deprives us opportunities to witness up close the phenomenon that is Senator Bernie Sanders’ candidacy.

I’m old enough to remember when being a self-proclaimed socialist was usually a deal breaker when it came to running for the presidency. Yet if the polls are to be believed, somehow this 74 year-old wild-eyed socialist from the land of Birkenstocks and Ben and Jerry’s enjoys a massive lead in New Hampshire and is in a dogfight with Hillary Clinton in Iowa.

Once dismissed as an irritant from the political fringe, Sanders has become a big worry for the Clinton campaign.  Former President Bill Clinton – anxious to prevent the kind of insurgency campaign that toppled his wife’s presidential hopes in 2008 – is reportedly leaning on campaign aides to look past Iowa and New Hampshire and ramp up campaign operations in Texas, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, and other key states where Hillary enjoys an advantage.

As for Maryland, the state’s Democratic establishment is solid in its support for Clinton, though former Governor Martin O’Malley has his backers. The latest Gonzales poll has Clinton leading Sanders here by a margin of 40 percent to 27 percent, with 29 percent undecided. What’s more, 40 percent of the Democratic primary electorate in Maryland consists of African-American voters – a bedrock constituency of the Clinton coalition.

While it is unlikely Maryland will be a breakthrough state for the Vermont senator, nationally the improbable Sanders phenomenon is as real for Democrats as the Trump phenomenon is for Republicans.

Still, while I get the Bernie phenomenon’s what, I am still processing the why.

In other words, why is an obscure hard-left senator from a tiny state, who openly preaches the virtue of tax increases and an estimated $19 trillion in new spending and blames global terrorism on climate change, packing them into arenas by the thousands?

True, Sanders’ politics align with many Democratic primary voters. But the intensity of his support stems from deeper reasons.

Donald Trump is forgiven for saying outrageous, impolitic things because many voters appreciate his willingness to speak his mind. Similarly, people may agree or disagree with Sanders, but no one doubts that he actually believes what he is saying. He presents as the rare man of principle in a field dominated by finger in the wind politicos.

I experienced the Sanders phenomenon personally in my past professional life.

Back in January 1998, I was press secretary to then-Congressman Bob Ehrlich. Our chief of staff had challenged me to get the congressman on one of CSPAN’s interview programs. After two years of me bugging them, they finally called and invited Ehrlich to appear on Washington Journal, an early morning program in which members of Congress representing both parties appear side by side to discuss current events.

Congressman Ehrlich’s foil that morning was Congressman Bernie Sanders. As Sanders was someone I regarded as an extremist, I remember being pleased by the juxtaposition.

So I show up at CSPAN’s offices at an ungodly hour to meet Ehrlich. Sanders came in a few moments later. Both men served on the House Banking Committee at the time and were casually acquainted. They chatted amiably before the broadcast started, and Sanders, who reminded me of many of my college professors, playfully teased me for being the rare House staffer willing to get up that early.

When the broadcast started they engaged in a spirited, ideological conversation about the desired size and scope of the federal government – Ehrlich the Gingrich Republican, Sanders the fiery veteran of the New Left.

By the time I got into the office later that morning, CSPAN viewers from across the country had emailed our office to offer their opinion as to who “won” the encounter.

It was Sanders, in a knockout.

The most often cited reason was that, socialist or not, Sanders presented the impression that he cared about people, whereas Ehrlich was too theoretical and wonkish in his answers.

And I think this is the same phenomenon that has propelled the Sanders campaign’s successes to date.

His statist solutions to problems – more spending, more taxes, and bigger government – are not new. They have been tried and failed many times and in many places before. But with some voters, Sanders’ priorities resonate as much if not more than do his solutions.

Ultimately, I think Secretary Clinton will likely win the Democratic nomination. Sanders’ strength in Iowa and New Hampshire will be difficult to repeat elsewhere, especially in light of the firewall the Clinton campaign is amassing in other states. True, Sanders sweeping both Iowa and New Hampshire would give him momentum moving forward. But given the Clinton campaign’s resources, it may not be enough.

Nonetheless, while I couldn’t vote for either of these guys, I must admit that I would enjoy watching a Sanders versus Trump contest strictly for the political theatre of it. It would kind of be like watching Godzilla battle Mothra. No matter who wins, you know the city is going to get flattened.

Richard J. Cross III is a former Capitol Hill and Annapolis press secretary and speechwriter. He resides in Baltimore, and blogs at His e-mail address:  .

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