On Wednesday Democrats woke up feeling the Bern for 2020. To me, it felt a bit like 2012.
That was the year another elderly, ideological outsider with a committed base of activists and ability to raise a massive amount of money through small-dollar donations placed well in New Hampshire.
His name was Ron Paul. And, Bernie Sanders is his progressive twin.
Don’t let the fact that one is a self-avowed Democratic socialist and the other a Libertarian fool you. Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul are only opposites if you believe America politics is a finite political spectrum that runs left to right. If you think of it more like a Mobius strip, where two opposite ends seamlessly blend together at a certain point, you can understand how similar they are.
Think about how their supporters view them—as wizened political prophets who spent years warning of the various corporate and big money interests that were conspiring to create an economic doomsday for working-class Americans. During troubled times, the consistency of their positions and YouTube floor speeches were a warm balm for frenzied souls. They preached revolution as a means for salvation for America’s future. Literally “revolution.” Pick your manual: Sanders’s 2016 Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In or Paul’s 2009 The Revolution: A Manifesto.
How did these two oddball backbenchers turn into grassroots icons? In part, by eschewing party labels over their long careers—23 years in the House for Paul and 16 years in the House followed by his ongoing Senate tenure for Sanders. Neither fully embraced the Republican or Democratic party mantle even while competing in their party’s presidential primaries. And in their presidential campaigns, both ran against their putative parties more than they did the opposing side.
While serving in the House, they were able to hone ideologically pure political identities because they represented safe districts. Paul became “Dr. No” by voting against legislation not expressly authorized by the Constitution. Sanders railed against the nation’s “endless wars” and opposed defense budgets while calling for actual socialism, something you can only get away with when your base is in the People’s Republic of Burlington. Both men fell into favor among anti-war activists. Post-9/11, they both opposed the Patriot Act and the National Security Agency’s surveillance program.
Then there was TARP, the $700 billion taxpayer-funded bailout for America’s failing banks. Both men opposed it—and were roundly criticized for being too ideologically immature to take the unpopular vote in favor of a needed rescue. Both also harbor deep mistrust of the Federal Reserve. Paul was perhaps best known for his campaign to “End the Fed,” and Sanders has worked with Paul and his son, Senator Rand Paul, to support legislation to audit the Federal Reserve.
Add in a healthy dose of hostility for the corporate media, and you have a pair of fellow travelers. Again, literally. In 2016, Ron Paul told Larry King, “I feel a kinship with Bernie Sanders. We’re both against corporatism. We’re both against special benefits to big business.”
“His answer to that wouldn’t always be the same,” Paul said. “Mine would always drift to the free markets. His would drift to ‘Well, we need more government to redistribute wealth’—but we could both attack subsidies to business or the military-industrial complex.”
Of course, it’s easy to be against things in politics. “No” is almost always a safe vote. Especially when you aren’t responsible for what happens when the banks go under, or the military is defunded, or the terrorists aren’t stopped. It’s not that I disagree with Sanders and Paul on all of their positions, so much as the fact that as political gadflies, neither was ever held responsible for any of the consequences of their ideas. That’s the difference between being a performative back bencher and and a practicing legislator.
So, just what were these two men able to accomplish during their many decades of service in Washington? Not much. “Sanders had big ideas but little impact on Capitol Hill” read one Politico story about his legislative record. In the course of his entire career, Paul was only able to get one bill signed into law.
It’s funny to see the Sanders 2020 campaign as the fulfillment of Ron Paul’s dream, yet here we are. The question is whether or not Sanders would have a real chance to win the presidency.
In one sense, yes. There really are only five people now likely to be elected president in November and Bernie is one of them.
But he’s still comparatively unknown outside of Larry David’s Saturday Night Live impressions and to my mind, he’s has already been Palinized—it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between the real person and the caricature.
Sanders partisans argue that he would be a competitive populist foil to Trump in a 2020 general election. We’ll see. It’s true that Sanders has attracted a large base by stoking mistrust of institutions and the idea the system is rigged against The People. But that’s about it. Talking about “revolution” from safe seats and in front of adoring crowds of true believers is a whole lot easier than winning one.
Paul’s supporters learned that the hard way in 2012.