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Something’s Happening in the Presidential Campaign

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Philadelphia

Something “YUGE” is happening in the Democratic presidential campaign, and perhaps in the broader American body politic. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but like that feeling of your neck hairs rising off your skin as a big thunderstorm approaches, you know it’s big and it’s coming.

For me it was going with my wife and a friend to join a line of people waiting to get into Temple University’s 10,000-seat basketball arena for a hastily planned address by Democratic candidate for president Bernie Sanders.

When we got to the campus early yesterday, there was already a crowd of young people camped out by the entrance to the Liacouras Center. They told me they had been there since 6:30 am for an event that was scheduled to start at 8 pm, with doors opening at 5 pm. Already a line stretched back to the corner of Broad Street, around the corner and halfway down the block on Montgomery. Most of those in the line were students from Temple or from one or another of Philadelphia’s many other universities. They were white, black, latino and Asian, with a smattering of older folks. I went off to do some work, with plans for our little band to join the line around 4:30.

Big mistake! By the time we headed out to get in line, it was winding around the huge sports complex, snaking up and down several alleys and back to Broad, and then down Broad for another six blocks — about half a mile of people in all with more piling on all the time. At many places this line of people was eight to 10 across, and fairly densely packed, as people tried to shelter each other from a biting cold wind.

What was astonishing in all this was that there had been no long build-up to the event. No advance news reports, no posters, no organizations arriving with buses. It all seemed to have come together via social media in a day’s time.

By the time the line back where we were blocks from the arena finally began to move it was about 7 pm, and it took over an hour for us to get close to the entrance. At that point volunteer organizers were advising us that the arena was about full, and that we’d have a better chance of hearing the candidate in person if we abandoned the line and moved to a smaller 7,000-seat practice basketball arena in an adjacent building, where we were told Sanders would speak briefly before going to the main hall. A huge part of the line broke away behind us and began sprinting to the overflow venue. We chose to gamble and wait in the main line hoping we’d make the cut-off. Eventually, we managed to get in.

Inside, the seated crowd, which now included a fair percentage of adults, was really pumped. When Sanders, his trademark unkempt white hair flying, and his wife Jane O’Meara Sanders were spotted making their way towards the catwalk to the podium through a tunnel under the seats, a roar erupted from the crowd and became a thunderous chant of “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!”

Sanders took it from there, with a powerful speech that riffed through every issue of the campaign. But there was a new edge to this address. Fresh off of his landslide 14%-margin win over Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin, Sanders ripped into his opponent, who had just that day (citing a cheap-shot sandbagging interview of him by editors at the New York Daily News that news organizations from the Washington Post to CNN had been shamelessly misquoting and partially quoting) called Sanders unqualified for the White House.

Sanders, who until that point has been restrained in his attacks on Clinton, continuing to suggest that he would support her if she were to win the nomination, in a blistering counter-attack, told the wildly cheering crowd at the Liacouras Center, “She has been saying lately that she thinks I am quote, unquote ‘not qualified’ to be president. I don’t believe that she is qualified … if she is, through her super PAC, taking tens of millions of dollars in special interests funds.”

He didn’t stop there, but went on to say, “I don’t think that you are ‘qualified’ if you get $15 million from Wall Street through your super PAC. I don’t think you are ‘qualified’ if you have voted for the disastrous war in Iraq. I don’t think you are ‘qualified’ if you have supported virtually every disastrous trade agreement.”

This wasn’t a one-off attack either. The following morning at a press conference in Philadelphia, flanked by labor leaders supporting his presidential bid who were in the city for the AFL-CIO’s national convention, he said, “If you want to question my qualifications, then let me suggest this: Maybe the American people might wonder about your qualifications, Madam Secretary, when you voted for the war in Iraq—the most disastrous foreign policy blunder in the history of modern America. They might want to wonder about your qualifications, when you supported virtually every trade agreement—trade agreements which are costing the American worker millions of decent paying jobs. The American people may want to wonder about your qualifications when you’re spending an enormous amount of time raising money for your super PAC from some of the wealthiest people in this country and from the most outrageous special interests.”

What makes all this interesting is that Sanders, in calling Clinton unqualified for the presidency, is setting up a situation where it would be absurd for him to turn around and endorse her later should she win the nomination (how do you support someone you consider unqualified for the office?).

But it’s not just Sanders’ harder line against Clinton. There’s a righteous rage and an enthusiasm among his backers that is new, too. A recent poll shows that attitudes are hardening among Sanders’ growing army of idealistic supporters, at least 25% of whom now say that they could never vote for Clinton. (That poll, released Wednesday, was taken before Clinton began calling Sanders “unqualified.”)

There is also starting to be a change in how the Sanders campaign is getting covered in the corporate media. In Pennsylvania, the state’s main newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, has been consistently dismissive of the Sanders campaign, but the morning after the Temple rally, the paper’s front page featured a large photo showing a crush of young supports struggling to shake Sanders’ hand over a headline that read “Sanders stirs a frenzy in visit to Temple.”

As the Sanders campaign continues to surge (he’s now won seven of the last eight primary contests, all by landslides or even by tsunami margins), and as polls in states like Pennsylvania and New York where he was once down by 30-40 points, narrow to low single digits weeks before the next round of primaries, Clinton’s team, increasingly desperate to turn things around, is reportedly shifting to a campaign strategy of “disqualify him, defeat him, and unify the party later.”

That is basically a kamikaze strategy however, since what Sanders has put together, it is increasingly clear, has already become a national movement. Perhaps a Clintonian “scorched-earth” campaign of lies, tricks and media manipulation could succeed in derailing the Sanders campaign — though I doubt it. But if it did succeed, there would be no “unifying” possible later. The evident passion for Sanders himself among his followers is so great at this point that if Clinton’s establishment backers and her Super PAC funders were to tear him down and deny him the nomination there would be no forgiving and forgetting possible.

This offers an interesting set of possible scenarios going forward.

The first would be that the polls continue to move Sanders’ way as they have been showing a consistent pattern of doing in state after state primary and caucus. Already Clinton’s lead in New York, where the primary is set for April 19, has been whittled down from over 40% to single digits. In Pennsylvania, which votes on April 26, a similar large margin for Clinton is down now to just a 4% spread, and that was before last night’s “yuge” rally in the state’s largest city. If Sanders were to win in New York, the state where Clinton served a term and a half as senator, and then in Pennsylvania, he would be on a march that would probably take him right through California on June 7. Even if he wound up a bit short of a majority of pledged delegates at that point, the superdelegates, mostly Democratic politicians, either in office or formerly in office and perhaps considering running again, would be hard pressed to continue supporting Clinton, who would be seen as badly damaged goods and as a bad bet for the general election.

Add to that the prospect of hundreds of thousands of Sanders backers who will almost certainly be in the streets of Philadelphia–a city of just 1 million–for the Democratic Convention in mid-July.

Images of the disastrous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago will surely be in anxious party leaders’ heads. Chicago was where police brutally attacked anti-war backers of Sen. Eugene McCarthy, whose candidacy was stolen away by the establishment’s candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a man who became badly damaged goods and went on to lose to Richard Nixon. Philadelphia’s police department today is every bit as capable of brutality and thuggishness as was Mayor Richard Daley’s Chicago PD almost half a century ago, but the Sanders backers in the street in Philly will not be a bunch of widely reviled long-haired hippies, yippies and pinko anti-war activists. They are, in large part, America’s kids and young adults. Many of Philadelphia’s cops may even have kids who will be part of the group in the streets backing Sanders, which might make a Chicago-style police riot less likely.

As we were heading back to our car with from the rally, my wife and I found ourselves walking behind the head of Temple University’s police department, which had largely handled the security and traffic issues caused by the huge all-day line of people coming to attend the rally. A tall crew-cut wearing guy who looked 100% cop, when we complemented him on how his officers had handled the crowd management issue, he told us his own 21-year-old son was a “Bernie supporter.”

In any event, the pressure will be intense this July in Philadelphia, should Sanders win a narrow majority of pledged delegates, to swing the deal with superdelegate votes who currently say they will vote for Clinton. That same pressure would be brought if Sanders comes close to winning a majority of pledged delegates but falls a bit short. Remember, everyone knows that pretty much all of Clinton’s lead in pledged delegates by that time will only exist because of her wins in the early-voting states in the Deep South — states like South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana — none of which is likely to provide a single electoral vote for any Democrat in November. In other words, Clinton won big in states where it doesn’t matter, and has been losing since then in states where it is critical for a Democrat to win big.

Another scenario would be for Sanders to continue to win elections, but by only narrow margins, leaving Clinton one or two hundred delegates ahead at the end of the process (thanks to those meaningless Deep South state wins). At that point, if Clinton was nominated, and with her facing Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or some other candidate put in place by Republican Party leaders at a brokered convention, one can imagine Sanders walking away, perhaps offering no endorsement because of Clinton’s dirty campaigning.

But what if, as seems increasingly likely, Trump goes to the Republican convention with the largest number of delegates but not an absolute majority, and then at a brokered convention, party leaders install an alternative candidate — either Ted Cruz or perhaps a more “acceptable” candidate? Trump has already warned that he might in that case run as an independent or third party candidate — something he clearly has the support and the money to do.

At that point we’d have a three-way race between Clinton, a Republican and Trump. What would Sanders do then? His backers, who have already provided his campaign with over $140 million in small donations and seem to be a bottomless well of support, will be calling for him to run too. Perhaps he would. If it came to that, perhaps the Green Party should consider the bold idea of making him its standard bearer — a move that would assure his already high-flying campaign a place on the ballot in virtually every state, and that would simultaneously suddenly catapult the Green Party from an election footnote capable of winning a percent or two of votes to a major-league party vying for the top prize (and maybe some seats in Congress into the bargain).

Maybe that’s a fantasy, but it’s a beautiful one, entailing as it would the decimation of the two massively corrupt parties that have conspired to stymie political change in the US for generations.

The public is ready for such a tectonic shift in American politics. The level of disgust with establishment politics and politicians is palpable on the street, in bars, coffee shops, colleges and workplaces. Sanders to his enduring credit has sensed this and has done a stunning job of tapping into that disgust. With a little help from The Donald, it could even happen.

Certainly the electricity I felt in that line yesterday and in the Liacouras Center yesterday evening suggests that the support is there for the very “political revolution” that Sanders has been calling for.

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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