Tuesday, August 14 , 2018, 1:32 pm | Partly Cloudy 74º


Susan Estrich: Bernie Sanders Boomlet Hardly a Real Threat to Hillary Clinton

Bernie Sanders, the Independent Vermont senator, is running against front-runner Hillary Clinton from the one space available: the far left. And the news, reportedly said to be troubling the Clinton campaign (although I don’t really believe it), is that he’s drawing crowds in Iowa and feeding them liberal red meat.

Sanders may well emerge as the next TV star from his talk show and debate appearances (except there won’t be nearly as many of them), but he is not going to emerge as the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee.

Could he win Iowa? Maybe. Mike Huckabee won Iowa. That’s when everybody knew it was down to John McCain vs. Mitt Romney and who was hurt most, not what a Huckabee administration would look like.

Howard Dean may be a better analogy. Iowa fell in love with him. Until close to the end, he was leading in the polls over John Kerry and John Edwards. He was the Internet candidate with the “meet ups,” the liberal outsider with an agenda for change. Even Al Gore got on board.

And then a funny thing happened in the weeks approaching the caucus. Iowa got real. They wanted to pick a president, not handicap the nominee.

Iowa’s role in picking nominees began, for modern purposes, in 1976, when an unknown one-term governor from Georgia came in and won. Well, he didn’t actually win; “uncommitted” won.

But the late Johnny Apple, the New York Times reporter from whom everyone took cues, said it was a major victory; so it became a major victory. Jimmy Carter was no longer an unknown, and Iowa was on the map.

I remember standing outside in 1988 looking at row after row of satellite trucks, as far as you could see, and wondering whether we had lost our collective mind. Why should the caucus vote of a minority of voters in a small state be so important to picking the nominee of a party?

The answer is because Iowa — and New Hampshire — refuse to let it be otherwise. When the Democratic Party tried to rein in the states to a “window” beginning in March, the senior Democrats in both states bypassed the parties and went right to the candidates, getting every one of them to agree to compete in their state regardless of what the party said or whether, under the rules, the delegation would be seated.

And the candidates all said yes, especially the insurgents, because winning Iowa isn’t about delegates anyway. Iowa doesn’t pick presidents at conventions.

So Sanders is entering his “moment.” Summer is the perfect time, because almost everyone, except the truly devoted, would rather barbecue than politic in the summer. Going to a Sanders event and cheering him on can bring on pangs of nostalgia for aging baby boomers whose memories of the old days are better than the reality was.

And then you have to think about winning — and the danger that if Iowa rejects the leading candidates on both sides, they might become more, not less, relevant, particularly if the Iowa victory doesn’t lead to a New Hampshire win.

True, Sanders is from Vermont, which is right next to New Hampshire, which might help Sanders except Vermont politics is sort of sui generis — what New Hampshire may share most with Vermont is the border. Sanders would never be elected the senator from New Hampshire.

Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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