I love millennials. I even own one. Well, as much as a father can ever own an 18-year-old man. So when I read how energized and excited millennials are to vote this year, I am heartened by their newfound political activism. But am I impressed by their overwhelming choice to support Bernie Sanders? Not really.
Let’s remember, any 18-year-olds planning to cast their first vote for Sanders were only 10 when Barack Obama was elected. They were only 11-12 when Americans were torn apart by the Obamacare town hall debates that blew up across the country—far too young to have understood the deep divides that swirled around a new president’s efforts to radically change our healthcare system. And their 26-year-old millennial “elders” were only 18 or 19 back then. All their adult memories of presidential elections are of the good-guy Democrat winning, with no historical knowledge of how liberal candidates can get slaughtered in a national campaign. How can young people who have barely learned to drive understand the Mt. Everest-size speed bump that stands between a Sanders nomination and a Sanders administration?
To test the point, I asked twenty of my son’s friends – all high school seniors – if they knew what “Swift Boating” was. None did. Only one (my son) had vaguely heard the term. Did they know who Karl Rove is? A few sort of heard of him, but don’t know why he’s famous. And their knowledge of the GOP’s history of negative campaigns and dirty tricks is non-existent. They know nada about the Willie Horton ad that torpedoed Michael Dukakis in his 1988 race against George Bush 1, or how push-polls, butterfly ballots and the Brooks Brothers Riot tipped 2000 for George Bush 2. Or what a wedge issue is and how they affected the outcome in 2004. They never heard of the “Canuck” letter, the infamous Nixon campaign dirty trick that arguably cost Edmund Muskie the 1972 nomination.
As for what makes a weak Democratic candidate, these millennials had no idea that a Sanders-like promise to raise taxes led Walter Mondale to lose 49 states to Ronald Reagan in 1984, or that Jimmy Carter’s Sanders-like timidness on foreign policy cost him the presidency in 1980. They don’t know who Huey Long and Father Coughlin were, or their failed 1936 Share Our Wealth campaign that was so eerily similar to the promised Sanders “revolution.” Nor do they know who Eugene McCarthy or George McGovern were, and why their radical left anti-war agendas relate to the Sanders campaign of today.
Do those now seemingly obscure details of election history really mean anything in 2016? Most Sanders supporters would say no. That’s why they are Sanders supporters. In an even-steven comparison between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders without regard to election history, Bernie’s policies and rockstar Feel The Bern p.r. image are far more appealing to youthful voters. Of course they like the shaggy-haired, populist rebel who promises economic justice, free college and healthcare, and to change Washington, D.C. politics forever. Young people are drawn to revolutions. It’s emblematic of their desire to burst into adulthood and remake the world as they would like it. They were that way in 1968, 1972, 1976 and 2008. Twice it worked (’76 and ’08); twice it did not.
Personally, I think a progressive political revolution in this country would be fantastic. If I could push a button and make the Sanders revolution happen, I’d press it with all my might. But presidential campaigns are a lot more complicated than that. It’s not “may the best man win.” It’s “can the best man survive?”
So yes, it’s true that Clinton would bring a mountain of baggage to the general election and is by no means a lock to win. She gives the GOP plenty of ammo to attack her and has not proven to be as deft or inspiring a candidate as her supporters expected.
But Sanders’ chances of getting elected seem even more daunting, especially for those of us who are old enough to remember how the GOP so easily swift boated:
- anti-war youth idol Gene McCarthy, whom they morphed into a communist sympathizing peace agitator
- decorated WWII hero George McGovern, whom they morphed into a weak-kneed radical
- two-time governor and Eagle Scout Michael Dukakis, whom they morphed into a soft-on-crime, rape-appeasing, helmet-wearing buffoon
- Harvard grad and Vietnam voluntary enlistee Al Gore, whom they morphed into a privileged “brainiac egghead” who claimed to have invented the internet
- thrice-decorated Vietnam vet John Kerry, whom they morphed into a cowardly turncoat and murderous war criminal, a windsurfing elitist, a kept man, and a flip-flopper. And somehow vaguely “French looking” to boot.
So the idea that a 74-year-old “draft-dodging,” Cuba-loving, capitalism hating, Russia honeymooning, communist sympathizing, tax-raising Jewish radical-liberal Socialist is going to be able to withstand the cold-hearted GOP attack machine better than all of them is dubious at best. If modern election history is any judge, it’s more likely they will morph him into some kind of “commie” boogieman and shatter his public image like a sparrow egg.
Millennial voters may admire Bernie Sanders. They may love what he stands for. They may be willing to phone bank and canvas their butts off to make him president. But they don’t know the history of how presidential elections actually play out because they haven’t truly lived through one. They don’t remotely comprehend the shock-and-awe negative campaign that is in store for their candidate, or how it can wither a good man in voters’ eye.
And when they finally see it, all the #FeelTheBern hashtags in the world won’t be able to save their fallen sparrow.