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An Outside Chance

Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders; drawing by Anders Nilsen

Declarations of intent to run for the US presidency have a special kind of cartography. Everything is oriented toward Washington, as it was toward Jerusalem in the old maps. But the optics should place the candidate at a spiritual distance from the capital: in a boyhood home in Kansas (Dwight Eisenhower), in a snowstorm in Minnesota (Amy Klobuchar), or in one’s own tower in New York City (Donald Trump). Yet on April 30, 2015, an improbable candidate for the Democratic nomination made his announcement from an open patch of ground just a few dozen yards from the Capitol building, whose imposing classical portico partly framed the TV footage of his press conference. The patch is actually known as the Senate Swamp or, as the official press gallery website has it, the Swamp Site. It gives a local habitation and a name to the Washington swamp that, in the rhetoric Trump adapted from Ronald Reagan, must be drained. It is surely the last place an outsider hoping to lead an insurgency against the establishment would choose to begin his revolution. But it is where Bernie Sanders, in a moment that continues to resonate in American politics, first affirmed his ambitions. Those ambitions now seem unlikely ever to be fulfilled, but in pursuing them Sanders has radically altered the meaning of inside and outside.

According to Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, in planning his announcement Sanders had sought to identify himself even more emphatically as a Beltway insider. He considered having the launch inside the Capitol itself and, when told that this was not permitted, tried to get (but was refused) a room in the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee—an especially cheeky request, coming as it did from a man who, asked at that press conference if he were now a Democrat, replied, “No, I’m an Independent.”

These are minor details, but they do tell us two important things about Sanders. One is that, unlike almost any other viable candidate for the US presidency in recent decades, he has no need to perform outsiderness. His 1997 political memoir is called Outsider in the House, a title rather optimistically updated for a new edition in 2019 to Outsider in the White House. For once, the claim is not phony. In 1991, after Sanders had become the first member of the House of Representatives in more than forty years not affiliated with either major party, the powerful Massachusetts Democrat Joe Moakley told the Associated Press that “he is out there wailing on his own. He screams and hollers, but he is all alone.” Bill Richardson, another influential Democratic congressman, said that Sanders’s status as an independent made him “kind of a homeless waif.” The wailing waif does not need to convince anyone that he is not a…


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