Mark Shields: Bernie Sanders deserves space, respect

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

You’re Bernie Sanders, and you’ll turn 75 on Sept. 8. You are gruff and, even your greatest admirers concede, no charmer. The Wise Guys sneered when, barely 12 months ago, you began your long-shot presidential campaign. The polls were discouraging. Hillary Clinton was the preferred candidate of 65 percent of Democrats, while only 3 percent backed you. But on that first day, you, the unyielding critic of Wall Street banks and of the destructive influence of big money in the nation’s politics, made a pledge: ”We’re going to build a movement of millions of Americans who are prepared to stand up and fight back.” Promise made; promise kept.

One year later, you are one of three presidential candidates still standing and the only one whom the nation’s voters uniformly rate favorably. In every major poll, you — not Clinton — decisively trounce billionaire developer Donald J. Trump, the almost certain Republican nominee. And yes, while raising nearly $200 million — mostly in small contributions — you have continued to best Clinton in the May contests, winning Indiana, West Virginia and Oregon and losing only Kentucky.

Now is the time for the alleged leadership of the Democratic Party to give Bernie Sanders the respect he has earned and the space and time he deserves, not to try to strong-arm him into prematurely bowing to the inevitability of a Clinton nomination.

It’s enough to make you wonder whether any of those prominent Democrats trying to pressure Sanders have any idea of how painfully public and publicly painful it is for a candidate to end a presidential campaign. The late Bob Strauss, a legendary Democratic Party chief, understood: ”It takes a lot of guts to stick your neck out and run for any public office. But the thing that’s tougher than announcing for office is withdrawing from a race, because when you drop out, you are saying that you are quitting and that you’re beaten.”

I was forced to take note of Sanders’ remarkable impact on the 2016 campaign when, in August 2015 — some 15 months before Election Day — he was able to draw a crowd of 27,500 into the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena after attracting, in the preceding two days, throngs of 28,000 and 15,000 in Portland and Seattle, respectively. These crowds did not come to see some celebrity-personality with his own network show or some charismatic spellbinder put on a performance. It was the message of Bernie more than Bernie the messenger that would fill halls all year from Manchester to Fresno. To the American royalty of hedge fund oligarchs, that message was blunt. He did not trim or truckle: ”You can’t have it all. You cannot get huge tax breaks when millions of kids go to bed hungry. … You cannot hide your profits in the Cayman Islands and Bermuda. You will pay your fair share.”

When the campaign does end, there are no more cheering crowds to lift your tired spirits, no more cameras, microphones and reporters to record your every thought, no Secret Service agents to part traffic and make your life easier. Bernie Sanders may not yet appreciate what he has become in the past year. He will not return to Capitol Hill just a better-known, more recognizable senator. Sanders has become the established leader of a national movement of millions dedicated to fighting economic inequality and special privilege. The Democrats, to win in November, are going to need Bernie Sanders much more than he needs them. It would be smart to give him respect and space.

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