The Sanders Saga: From Protest to Power?

Is Senator Bernie Sanders on the verge of morphing from protest leader into potential President of the United States? And would that be good or bad for what has been a strikingly successful cause-oriented campaign?

Hillary Clinton did what she needed to do last Monday; she won the Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses, something neither she nor husband President Bill Clinton succeeded in doing in their respective campaigns of 2008 and 1992. Had she lost, even by the very narrow margin by which she won, it would have been a disaster for her candidacy. With New Englander Sanders long slated to win the New Hampshire primary, the 0 and 2 start for Hillary would have been devastating. No one, and I mean no one, would have described a narrow Hillary Iowa loss as a "moral victory."

There are no ties in American elections. John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were not co-presidents. If that's too ancient for the ahistorical, recall co-Presidents Al Gore and George Bush II.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders staged a very spirited debate Thursday night in Durham, New Hampshire, arguing, among other things, over whether or not Clinton is a "progressive."

Sanders, nevertheless, got a rush of mostly positive publicity from his powerful Iowa showing. His democratic socialist message, redolent with jeremiads about gaping economic inequality and a system manipulated by and for the super-rich, has tremendous resonance.

As a result, Sanders has shot forward in national polling, drawing nearly even with Hillary in one poll.

On the other hand, Hillary, not exactly resting on her somewhat threadbare Iowa laurels, turned in a strong debate performance against Sanders Thursday night at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. And she has cut his big lead New Hampshire lead, going into the weekend before the primary, in half, in a daily tracking poll.

Talk about your mixed messages.

If Hillary does up a lot closer in New Hampshire than she was the day of the Iowa caucuses, does that mean she really won? Nope. Is it a moral victory? Kinda, for what little that's worth, not that Sanders enthusiasts will say it. Will a closer Granite State margin point up the limits of Sanders's post-Iowa surge? To an extent.

National polls always lag facts on the ground in the actual contest states. Underlying dynamics tend to trump, so to speak, seeming momentum.

The best question in the Democratic presidential race is still this one: Where will Bernie Sanders win outside of New England?

Of course, there is a a way to overcome underlying dynamics in a sequence of contest states that mostly favor Hillary -- more racially and culturally and ideologically diverse voters as we move away from the heavy fixation on the more activist-oriented Iowa and New Hampshire electorates.

Put simply, the race is moving away from places where Hillary is not a "progressive" into places in which she is a progressive.

Sanders and Clinton had a big tussle over the term in the Thursday night debate. The media, true to form, shed far more heat than light on the argument.

If you think a progressive Democrat is a left-liberal or socialist -- and that's my experience with the term as it developed in the '70s and '80s -- then Hillary isn't really a progressive. Though she used to be one. (The American left, of course, repurposed the term from the early 20th Century usage, when a Progressive was a Teddy Roosevelt-style reformer.)

When Hillary calls herself a progressive, she's using another version of the term pertaining to a more pragmatic center/left approach, one which nonetheless does achieve some objectives associated with the left, though usually in more watered-down form. (Except when it comes to social liberalism like gay rights, which is not threatening to economic power elites.)

The question is whether or not many people believe that this latter version of "progressive" -- which the Clintons and their close ally, former "New Labour" British Prime Minister Tony Blair called "the Third Way" -- is too compromised to be credible.

Which brings us to the potentially overriding dynamic of the Sanders message.

A rigged financial system, massive and growing inequality, a hollowing economy, anything-goes money politics ... What Sanders is complaining about is what is widely believed. It just hasn't had a tribune in presidential politics. In part, of course, because it is certainly not what most fundraisers want to hear. Sanders's democratic socialist solutions are against the grain but clearly what growing numbers of Democrats and independents are open to.

That goes double for much if not most of the young, among whom the curmudgeonly and avuncular Sanders is becoming a major cult figure. For them, free of Cold War conditioning, socialism is not communism but a real alternative to the bleak economy they face in the very uneven recovery of Barack Obama.

And, as I wrote seven months ago, with future technology likely to create even more "economically useless" people even as it solves the problem of scarcity, some form of socialism is a very live option. Especially when the alternative looks like more feudalism, albeit a technologized, socially mediated/narcotized, infotained feudalism.

In regard to which, it's interesting to note that broadcast network nightly news shows in 2015 devoted eight times as much space to the obviously spurious Tom Brady "Deflategate" scandalette as they did to Sanders's obviously rising presidential campaign.

Sanders has cracked the code of raising very big money online in small amounts. In January, he out-raised Hillary, $20 million to $15 million.

So he's ready to roll with what he calls his "political revolution," with the message and the money feeding on one another synergistically to create, at least for now, a very neat perpetual motion machine.

With Democratic rules, unlike those of the Republicans, geared to proportional representation in delegate allocation, Sanders can run for a long time before being mathematically defeated for the nomination. Which also means that, if Sanders can find a way to start winning outside of New England, he is suddenly an actual threat to win the Democratic presidential nomination.

That is, paradoxically, a problem for him and for the Democrats. Because, make no mistake about it, Bernie Sanders is who the Republicans most want to run against. They've been chipping away at Hillary all this time to try to make the Democratic contest, well, a contest. Just check the constant framing on the Matt Drudge site.

Sanders's lack of presidential polish plays as authenticity for many, making a him a cult figure with the young and many others. But it also masks a lack of preparation and intellectual bandwidth to actually be the President of the United States. And his '60s alternative background may just provide a free-fire zone for a general election. But we're still a long way from that.

What we're not far away from is greater scrutiny of Sanders, and, with Nevada and South Carolina looming, learning how his support holds up absent a string of actual victories this month.

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