If campaigning is poetry and governing is prose, as Mario Cuomo put it, this campaign's unlikely poet laureate composes his verse in a thick Brooklyn accent untamed by decades in New England and Washington. Buoyed by a groundswell of conspicuously younger supporters, Bernie Sanders has turned what could have been a mere socialist statement into serious competition for the country's most tested (if relatively prosaic) politician, Hillary Clinton.
Sanders speaks to economic frustrations that have loomed large on both sides of the presidential race as well as liberal Democratic dissatisfaction with Clinton. He articulates the activist left as much as she embodies the centrist establishment her husband ushered in. Even Sanders' accent has an uncompromising ring next to Clinton's, which has been known, like her career, to span the country.
And yet Democrats don't have a monopoly on discontent - or on ideas of how it should be addressed. To accomplish anything, their nominee has to appeal to voters well beyond the party's base and, if elected, work with Republican lawmakers who have only grown more collectively conservative.
Sanders' quixotic answer to this problem is that the impressive throngs of his rallies and massive turnout that must accompany his general election victory would transform national politics, making the impossible possible. "The reason I'm running for president is that it is too late for establishment politics," he told Inquirer and Daily News editors and reporters. Clinton's response was less galvanic but more pragmatic: "You know, I will go anywhere and talk to anyone to find common ground."
Sanders is also a compelling spokesman for a more pacifist foreign policy, often touting his opposition to the Iraq war (though not his less prescient objections to the first Gulf war). But particularly in contrast with the former secretary of state, he has largely downplayed foreign affairs, one of the president's greatest responsibilities. He expresses too much vain hope that other countries will do what they ought to, while Clinton told the Inquirer Editorial Board that "we have to continue to lead the world." She helped do so herself by contributing to the nuclear deal with Iran, a bright spot in President Obama's foreign policy.
Even on his core issues, Sanders can be surprisingly short on the prose behind the poetry. His $75 billion-a-year plan to make public universities tuition-free hasn't attracted a single Senate cosponsor from either party. Asked about the complication that free college doesn't correlate with higher education levels globally, he reiterated the desirability of postsecondary schooling and added, "To me, this is not a complicated issue." Clinton's plan for income-based loan repayment would spend much less public money on students who don't need it: again, less electrifying but more realistic.
Sanders has already pushed Clinton leftward - for good (toward a higher minimum wage) and ill (against trade). She could capture more of her rival's enviable energy by dropping her Clintonian guardedness, however well-earned. The same impulse that led her to hide official emails on a home server, prompting a federal investigation, seems to be behind her indefensible refusal to release transcripts of her high-priced speeches to executives.