In 2000, Nation “Felt the Bern” for McCain

Riley Pearsall, Contributing Writer

His supporters love him for his character and candor while his rivals and opponents decry his extreme ideas. He is beloved by the youth and has energized them to a degree not seen in years. He has crushed mainstream opposition in the New Hampshire primary with a double-digit lead. He is John McCain circa 2000, a strong contender for — but ultimately the loser of — the Republican presidential primary.

Readers can hardly be faulted for failing to remember a primary campaign that occurred when this writer was only three years old, but McCain’s first presidential bid, chronicled in David Foster Wallace’s fantastic essay “Up, Simba,” has so far eerily mirrored the recent ascent of Bernie Sanders. Both men are anti-candidates, populists at the fringes of their parties who refuse to play by the rules of traditional politics, facing established candidates who are members of presidential dynasties — George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton.

Sanders’ image as a maverick who refuses to compromise his principles is credible because he has called himself a socialist and voted or advocated accordingly for decades. McCain’s came from his time as a POW in the Vietnam War, when he was offered early release but chose to remain in captivity for four more years rather than violate the military’s Code of Conduct (which states that POWs must be released in the order they were captured). College campuses all over the country are filled with students who are “feeling the Bern,” but McCain supporters also provided the 2000 New Hampshire primary with the highest youth voter turnout in U.S. history at the time. Sanders has taken up the cause of reducing income inequality and getting big money out of politics, just as McCain ran on the promise to “take our government back from the power brokers and special interests and return it to the people and the noble cause of freedom it was created to serve,” even refusing to take money from PACs and relying on grassroots donations. Sound familiar?

Of course, in every other respect, Sanders and McCain are as different as two old white men can possibly be. But isn’t that a little scary? Are we still so desperate for a politician who is, as Wallace put it, “somewhat in the ballpark of a real human being” and unafraid to stick it to the Man that the specifics of their ideologies hardly matter? Now, you may say that you are voting for Sanders because of his ideas, but Bernie’s charisma has done an excellent job of distracting people from the fact that many of those ideas are thoroughly unworkable. They’re not necessarily wrong: If Bernie could wave a magic wand that would enact all his policies without a hitch, the country would be better off than it is now, although I do believe many of his specifics go too far. But Republicans have stonewalled Obama for eight long years because they think he’s a socialist: Bernie actually is one (or a “Democratic Socialist,” as the kids call it these days). He constantly promises a political “revolution” that will make all these changes possible. Mostly, Bernie seems to be peddling a dream of “Yes, We Can” proportions. Given how gray Obama’s hair is by now, you would think we would know better.

The similarities between the Sanders and McCain campaigns will continue to accumulate. Once the race enters states that are more representative of the nation as a whole and that don’t play to a fringe candidate’s strengths in the way that New Hampshire does, Hillary Clinton will start winning primaries and gaining momentum, sending Sander’s campaign into a tailspin from which it will never really recover. As unusual as this election has been, it looks as though history will repeat itself in this case. McCain was not elected in 2000; it is my guess that Sanders will not receive the candidacy this year either.