Campaign at Bernie's

The People's Republic of Vermont strikes again.

Four years ago, Senator Jim Jeffords delighted liberals and outraged conservatives by abandoning the Republican Party, depriving it (however briefly) of its Senate majority. Two years ago, Howard Dean's anti-war presidential candidacy made him (also briefly) the left's hero, the right's scourge.

Now another left-of-center Vermonter is about to agitate the national body politic, inspiring liberals and infuriating conservatives, with this difference: Bernie Sanders is really a lefty.

Jeffords isn't a liberal; he's the last of the Whigs, a pro-business centrist driven from his party by the right-wingers who dominate it. Dean, who governed Vermont from the middle for a decade, was leftish only on the Iraq War -- and considering that war is the ultimate government program, opposing one does not a leftist make.

But Bernie Sanders is unabashedly left of center.

"I will be running as an independent," Sanders said in a telephone interview. "But if you're asking my philosophy, yes, I am a Democratic socialist."

In the U.S. Senate? No mortal has uttered such a sentence and entered that body. But right now Sanders is a good bet to get elected. So if you thought the Republican Party, the conservative blogosphere, and the right-wing chatterers were aghast at Jeffords' defection and Dean's faux front-runnerdom, try to imagine the inner turmoil (and the outward manifestations thereof) provoked by the thought of a self-described socialist sullying the corridors and carpets once trod by Daniel Webster, William H. Taft, and Everett Dirksen. Serious breakdowns could occur.

Indeed, they may have begun Saturday, when the one Republican who could have given Sanders a tough fight opted out. That was Governor James Douglas, a not-very-conservative Republican who got re-elected last year almost as easily as Sanders did.

Republicans in Washington pressed Douglas to run as soon as Jeffords made his withdrawal announcement April 20. They even arranged for early polling to gauge whether the governor would have much chance against the eight-term independent congressman.

The results seem to have been discouraging. Quicker than anyone expected, Douglas announced that he would run for a third two-year term as governor, a race he is expected to win. Not that he said anything about polls. Instead, he pictured himself as the last bastion against Vermont adopting universal health care as proposed by the Democrats who control the state legislature.

With Douglas out, the Republicans are scraping about in the lower half of a small barrel. Lieutenant governor Brian Dubie said he was "interested," but Dubie -- anti-abortion, pro–Iraq War, against Vermont's civil unions law -- is substantially to the right of most Vermonters, and he has never run against a candidate nearly as skillful as Bernie (that's all anyone in Vermont calls him).

And Richard Tarrant, the multi-millionaire who founded the IDX medical software firm, has never run for anything. He's a centrist, but he is said to be thin-skinned. Bernie Sanders against an inexperienced, thin-skinned, multi-millionaire does not seem like a fair fight.

The Republican candidate is likely to be Bernie's only real opponent. As soon as Jeffords announced his retirement, the state's most influential Democrats, Senator Patrick Leahy and Dean, now the Democratic National Committee chairman, put the fix in for Sanders. It took but a few phone calls from Leahy and Dean to choose the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate next year: nobody.

After quick consultation with other party leaders, the quasi-official word came forth from Peter Welch, the majority leader of the state Senate, who said. "Bernie has enormous voter support and a substantial funding base and a Democratic voting record." The message was clear: We're for Bernie; no others need apply. In return, Democrats want Sanders to persuade Vermont's Progressive Party not to run anyone for the House seat he is vacating.

So while somebody may appear on the Democratic line, it will not be somebody who is anybody, and without a divided opposition it's going to be tough for any Republican to get elected to federal office in Vermont as long as George W. Bush is in the White House. The president got less than 40 percent of the Vermont vote last year, and that was before Terry Schiavo, John Bolton, and Social Security privatization. Running for governor, Douglas could separate himself from national Republican policies. Perhaps he knew how much harder that would be in a senate race.

Already, the Sanders candidacy has energized the political left. With no orchestration from Bernie or his aides, 2,500 Vermonters pledged $135,000 to Sanders via over one weekend, and there is little doubt that he will have enough money to run a strong campaign.

But no election is over with 18 months to go. The Republican candidate is likely to have even more money, to enhance his image and tarnish his opponent's, a tactic Sanders said he expects. Republicans still feel as though Jeffords stole the seat from them in 2001. Their desire to regain it is too visceral to be discouraged simply because success seems unlikely. Besides, they know anything can happen in a year-and-a-half. Their opposition researchers will soon be hard at work, if they are not already. Until now, no election in Vermont has cost more than a few million dollars. In comparably populated South Dakota last year, some $30 million was spent as Republican John Thune ousted Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. Whatever the outcome, Vermont's radio and television stations will prosper.

The Republicans have already started yelling "socialist," and can be expected to continue, even though Sanders cheerfully pleads guilty, even though nobody really knows what "socialism" means any more.

Sanders, so independent that he refuses to join Democratic Socialists of America, explains that he considers himself a socialist rather than a liberal because, "I approach politics primarily through economic perspectives. My major concern right now is that we have the most unfair distribution of wealth and income of any major country on earth (and an) equally unfair distribution of political power. I want to see that change. I want to see a more egalitarian society."

But so do most Democrats, lots of independents, and even a few Republicans. What once distinguished a socialist was support for a centrally planned economy in which most goods and services were produced and distributed by publicly owned entities. Sanders is not for that, and neither are the Democratic Socialists of America, according to Director Frank Llewellyn. Real socialism is an idea whose time has come and gone. What Sanders and others now call democratic socialism is social democracy.

Controversial enough by that name, even if most of Europe embraces it. But Bernie Sanders seems poised to bring it to the U.S. Senate. Not that the conservatives have given up, or will. Too much is at stake for them. If no election is over with 18 months to go, even Jim Douglas could be beaten, allowing a Democratic governor to sign a universal health care bill.

Consider the situation from the perspective of the conservative operatives and commentariat: A state with a (sort of) socialist senator and government-guaranteed health insurance for everyone. The horror. The horror….

Jon Margolis, a former national political correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and the author of The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964, lives in Vermont.