His Own Worst Enemy

Thirty days before the election, a funny thing happened to Bernie Sanders on his way to the United States Senate -- his opponent emerged.

Not that the aptly-named Rich Tarrant had been invisible. Au contraire (as they still say in some of Vermont's northern precincts) -- he had been unavoidable. Spending $6 million of your own money has to buy something, and in this case it bought familiarity with his name and face. For months, no Vermonter has been able to watch more than half an hour of television without seeing Tarrant's large head identify itself and announce, "I approve this message."

The head in this case is proportional to the body. Tarrant came to Vermont in the early 1960s to play basketball at St. Michael's College just outside Burlington. After unsuccessful tryouts for the Boston Celtics, he returned to Vermont, started a software business, and got rich enough to end up on the board of trustees of the University of Vermont. Even before becoming a candidate, then, he wasn't a complete unknown.

But not until Sanders and Tarrant met in their first head-to-head debate on October 8 did anybody really see the rather appealing, articulate, and apparently moderate politician carrying around that same big head. Under other circumstances, this guy might have made a race of it.

It isn't that Tarrant beat Sanders in the debate. In fact, where they disagreed, the Republican came out on the politically unpopular side of the issue. He would say only that Roe v. Wade was "the law of the land." Sanders proclaimed, "I am pro-choice," as are most of the state's voters. Tarrant's enthusiasm for free trade was unlikely to win him any converts either.

But Tarrant unquestionably beat Tarrant. The guy on the stage that night was much more appealing than the guy who had approved all those campaign commercials this year, the ones that didn't quite call Bernie Sanders a supporter of rapists and child molesters.

Considering that the two of them are the same guy, neither of them need be pitied for squandering their opportunity. Still, the predicament in which one Tarrant has placed the other is both instructive and ironic. Here, perhaps for the first time, the advantages and strategies that have elected Republicans all around the country backfired, clearing the last obstacle to victory by Sanders. (The congressman has been ahead by roughly 30 points in the most recent polling, making it all but certain that he will be the first self-described socialist ever to serve in the U.S. Senate.)

To be clear, Sanders was never likely to lose. He's an extraordinarily popular politician who's been elected to Congress as an independent thirteen times. But nobody's unbeatable, and there was always the possibility that while voters don't mind having a maverick represent them in the House, they want their senators to be more dignified. Sanders exudes commitment, intelligence, sincerity -- but he'd be too blunt to convey dignity even if he wore dark suits, which he never does. And, of course, even here in Vermont, almost no one is a socialist. (Neither, really, is Sanders, but he has never objected to the description.) So a well-financed Republican who came across as an easy-going good guy with moderate-to-liberal positions on foreign policy, social, and environmental issues just might have run a competitive race.

Tarrant might have been that Republican. Money would be no problem. He actually does come across as an easy-going good guy. And he is no farther to the right of Vermont's center than Sanders is to its left. Like Terry Molloy, he coulda been a contender.

But then came all those Republican political advantages, in seriatim: (1) great gobs of money, enabling him to hire (2) skilled political pros to run the campaign and to use the money to produce and broadcast (3) vicious attack ads aimed at painting Sanders as irresponsible if not creepy, all presented with the expectation that any inaccuracy in the ads would be ignored because of (4) the paucity of in-depth political coverage by local news organizations.

It all worked perfectly. Alas for Tarrant, it all worked in reverse. Not knowing what he was doing -- "I called Republicans in Washington and asked for some names. I didn't know anyone around here," he told me months ago -- he hired the wrong people. Skilled pros they may be, led by Tim Lennon, who has worked on campaigns from New Hampshire to California. But they didn't know Vermont. Eventually, Tarrant did hire one local political pro (and a nominal Democrat at that) as an advisor, but the campaign has obviously been run by formula: Bio ads followed by attack ads; lots of opposition research bent on finding the tiniest inconsistency in the other candidate's record or rhetoric; personal appearances before small, friendly, audiences; minimal contact with reporters.

Had they understood the state, Tarrant's high-priced strategists would never have put on a series of commercials about Sanders's votes on the "Amber alert" bill, on legislation about drug dealers, or on a measure giving rape victims the right to find out if their attackers had HIV/AIDS. Yes, Sanders voted against those bills, in some cases because they were attached to other provisions he opposed, in some cases because he voted for other measures that accomplished similar goals, and perhaps in some cases because, as Tarrant told me, "he too often takes the side of criminals' rights."

But the ads were less policy critiques than not-so-subtle suggestions that Sanders actually prefers rapists, child molesters, and drug dealers to their victims. They boomeranged, and not because any news organization exposed their distortions. (None did, frankly raising the question of whether anything in Vermont deserves to be called a news organization.) In this case, the electorate rebelled on its own. That kind of attack ad has worked elsewhere, but Vermont is still different. There are only about 625,000 of us, and with perhaps two or three degrees of separation, we all know one another. Even the folks who don't agree with Bernie Sanders don't suspect for a moment that he's pro-child molester.

Meanwhile, Sanders is not quite ignoring Tarrant, having spent $4 million on his campaign by September 30. For the most part, though, the 65-year-old Independent candidate is campaigning as usual. He attacks unfettered free trade and the greed of big corporations, vows to protect workers, and assails George Bush as "the worst president ever." A subtler and possibly more effective anti-Sanders campaign might have painted him as an anachronism stuck in the mindset of … no, not the '60s, but the '30s. But subtlety is not the Tarrant brain trust's strong suit. (And, come to think of it, maybe 1930s liberalism isn't such bad politics these days.)

What made it worse for Tarrant is that his attack ads came before voters had any real sense of who he was. He became that guy who approved those commercials saying all those nasty things about Bernie. The late-September polling indicated that Tarrant's ads did drive up negatives -- his own. Now the real -- or at least the other, more appealing -- Rich Tarrant is trying to break through. It's too late. He campaigns, and he's pretty good at it, but -- guess what? -- hardly anybody sees him because neither the newspapers nor the television stations cover campaigns these days.

Which just brings us back to the irony of Tarrant's predicament: He's a Republican candidate with real reason to lament the abundance of money, hired guns, and attack ads and the dirth of energetic political journalism in America today. That's Rich Tarrant -- not such a bad guy, when he gets out from under the shadow that he himself has created.

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

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