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Swift Boat Attack on Bernie Sanders | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.

Swift Boat Attack on Bernie Sanders

The latest polls from Vermont show that U.S. Representative Bernie Sanders, the only independent member of the House, has a dramatic lead in the race for that state's open U.S. Senate seat. In a race where the Democrats are expected to fall back and allow the Sanders a clean shot at the seat, a WCAX-TV/Research 2000 poll, released last week, found the congressman to be leading the likely Republican nominee, millionaire Rich Tarrant, by a margin of 64 percent to 16 percent of Vermonters who were surveyed.

Those numbers will not come as much of a surprise to anyone who has spent time in Vermont, where Sanders' three decades of political independence and straight-talk about economic issues have earned him the admiration even of those who do not always agree with his progressive populism. But Sanders' strong position is a source of frustration for inside-the-Beltway Republican operatives and their network of henchmen.

Aside from impending indictments, few things frighten the political hacks who run the White House more than the thought of Sanders, who has served with great success as an independent member of the House since 1991, entering the Senate and developing an even greater national profile. Unlike the Democrats who have such a hard time appealing across lines of party and ideology on fundamental economic issues, Sanders is something of a genius when it comes to building broad coalitions – as illustrated by his big wins in Vermont regions that generally vote Republican.

In the Senate, Sanders would give voice to a critique of Bush administration economic policies and the White House's assault on domestic civil liberties that would make would be far more likely to resonate with voters than the tepid Democratic message. And Karl Rove and his compatriots know that voice could turn the direction on debates on a host of major issues. It's for that reason that -- despite Sanders' immense popularity in Vermont -- the hacks in Washington have not given up on trying to figure out how to beat him in next year's Senate race.

Needless to say, they understand that it will take a lot of character assassination, innuendo and outright deception to defeat the man who is generally recognized as the most popular political figure in Vermont.

So it comes as no surprise that, just days after the WCAX-TV/Research 2000 poll results showed just how daunting the task of taking on Sanders has become for the Beltway bandits, the big gun were called out.

John O'Neill, the man behind the "swiftboating" of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, is now going after Sanders. O'Neill, who started working with Republicans to attack political dissenters back in the Nixon years but who really came into his own with his role in promoting the wildly disingenuous and broadly disputed "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" attacks on Kerry's Vietnam service record during the 2004 campaign, has just penned an anti-Sanders letter that is being distributed on right-wing websites. O'Neill says he's enthusiastic about the campaign of little-known perennial candidate Greg Parke in the Republican Senate primary, but it's clear that he is getting involved in the race to attack Sanders rather than to promote Parke.

Never one to hold back the hyperbole, O'Neill labels Sanders "the most dangerous liberal in America" and promises to defeat the congressman with a "similar mission" to the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" crusade against Kerry. The letter features the standard talking points against the congressman from the Republican Senate Campaign Committee but it goes heavy on the suggestion that Sanders poses some kind of threat to national security.

"His record in the House of Representative -- particularly on defense matters -- is disgraceful," writes O'Neill. In particular, the man who made "swiftboating" a political term of attack goes after Sanders for his efforts to fight wasteful spending by the Pentagon and for challenging the Bush administration's wrongheaded rush to attack Iraq. "He's consistently fought President Bush on issues of national security -- most specifically he voted against the use of force to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein," O'Neill writes of Sanders in a message that conveniently forgets to note that, according to recent polls, a clear majority of Americans now believe the decision to invade and occupy Iraq was a mistake.

What O'Neill, who claims to speak for veterans, also fails to note is the fact that Sanders has been one of the most ardent champions in Congress for men and women who have served in the military. In addition to co-sponsoring bipartisan legislation to assure that victims of Gulf War Illness get all of the medical care to which they are entitled, he has battled Republican attempts to cut funding for veterans programs. Indeed, Sanders has been such an effective advocate for those who wore the uniform of the U.S. military that he has been endorsed in his House races by the political arm of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).

These are facts that O'Neill neglects as he attempts to "swiftboat" Sanders. That's typical of O'Neill and his group, which ought to be called Swift Boat Veterans for (Anything But the) Truth."

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