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Oppenheim: Political Chess

Bernie Sanders plays chess. I learned this in October of 2014, when one of my students produced a short video news story about that very subject.

Sanders came to Champlain College in Burlington, one of twenty people playing individual matches against a grand master. The idea is the master bops from chessboard to chessboard, leaving the challengers to ponder their next move.

Sanders hung in there. He lasted for 77 minutes, and toward the end, the question was all about how and when he would concede… I think you see where I’m going with this.

Before I do, let me digress that my student first submitted a script and didn’t even mention Sanders. I awakened her to the possibility that this guy could become a big deal very soon. But back then, she didn’t really know who he was.

My how things have changed. It is remarkable how in a relatively short period of time, Sanders’ campaign caught fire, especially with young voters. His message has been reflective of what’s on a chess board: the pieces in the back row have too much power, the pawns get sacrificed.

Given all the success, it does not appear concession is something Sanders or his supporters want to face. Including superdelegates, Hillary Clinton has more than 90 percent of the delegates she needs to secure the nomination. If she were to lose all of the remaining primaries by a wide margin, she could still become the nominee. That could leave Sanders voters looking for someone to blame. And if Bernie were to concede too early, that could be seen as a betrayal.

Still, Sanders must also realize he’s not going to win. Beyond that, the most power he may ever have as a politician is right now, when he has an opportunity to push his agenda, make issues of campaign financing and income inequality a top priority for Hillary – and above all, allow his base to connect with hers.

Instead, he is talking about a potential contested convention that could push his base away from a more united party. That divisive approach could weaken the Democrats’ chances in the general election. And from a more self-interested point of view, it may ultimately weaken his influence.

In chess, this is what they call the “endgame”. Back to the tournament, there were a few members of the media there that night, reporting on the details of Bernie’s match. Now, a year and a half later, it’s a far greater audience watching his every move.

Keith Oppenheim, Associate Professor in Broadcast Media Production at Champlain College, has been with the college since 2014. Prior to that, he coordinated the broadcasting program at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan (near Grand Rapids). Keith was a correspondent for CNN for 11 years and worked as a television news reporter in Providence, Scranton, Sacramento and Detroit. He produces documentaries, and his latest project, Noyana - Singing at the end of life, tells the story of a Vermont choir that sings to hospice patients.
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