Hillary Clinton has an anger problem – she’s not angry enough at a time when 70 percent of voters think the country is on the wrong track.
That’s an emerging view among many Democrats (especially Bernie Sanders supporters) who just witnessed Clinton’s red-white-and-blue-sky convention in Philadelphia, a four-day celebration of Obama administration triumph spiced by nightly damnations of all things Donald Trump.
One of the most conspicuous worriers is Jeff Weaver – architect of Sanders’ historic insurgency – who floated his doubt about Clinton like a retirement-party balloon during a sit-down for POLITICO’s “Off Message” podcast on the final day of the convention last week.
"I certainly think she can win, yes… But it's going to be much closer than many people think,” Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager and close friend, told me. “I think some people on the Democratic side who think that, you know, Trump is such a buffoon that it's already won -- but I think he's a very dangerous opponent and I think he certainly has the ability to win as well.”
Weaver was a ferocious (and sometimes snarling) Clinton foil during the primaries, but he’s no Bernie-or-Bust dead-ender. More than anybody than the candidate himself, Weaver is responsible for month-long negotiations that led to the runner-up’s effective (if somewhat graceless) convention-hall surrender – talks that yielded significant concessions from Clinton on college aid, Wall Street reform and her commitment to back a public option retrofit for Obamacare.
Weaver, sitting in darkness when a thunderstorm knocked out power to POLITICO’s convention hub, told me something I hadn’t heard before: Sanders didn’t want to be tapped as Clinton’s vice-president – and in that sense he was in complete accord with the party’s nominee.
“Bernie was never really that interested in being vice president,” Weaver told me. “Because he's a fierce advocate for what he believes, and, you know, often the role of vice president is to stand behind the president, nodding… I mean, Joe Biden sort of epitomizes the sort of dutiful vice president who, you know, supports the president regardless.”
But Weaver thinks Bernie was dead wrong – a Clinton-Sanders ticket would be a lot more effective in tapping the white working-class discontent mined by Trump (and Sanders) than Clinton-Kaine. “My personal view?” he answered when I asked if Sanders would make a better veep candidate.
“Yeah, sure. Of course. I do. Absolutely.”
Weaver, who was reared in New England but lives in Virginia’s D.C. burbs, describes himself as a mostly faithful Democrat, and says that he’s voted for Tim Kaine for Senate.
When I asked him if the boss had become a “capital D Democrat” after the primaries, he was more equivocal. “In some ways, sure,” he said of Sanders’ partisan fealty. “I would call him an independent Democrat.” He also likes “sewer socialist” – Sanders’ moniker as Burlington’s waste-pipe obsessed mayor.
Weaver has come a long way from Vermont. He's gone from a backbencher's coat-holder to national political player, and thinks Clinton would be foolish not to fold Sanders’ passionate message into her own. Her basic problem, he told me, is a cramped narrowness as a politician, and he painstakingly explained how his boss gets it and Clinton doesn’t, at least not yet.
The nominee (and her staff of White House policy veterans) think of solutions in terms of tweaking existing programs, which alienates change-hungry voters – especially as Clinton pitches herself as a third-term Obama with a more muscular foreign policy.
“One of the problems that the Clinton people have, which is more of a process problem than a substance problem, is that their packaging often is very wonky and not clear enough,” he told me. “You have to be able to talk about your 20-page policy in a bumper sticker. Do you know what I mean? We had policies but we also had the bumper sticker that represented those policies… Trump has bumper stickers but no policies.”
Sanders, in Weaver’s telling, isn’t naïve or overly vague, as Clinton charged during the primaries. He was clever enough to know that voters don’t need to be shown how the engine works to buy the car.
“Bernie thinks about it backwards -- what is the outcome that he wants, right?" he said. "So if it was free tuition of public colleges and universities, that becomes the starting point and then you work backwards from there in terms of how you design the policy to fit the outcome that you want, as opposed to noodling around policy and then seeing what the outcome is.”
He added: “Bernie is very much in favor of creating simple, universal programs.”
Weaver's two defining characteristics are witty Yankee reserve and a body-and-soul belief in Bernie Sanders’ brand of pragmatic socialism. There’s also something vaguely monastic (or, at least, cinematically monastic in a Name of the Rose way) about the 50-year-old Weaver, what with that fringe of white hair circumnavigating his bare dome and thin, trimmed beard bracketing wry, at times fanatical eyes.
The best political operatives – even the ones who project buttoned-up efficiency – tend to be a little eccentric, combining aggressiveness and creativity in equal measure. Weaver may be an outsider (he wears his suits uncomfortably – like a shopkeeper forced to appear in small-claims court) but he too fits the artist-assassin mold.
Just about everything you need to know about Weaver (and why he’s Sanders’ most trusted adviser, next to wife Jane) was more or less summed up by his three turbulent years at Boston University in the ‘80s. Here was a kid from sleepy, rural Vermont who wanted to make an impact – with skull against wall, if necessary. As a freshman he signed up for the Marines ROTC chapter before getting swept up in the progressive movements of the day. By junior year he was booted out of school for setting up an anti-apartheid shantytown on campus, and blocking cops dispatched to tear it down.
A concurrent stream of his life was fantasy, and in tights. From an early age, he submerged himself in classic comic books – his grandmother bought him his first Justice League flimsy from a dime-store spinner rack, he recalled. He loves the early Spiderman series, the stark, minimalist first frames drawn by illustrator Steve Ditka, who created the superhero with his better-known partner Stan Lee.
“I grew up in a small town,” said Weaver – who was otherwise parsimonious with autobiographical detail. “I’m from St. Alban's, Vermont, and, you know, they took you to another place.”
In 2009, after two decades on Sanders’ staff (he began as a driver for the then-Burlington mayor and rose to become chief of staff in Sanders’ house office), he needed a break from indefatigable Bernie, and started a successful, seven-employee comic book store in Falls Church, Virginia, which specializes in the Comic Con convention trade. When you get Weaver’s cell phone voice mail, he identifies himself as proprietor of Victory Comics, and like the pen-and-ink heroes he idolizes, it serves as a sort of docile alter ego for his take-no-prisoners political persona.
“I do own a screen-worn Beneath the Planet of the Apes gorilla uniform,” he tells me, adjusting his large-framed glasses. ‘I have not worn it. No, no. It's made for a much smaller person than me.”
Sanders and Weaver are both emotional guys, their friends say, but they share a common reticence to express themselves in public. Weaver’s stems from his northern upbringing, whereas in Sanders’ case it seems like a reaction to a childhood in the gabby, Woody Allen Brooklyn of the 1950s.
It took me a good five minutes for me to get Weaver to concede that the Tuesday roll call in Philly – which featured a dozen or more emotional testimonials to Sanders by supporters – personally moved the candidate beyond the recognition that he had moved the party to the left.
“That’s not his shtick,” he said.
But Sanders was clearly “verklempt,” I countered.
“OK… I'm sure to be standing there in front of the Democratic Convention with a sea of people with Bernie signs, really sort of validated what he has been talking about for the last 15 months in this campaign but the last 40 years of his life – 50 years.”
History is as important to Weaver as it is to Sanders. And his beef, he told me, is less with Hillary Clinton, who has proven to be a progressive and accommodating partner, than with her husband. If anything, he’s committed to ensuring that the wife take a sledgehammer to her husband's moth-eaten Clintonism, the centrist Third Way vision that spawned NAFTA, welfare reform and the dismantling of Hillary Clinton’s health-care crusade.
“I think we're back now more into the historic trajectory of the Democratic Party, more towards sort of the social Democratic Party, and I think it's heading in that direction,” Weaver added, before leaving to watch Clinton's nomination speech.
“I think the '90s were really an aberration.”