Politics of the Possible: The Sanders Crusade

If a psychic had predicted in the 1970s that Bernie Sanders would someday stand on the White House lawn in support of an embattled Democratic President, or become a Democrat himself, people who knew him would have considered it a poor joke. Sanders would have called it “totally outrageous.”

But the idea that he would one day run for president? Now, that was a pretty safe bet. The real questions were when and how.

From the start, Sanders had his eye on one high office or another. In January 1972, three years after moving to Vermont, he waged his first race for the US Senate. In a special election to replace deceased “native son” Winston Prouty, he got 2 percent of the vote as a Liberty Union Party candidate. Undaunted, he represented the state’s newest “third party” party again that fall, this time as its candidate for governor.

For Sanders, a key moment in that race came in September when he escorted Dr. Benjamin Spock, the famous and controversial pediatrician, during a Vermont visit. At the time Spock was running for President as the People’s Party candidate.

In two other statewide campaigns over the next four years, Sanders focused a righteous anger and his growing campaign abilities on monopoly capitalism, the superrich and their two henchmen – the major political parties. Running to replace retiring political icon George Aiken in 1974, he won his first union endorsements, but still only 4 percent of the vote. That race put Patrick Leahy, a young Chittenden County State’s Attorney, in the Senate.

Debating Republican businessman Richard Snelling and his Democratic opponent, Employment Commissioner Stella Hackel, on public television in 1976 in the race for governor, Sanders accused both of avoiding the real issues; his list included public ownership of utilities, doubling the corporate income tax, and eliminating the income tax for those earning less than $10,000. Decades before the Occupy movement, he foreshadowed its call: “the people of the State of Vermont have got to get off their knees and have got to stand up to the 2 or 3 percent who control the money.”

A year later, however, he sounded frustrated when announcing his resignation from Liberty Union. “Sad and tragic” was how he saw the five-year old party, yet offered little advice or encouragement before dropping out of sight. “I don’t know about my future,” he admitted. Despite decent press coverage, union endorsements, and performing well in debates, he couldn’t come close to winning.

But two decades later, only hours after the US House of Representatives voted to impeach a President for the second time in the nation’s history, there was Sanders, now a former Burlington mayor and Vermont’s only Congressman, lined up with Democratic notables behind Bill Clinton outside the White House. Ten years after that he backed Barack Obama for President from a seat in the US Senate. By then, he had effectively neutralized any Democratic opposition in Vermont – without officially joining the party.

Viewing his “mini-filibuster” in the Senate on December 10, 2010 it’s easy to compare the event with the climax of Frank Capra’s Mister Smith Goes to Washington, and Sanders with Jimmy Stewart’s character. But there are major differences. For the movie’s hero, a naïve freshman, the moment was a desperate, spontaneous expression of frustration that led to a storybook ending. For Sanders, who had already served in Congress for 20 years, it was the latest version of a well-honed speech he’d been delivering since his first race.

Asked by a journalist about a run for president a few weeks later, Sanders carefully disavowed interest and claimed to be “very content to be where I am.” But he quickly added that he was “flattered by that kind of response.” In fact, the organizing had begun. A “Draft Bernie Sanders for President” effort was up and running in two months, conveniently coinciding with the release of a Sanders’ book, “The Speech.”

But there was still the timing. He didn’t want to run against Barack Obama, especially since he also needed to hold onto his Senate seat and had supported Obama in 2008. But a race against Hillary Clinton was another matter. And a 2016 race couldn’t be better timing. After cruising to re-election in November 2012 with 71 percent, he wouldn’t face another opponent until 2018, six years away. That meant he could devote the next four years to building a national campaign. All he needed to do was explain why, after decades as an Independent and socialist, a caustic critic of the two-party system, it now made sense to run as a Democrat.

The campaign to make the case was well underway in 2013. “Obviously if I did not think I had a reasonable chance to win I wouldn’t run,” he explained coyly to Politico in one of several interviews focused on defining the choice he faced. But if other candidates weren’t talking about the issues that mattered, “well, then maybe I have to do it,” he would say. What issues were those? For Sanders, the same as ever – growing inequality and the collapse of the middle class, along with a third, “global warming.”

Encouraging interviews in progressive media and constant exposure on cable news made it all but official by March 2014. Sanders was “prepared to run for President of the United States,” but only if he thought that he could win, a prospect he now linked to three things – a “political revolution,” raising money – not from “billionaires” but enough to be taken seriously, and getting sufficient public exposure. Visits to primary states began last May, but it took another year for the candidate to acknowledge the obvious. To run for President, he was ready to be a Democrat.

And what did that mean? It was hard to completely define, but one implication was clear —  support for the Democratic candidate if he lost, and no subsequent challenge in the general election. When asked about an Independent run by George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week, Sanders was unequivocal: “No, absolutely not,” he said. “I’ve been very clear about that.”

It was one of the more remarkable journeys in US political history. An irascible “third party” outsider had become a player in the national political establishment. As the longest-serving Independent, as well as the only self-declared “democratic socialist” in Congress, Sanders had already entered the record books by the late 1990s. Celebrating his first Senate win in 2006, he defined it as part of an ongoing national crusade that was just getting started: “I believe that destiny has suggested that this small State of Vermont is, in fact, going to lead America in a very different direction. And the day is going to come when all over America people are going to say, ‘Thank you, Vermont’.”

An effective coalition-builder in Congress, he sometimes persuaded conservatives to play ball with liberals on specific legislation. But he also founded the Progressive Caucus, a congressional alliance that fought for tax reform, single payer health care, military spending cuts, and control of international financial institutions. Along the way, he proved virtually invulnerable to electoral attack.

As Sanders saw it, “My views about what I believe is right and what I want to see in this country have changed very little.” Actually, that was an open secret of his success.

Sanders was nothing if not consistent, sticking with the same message for decades no matter what the political climate. His public image evolved – from aggressive, fast-talking radical in jeans and sandals, struggling aggressively to be heard, to self-possessed elder statesman mixing “class warfare” sound-bites with blunt sarcasm and pro forma acknowledgments of respect for political opponents and practical realities. But the message, however updated with current references, remained very much the same.

As he summed it up during a one-on-one interview in 1998, “You have two political parties that are controlled by monied interests. You have a corporate media. When you talk about consolidation, you are talking about oil and gas, banking, and perhaps most importantly, the media – where there are very few voices of dissent regarding our current position on the global economy.”

“That gets to even the more fundamental issue – the health of American democracy,” he said. “Do people know what’s going on? And how can they fight what’s going on? I fear that they don’t.”

But that was more than a decade ago, before making it to the Senate or becoming a presidential candidate. These days he sees a political revolution on the horizon and the right timing to lead it.

Greg Guma is the author of The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution.