When Bernie Sanders doesn’t want to talk about something he doesn’t want to talk about, he pushes his chair away from the table, folds his hands in his lap, lowers his voice, and answers questions in short, Hemingwayesque bursts, his trademark Brooklyn patois reduced to a growling whisper.
And the things the Vermont senator doesn’t want to talk are typically the things that set tongues wagging in the salons of Washington, on Twitter and talk shows: what he dismissively refers to as “political gossip.”
Among the matters included under this rubric are whether he is more likely to run for president or not: “Oh, who knows. I don’t want to get into which way I am leaning. I am giving serious thought to it.” Also, Hillary Clinton and her possible presidential campaign: “If I run, it doesn’t matter whether Hillary runs. We have a message, and I’ve got to make that determination. But I don’t want to get into Hillary gossip.” And, more specifically, the latest Beltway scandal du jour, about Clinton proclaiming past poverty while she rakes in six-figure speaking fees from Goldman Sachs: “I could care less. And I don’t want to go there. I am not going to get into media gossip.”
The senator also is curt on the subject of the D.C. political magazine that scores the votes of every member of Congress. It finds Sanders the most liberal, except in election years, when the Democratic nominee has to take a number of base-pleasing votes and so finds himself—as John Kerry was in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008—tarred by his GOP opponent as “even to the left of the socialist Bernie Sanders”:
“That’s just the stupid National Journal. Every year they come up with a formulation of what is liberal and what is not.”
Sanders is taciturn, sure, but that might be because he is answering questions after spending well over an hour in the hot sun speaking to a hundred residents of first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire about the need for a “political revolution in this country.” The crowd, more than a few of whom toted copies of The Nation or Mother Jones or copies of Sanders’s book about his 8 1/2-hour 2010 filibuster against a tax cut for upper-income earners, were entertained by a folk singer wearing tie-dyed Grateful Dead cutoffs as they waited for Sanders to show up for a reading in the town of Warner. They did not have to wait long, however. Sanders was there just a few minutes after the 2 p.m. start time.
“It’s one of the oddities of New Hampshire,” one audience member told The Daily Beast as Sanders made his way up to the podium to applause. “The further out the candidate is, the more on time they are. We used to wait hours for Hillary Clinton. Dennis Kucinich would show up early.”
Sanders is dressed in a blue oxford shirt and ill-fitting creased khaki dress pants. He launches into the latest version of his stump speech, a litany of all that is wrong with America: the Koch brothers, the decline of the median income, corporations offshoring their profits, climate change, student debt, unequal access to health care, the minimum wage. Strands of unkempt white hair wave above his head like an anti-surrender flag. He more than once signals that he is finished—“And so my final point here today”—and then goes on and on and on, the speech becoming not so much a call and response in the manner of a preacher tending to his flock but of a teacher drilling his students for a quiz they know the answer to.
“And do you know where those profits are going?”
“The one percent!”
Or again, at another point: “And who is the largest private employer nowadays?”
“You are the majority! Do you know who is not the majority?”
“THE KOCH BROTHERS!”
It is not an unfamiliar pitch. Close your eyes, and it could easily be John Edwards or Kucinich or Ralph Nader or Bill Bradley or Jerry Brown. But still, the crowd gathered next to a bookstore that boasts that it is the second in the country to be powered purely by solar energy treats Sanders as if he is the only thing that can save the party from the specter of a Clinton coronation.
“She is center-right, she always was center-right,” said Marcia Moody, a local state lawmaker who was passing out fliers urging Sanders, who is officially an independent but identifies as a socialist and caucuses with the Democrats, to run in a Democratic primary, to avoid playing a spoiler like Nader in 2000.
“She may try to talk an everyman’s game, but she was DLC from the beginning,” she added, referring to the Democratic Leadership Council, the Bill Clinton-affiliated outfit that dragged the Democratic Party to the center after a series of electoral defeats.
Although Sanders may not want to talk about Clinton, it is impossible to talk about him without talking about the former secretary of state, who begins this presidential campaign season a presumed front-runner like no other non-incumbent in history. The list of concerns is long—not just that she is too centrist but that she has too much baggage (the phrase “Benghazi” even came up), is too wishy-washy, too old.
“I don’t think there is a chance he will win,” said Christine Brown, 82, from Lyme, New Hampshire. “He’s Bernie. He’s outspoken. He’s a socialist! We are not there yet. We may never get there. But he will bring out the issues.”
In many ways, this should be Sanders’ moment. The Vermont senator has been talking about income inequality since he won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1990 (he is now the longest-serving independent in congressional history). Democrats, of course, have always paid lip service to the idea, but now, post-Occupy Wall Street, with Thomas Piketty sitting atop best-seller lists and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio making the issue a centerpiece of their recent winning campaigns, Sanders seems due for some vindication, or at least a victory lap.
“[Reducing income inequality] is the center of the party,” said Stan Greenberg, the Democratic pollster and strategist who has advised the campaigns of de Blasio, Bill Clinton, and hundreds of other candidates. “It is what the mainstream thinks.”
Still, Sanders’ chances are dismissed even by those who travel long distances to support him. All the buzz about a liberal alternative to Clinton is focused on Warren, though she is only in her first term and has stated, again and again, that she has no interest in running.
“Elizabeth Warren would get a lot of votes. Bernie Sanders, if he runs, would get some votes,” said Carter Eskew, the chief strategist for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. “He will get votes above his weight, but I don’t know what his weight is. In a year with less unrest economically, that would be an asterisk. This cycle, could he get 10 to 15 percent in a place like Iowa? I think that is probably what we are talking about. I don’t see him breaking through in the way that Elizabeth Warren could. He’s got a little bit of the Ralph Nader in him. There is just something in him that says ‘fringe.’”
One of the reasons Sanders doesn’t want to talk about Clinton much is that he doesn’t seem to care. To hear him tell it, a Sanders presidential campaign wouldn’t be so much about winning or losing; rather, it would be about building the kind of broad-based movement that would outlast the likes of the Kochs and those rearguard forces on the right.
“We are not going to solve what are some very, very significant problems in this country unless there is a political revolution,” he said. “And what I mean by a political revolution is that we are not going to solve these problems if 60 percent of the people don’t vote. We are not going to solve these problems if 70 to 80 percent of low-income people don’t vote. So what we need to do is galvanize millions and millions of people, raise consciousness, and take political action, and when you have that, things will change. Things are not going to change with Boehner and Obama sitting in the White House.”
It is a few days after the bookstore talk, and Sanders is talking on the phone from Maine, where his wife has insisted the family take a much-needed holiday. So he is more expansive, perhaps, than usual. He imagines 2 million low-income people marching on Washington to push for a jobs bill, a million college students marching to demand something be done about student debt.
“This makes my politics a little different from the others,” he said. “The action will not take place in the Beltway. It will happen outside of it.”
There have, of course, been political movements before—even quite recently. In 2004, Sanders’s fellow Vermont progressive Howard Dean’s opposition to the war in Iraq inspired thousands of young people to drop what they were doing and join his campaign, or at least blog about it. In 2008, the streets swelled with fervent Obamanauts. And besides Occupy, the most recent mass movement was a reactionary one—the Tea Party, even if to Sanders that one doesn’t count.
“The Tea Party was entirely created by Koch brothers’ money,” he said. “And they did a good job in mobilizing a lot of disgruntled old folks. The agenda of these guys is supported by at most 5 or 10 percent of the country. Our job is to mobilize the vast majority of these people.”
Sanders’ ideas about a broad-based uprising of working people are predicated on turning on to the political process millions of low-income voters who don’t bother to show up, or who have been dismissed by Democrats because of their cultural conservatism. He points to his own political experience in Vermont, where despite the scarlet S next to his name and his support for abortion rights, gay rights, and the like, he is consistently able to win over lower-income, conservative-leaning voters in rural parts of the state.
“In Vermont, the most significant thing we have done is go out to white, working-class areas that have traditionally voted Republican and talk about economics,” he said. “And they say, ‘You know what, maybe I don’t agree with him on guns or maybe I don’t agree with him on this or that, but he is standing up for me and my kids.’ Can that happen in New Hampshire and can that happen in Michigan and can that happen in Wisconsin? I think it can. I think the economic message of the decline of the middle class and the need to develop policies that expand the middle class, that take on the billionaire class, that will resonate all over this country.”
Dean, the former governor of Vermont, recalls Sanders fighting for this cause back when Dean was a lowly state legislator and Sanders the mayor of Burlington, having won his office by just 10 votes as the candidate of the Liberty Union Party. After Dean signed a bill legalizing gay civil unions as governor, he barely won reelection, while Sanders, then a statewide congressman, cleaned up in even conservative rural areas.
Back then, Dean says, there was a major divide in Burlington between the progressives and the Democrats, with Sanders firmly representing the former camp. At one point, some activists demanded that a local General Dynamics plant that manufactured the Gatling gun be shut down, arguing that it helped feed the American war machine. Sanders, Dean said, told his base to back off. The plant provided good-paying union jobs, and it should remain in town, he said.
“I always admired that. I didn’t get along with him very well, but I always admired that. He was willing to take on his own coalition,” Dean said. “While Bernie is very comfortable with activists, he is a guy who stands for the average working person in this country.”
For Democrats, the question becomes what kind of impact Sanders will have on the 2016 race. He has a message that not only meets the moment but points to a key vulnerability of Clinton’s: that her economic policies would be similar to her husband’s, which Sanders argues unshackled Wall Street and led to unfettered free trade, a shredded social safety net, and a widening gap between rich and poor. And Clinton’s early stumbles on her high-end speaking fees and her “dead broke” days after the White House have not helped matters.
Sanders could serve as an ever-present reminder of those vulnerabilities, much as the host of conservatives who clogged the 2012 GOP primary campaign—Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and all the rest—were able to plant doubts in the minds of Republicans that Mitt Romney was really the best they could do.
And while those candidates had million-dollar benefactors, Sanders seems ready to do it on the cheap, much as he has done already, barnstorming through New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina at every bookstore, community center, and union hall that will hold him, preaching his gospel of the modern-day robber barons stealing from the public.
“Bernie is compelling. He has been saying this stuff for 30 years, first as an unsuccessful fringe candidate and now as a very successful progressive candidate,” said Dean, while noting that if Clinton runs, he will support her. “I think the country and the Democratic Party are struggling with the issue of inequality of income. It’s a real problem. It’s a problem for the country, and Bernie will be a very good spokesman. I don’t agree with everything he says, but at this particular time in American history, I think he has a lot to say.”
There is an argument to be made that if Sanders ends up being little more than an asterisk, it will redound to the benefit of Hillary Clinton. After all, two visions of the Democratic Party will be on stage, side by side, as it were, and if she wins easily, the voters will have decided where the future of the party is.
“When we beat Bill Bradley, it was very good for Al Gore as a candidate,” said Eskew, Gore’s strategist. “Even if it didn’t feel like it as we were going through it.”
But the prospect of a Clinton-Sanders showdown leaves some Democrats nervous. For one thing, it would mean that while the GOP side will feature 40-somethings such as Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, and Bobby Jindal, the Democratic side will feature two candidates with living memories of Dwight Eisenhower.
And no matter how well Sanders does in the end, he is certain to have at least a couple of moments where he looks as if he is at least a credible challenger.
“Having a credible, progressive movement alternative really offers only a downside to Secretary Clinton,” said Tim Miller, a spokesman for America Rising, a Republican PAC that has been relentless in its criticism of Clinton. “The media is going to want a horse race, and it is going to create friction between the base and her record.”
In addition, Miller argued, there is the chance that Clinton will try to keep up with Sanders and get dragged to the left. “Hillary is certainly not immune to the tendency politicians have of playing to their audience,” he said.
Clinton supporters doubt it will ever get that far. The point out that in 2008, most of her support came from the same kind of blue-collar voters that Sanders says he is reaching out to. And as Greenberg notes, as much as President Clinton may have governed as a centrist, he ran as a populist, and his wife is likely to take a page from that playbook.
“People are really upset and motivated by the idea that the wealthy are rigging the game in their favor,” he said. “That is a motivating issue. She is very smart, and I would be very surprised if Hillary isn’t on top of what is happening.”
For Sanders, all of that speculation is nonsense, Beltway gossip that is distracting people from running to the barricades. His voice and his ideas need to be out there, even if he is not the one vocalizing them.
“You know what happens in this country?” he said. “A lot of people wake up and shake their heads and they are in trouble, and it is terribly important that their pain, which they feel every day, is reflected, that they hear somebody else talking about it. That’s just a normal human tendency. If you think you are the only person who is seeing a decline in your standard of living, if you are the only person who can’t afford health care, if you are the only person who can’t afford to send your beloved daughter to college, that is your reality. But if you understand that there are millions of people experiencing the same thing, you are in a different position. And if you listen to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, you are not going to get that. So it is very important that candidates out there reflect the reality of the majority of people. And it is also important to remember that things can change. Things have changed. Republicans want people to say, ‘Hey, you think you can change things? It ain’t never gonna change. We own the system. Our billionaires control it. Nothing is going to change.’ We have to give people hope. Hope is a very important part of life. Things have to change.”