Sen. Bernie Sanders caught the establishment Democratic Party off guard three years ago; few anticipated the strength of his candidacy and message.
Things have changed. Sanders, now 77 years old, consistently ranks among the top potential 2020 candidates in early polls, and despite coming in second in 2016, he has fundamentally altered the Democratic Party.
This time, however, he is in a packed field that includes former Vice President Joe Biden and progressive firebrand Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Sanders remains a unique candidate: He’s an independent senator from Vermont and the former mayor of Burlington, who has made democratic socialism a centerpiece of his campaign.
His message continues to be that he wants a political revolution.
“We are gonna also launch what I think is unprecedented in modern American history, and that is a grassroots movement to lay the groundwork for transforming the economic and political life of this country,” he said in an interview with CBS This Morning. “That’s what’s different.”
But the rallying cries that distinguished Sanders from Hillary Clinton in 2016 — Medicare-for-all, a $15 minimum wage, tuition-free college, and campaign finance reform — are no longer unique to Sanders. In some ways, that’s an advantage for him; he’s become a progressive father figure who can credibly claim a lifelong dedication to the issues the party is now standing behind.
“I don’t think anyone thought you could run a presidential campaign without taking money from corporate PACs,” said Heather Gautney, a former Sanders policy adviser and the executive director of Our Revolution, a progressive activist group inspired by Sanders, at the time of Sanders’s announcement. “People who are running on Medicare-for-all or adopting these campaign finance ethics — all of that came out of the Sanders campaign.”
On the other hand, Sanders has to make the case that he’s still the progressive that voters should choose. He’s remained consistent; he’s fighting for the same things today that he was in 2016 and long before that. The question now: Can he win at his own game?
Bernie Sanders’s political journey, briefly explained
Sanders always describes his political history the same way.
From childhood, he was made intimately familiar with income inequality, he says: He grew up in a working-class family in Brooklyn, New York, the son of a Jewish immigrant from Poland. They weren’t hungry, but money was always tight. “My mother’s dream was to own her own home, and she never achieved that,” he told Vox’s Andrew Prokop in 2014 — a line he still uses on the 2020 campaign trail.
In college, he began what became a lifelong dedication to political activism: He went first to Brooklyn College, then to the University of Chicago, where he was involved in the civil rights movement, leading sit-ins to protest segregated off-campus housing and policies instituted by the Chicago public school system.
His political career, however, began in Vermont, where he moved permanently in 1968. Sanders has run — and lost — a lot of campaigns in his career. But in 1981, he started winning; he became the socialist mayor of Vermont’s largest city, unseating a five-term Democratic incumbent by a margin of 10 votes. He served four two-year terms, raising enough of a profile to run and win Vermont’s at-large US House seat in 1990. He then won a US Senate race in the 2006 midterms.
Sanders has served in Congress under Republican and Democratic congressional majorities and presidents. And it should be said that while he gained a reputation for being a principled and consistent left-wing politician, between 1995, when Republicans took control of the House, and 2005, Sanders had more amendments approved by floor vote than any other lawmaker. He’s maintained a reputation of forming left-right coalitions — most recently to pass a War Powers Resolution on the war in Yemen.
But unlike the other 2020 candidates claiming bipartisan dealmaking credibility by running ideologically to the center, Sanders is making a different argument: that his brand of democratic socialism can unite the country against Donald Trump.
Sanders has started a progressive movement Democrats can’t ignore
It’s hard to overstate the influence Sanders’s campaign — which railed against corporate greed, economic inequality, and money’s influence in politics — has had on Democratic politics.
Sanders’s policy ideas have arguably had more of a lasting influence on Democratic politics than Clinton’s platform did. The policies he campaigned on three years ago are now mainstream.
Sanders “is not a candidate who is adopting these issues — he has always been running on these issues,” said Joshua Ulibarri, a partner with the Democratic polling firm Lake Research Partners.
Sanders popularized single-payer health care with his Medicare-for-all bill. It’s now one of the most prominent progressive health care policies and increasingly popular among Americans — so much so that many House Democratic candidates campaigned on some variation of it in 2018. Medicare-for-all has come to mean many things, from a public option to getting rid of private health insurance altogether.
Sanders has been clear with his proposal: a bill that transitions the country to a universal Medicare system over four years, eventually sunsetting Medicaid and Medicare in their current forms while leaving the Veterans Affairs health system and the Indian Health Services in place.
He normalized a $15 minimum wage. During the Obama years, the Democratic platform supported increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 and tying it to inflation. Clinton initially supported an increase to $12 per hour. Sanders, however, made the case for $15 an hour. At the time, it was a huge debate within the Democratic Party, but by the summer of 2016, Clinton had endorsed Sanders’s view and Democrats adopted it in their platform. Now the debate feels almost passé.
Democrats are on the free college train. Sanders says Americans are entitled to the “right of a complete education,” calling it a “national disgrace” that many are either unable to afford higher education or mired in unimaginable student loan debt for attaining it. One of his signature proposals in 2016 was tuition-free public college. The idea continues to be criticized by some who say the government shouldn’t subsidize tuition for families wealthy enough to afford it.
But Sanders has only expanded his plan. He wants to cancel all $1.6 trillion in student loan debt owed in the United States, and enact a debt- and tuition-free public college system.
There has been a tangible shift toward class warfare in Democratic politics. The “millionaires and billionaires” that Sanders targets in every stump speech are now the basis of almost every leading progressive economic policy proposal. Especially in light of Republicans’ tax cuts, which gave the biggest windfall to corporations and wealthy Americans, Democrats have crafted a message around wealth distribution.
The issue has taken center stage in the 2020 battle of ideas as well. Warren unveiled her wealth tax on Americans with assets worth more than $50 million. Sanders, who in 2016 proposed a 65 percent top estate tax rate, this year has proposed raising that top rate to 77 percent. He’s also proposed expanding the estate tax, as well as a Wall Street speculation tax on bonds, stocks, and derivatives bought and sold in the United States.
And, of course, his calls for campaign finance reform. By the end of the last presidential primary, the country was well aware that Sanders’s average campaign donation was $27. Running without corporate PAC donations is now something many politicians — especially 2020 contenders — now feel pressure to conform to, and that’s largely because of Sanders.
In fact, a lot of these ideas have adopted, or are being echoed, by other 2020 contenders. Fellow senators and candidates Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) have signed on to Sanders’s Medicare-for-all bill. All the top candidates support a $15 minimum wage. The list goes on.
Rebecca Lynch, a state organizer for the Working Families Party, which endorsed Sanders early, said that when Sanders won the 2016 Democratic primary in Wisconsin, something shifted with state lawmakers. In the past, they wouldn’t have touched ideas like Medicare-for-all. Now they’re all rallying around a state public health care expansion bill called “BadgerCare for all.”
“There’s huge push right now to expand BadgerCare,” Lynch said. “I don’t think that’s something that Democratic leaders would have supported had it not been for Sen. Sanders.”
The feeling is echoed among left-wing grassroots groups as well. “This progressive movement feels like it can win elections,” Gautney said.
Sanders has to show he can grow his base — but not in the way you would think
Sanders’s presidential ambitions are not without hiccups.
In the runup to his announcement, reports of gender and pay discrimination in his 2016 campaign and allegations of sexual harassment against some of his campaign surrogates made for a rocky rollout of his 2020 campaign. When confronted with the allegations, Sanders said he didn’t know of the complaints.
“I was a little bit busy running around the country trying to make the case,” he told Anderson Cooper, saying the campaign he ran in 2016 wasn’t perfect. Since then, he has delivered a more formal apology on the matter.
“To the women in our campaign who were harassed or mistreated, I apologize,” Sanders said. “Our standards, our procedures, our safeguards, were clearly inadequate.”
The complaints elevated a trope that Sanders’s campaign was propped up by “Bernie Bros” — an army of young, mostly white men — who didn’t get him over the finish line. He got trounced by Clinton in Southern states, where African American leaders said the Vermont senator just couldn’t connect.
“I do believe Bernie Sanders struggled then and clearly now with black voters overall,” Ray McKinnon, a black pastor from Charlotte, North Carolina, who is a member of the Democratic National Committee and was a Sanders delegate in 2016, told Vox’s Ella Nilsen last year. “The guy’s from Vermont; it’s not like he has a massive [black] constituency. He failed to connect on a visceral sense.”
But recent polling tells a different story about his base. Sanders has polled better with women than with men, and had more support among African Americans and Latinos than whites. And he’s leaps and bounds more popular than President Trump, who lands among the most disliked presidents in modern American history.
“He has the biggest network,” Ulibarri said. “He has as big an echo chamber as anyone in this country. Bigger than Biden. Bigger than Harris. The question for Sanders is where else can he go? Does he have to go anywhere else?”