What Kind of Revolutionary, Exactly, Is Bernie Sanders?

The 2016 hopeful's tour through Iowa provides some clues.

Bernie Sanders during the VA Hearings in the Senate

Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

ALTOONA, Iowa – On Monday afternoon, before his fourth trip to Iowa as a potential candidate for president, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders took a moment to bask in a real win. His fellow Democrats, decimated in November’s elections, gave the second-term “independent socialist”–his description–the ranking membership of the Budget committee.

This was big, a high-water mark of American socialism. A job that often belonged to dealmakers was going to the author of the occasional Progressive Budget, which called for progressive estate taxes, higher taxes on capital gains, and a higher cap on Social Security taxable income. Democrats had been clobbered in red states while calling for much, much less. And Sanders saw that as a problem.

“What you’re going to see, over the next couple of years, is a very painful debate over whether something is very bad, or whether it’s worse,” said Sanders. He leaned back into his office couch. “People are going to say, ‘This is really bad, but oh well, the alternative is worse.’ It’s important for some of us to say occasionally that, no, very bad is very bad.“

In a few hours, Sanders had to vote on the year-end spending compromise – which was obviously very bad. From there, he’d race to the airport to catch the last possible flight to Des Moines. Sanders, who has said only a “crazy” person would want to be president, was about to face hundreds of people who’d ask him to get crazy. Next to his couch–not far from the battered suitcase he’d packed for Iowa–there was an engraving of Eugene Debs, the quixotic Socialist Party candidate for president, who ran five campaigns he never expected to win.

“The speeches I’ve given in Iowa and elsewhere are about 45 minutes, and usually I take questions,” said Sanders. “The whole show is about an hour and a half. If you look around, you know what? People are not racing to the door. People are not falling asleep.”

Sanders kicked his feet up on a coffee table. “The people who come to these events are by and large supportive of my politics,” says Sanders, evoking his Brooklyn roots every time he used a vowel. “They’re supportive of the policies. By and large, they want me to run for president. We had 450 people in Des Moines, and my God, you could not get another soul into that church, literally.”

Four years earlier, it had been Sanders protesting a hasty compromise bill by taking the floor and talking for most of a day–“eight and a half hours, but who’s counting?”–about its various insults to taxpayers and the poor. This time, he reasoned that a protest would only slow down the inevitable, and it was better to make the bill infamous as it passed. Instead it was left to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren to stage a revolt over a pro-bank rider in the must-pass “Cromnibus” spending bill.

Warren was not heading to Iowa. Sanders was.  

The new look

He had even begun to look presidential. The agitprop that fans have created for him–especially since he started talking about running for president–usually relies on photos of a younger Sanders with white hair that shot out at random angles, as if photographers were putting joy buzzers under his podium. The older, more media-savvy Sanders, the one who debates Republicans on TV and grills the Federal Reserve Chair about “oligarchy” in America, has tamed his hair, and settled on a patter.      

His biggest irritation lately, it seemed, was that reporters keep asking him about rivals. Sanders will not discuss any conversations he’s had with Warren, whom a coalition of liberals are trying to draft into the race over her frequent and high-decibel “no’s.” When I asked if Hillary Clinton would be a weaker national candidate than him, Sanders wrenched the conversation back to his policies.

“We should learn from what happened last month,” said Sanders, carefully. “The American people are very demoralized right now. It would be very hard for establishment politicians, whoever they may be, to kind of rally the American people and get the kind of voter turnout that we need. That’s what I think.”

 The implication was that Bernie Sanders, Vermont socialist, was the man for the moment, who could teach the Democratic party (because the idea was that he would run as a Democrat) an important lesson. A few hours later, Sanders cast the 51st vote that Democrats needed to confirm the president’s nominee for surgeon general, Vivek Murthy. He bolted to the airport and, hours later, touched down in a state where he had no political clout.

On the ground

The next morning, 8 a.m. sharp, Sanders showed up at the Drake Diner, near the campus of Drake University, for a meeting organized with six activists, most from the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. Sandersstrolled into the diner right after 8, removing a heavy jacket–“This is Vermont weather!”–shaking hands, and grabbing a seat. For 30 minutes, he only took questions. He wanted Christine Sherrod, 44, who’d run unsuccessfully for a state legislative seat, to tell him “what you heard at the doors.” 

“The minimum wage, definitely,” she said, “and environmental issues. I heard a lot about water.”

“That’s a fairly big issue, isn’t it?” Sanders asked. “Somebody explain it to me.”

“It’s because of corporate ag,” said Espey.

 “So, a huge amount of manure?” asked Sanders. “Nitrates?”

Espey nodded his head. “The corporate chickens are coming home to roost.”

Sanders just listened. He tucked into a plate of eggs, sausage and toast, and interjected only to make points about black youth unemployment (“Do you know it’s 30 percent?”) and the lost Democratic Party. Julia Rendon, a 56-year pastor at the United Church of Christ, described how the party’s disastrous U.S. Senate candidate Bruce Braley was once invited into a meeting in defense of the undocumented immigrant children fleeing Central America, and how he took a pass.

It took until the very end of the sit-down for Sanders to discuss the caucuses–the ones, theoretically, he’d be campaigning to win.

"Who had the best grassroots caucus campaign?” he asked. “Did Obama have the best? He blew the lid off?”

“Absolutely,” said Espey.

“Whaddya got, 99 counties here?” asked Sanders.

They did—though for a 2016 aspirant, he seemed a bit unprepared. Sanders was accompanied by just two staffers, spokesman Michael Briggs and Vermont office director Phil Fiermonte. He had no political team to speak of, and no one collecting names or plying him with data. When the breakfast ended, the Washington Post’s Robert Costa asked Sanders why nobody, in a talk with a prospective presidential candidate, had asked about Hillary Clinton. Sanders leaned forward and grabbed Costa by the shoulders, imitating a madman, as gently as he could.

“You know, sometimes, people want to talk about issues!” he said.

Then, shortly before noon, Sanders arrived in the common room of a Methodist church was already packed with spectators. Some were students at Iowa State, which Sanders would mistakenly call “the University of Iowa.” (That was in Iowa City, where he’d traveled months earlier.) Most were of retirement age, like Susie Petri, a 70-year old with prime seating and a Bernie Sanders 2016 button taking up most of a lapel.

“I’m part of the Draft Bernie group in town,” she explained. “There’s a group of us, and it’s small, but we meet on Fridays for drinks.” She pointed to a physics professor named Jerry Lamsa, who could have walked into a Sanders family reunion party. “Jerry’s the organizer. He bought the buttons.”

Petri and Lamsa flowed forth with the reasons Sanders needed to run. “[Hillary is] is far too much of a corporatist,” explained Petri. “I supported John Edwards in the past, and oh, gosh, I was all behind Howard Dean. I’m admiring of anyone who’ll speak with his true passion.”

41 minutes, 41 years

Sanders had told me that the full speech would run to 45 minutes. It ran for 41 minutes, off a test that Sanders hardly ever referred to. “We need a political revolution in this country,” he said. It would mean a “real struggle against the billionaire class.” This was apocalyptic talk, about an America that could be lost in a generation and middle-class wages that had stayed flat for “41 years–41 years!” Eighteen of those years were lived under Democratic presidents.

Sanders’s “prepared remarks,” as handed to reporters, consisted of a column he’d written for the Huffington Post at the start of December. Sanders followed its rhythm precisely, handling each item on his “12-step economic agenda” as he’d handled them in print. But he sounded nothing like he wrote. Here, for example, was how Sanders wrote about employment.

Since 2001 we have lost more than 60,000 factories in this country, and more than 4.9 million decent-paying manufacturing jobs. We must end our disastrous trade policies (NAFTA, CAFTA, PNTR with China, etc.) which enable corporate America to shut down plants in this country and move to China and other low-wage countries. We need to end the race to the bottom and develop trade policies which demand that American corporations create jobs here, and not abroad.

Here was how he rescued that from tedium as he stood at the end of a stage and raised his fist.

Our trade policies are a disaster. We have given a green light to corporations to shut down here, move abroad, and ship our products back. I don’t think it is too much to ask of corporate America, which demands our television every night – they want us to buy their products, through their ads – that they put people back to work in Iowa and Vermont!

The live version of the rant got into the gripes Sanders had with commercials, with the arrogance of corporations–more gut, less calculator. And he’d pegged the crowd exactly. Halfway through his speech, a room designed to fill 250 people had filled entirely, commandeering every chair in the building, leaving a few people leaning against walls. The questions were pillow-soft, the toughest one asking him to clarify that he wanted Congress to sign off on any future wars. (He did.)

They wanted a presidential candidate, whether or not he could win, to be blunt, uncompromising, not another Obama. Sanders obliged. “If I were the president, I would make it very clear in my state of the union: Stand with me,” Sanders told me off stage. “Demand that your member of Congress stand with me as I veto legislation which is going to decimate the needs of working people.” 

Maybe that could have prevented the Democratic debacles of 2010 and 2014. “Maybe the president is simply too nice a guy,” said Sanders. “I’m not as nice as the president. I think the Republicans have gotten away with murder.”

Familiar themes

But what was striking about Sanders was just how un-revolutionary he sounded. His economic agenda, with its praise of Denmark’s welfare state and hectoring of trade deals, fit squarely in the Democratic platform. “I think every one of these items has majority support,” said Sanders. “Maybe not single-payer [health care].”

And Iowans had heard this before–seven years earlier. In 2007, when the Democrats’ last presidential candidates stumped in Iowa, they talked just like Sanders. In his speeches, Barack Obama would invoke homeless veterans and “senior citizens bagging groceries,” and ask voters to imagine an end to that. “We started on the path, in Illinois, of universal health care,” he’d remind Iowa.

John Edwards, who has been disappeared from Democratic politics and history since his love child scandal, nearly won Iowa twice by running on a Sanders agenda. In the run-up to 2008, he’d derided the “fantasy” that reform could happen by meeting business interests and drawing up deals at a table. “I think if that worked, we would have universal health care, we would be attacking global warming, we'd have a trade policy that makes sense, and we'd have a tax policy that makes sense,” said Edwards.

Edwards was assembled from all the right presidential timbers: youth, movie-poster looks, wealth, and a bland voting record in the Senate. Sanders had none of that, and even the Draft Bernie elements in his crowd didn’t say how he could win. First comes the “political revolution,” and the humbling of the “billionaire class,” though Sanders wouldn’t reject it if a tycoon or two funded a Super PAC for him. “You can’t just unilaterally disarm,” he said.

Courting labor

After he finished with questions in Ames, after he collected a personal check from a super-fan who said she’d support him as a “Democrat or an independent or a Green,” Sanders followed his two-man entourage into a car and down to Altoona. Progress Iowa, a proudly liberal group, had invited Sanders to keynote its holiday party. The progressives had taken over a good-sized section of a conference center, blocking out a few rooms for meetings, and Sanders dove in, talking to labor organizers for an hour.

“He can raise lots of money, and get lots of votes,” said Iowa’s AFL president, Ken Sagar, after the meetings. “He talks about issues. But he’s got a lot of things to factor into the equation, and people want to take a breath after what happened in the last election.”

The significance wasn’t really in what Sanders said; it was that the AFL had met with Bernie Sanders. The national federation had telegraphed moves like that; its president, Richard Trumka, had said all year that Hillary Clinton would benefit from a competition. Sanders, white and male when the party was yearning for something else, was not an ideal leader of the insurgency. If he didn’t run, though–if Hillary got a pass–there would be no pressure within the Democratic Party to stop the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The yearlong caucus campaign needed some force to keep the party from jerking right, toward the donor class.

“The one thing we didn’t have in this election was a message, anywhere,” said Senator Jack Hatch, the party’s sacrificial candidate against Republican Governor Terry Branstad. “What Bernie’s gonna bring in is: Let’s agree on a message. Let’s not be afraid to talk about it.”

If he didn’t, there was a risk that national Democrats would wire the state for Hillary Clinton, and give her another loser message totally disconnected from the base. “If she tells us what we need to think about, we’re gonna suffer from the same problem.”

Around 180 Democrats had gathered to hear from Sanders, who finally emerged from a hallway and started working the room.

“Hi there,” he said to the activists at one table. “Bernie Sanders.” He shook two hands and waved at everyone on the far side of the table. Then he walked a few steps to another circle of potential voters. “Hi there, Bernie Sanders.” Shake, wave, repeat. Sanders posed for photos, collected business cards, got buttonholed by a state senator who wanted to make sure he read a self-published book about energy policy. He wasn’t absorbing energy from the act of glad-handing, as some politicians do–as most successful presidential candidates do.

Sanders didn’t crackle back to life until a few minutes into his speech. He’d loosened up, as if Ames were a sound-check and this was the show, sprinkling “damns” and “God forbids” into the familiar lessons and outrages.

“People can disagree, but they damn well should know which party to hold responsible when things go bad!” said Sanders, citing a poll that proved they didn’t. “We just went through a campaign where some people talked about their ability to castrate pigs. Verrrrrrry important issue. Others talked about their ability to shoot a rifle. Verrrrrrrry important attribute. Maybe it’s important for people to talk about the issues facing our country.”

Attacks on the Koch brothers hadn’t worked for Democrats in 2014. Sanders had personally spent a lot of time talking about the Libertarian Party platform that David Koch endorsed in 1980. It got some coverage; it lit up on the left, where Koch mentions were guaranteed to raise money. And so, in Altoona, the Kochs were villains once again.

“Under the terrible, oppressive, socialistic Obama administration, their wealth increased by $12 billion this year!” said Sanders. “Some people have problems with alcohol, some have problems with drugs. I think these people are obsessed with money.”

Sanders finished without a Q&A. “Thank you for listening to me rant,” he said. No one had left the room, and only a few people seemed to drift. They only found the exits when Sanders stuck around to auction off a copy of the paperback printing of his 2010 speech against the end-of-year tax compromise, and when he undid his tie to auction that off, too. After a hard sell by an amateur auctioneer, the blue and white tie went for $200.

“How much did you pay for the tie?” asked Sheryl Stolberg,  covering Sanders for the New York Times.

 “Not $200, I can tell you,” he said.

Sanders moved out of the room, posing for photos when he had to, but with an eye on the exit. By 8:30 p.m. he was done, out of the hotel, with no mob of voters in pursuit. The next day, while Sanders headed back east, the Democratic governor of Vermont announced that the state would sideline plans to create single-payer health care by 2017.

It was a horrific setback for any political revolutionary, or any independent socialist. It unwound years or decades of work, of citizens and politicians kicking over the table instead of cutting yet another rotten deal.

Sanders had no comment.