A former aide to Bernie Sanders tells a story about the old days, when the little-known House Independent used to crisscross Vermont holding town hall meetings.
“It was morning to night, and we’d hit every corner of the state,” the aide recalls. “They would go on and on. I’d say to him, ‘Bernie, it’s okay if we leave a little bit on the table in some of these places. But he wouldn’t hear of it.”
Popular democracy to Sanders is a relationship where everyone gets a chance to be heard. Even though the aide worried that Bernie wasn’t optimizing his use of time, he admired his dedication. “At the end of the day, he’s a good man,” the aide says. “He cares about poor people. How many people really care about the poor?”
But as Bernie’s popularity and influence grew, it seemed all he wanted to do was scale up the regime of town meetings.
“It’s like the Steve Martin movie, The Jerk,” the aide says. “He’s born in a shack. Then, when he hits it big, he builds a shack-mansion.”
In the 2020 presidential campaign, Sanders has done fantastically well. Even after a disappointing Super Tuesday, when Joe Biden surged past him in Texas, Massachusetts and Minnesota to re-seize frontrunner status, Bernie remains very much in the hunt. Heading into contests in states he won in 2016, such as Washington and Michigan, the self-described “Democratic Socialist” at this writing trails Biden in estimated delegates, 670-589. He’s behind, but no one with his politics has ever been this close to the presidency.
But Rolling Stone spoke to multiple current and former Sanders aides who worry the Senator’s personality — he’s phobic about personal confrontation and retains traces of an inferiority complex from his days as an Independent straggler — might lead him to miss a chance at history. They say the campaign, which declined to comment for this story, has, among other things, declined to aggressively confront Joe Biden on issues like Social Security, trade, and the bankruptcy bill.
“Bernie is conflict-averse,” says Matt Stoller, who worked for Sanders for two years. “His staff has always had real trouble getting him to criticize any Democrat by name.”
“Bernie is always better on the counterpunch, on the rope-a-dope,” says Mark Longabaugh, who was chief strategist for Bernie’s 2016 campaign. “When he lands, it’s usually a counterpunch, like ‘I wrote the damn bill.’ It’s hard for him to go on the attack.”
“I always said, if he learned anything from 2016, it’s that in order to win the nomination, to beat the political establishment, you have to take it from their cold, dead hands. You have to go to war with these people,” the longtime former aide says. “But Bernie is acting like he’s running for State Senator in Burlington.”
As a result, even as a staggered Democratic Party political establishment scrambled all year to undercut him, openly signaling a willingness to overturn voter will at this summer’s convention in Milwaukee, Sanders seemed content to keep giving the same speech he’s been giving for thirty years, what some current and former aides affectionately call the “Berniefesto.”
The 2020 primary race is not over. The delegate gap is not that big, Sanders has favorable states upcoming (Michigan will be a key test), and a March 15th debate in Arizona will test Biden, who’s struggled to use all his time in earlier contests. Elizabeth Warren blew up Mike Bloomberg’s candidacy in thirty seconds of a January debate. Bernie should be able to do the same to Biden, a man who leads with his face in verbal combat. But he’ll need to step out of his comfort zone, and soon.
Springfield, Virginia, a chilly February 28. Three hours before Sanders is set to speak, a crowd of seven or eight thousand huddles in an entrance line. There is nowhere to park for a half-mile out. The World Bernie Tour is here.
“Baby Yoda!” a salesman of Bernie merch cracks with a smile, when asked what his top-selling product is. A t-shirt showing a small green alien Bernie, telling all THIS IS THE WAY, has been a popular meme on the 2020 campaign.
For years now, mere conferral of Bernie’s presence creates a box office event. Bill Clinton reached this rare air, as did Sarah Palin of all people, and Barack Obama. Donald Trump is the standard-bearer: If Led Zeppelin sold time-share, it might approximate what Trump rallies look like today. But Bernie is a political star in his own right.
Sanders is an anti-showman. Obama sold looks and verbal brilliance, Palin was Roseanne, and Clinton tried to mate with his crowds. Bernie is an old man talking about Medicare. In an era when America is tired of the bullshit, the absence of a come-on is a smash hit.
“Ice, Ice baby!” says Wilson Johnson, a third-grade teacher from Woodbridge, Virginia. He’s nailing Vanilla Ice in Bernie voice. “I think the one percent doesn’t deserve all the oyce!”
Sanders supporters often tell stories about frustrations with the system that led to epiphanies. In Virginia, one described a lifetime of seeing corruption working for the Inspector General of the Department of Agriculture. Another tells told a story about the devastation that $40,000 in student debt wrought in his life. Everyone has a story. “I had a major surgery last year,” said Fabio Moreiera, of Fairfax. “My insurance company told me for about six months, yeah, we’ll cover it, we’ll cover it. Three days before I got the surgery, they said, ‘oh, it’s not going to be covered.’”
The stories cut across demographics. Bernie crowds, in contrast to reporting clichés, are full of ex-conservatives (and also former non-voters). You’d never guess that a campaign with this reach would be capable of losing anywhere by thirty points or more. But it happened, both that same night in South Carolina, and days later in this same state.
While Sanders barnstormed across the country in what one staffer describes as “the rock concert,” the tectonic plates of the 2020 primary shifted. Tongue-tied, Iraq-war-supporting Joe Biden crushed Bernie in South Carolina, blowing past poll expectations with a 48.4-19.9% primary victory. Two nights later, Biden proved South Carolina was no fluke, winning nine states in devastating fashion, including an amazing 53%-21% rout in Virginia.
Overnight, Sanders went from clear frontrunner to a candidate with a major problem. With rival Democrats no longer doing him the favor of fracturing the field — Pete Buttigieg and Amy “Snow Woman” Klobuchar both threw in with Biden after South Carolina — the Sanders trajectory looked like it might end at the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, unless he found a way to expand beyond his base.
The Sanders campaign earlier this year suggested Bernie was about to go after Biden on Social Security and other issues in an Iowa debate, but Sanders ended up in a dispute with Elizabeth Warren instead. As understandable as this was — Bernie had to respond to Warren’s charges that he’d told her a woman couldn’t win — it mirrored a year-long pattern of reluctance by Sanders to engage “Scranton Joe.”
Ask people in and around Bernie’s orbit why this is the case, and you’ll get some depressing answers.
“I think Bernie likes Joe Biden,” says Longabaugh.
“I think Bernie has a really hard time going negative,” says Stoller.
“So much of what informs his relationship with people like Biden,” says the longtime former staffer, “is that experience of being the lone independent and outsider. Back then, if any one of those people treated him with respect, as a colleague, that was enough to ingratiate them with Bernie.”
The former aide sighs. “He doesn’t like Rahm Emmanuel, he doesn’t like Hillary Clinton,” he says. “But he’s okay with Biden, because Biden is nice to him.”
What’s troubling about this is that Biden has long been a central figure in building the modern, corporate-dominated model of the Democratic Party Sanders spends so much time deconstructing.
Biden led cheers for the Iraq War and repeatedly lied about that record (“Yes, I did oppose the war before it began,” he said just last year). On many occasions he’s expressed willingness to cut Social Security and voted for the insidious bankruptcy bill. He championed NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, helped write the atrocious 1994 crime bill, and even bragged that George Bush’s infamous Attorney General John Ashcroft got the idea for the PATRIOT Act from him.
Bernie has gone after some of this, but even on issues like the Iraq invasion, where Biden has an extensive record of damning statements, he’s let his rival off the hook, propping up Biden’s weak excuse of being deceived by Republicans.
“Joe and I listened to what George Bush, Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld had to say. I thought they were lying. Joe saw things differently,” was the strongest statement Sanders could muster, in a recent debate.
Bernie is now using more confrontational language like “Which side are you on?” with regard to Social Security, but it may be too late. (Why did he wait until after Super Tuesday to feature an ad about Biden’s Social Security record?) For most of the campaign, on key issues like this, Bernie seemed anxious to pick “a line of attack that will bring the least amount of blowback” from within the Democratic Party, as Stoller puts it.
Reluctance to cut the cord with Democrats who are “trying to put a bazooka to his head” is part of what finally disillusioned the unnamed longtime aide, who notes that Bernie’s unwillingness to engage people like Biden is “self-sabotaging, but also selfish. It’s not comfortable for him to call out people he likes, but it’s not about him anymore… He has millions of people who’ve put their hopes in him.”
There is a legend being circulated now in the press that the Sanders campaign was somehow sunk by “negativity,” that online rancor and divisiveness placed a ceiling on Bernie’s rise. That this is transparent pundit gaslighting is made clear by the trajectory of Warren. Having built her brand as a progressive years ago by attacking none other than Joe Biden over the bankruptcy bill, Warren as a presidential candidate holstered those attacks against her onetime chief intraparty rival, stressed “unity”, and — got crushed at the polls. If you want to see where a progressive platform without aggressive distinctions goes, it’s proven to be nowhere.
However, as Longabaugh points out, attacking rivals in a multi-candidate field can have unpredictable results.
“People don’t realize how hard this is, standing onstage with someone and sticking a shiv in,” says Longabaugh. “I actually think Bernie has played this pretty well,” Longabaugh says. “He may find it easier to draw contrasts with Biden in a two-way race.”
The reluctance to engage strongly with Biden speaks to the larger issue of Bernie’s attitude toward the Democratic Party. Sanders clearly sees the Party’s flaws and rails against its susceptibility to corporate influence, but has trouble understanding that the current leadership will never truly accept him and his message, unless forced. He’s been reluctant to use his mass appeal as a cudgel, preferring to focus on making a case to the public — a strategy that has served him extremely well, but still.
“You gotta weaponize this shit,” says the longtime aide. “You’ve got to go to these people in the party and say, ‘You can either accept it, or be killed by it.’” The aide notes there’s an obvious example of how to use a populist pulpit. “Trump is crazy, but there are things you can learn from him.”
Sanders staffers speak of the Senator with great admiration. Even those who’ve parted on bad terms indicate that at one time or another, they would have have taken a bullet for the man. All are amazed by the size of the movement he’s been able to build.
The issue is converting phenomenon into victory. There is a passionate debate within Bernieworld over the best way to get there. Drawing stronger contrasts with Biden is only part of the picture.
Some for instance wonder if the candidate has done enough on the inside. The “rock concert” has been miraculously effective in building popular support despite a near-total absence of institutional or media backing, but that doesn’t preclude “walking and chewing gum at the same time,” as one source puts it.
Bernie could have been on the phone every day for the last four years, back-channeling figures like Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and even Barack Obama even as he blowtorched traditional Democrats like Biden on the trail. Would that have produced a different result?
Others wonder about the mechanics of a presidential run: Did Sanders do enough? He raised a ton of money, hitting $50 million per month, a massive sum for this kind of candidate. Did he spend it in the right places, in the most delegate-rich regions and media markets? Was/is there enough focus on who will serve as delegates? Was/is enough attention being paid to questions like the bureaucratic structure of the Milwaukee Democratic convention?
Sanders himself clearly views his campaign as an effort to rescue and restore the Democratic Party, at least as he understands it — the party of F.D.R., and the working-class voters it traditionally represented, dating back to his youth. He’s been burning up air miles in an effort to replace the corporate-funded political model with one backed by a movement of millions of people. As he put it to Rolling Stone four years ago, “Our future is not raising money from wealthy people, but mobilizing millions of working people and young people and people of color.”
Some part of Sanders seems to hold out hope that something is left over in the DNA of the Democratic Party from those F.D.R. days, something that can be saved and restored. He seems to have a nostalgic fondness for it, as he seems to for Biden himself.
But this version of the Democratic Party that now has Biden as its face wants to bury him. They’ve smeared him as a racist, sexist dupe for Putin, an amateur and back-bencher who doesn’t understand power and can’t “get things done.”
By getting as far as he has, and raising as much money as he has, Sanders has already demolished half of that argument. To finish the job, he has to show he understands the difference between doing well and winning, against an opponent who pathetically, insultingly beatable. For all of the institutional obstacles before him, despite the wall of media sycophants and the waterfall of fresh Wall Street money against him, Bernie should be offended to be losing to the likes of Joe Biden. But he’s running out of time to get angry.