It’s official. The Bern is in.
Ending a lengthy period of deliberation, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who won over 1,800 delegates and captured 43 percent of the Democratic Party vote in 2016, announced his candidacy in an email to supporters this morning.
“Brothers and Sisters,” Sanders writes. “I have decided to run for president of the United States.”
Sanders goes on to promise “an unprecedented and historic grassroots campaign” that will “begin with at least a million people from across the country.”
The email contains a lengthy list of policy positions the senator is expected to elaborate upon in the coming weeks. Sanders pledges to create a “government based on the principles of economic, social, racial and environmental justice,” then adds a coda to his familiar theme of taking on special interests, including those that have traditionally held sway as donors within his own party.
“I’m talking,” he writes, “about Wall Street, the health insurance companies, the drug companies, the fossil fuel industry, the military-industrial complex, the private-prison industry and the large multi-national corporations that exert such an enormous influence over our lives.”
In announcing his campaign four years ago on the shore of Lake Champlain in Vermont, Sanders laid out a message-based campaign that he said was not about him, “not about Hillary Clinton,” and “not about Jeb Bush or anyone else.”
This time around, his opening email seems crafted to leave the impression that winning, and beating Donald Trump in particular, is central to his thinking.
He writes about “running against a president who is a pathological liar, a fraud, a racist, a sexist, a xenophobe and someone who is undermining American democracy,” adding that Trump is leading us “in an authoritarian direction.”
The Senator is expected to have a busy schedule of events in the next weeks to help introduce key themes of this campaign, which are expected to differ somewhat from the last race.
A second Sanders presidential campaign is bound to suffuse the Democratic primary with intense drama, as he represents one side of a profound argument tearing across the globe about populism.
From the “yellow vest” protests in France, to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in Britain, to the anti-austerity movements seen in Greece, the Netherlands to Germany, voters are increasingly rejecting the neoliberal, corporate-backed economic policies that have dominated Western democracies for a generation.
The opening email by Sanders, as expected, argues the only way to unseat Trump is with a grand, sweeping message that’s in tune with this transformational moment in history. Sanders believes he will have to build an independent movement big enough to overcome deficits in corporate money and press attention.
“They may have the money and power,” he writes. “We have the people.”
He is running less against specific opponents like Sens. Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren than against decades of pro-corporate policies endorsed by both parties, dating back to NAFTA and the deregulation of Wall Street.
This system-wide criticism has not endeared him to party leaders. To say Sanders is a controversial figure in Democratic circles is a great understatement.
Campaign post-mortems from 2016 like Shattered and Chasing Hillary, as well as the WikiLeaks dump of DNC and John Podesta emails, made clear what everyone in Washington already knew: the apparatchiks who run the Party and sit in Democrat-aligned think-tanks dislike Sanders with the heat of a thousand suns. In some quarters, he may be resented more than Trump, among other things because he represents a brand of politics that takes aim at many Beltway sinecures.
Sanders can expect diffident treatment at best by the bulk of the commentators on TV and at papers like the Washington Post and the New York Times. In those outlets, he’s regularly derided as a line-jumping socialist peddling simplistic thinking, a “geriatric Che,” as Chasing Hillary chronicler Amy Chozick put it.
A Yahoo! report from earlier this year suggesting Sanders would “imminently” announce his 2020 run inspired outrage on social media. On Twitter, a seemingly bot-driven #NeverBernie hashtag coalesced almost immediately.
Sanders took the press by surprise in 2016, when pundits condescended to a “fringe” eccentric who “rarely kisses babies” and was over-focused on “high-minded politics.”
In 2016, reporters suffering from what even the Washington Post calls “Pundititis” refused all the way up until Election Day to detect fundamental changes in national voter attitudes that elevated the Sanders campaign.
The Times earlier this year ran a piece asking:
Will candidates sprint to the left on issues and risk hurting themselves with intraparty policy fights and in the general election?
This point of view is based upon the idea that the party’s mainstream of voters does not want reduced military spending, free college tuition, expanded Social Security, legalized marijuana, a $15 minimum wage, breakups of Too-Big-To-Fail banks and other policies deemed electoral liabilities.
The Sanders campaign is centered on the idea that a majority of voters long ago came to embrace these positions. For this reason, Sanders feels he may be pushing the party in a direction that’s more electable, not less.
A key criticism of Sanders last time was his alleged lack of legislative accomplishments. His camp believes his profile campaigns against companies like Amazon and Disney, as well as leadership on issues like ending our involvement in Yemen, will head off a lot of those criticisms. His campaign also feels voters will respond to the fact that Sanders positions on Medicare-for-All, that $15 minimum wage and other issues have already become mainstream thinking among Democratic voters. He’s long trumpeted a Green New Deal, an idea as symbolically central to this brand of politics as the Wall is to Trumpism. Polls show the plan has 92 percent support among Democrats, and 81 percent support overall.
Four years ago, Sanders and his camp were taken by surprise when his “Let’s send a message” presidential run suddenly began attracting huge crowds. This time around, there are very different expectations.
From strictly a betting standpoint, there are arguments both for and against Sanders as a likely captor of the Democratic nomination. On the nay side, he is running in a much bigger field, against opponents like Warren and Tulsi Gabbard who are closer to him politically than Hillary Clinton.
On the other hand, he consistently sits at near the top of most polls, often ahead of Kamala Harris and behind Joe Biden, who has yet to formally enter.
The Democratic field is already absurdly crowded, however, with Sanders marking the twelfth candidate to formally announce. The field may have as many as 30 names or more by the time the dust settles and people like Joe Biden, Beto O’Rourke, Sherrod Brown and Mike Bloomberg make up their minds.
This could set up a repeat of the “clown car” effect that paralyzed the Republican Party in 2016, when the over-large field of 17 entrants paved the way for a populist with high name recognition and a relatively insoluble base of support to ride consistent pluralities to the nomination, beating out a plethora of cookie-cutter Republicans who undermined each other at the ballot.
How many votes candidates like Warren, Gabbard and Sanders take from each other may end up determining whether something similar will happen in the Democratic field — whether a non-traditional candidate can prevail over a more “moderate” party favorite like Biden or Harris.
Sanders has drawbacks as a candidate. Currently 77, he would be sworn in as the oldest president in history. He has a not-insignificant public relations problem in regards to race, frequently branded as a white-only candidate backed by “Bernie Bros” (a term that has clear negative connotations even if its genealogy and social media ubiquity is suspicious).
Sanders also responded maladroitly to recent accusations of a harassing environment in his 2016 campaign, saying he didn’t attend to the problem because he “was a little busy running around the country trying to make the case.”
Time will reveal what voters think of the age issue, which will also come up with Biden (76). As to Sanders’ supposed weakness with minority voters, a Politico/Morning Consult poll showed him leading among potential Democratic candidates among Hispanic voters, and second to Biden among African-American voters.
His team already saw evidence last time that Sanders began to improve with nonwhite voters as he gained name recognition. His campaign also made some head-scratching decisions in 2016 that probably hurt him with nonwhite voters early.
A photo of Sanders being arrested at a 1963 Civil Rights march didn’t surface until the day of the Nevada primary, after more than half a year of campaigning, and after Georgia Congressman John Lewis famously said he “never saw” Sanders during the Civil Rights movement.
Nonetheless, Sanders years later is clearly still more comfortable talking about class than race — and what he does say doesn’t always aid his cause. This became clear in a recent GQ interview, when he drew criticism for saying, “There are people who are very big into diversity but whose views end up being not particularly sympathetic to working people, whether they’re white or black or Latino.”
Democratic opponents are sure to test Sanders here, to see if he’s found a way to make his core message about combating corporate influence and fighting for the working poor meld with modern ideas about diversity and social justice. He is expected to address these questions head-on in the coming weeks.
When first elected to the Senate, Sanders spoke to me of being surprised to learn how much power a Senator had. Instead of having to beg and plead for a few million dollars for a heating oil program or a regional health center, people like Ted Kennedy taught him that a Senator could make these things with a few words in the ear of the right committee chiefs.
That was over 10 years ago. Today, he speaks more often about frustrations with the limitations of legislative office. That frustration is one reason he resorted to using the bully pulpit in his recent successful campaigns to pressure Amazon and Disney to raise their company minimum wages.
The politician who has consistently said he’ll try anything to fix a problem has put himself in a place where the White House, and executive power, may be the only thing left to try. So as the last act in a long career, this flawed but compelling politician is running again. Whether it’s toward a mirage or real change, we’ll find out soon enough.