The very first question at the very first Bernie 2016 Iowa town-hall meeting comes from a bearded young guy wearing a Green Lantern T-shirt. He wants to know what the candidate plans to do, if elected president, when it comes to regulating online poker.
“Let me be very honest with you: That’s not an issue I’ve given a lot of thought,” Bernie Sanders, the 73-year-old junior senator from Vermont, says bluntly. He pauses for a moment, then mutters, “I think one of my kids does play a lot of poker. If the issue is, should corporations rip off poker players, the answer is no. See, everybody? One of the things you learn as a U.S. senator is, everybody has an issue.”
Sanders has distinctive white hair and a brusque manner of speaking, his delivery and thick Brooklyn accent uncannily reminiscent of Larry David. Or, even more specifically, of Larry David doing George Steinbrenner on Seinfeld. “More stuff has been written about my hair than my infrastructure program or my college-education program — no question about that,” Sanders will complain to me later.
On this particular Thursday night in May, Sanders is speaking at St. Ambrose University, a small Catholic school in Davenport, Iowa. Coincidentally, Rick Santorum also happens to be in Davenport, launching his own 2016 Iowa campaign. According to The Des Moines Register, Santorum’s talk drew about 80 people. Approximately 700 people have shown up for Sanders — the largest crowd for any single candidate in Iowa this campaign season.
The early-state surge by a candidate to the left of the front-runner has almost become ritual in Democratic primaries: Bill Bradley in 2000, Sanders’ fellow Vermonter Howard Dean in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008. But Sanders stands to the left of all of those insurgents. His opponent in the primary, Hillary Clinton, would be the first woman president; Sanders would be the first avowed socialist. He points to Europe, particularly Scandinavia, for examples on how this might work in practical application: generous social programs providing a baseline standard of living for all, dispatched by a robust, activist government and funded by higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy and reduced spending in areas like, say, an unnecessary $2 trillion war in Iraq.
Sanders believes that such progressive ideas have a broad popularity, not just among a lefty fringe but across the working class, even in red states. And yet progressive movements in recent years have wound up marginalized in the face of establishment pushback (Dean, the Occupy Wall Street movement) or else, as in the case of support for Obama, left as promises unfulfilled. Sanders believes that by keeping his focus on economic populism, he has a shot — a long one, he admits — at beating the historical odds. “Once you get off of the social issues — abortion, gay rights, guns — and into the economic issues,” he says, “there is a lot more agreement than the pundits understand.”