In late 2013, when independent Bernie Sanders, Vermont’s junior senator, introduced “Medicare for All” legislation, he did so without a single co-sponsor. When Sanders again introduced the bill–which calls for private health insurance to be supplanted by a government-run single-payer plan–in late 2017, one-third of the Senate Democratic Caucus co-sponsored it. The change was emblematic of the clout the onetime backbencher had acquired after the surprising success of his 2016 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Down nearly 50 percentage points in some polls when he started, Sanders battled the front-running candidate, Hillary Clinton, to the end of the primary elections. By the time he arrived at the Democratic National Convention, he had won contests in 22 states, along with 46 percent of the pledged delegates–after attracting massive crowds and energizing
millennial voters, as he railed against the “billionaire class” and urged a “political revolution.”
While Sanders didn’t end up as the party’s nominee, he could claim a major victory by having pulled the Democratic Party’s center of gravity in his direction, as he campaigned on proposals ranging from free college tuition to a $15 hourly minimum wage, as well as Medicare for All. “During our 2016 campaign, when we brought forth our progressive agenda, we were told that our ideas were ‘radical’ and ‘extreme,’” the self-described democratic socialist wrote to supporters in February 2019, launching his second presidential bid. “Three years have come and gone. And, as result of millions of Americans standing up and fighting back, all of these policies and more are now supported by a majority of Americans.” Unlike four years earlier, Sanders entered the race this time as a leading contender–with national name recognition, a committed base of backers in all 50 states and a sophisticated social media operation with which to energize them, to say nothing of an ability to raise large amounts of money from a massive list of small donors.
But as Sanders faced a different political landscape than he did in 2016–competing in a splintered Democratic field of more than 20 candidates–a key question was whether he might turn out to be a victim of his own success. He was no longer the sole alternative on the left to the party establishment choice; this time, the field also included several of his Senate colleagues as well as other aspirants espousing many of the progressive policies he had advanced. Amid a movement within the Democratic Party for greater diversity, many of these rival contenders were women and people of color–in contrast to a white male who will be 79 on Inauguration Day 2021. Sanders bristled at what he regarded as ageism–“Age is a factor! But it is one of many factors!” he told New York magazine in late 2018–and another leading contender, former Vice President Joe Biden, is just a year younger. If elected, Sanders would be the oldest person to occupy the Oval Office.
Though he has arguably become the dominant figure of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, Sanders has made eight successful runs for the House and three for the Senate without appearing on the Democratic line on the ballot. He caucuses with Democrats in the Senate, as he did in the House, but when asked whether he identified as a Democrat on MSNBC in April 2017, Sanders replied, “No, I’m an independent.” During the same interview, he indicated his goal was nothing less than a transformation of the Democratic Party. “If the Democratic Party is going to succeed–and I want to see it succeed–it’s going to have to open its door to independents. … It’s got to open its doors to working people and to young people, create a grassroots party,” he said.
Such statements help explain why many in the Democratic Party establishment remain leery about Sanders and believe his behavior in 2016 contributed to Clinton’s loss to now-President Donald Trump. Consequently, unlike other recent second-time presidential contenders–who have emerged as front- runners for their party’s nomination–Sanders’ base of support showed few signs of expansion as he embarked on his 2020 run. Many Democrats saw him as more interested in transforming the party’s prevailing orthodoxy than in its near-term success–a view Clinton herself has voiced. In her post-2016 campaign memoir, “What Happened,” she complained Sanders had run to “disrupt the Democratic Party” rather than to “make sure a Democrat won the White House” and that his candidacy did “lasting damage” to her campaign. Sanders responded on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” with a back- handed gibe: “You know, Secretary Clinton ran against the most unpopular candidate in the history of this country, and she lost. And she was upset by that. I understand that.”
Behind this face of a fomenter of political upheaval, however, is a savvy strategist who has demonstrated a willingness to–yes, compromise, both during and before his congressional career. In many years as a Capitol Hill outlier, he often teamed with Republicans to chalk up legislative victories. “The thing about Bernie, which is different than most socialists, is Bernie wants to win,” Garrison Nelson, a University of Vermont professor who has known Sanders for four decades, told Politico. As chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Sanders steered an overhaul of the Department of Veterans Affairs into law in 2014. After closing that deal, Sanders recalled his days as mayor of Burlington in the 1980s. “When I took office, [in terms of] people who supported me on the City Council, we had two out of 13, and I had to make things happen while being in the minority,” he told Roll Call. “So, I do know how to negotiate fairly. Negotiation is part of the political process. I certainly have been prepared to do that since Day One.”
As his thick Brooklyn accent indicates, Sanders grew up in the Flatbush section of New York’s largest borough. His father was a paint salesman who had emigrated from Poland. He graduated from James Madison High School–also the alma mater of Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who named Sanders to a post in the Senate Democratic leadership in late 2016–before attending Brooklyn College. He graduated from the University of Chicago, where he became involved in left-wing politics. Sanders moved to Vermont as part of the hippie migration of 1968. Sanders worked as a carpenter upon arriving in the Green Mountain State. In 1971, he ran in a special election for a vacant Senate seat as the candidate of the Liberty Union Party, winning just 2 percent of the vote. He went on to lose four statewide races. Running against Democrat Patrick Leahy, now his senior colleague, in 1974, Sanders raised his vote on the Liberty Union line to 4 percent.
Sanders’ earnest persona finally won over the Burlington electorate, which in 1981 made him the city’s first socialist mayor by just 10 votes. “There was anger in the air, plenty of it,” the Burlington Free Press wrote years later. “Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist of all people, had somehow stolen City Hall from” the Democrats. He served until 1989, winning re-election three times. “I am a socialist, of course I am a socialist,” Sanders said during a 1983 debate, according to The Associated Press. He added, “To hold a vision that society can be fundamentally different, to believe that all people can be equal, that is not a new idea.”
One-third of a century later, some Democrats feared that Sanders would revive Cold War era use of the socialist label as a pejorative against them. “Here in the United States, we are alarmed by the new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” Trump said during his 2019 State of the Union address, a line soon echoed by other Republicans. Sanders afterward told NPR: “I think what we have to do … is to do a better job maybe in explaining what we mean by socialism–democratic socialism. Obviously, my right- wing colleagues here want to paint that as authoritarianism and communism and Venezuela, and that’s nonsense.” Sanders sought to do that on a televised town hall hosted by Fox News in April 2019; most hands went up when the audience was asked if they would be willing to give up private health insurance for a Medicare for All-type system. “So weird to watch Crazy Bernie on @Fox News,” Trump tweeted after the event, during which Sanders said: “Whether you’re a conservative, a moderate, or a progressive, I don’t think the American people are proud that we have a president who is a pathological liar. And it does not give me pleasure to say that.”
Sanders’ first congressional bid came in 1988, when Vermont’s at-large House seat opened. He ran as an independent but lost by 3 percentage points to Republican Peter Smith in a three-way race. Two years later, he defeated Smith 56%-40%, becoming only the third socialist elected to the House–and the first since the late 1920s. Sanders benefited politically from his opposition to gun control: Smith had voted to ban semi-automatic weapons, and the National Rifle Association had come out against him. Three years later, Sanders voted against the “Brady Bill,” which requires background checks for those buying firearms. And in 2005, he supported an NRA-backed bill to shield gun manufacturers and dealers from most lawsuits. Sanders’ early gun control stance has come to haunt him; Clinton raised it in candidate forums in 2016, and it was used in ads by a super PAC supporting her. More recently, Sanders has sided with gun control advocates–voting in 2013 to expand background checks and in 2016 to bar firearm sales to those on the government’s terrorist watch list. But he has represented a state where gun ownership remains widespread, with few restrictions.
In the House, Sanders formed the Congressional Progressive Caucus with an agenda later adopted in large measure by his presidential campaign. Besides a single-payer health insurance system, it included progressive tax reform, a 50 percent cut in military spending, a national energy policy, and–a Vermont touch–support for family farms. Notwithstanding much of what he has advocated is unlikely to be enacted anytime soon–even co-sponsors of Medicare for All see it as largely aspirational in the short term–Sanders has played the long game throughout his career, hoping to influence opinion by speaking out early and often. “Everybody [now] talks about income inequality,” he told The New York Times in 2015. “Well, check it out. Find out who was talking about it 20 years ago.” As much as anyone, Sanders helped make the cost of prescription drugs a national issue: He was the first member of Congress to lead bus trips to Canada to buy pharmaceuticals at lower costs.
All of this played well at home, where Sanders regularly won re-election with more than 60 percent of the vote. After eight House terms, Sanders became the early front-runner for the Senate when Independent Jim Jeffords announced his retirement in 2005. Sanders quickly amassed endorsements from top Vermont Democrats; with Sanders’ consent, Democrats put his name on their primary ballot and he won 94 percent of the vote. He declined the nomination and petitioned to be listed on the general election ballot as an independent. Gov. Jim Douglas, who was considered the only Republican with a real shot at defeating Sanders in 2006, declined to run. Richard Tarrant, a multimillionaire businessman, became the GOP nominee. Tarrant’s ads sought to portray Sanders as an ineffective radical soft on sexual predators and drug dealers. The strategy didn’t work in a small state where voters were well-acquainted with Sanders and his iconoclastic ways. Although outspent, Sanders won 65%- 32%.
Sanders had no trouble winning reelection. In 2012, he dispatched underfunded Republican John MacGovern 71%-25%. In 2018, he bested Lawrence Zupan, a real estate broker and critic of the Medicare for All plan, 67%-27%–after again winning the Democratic nomination with 94 percent of the vote and declining it to run as an independent.
Sanders initially settled with surprising ease into the chamber’s more structured ways. Leahy told a Vermont reporter that other senators–presumably expecting a political bomb-thrower in their midst– had confided “what a pleasant surprise [Sanders] has turned out to be” with his willingness to craft legislative deals.
His more familiar side was on display when, as the Occupy Wall Street protests energized the American left, Sanders endorsed the goals of the upstart movement. His breakout moment on the national political stage came with an eight-hour, often apoplectic, Senate speech at the end of 2010: He excoriated the extension of tax cuts for the highest-income Americans–enacted early in the Bush administration–as “Robin Hood in reverse.” At one point, Sanders sarcastically asked: “How can I get by on one house? I need five houses, 10 houses! I need three jet planes to take me all over the world! Sorry, American people. We’ve got the money, we’ve got the power, we’ve got the lobbyists here and on Wall Street. Tough luck.” The speech proved so popular it temporarily shut down the Senate video server.
In 2013, Sanders–unhappy about a guest-worker program in a bipartisan immigration bill–used his leverage to win inclusion of a $1.5 billion youth jobs plan in the legislation, which passed the Senate but was not taken up by the House. That same year, Sanders assumed the Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairmanship. Revelations about the poor treatment veterans faced had forced out VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and increased support for a reform bill. Over several months, Sanders engaged in a bitter war of words with his conservative House counterpart, Florida Republican Jeff Miller, but the two struck a compromise at the end of what Sanders called “a very, very difficult process.” The $17 billion package sailed through the House unanimously and drew just three dissenting votes in the Senate. It was one of the largest expansions of the federal government since Republicans had taken over the House.
Since 2015, when Republicans seized control of the Senate, Sanders has been ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee. “I have helped fight for budget and national priorities, which represent the needs of working families and not just the 1 percent,” Sanders said in January 2019. When Sanders released 10 years of his income tax returns three months later, it confirmed that the onetime carpenter was now among the 1 percent: Thanks largely to proceeds from sales of his books, he and his wife, Jane Sanders, reported $1 million in annual income for both 2016 and 2017. Given his frequent targeting of the wealthiest Americans, there were suggestions that Sanders’ message had been undercut by his own disclosures. “These tax returns show that our family has been fortunate,” Sanders said. “I am very grateful for that, as I grew up in a family that lived paycheck to paycheck and I know the stress of economic insecurity.”
In fall 2013, Sanders toured several Southern states and said he would consider running for president. He took the plunge in May 2015 after the first choice of the party’s left wing, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, spent a year insisting she had no plans to mount a White House bid
Like Trump, Sanders exhibited a populist appeal, albeit from the opposite end of the spectrum–and, also like Trump, was seen as a political outsider taking aim at the status quo. The latter appeared to be a key element of his allure to voters younger than 30, as he captured them by a 5-2 margin over Clinton.
Sanders’ fundraising efforts relied heavily on small individual donors, thereby lending credibility to his attacks on moneyed interests and their influence on the political system. Sanders’ campaign collected nearly $234 million from 8 million donations, setting it apart from many of the 2016 presidential candidates fueled by super PACs and other outside groups. Sanders’ fundraising success propelled his campaign through the 2016 primary season, even as the mathematical odds against his capturing the nomination mounted. In early 2019, he raised nearly $6 million in the 24 hours after announcing he would run again.
But if he had the enthusiastic support of young voters, Sanders–who represents a state that is 93 percent white–struggled to attract nonwhite voters, who cast an estimated 40 percent of the ballots during Democratic primaries and caucuses. According to exit poll data compiled by The Wall Street Journal, African-American voters favored Clinton by more than 3-1: Most of Sanders’ primary season wins were in less populated states with smaller minority populations. Sanders worked in the run-up to his second presidential bid to build ties to minority communities, and his endorsements helped two African-American candidates, Andrew Gillum and Ben Jealous, win gubernatorial primaries in Florida and Maryland, respectively–albeit both lost in November. But supporters acknowledged his difficulty in expanding a message focused on class and ideology to encompass today’s identity politics. “The 2020 challenge will be making sure [he] can inclusively get the class message out in a way that doesn’t make it seem like he’s dismissing identity issues,” one Sanders adviser told New York magazine.
Also working against Sanders in 2016 were 700 superdelegates with automatic votes at the convention as elected officeholders or high-ranking party officials–a large majority of whom backed Clinton early on. That extended to Sanders’ own state, where four of five superdelegates lined up behind Clinton, despite Vermont giving more than 85 percent of its primary vote to its favorite son. Among the Vermont superdelegates backing Clinton was Leahy, who said he had committed to her well before Sanders decided to run; in 2019, Leahy endorsed Sanders’ second bid. Sanders’ sharpest criticisms were reserved for the Democratic National Committee and what he considered its rigging of the system to bolster Clinton. The DNC’s chairwoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, resigned just before the convention in July 2016 after a series of stolen emails confirming Sanders’ suspicions were leaked.
In an olive branch to Sanders backers, the DNC in 2018 changed the party’s nominating rules to reduce the influence of superdelegates. At the insistence of some members of the establishment wing, the DNC also instituted a loyalty pledge–which Sanders and other 2020 candidates signed–for its presidential candidates to “run and serve as a member of the Democratic Party.” It was designed to address concerns dating to 2016 that Sanders, as an independent, might seek to run as a third-party candidate after his loss to Clinton.
In 2017, during the budget debate, Sanders called out 13 Democratic senators who voted against a largely symbolic amendment that promoted one of his longtime causes: allowing reimportation of prescription drugs from Canada. “The Democratic Party has got to make it very clear that they are prepared to stand up to powerful special interests. … And they’re not going to be doing the right thing for the American people unless they have the guts to do that,” he said. A month later, one of the 13, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker–who later joined the field seeking the party’s 2020 presidential nomination–cosponsored with Sanders a bill allowing importation of pharmaceuticals from Canada. Booker, whose state is home to several large pharmaceutical firms, shifted after taking heat from progressive activists.
It was the first of several examples of Sanders’ successful jawboning to effect change. In July 2018, he livestreamed a town hall with workers from several large companies, including Disney; a month later, Disney World announced it planned to raise its minimum wage to $15 per hour. In September, he introduced legislation intended to turn up the heat on Amazon. Titled the Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act–“Stop BEZOS”–it would have required Amazon and other large employers to cover the cost of food stamps, public housing, Medicaid and other federal assistance received by its employees. Not long afterward, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced the online retailer would raise its minimum wage to $15 per hour for 350,000 permanent and seasonal U.S. employees.
The launch of Sanders latest presidential bid came amid published reports of allegations by several women who said they were harassed or mistreated while working for his male-dominated campaign in 2016. Although Sanders offered multiple apologies and shook up his campaign staff heading into 2020, some detected signs of tone deafness when he was asked if he had been aware of the complaints during the campaign. “I was a little bit busy running around the country trying to make the case,” he told CNN. For Sanders, it was a reminder that, as a leading candidate in 2020 as opposed to the outlier he was in 2015, his words and actions were certain to attract far greater scrutiny in the months ahead.
This profile is provided by The Almanac of American Politics. For more information, visit www.thealmanacofamericanpolitics.com