As volunteer for Bernie Sanders’s 2016 primary campaign, I’ve always been puzzled why he had not begun courting those 712 Democratic superdelegates for the nominating convention back in 2014. That voting bloc of party luminaries — Congress members, former presidents and congressional party leaders — was set up in 1984, supposedly to honor the distinguished, but essentially to ensure “losers” never blocked the pre-ordained presidential choice. It’s a key bloc.
Such non-interference in party rules might have been Sanders’s decision to not be pushy with the party he’d just joined. But that was then. This is now, when he’s a trusted public figure and has even increased his ranking as the US’s most popular politician. Many Sanders supporters have assumed he’s going to make another run for the presidency.
That view has been reinforced by his being on the road continuously, pitching his progressive agenda on talk shows and at rallies: 28 states, six in these last few weeks — five in Trump states — and most recently, in Texas and Arizona. He’s now campaigning for re-election as Vermont’s US senator.
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Sanders and key advisers met in January to talk about 2020, but we’ve yet to hear results. Nor has he issued a “call-to-campaign” to those supporters in progressive movements after he lost the 2016 Democratic nomination. Only a few months remain until the 2020 primary season begins. Meanwhile, uneasy leaders of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) are still waiting for him to turn over his invaluable email lists of supporters.
In tracing his actions since 2016, it’s difficult not to conclude that he’s working harder on voter pressure to get new and progressive Democrats in Congress to pass those planks into law, despite monumental opposition from Democratic Party leaders, rather than making another exhausting and expensive run for president.
Using Truman’s Whistle-Stop Tactic for Progressive Bills
Because Sanders couldn’t attract many co-sponsors for his progressive bills or get them out of committee for a floor vote by 2014, he decided to do a Harry Truman-style whistle-stop tour to promote them to millions of “have-not” voters.
Why not push this agenda as a presidential candidate? If he got significant positive responses, it might force the DNC to step away from big donors — health insurers, banks, pharmaceutical giants, oil/gas industry, Pentagon contractors. The Democrats might be compelled to champion these progressive causes if their constituency demands it.
So, Sanders changed his registration to become a “temporary Democrat.” When he filed for the 2016 presidential election, the party brushed off his run because Democratic Party officials had taken Hillary Clinton’s nomination as a given. As the authors of Shattered noted, the Clintons viewed Sanders as a “junkyard dog,” an annoyance to a triumphant march back to the White House.
Scoffing stopped when Sanders’s campaign rallies began drawing thousands shouting for his progressive planks — and him. Nearly 30,000 turned up for his first visit to Portland, Oregon, in August 2015. He kept saying at all rallies that turning those planks into law was up to us to push Congress, not him as a president.
The colossal crowds cheering those planks so alarmed the DNC, the Clinton campaign, and the corporate donors he attacked, that it was decided to cut him off at the knees with any tactics, according to Shattered. The mainstream media’s near-blackout also helped. Particularly infuriating to his Democratic rivals were all those $27 donations from voters, which yielded $228 million. The DNC and Clinton still refuse to concede that their favoring of the moneyed classes instead of the party’s middle and working classes was one reason Trump won the election.
That foolhardy shift to the wealthy electorate began in 1981, when the party’s near-bankruptcy was averted by choosing Rep. Tony Coelho as its fundraiser and enforcer through the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). His instant courting of tycoons and major investors to cover campaign expenses — literature, yard signs, advertising, staff, etc. — meant saving vast amounts of time and energy traditionally spent on hustling unions and nickel-and-dimers under the party’s original huge, inclusive base of millions. Winning the Congressional majority in 1982 and holding it throughout the Reagan presidency convinced the DNC to cultivate the high-rollers and adopt their attitudes about the have-nots.
For Sanders, an immigrant’s son growing up lower-class in Brooklyn, that attitude spawned activism and fighting words. It became his chief goad then and now for his tireless battles for the have-nots. Voters made him a four-term mayor of Burlington, Vermont, sent him to Congress for 28 years, provided millions of votes in the 2016 primaries and still pack his rallies with chants of “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!”
By August 2015, Clinton’s campaign unit paid off $10 million of the party’s $24 million debt from Obama’s campaign, took total charge of the DNC election operations and won the nomination. It looked as if Sanders’s planks were doomed until her gesture of magnanimity. Likely with an eye toward absorbing his 12 million voters and email lists — Clinton and her handlers did include all but three planks — free public college tuition, Medicare expansion and consumer financial protection — into the 2016 Democratic Party Platform.
It was an empty gift because few candidates ever use the platform. Yet Sanders and his handlers knew it was a way to get widespread media coverage for the planks around the country for a week or so. The move would also put Congress on notice that these issues had overwhelming appeal with millions of voters.
A second “gift,” vital to indicate the party’s split between Sanders and Clinton was healed, came from the DNC leaders. They gritted their teeth and set up a 21-member “Unity Reform Commission” to pacify Sanders supporters who were furious at the party’s contemptuous treatment of them during the campaign.
Since then, the commission’s members have voted for a 60 percent cut in superdelegates. The remainder would be mandated to vote for winners of state primaries and caucuses. The 285 votes are still easier to get than 712. The DNC’s 447 members will have to approve it in August at its general meeting.
In the meantime, Sanders paid his dues to the party by going on the road a month before the 2016 election to tout Clinton’s candidacy and vilify Trump’s phony pitches to working-class needs. Yet, whether the senator was in Denver, New Mexico or New Hampshire, he used the DNC platform as a springboard to educate audiences about his key planks.
Months later, when the DNC held elections for chair, Clinton supporter Tom Perez, Obama’s secretary of labor, won by a whisker over Sanders supporter Rep. Keith Ellison. That election suggested Sanders might team with Perez and plug his planks across the country in an April “Unity Tour” while Perez was trying to convince Democratic voters that Sanders and Clinton were united in war against Trump. Sanders sent a $100,000 check from his $5.3 million campaign fund to defray expenses. But an astute New Yorker writer wasn’t fooled about Sanders’s objectives: “Sanders, who is seventy-five, may be too old to run again in 2020, but his barnstorming has a purpose — to deepen the connection to progressive ideas in rural America, to develop an attachment that might outlast him.”
And signs point to this likelihood. In the first rally of an eight-state tour at a packed Portland, Maine, theater last April, Sanders drew the usual chants and a thunderous two-minute ovation when introduced, followed by cheers on the planks. To the shock of the DNC and Clinton’s team, Perez drew boos, indicating the audience knew the party was not unified.
Further disunity followed. Medicare for All was one of the first planks axed by party leaders to placate health insurance industry donors who have spent millions fighting universal health care since President Truman first advocated it in 1945. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has opposed it with the constant refrain of: “The comfort level with the broader base of the American people [for Medicare for All] is not there yet.” However, the latest credible poll reveals that 74 percent of Democrats and (51 percent of all voters) want Medicare for All.
Effort Aimed at Replacing Non-Progressives in Congress
Seemingly convinced that neither Democratic leaders in Congress nor the DNC’s stance on most of his planks will ever change, Sanders has set about to replace Democrats in congressional caucuses in the midterm and the 2020 presidential elections. The result of his year-long, heavy promotion for promising progressives for the midterms is 1,205 candidates, perhaps the greatest number in years.
For years, the DNC has tapped candidates viewed as “electable” and obedient party-liners. Preferences have gone to moderates, veterans and business-friendly types who have a well-heeled donor network for raising early campaign funds.
The first priority of 72 percent of Democratic and Independent respondents polled recently is not opposing Trump’s agenda. Instead, these voters are looking for midterm candidates who are promoting a progressive agenda. That might explain why many first-timers filed for federal, state and local offices and, even if they lost, might well file in subsequent years. Eight of Sanders’s Our Revolution candidates have won so far in various 2018 primaries.
This bumper crop of progressive candidates seems to have driven party leaders to rash counter-offensives to get rid of them. For instance, one blackballed Colorado candidate taped DCCC fundraiser Sen. Steny Hoyer’s bullying: “You keep saying I would like you to get out, and of course that’s correct … a [selection] was made very early on.” The tape went viral.
Sanders, himself a victim of DNC “dirty tricks,” has fought back for progressive candidates and called DNC/DCCC tactics “appalling.”
Interestingly, for all the DNC’s “electable” choices, blackball tactics and pay-to-play rules, Clinton was defeated despite her fame, political experience and fundraising contributions of $563,756,928. So was Georgia’s Jon Ossoff in his run last June for an open House seat after the party invested $5 million in his campaign.
The New York Times’s tart-tongued political writer Maureen Dowd put the capper on the DNC’s senseless swerve from its roots to the “haves” and loss of the millions of “have-not” voters who want those planks:
They are not grooming a gleaming crop of presidential contenders or honing a seductive message that could win back the alienated voters who put Trump in just because he promised to shake things up. Their leadership and top presidential prospects symbolize the past, not the future. They should be the eminences grises ushering in an exciting new generation. Not the retreads and missed-their-moments dominating the field, as the entire party is leaping to the left …
Having led the cheerleading, encouragement and cash for progressive candidates, the senator from Vermont and his aides have been producing bills for those planks since 2016. Sanders has hoppered 22 so far and made them well-known to colleagues by inviting them to become co-sponsors of each. Moreover, he’s on five committees and eight subcommittees that will be processing many of them.
His planks include Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, fixing infrastructure, free tuition for higher education, expanding Social Security, equal pay for women, consumer financial protection and more. In recent months, he has added to this list of priorities campaign finance reform, civil liberties protection, lowering prescription prices, expanding veterans’ care, controls over media ownership and telecommunications, and investment in renewable energy. Sanders has also recently introduced sweeping legislation to protect workers.
Thanks to his thousands of rallies crisscrossing the country and explaining those planks, Sanders now has vast influence with voters to force a congressional turnaround on them from progressive winners in both the November midterms and 2020 presidential election. Voter numbers from 2016 include 96 million registered Democrats, and millions more in the upcoming generation.
As US voters contend with the right-ward shift of government since the 2016 election, they are pushing back against the status quo and demanding public officials address their concerns. Time will tell whether their voices and votes will translate into wins for progressive candidates, but it is clear millions are responding to Bernie Sanders’s progressive agenda.