"Now is not the time for thinking small."
Sanders struck a serious tone in an otherwise peak-Vermont event filled with free ice cream, zydeco music, and speeches from both Ben and Jerry of ice cream fame. He made it clear that his campaign will focus on drawing attention to man-made climate change, to money in politics, and to showcasing the disparity between the rich and poor in the country today.
“Let me be very clear,” he said. “There is something profoundly wrong when the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent and when 99 percent of all new income goes to the top 1 percent.”
If it feels like a speech written exactly for this election, it’s not because Sanders has caught up with the times as much as the times have caught up with Sanders. He has been talking about income inequality, nationalized healthcare, and redistribution of wealth since he was the socialist mayor here in Burlington in the 1980s. He ran on these issues when he won the lone Vermont House seat in 1991, and gave an eight-hour speech opposing an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts as a Senator in 2010.
“His message has never wavered,” says Fran Putnam, a climate activist who lives in Vermont. “He might be one of the only politicians without a hidden agenda.”
His brand of politics plays very well here in Vermont. When he was the Mayor of Burlington, the city was often referred to as the People’s Republic of Burlington and his supporters as 'Sandernistas.' In Vermont — the first state to legalize same sex civil unions, the home to Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, and the only state in the country whose capital city does not have a McDonald’s — neither of these terms were used derogatively.
At his kickoff, where the crowded chanted “Bernie!” and “Feel the Bern!,” Sanders has achieved first-name status (even the New York Times recently amended its style an no longer calls him Bernard). He’s that cranky outsider without the time or inclination to butter up his constituents, and who won 71 percent of the vote in spite of, or more likely because of, it.
He’s the “democratic-socialist,” a party of one in the Senate -- though he caucuses with the Democrats) -- who has spoken highly of Scandinavian-style social democracy, who wants there to be free public universities paid for by higher taxes on wealthy corporations, and who may be the angriest candidate out there right now on Wall Street reform.
And now, as he sets out in an uphill battle to defeat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential primary, he’s decided to change exactly nothing about himself.
“This type of rigged economy is not what America is supposed to be about,” he said to a roaring crowd Tuesday. “This has got to change and, as your president, together we will change it.”
But just because Sanders has popular appeal among the lefty Vermont set, and just because the younger generation of Reddit users has helped make him one of the most popular politicians on the Internet, doesn’t translate into an easy path to the Democratic nomination. Even the other members of Vermont’s political class — Gov. Peter Shumlin, senior Sen. Patrick Leahy, and former governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean — were noticeably absent from Sanders’s kickoff. They are on Team Hillary.
“Understandably so,” says Sanders communications director Michael Briggs. “So, she’s got them, we’ve got Ben and Jerry.”
She’s also got the money and the name recognition. A recent averaging by Real Clear Politics had Sanders winning over about 6 percent of Democrats nationally to Clinton's 62 percent.
But even losers of presidential primaries can end up winning in certain respects. All of a sudden, Bernie Sanders is getting thousands of people to show up to one of his speeches -- the crowd estimate Tuesday was roughly 5,000 -- with the media in tow. He can speak about breaking up banks that are too big to fail and make the case for more taxes on the super rich, and thousands may be hearing that message from him for the first time.
“It’s totally great that Hillary is for the first time talking about income inequality, but it’s legitimate to ask whether it’s authentic,” said an activist who goes by the name "Jackrabbit" (it’s written that way on his “People for Bernie Sanders” business card). “Bernie forced her to move and talk about progressive issues.”
Just don’t tell Bernie Sanders or his family that he isn’t trying to win the nomination.
“People ask if he’s running just to raise an issue,” his wife Jane O’Meara Driscoll said in an interview. “No. They ask if it’s just to move Hillary to the left. No. It’s about educating people and letting them make an educated decision.”