His most radical move
Bernie Sanders had always cast himself as a socialist outsider. Now he would seek the presidency — as a Democrat.
There he was, trotting up the stairs of the New Hampshire secretary of state’s office surrounded by cheering supporters. Bernie Sanders, best known as America’s unapologetic socialist, was about to register as a presidential candidate in the nation’s first primary state.
Throughout his 35-year political career, everything about Sanders conveyed the persona of rebel with a cause — in his case, a decades-long crusade against income inequality.
Above: Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, in December at New Hampshire's Nashua Community College. (Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post)
He was the mayor and congressman who had remained a proud independent, gleefully calling the Democratic and Republican parties “Tweedledee and Tweedledum” for what he considered selling out to “the billionaire class.” He was the cranky outsider who hammered a plaque honoring the socialist icon Eugene V. Debs to the wall of his Senate office. Even his hair was independent — an unruly white mass evoking a man too consumed with political revolution to bother with a comb.
“This country needs a political revolution!” the senator from Vermont would bellow to the crowd gathered outside in November. “Our government belongs to all of us, and not just the 1 percent!”
Nothing reveals more about politicians than the decisions they make — why they chose to do something, how they made it happen, what came of it. The Washington Post is exploring one key choice by each leading presidential candidate and explaining the insight it offers into the way he or she might operate in the White House.
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But now that the time had come to put his name on the presidential ballot, Sanders had made a decision that reveals a less-celebrated dimension of his political identity: He is also a pragmatist who likes to win. And so the first step in the Sanders revolution was also its most conventional.
The cranky outsider became a Democrat.
“It was a hard decision because he’s prided himself on his independence,” said his longtime friend Huck Gutman, an English professor at the University of Vermont. “He struggled with the fact that as somebody who had criticized the Democratic Party for a lack of forward thinking and a lack of courage that it could be a tough slog in the Democratic primaries.”
The wisdom of the decision bore its first fruits in the Iowa caucuses, where Sanders, 74, came within less than half a percentage point of upsetting Hillary Clinton, the establishment candidate for the Democratic nomination. Polls show Sanders with a commanding lead over Clinton in New Hampshire, which holds its primary Tuesday.
All of which makes the reasons for Sanders’s decision seem obvious. Independent campaigns for president have never won. And Sanders, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has said often that he would never be a “spoiler,” the label applied to third-party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who was cast into political oblivion after being blamed with costing Democrat Al Gore the 2000 election.
“I have no taste for symbolic campaigns,” Sanders wrote in his 1997 political autobiography, “Outsider in the House.”
But the reasons go deeper than that.
Over his political career, Sanders has inched ever closer to the Democratic Party, with a congressional voting record more Democrat than most Democrats. At this point, he explains his democratic-socialist views by referring not to his old hero Debs but to one of the most beloved Democrats of all, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
“Here is a very simple fact of life,” said Garrison Nelson, a political scientist at the University of Vermont who has tracked Sanders for years. “Bernie is the only socialist candidate I’ve ever met who wants to win. That’s the key to Bernie. He is one of the most competitive people I’ve ever met — very competitive, very smart. Because people think he’s a wooly-headed crazy man, they don’t understand how cunning he is.”
Bernie Sanders, right, stands next to George Beadle as the University of Chicago president addresses members of the Congress of Racial Equality at a meeting about housing sit-ins. Sanders was on the CORE steering committee. (Danny Lyon/University of Chicago Library Special Collections Research Center)
The Liberty Union ticket
It was around 1976 when Bernie Sanders got tired of losing.
Raised in a working-class family in Brooklyn, Sanders always had a competitive streak, as he reminded audiences during a recent CNN town hall, when he recalled his winning elementary school basketball team and his successes as a long-distance runner in high school.
His political education began when his older brother, Larry, dragged him along to meetings of the Young Democrats at Brooklyn College. Soon, it revolved around the movements for social change sweeping the country in the 1960s.
At the University of Chicago, Sanders got involved in radical student politics. He joined the Young People’s Socialist League. He became a leader in a student chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, which staged sit-ins to desegregate university housing. He worked on the reelection campaign of Leon Despres, a Chicago alderman famous for challenging the famed Democratic machine of Mayor Richard J. Daley, learning the nuts and bolts of grass-roots politics. He read and read, steeping himself in Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and writers in the socialist canon, such as Karl Marx, Erich Fromm and John Dewey.
After graduating, Sanders joined the wave of back-to-the-landers heading to Vermont full of vague ideas about changing the world the way the ’60s had taught them — from the outside.
And yet life on the outside was fairly aimless. Sanders tried to work as a carpenter, wrote rambling political articles for obscure newspapers, had a son, got divorced and found himself on unemployment. Then in 1971, he was invited to a meeting of the fledgling Liberty Union Party, a scrappy group of antiwar lefties hoping to shake up state politics.
As it happened, the party was looking for a volunteer to run a symbolic campaign for the U.S. Senate that year. Sanders was game to be the symbol. Soon, he was campaigning across the state, and a stump speech was born.
As he explains its origins in his autobiography, the House Banking Committee had just issued a report that described “the degree to which large banks in America controlled many major corporations, exerting enormous economic influence over our society.” Sanders found it jaw-dropping. He began lugging the thick, detail-laden report all over Vermont, drawing upon it in speeches that sound remarkably similar to the ones he gives on the campaign trail today.
“Time after time, I pointed out that such disparity in the distribution of the wealth and decision making power was not just unfair economically, but that without economic democracy it was impossible to achieve genuine political democracy,” Sanders wrote. “How could we change that?”
Apparently, not by running on the Liberty Union ticket.
In the 1972 Senate election, Sanders got 2 percent of the vote. When he ran again in 1974, he got 4 percent. When he ran for governor in 1976, he got 6 percent. And that was the year Sanders grew tired of losing. He quit the party.
He told reporters that the Liberty Union Party had failed “tragically” in its attempt to “bring working people together to fight for their lives and their dignity.”
Although his basic ideas remained unchanged, Sanders began rethinking the means to achieving them. His next try involved making sorrowfully low-budget films about little-known American radicals, including a video on Debs, the fiery union organizer who ran for president five times, including once from prison, and helped found the Socialist Party in America.
He was planning others about Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, Emma Goldman and Paul Robeson when his close friend Richard Sugarman suggested that he run for mayor of Burlington as an independent.
The idea this time was to actually win.
In his campaign, Sanders began translating his political philosophy into very local goals. He promised to fix a derelict underpass that left a poor neighborhood isolated when it rained. He would block a waterfront development and oppose a tax increase. He won by 10 votes.
“He's idealistic and pragmatic. I don't think he sees any conflict in those two sides of him.”
— Longtime Sanders friend Jim Rader
Global headlines played up the election of America’s first socialist mayor in the “People’s Republic of Burlington.” Sanders did not run from the label, telling reporters he would govern with a steering committee of the poor, labor unions and the “disenfranchised.”
“We’re coming in with a definite class analysis,” he said at the time, “and a belief that the trickle-down theory of economic growth, the ‘what’s good for General Motors is good for America’ theory, doesn’t work.”
In reality, his three terms as mayor were marked more by practicality than ideology. He reached compromises with developers to increase affordable housing. He tried to reduce cable TV rates. Sanders even had some of his old lefty allies arrested when they tried to block a General Electric plant that made military guns, deciding that jobs were more important than the abstraction of world peace.
Sanders and his supporters also out-organized his mainstream opposition, creating a liberal alliance that increased voter turnout, resulting in enough city council wins to let him govern.
But as his national profile grew, Sanders also began tacking closer to the Democratic Party.
In 1984, he endorsed Democrat Walter Mondale for president, alienating some of his old Liberty Union allies. In 1988, he enthusiastically endorsed Democrat Jesse Jackson, though Sanders added that he only wished Jackson was running “as an independent — outside the Democratic Party.”
But a pattern was taking shape that would carry Sanders to Washington. He would remain the independent that Vermonters knew and apparently loved, but he would make friends with the Democrats.
“He’s idealistic and pragmatic,” said his friend Jim Rader, who drove Sanders to the fateful Liberty Union meeting in 1971. “I don’t think he sees any conflict in those two sides of him.”
Sanders celebrates in Burlington after winning election to the House in November 1990. (Rob Swanson/AP)
‘I’m an independent’
It was the pragmatist who ran for a U.S. House seat in 1990. Sanders campaigned and won as an independent with the tacit support of Vermont Democrats, who fielded a weak candidate and now felt that he was enough of a kindred spirit to warrant their blessing.
Asked at the time how he would work with a party he had long criticized, Sanders told a reporter, “I’ve told the people of my state for 20 years that I’m an independent and I don’t want to come down here and suddenly become a Democrat.”
But from the start, Sanders made it clear that he wanted to caucus with the Democrats even if he would not become one of them. He had little choice, since doing so would be the only way to get committee assignments. The proposition was initially rejected by conservative Democrats afraid of election-year ads accusing them of cozying up with a socialist. But a deal was struck, and soon fears that Sanders was going to be a socialist-size headache receded.
He slipped into the inner-party sanctum, where he has remained a relatively uncontroversial lawmaker.
“He was very much a serious student of Congress,” said a senior Democratic House aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about a sitting senator. “He was not a rebel. He was actually trying to make things work. I never heard any complaints — nobody ever said, ‘We’re having trouble with Bernie.’ ”
In his 25-year career in the House and later the Senate, Sanders has voted with Democrats more than 90 percent of the time, occasionally veering on the issue of gun control, where he said his votes were driven by the concerns of his rural state. Like all his colleagues, he has struggled against gridlock in pursuit of legislative glory.
He sponsored 357 bills in all — from the Workplace Democracy Act of 1992 to the Dental Health Improvement Act of 2002 to the Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Exist Act of 2015. Three of them became law, a batting average comparable with Clinton’s during her eight years in the Senate. Of those, one was huge — a $15 billion overhaul of the Veterans Health Administration. The two others renamed Vermont post offices.
Most of Sanders’s victories have been of the modest, in-the-trenches kind — passing an amendment for an extra $10 million for senior nutrition programs, for instance, or $15 million to help people weatherize their homes.
More telling is how Sanders operated. Although he could make a fist-pounding speech, he usually avoided the sort of rebellious moves that would irk Democratic leaders, such as blocking votes or stopping progress on deals he knew were going to pass anyway.
Sanders at a late-January campaign event in Davenport, Iowa. (Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post)
When Sanders and his allies lost their push for a single-payer system during the debate over health care, for example, he relented and voted for President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, negotiating $11 billion in funding for community health centers in the process.
When he decided to deliver an eight-hour, 37-minute speech blasting a deal struck to extend George W. Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, Sanders was careful not to punish his colleagues by keeping them in Washington over the weekend.
“I find it hard to believe when we are talking about massive cuts in programs for working families, when we have a huge national debt, that anyone would be agreeing to lowering the estate-tax rate,” Sanders railed to a mostly empty chamber.
“The Speech,” as it came to be known, turned Sanders into a hero to many progressives, while costing him little goodwill among his colleagues.
His alliance with the Democrats paid off by helping him fend off challengers. Sanders endorsed Bill Clinton and later Al Gore over the Green Party’s Nader, despite lauding Nader as “an exemplary progressive.” The party would usually stand down at election time, leaving Sanders to compete for liberal votes against the likes of the Organic Life party.
It all meant that when Vermont’s independent U.S. senator, Jim Jeffords, decided to retire in 2005, there was no question whom the party would recruit to retain the seat. They turned to another independent they now viewed as a de facto Democrat — Sanders.
“He had a fairly consistent voting record in the House, which did more to define him as Democrat than anything else,” said a former official with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on internal discussions. “There was a comfort level that he was a Democrat.”
For his part, Sanders endorsed the Democratic candidate for his House seat. He also had a conversation with a young third-party progressive who had been thinking, as Sanders had decades before, of mounting a challenge from the outside.
“Between some of the feedback from Sanders as well as others, it appeared I was not yet broadly enough supported to make the run,” said David Zuckerman, now a Vermont state senator campaigning for Sanders, whom he describes as a political mentor for blazing a political trail where one could be both an ardent progressive and a loyal Democrat. “No doubt had I received his endorsement it would have been more likely that I would have run.”
Sanders speaks at his campaign's Salem, N.H., field office in December. (Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post)
‘Should I do this?’
When Sanders began thinking about a run for president, the inevitable question was whether he would run an independent campaign.
It is unclear how seriously Sanders ever took the idea, but he began meeting with key progressive leaders, almost all of whom remained haunted by the Nader experience of 2000 and urged Sanders to run as a Democrat.
One of those was Steve Cobble, political director of Progressive Democrats of America, which had organized a petition drive to press Sanders to run. Cobble said the conversation revolved around Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign.
“The argument I made was about the power of the Jackson campaign, how he changed the party, opened the door to the election of a black president,” he said. “I was reminding him there was a power inside the Democratic Party of a bunch of people who haven’t felt completely represented. He was picking my brain: ‘Should I do this?’ And ‘Why?’ And, ‘You’re someone whose seen a movement-type campaign — how do you think it compares to the current moment?’ ”
Sanders had meetings with former House colleagues and others who did not want to see Clinton coronated as the Democratic nominee. They made it clear they wanted Sanders to run but only as a Democrat, which would have the obvious benefit of helping him raise the $40 million he would need to build a campaign organization ahead of the Iowa caucuses, an amount difficult if not impossible to raise as an independent.
A Bernie Sanders fan shows his support during the Labor Day parade in Milford, N.H. (Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post)
As Sanders mulled it all over, he took long walks around Burlington with his old friend Gutman, talking about the choice before him.
“To run as an independent might guarantee a Republican president,” Gutman said, recalling the conversations. On the other hand, becoming a Democrat meant “walking away from something he had been very proud of.”
And yet couldn’t Sanders argue that he was essentially a Democrat already?
“He felt increasingly, over the years in Washington, that the agenda he was pursuing as a progressive independent was not unrelated to FDR . . . or the domestic LBJ,” Gutman said.
That was it.
He would be “a Democrat who is striving to reclaim the heart and center of the Democratic Party. Remember when FDR said: ‘Banks hate me. I welcome their hatred’?” Gutman said, paraphrasing Roosevelt’s 1936 campaign speech in which he railed against reckless banking and financial monopolies.
It was the sort of thing Sanders had been saying since he hauled around the House banking report during his Liberty Union days.
In the end, said John Franco, a lawyer who served in Sanders’s mayoral administration in Burlington, the decision was a “no-brainer.”
The campaign would be aimed at “reshaping the Democratic Party,” not upending it, said Sanders’s close friend Sugarman. “The kind of socialism he is advocating, it’s a kind of minimalist socialism.”
Debs was out. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson were in.
Soon, Sanders would be quoting them all on the campaign trail, casting democratic socialism as within the most progressive traditions of the Democratic Party.
“It builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans,” Sanders would say in a major speech on his political identity. “And it builds on what Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1968 when he stated that ‘this country has socialism for the rich and rugged individualism for the poor.’ ”
But for now, in the New Hampshire secretary of state’s office, Sanders made his decision official. Following tradition, he left a note as he filed his candidacy, writing that it was time for a “political revolution.”
Then the democratic socialist from Vermont took the next logical step.
“I’m a Democrat,” Sanders told the crowd of reporters waiting outside.
Sen. Bernie Sanders was in Concord, N.H., in November to file the paperwork qualifying him for the New Hampshire presidential primary -- and to declare himself a member of the Democratic Party. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
Alice Crites contributed to this report.